By Nazanine Nouri
Arash Ferdowsi is a pioneering Iranian-American entrepreneur who co-founded Dropbox –the cloud-based file-syncing service — in 2007 with Drew Houston, a fellow student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Thirteen years later, Dropbox is a public company worth close to $8 billion. And Ferdowsi, who is reportedly worth $1.1 billion, has left the company — providing no indications on what he’ll do next.
In his 13 years at Dropbox, Ferdowsi wore many hats: he was the company’s first chief technology officer, and he led the recruiting and design teams. But more than anything else, he will be remembered for “making Dropbox a place where people genuinely care about each other – where success is measured not just by what we achieve but how we achieve it,” said co-founder Houston in a March blog post on blog.dropbox.com.
From the very beginning, Houston said, Ferdowsi strived to hire a team of “humble, authentic, passionate people.”
“Because of Arash, making work human will always be at the heart of our culture,” Houston added. “Of all the things he’s done for Dropbox, I know this is his proudest and most enduring contribution.”
Ferdowsi himself published a guest commentary in November in the Kansas City Star, his hometown newspaper. “I’m a successful tech entrepreneur,” he said. “Dropbox, the company I co-founded in 2007, has over 600 million users, 2,300 employees and $1.7 billion in revenue. But my story has its roots in Kansas: I grew up in Overland Park, the son of Iranian immigrants whose community never once doubted our allegiance to or faith in America.”
The newspaper wrote that the Overland Park native was “proof of how valuable immigrants are to the United States.”
In a subsequent tweet, Ferdowsi once again thanked his home state. “Kansas welcomed my immigrant parents. Then I built Dropbox, an $8 billion company.”
Thank you, Kansas! https://t.co/tSibGh2bEo
— arash ferdowsi (@arashf) November 13, 2020
Arash was born in Kansas in 1985, the son of Iranian immigrants who moved to the United States in the late 1970s in search of opportunity and education and found both in Kansas City. They decided to stay there after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Arash’s father, a native of Tabriz in northwestern Iran, went on to set up a mortgage company.
Arash was brought up as an American, immersed in American values and culture, yet he remained proud of his Iranian heritage — speaking Farsi at home, celebrating Persian holidays and eating Iranian food. His parents expected him to study hard and encouraged his interest in technology. At the age of nine, they let him build a computer of his own with parts they had ordered for him.
Arash went on to get a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he studied electrical engineering and computer science before dropping out in his last semester to team up with Houston and launch Dropbox in 2007.
Ferdowsi and Houston had only just met. Houston, an MIT graduate, had recently experienced what was later labeled an ‘aha moment’ which led to the creation of Dropbox. Heading to New York from Boston, he decided to get some work done on the three-hour bus ride before he realized that he had left his thumb drive with all of his work files at home. That’s when he decided that he never wanted to have that problem again. On that very bus ride, he started writing the code to build a cloud-based file storage and sharing service which he called Dropbox.
After presenting an early prototype to Y Combinator (a seed money startup accelerator) to secure funding in March 2007, he was told that he needed a co-founder. With the YC application deadline only three weeks away, he started searching among his smartest friends and their smartest friends, and was introduced to Arash, who was still a student at MIT.
“He was quiet, but we hit it off,” Houston recalled on the Dropbox blog. “And I’m not sure whether it was out of deep conviction or utter recklessness, but after a grand total of two hours together, we moved out to California, and Arash became a college dropout.”
The team would go on to receive their first investment check in June of that year. Eleven years later, Dropbox would be the first Y Combinator company to go public.
Houston could tell that Arash was smart when they first met, “but what I didn’t fully appreciate was his level of care and thoughtfulness.”
In 2014, Ferdowsi was the recipient of the first Cyrus Prize, a $100,000 grant launched by the Iranian-American serial entrepreneur and investor, Shervin Pishevar, to celebrate and inspire Iranian culture and entrepreneurship.
Arash left Dropbox earlier this year. In a tweet on March 20th, Houston thanked him for 13 incredible years.
— Drew Houston (@drewhouston) March 20, 2020
At 35, looking back on his life to date, Ferdowsi believes he and his family were incredibly fortunate to have been welcomed by the state of Kansas.
“Feeling fully American – and feeling that others saw me as American – gave me the courage to pursue my dreams and the confidence I needed to start Dropbox and create thousands of jobs,” he wrote in the Kansas City Star.
Commenting on the US presidential elections he added: “Some of us voted for President-elect Joe Biden; some of us didn’t. But right now, regardless of our personal politics, we have a chance to come together, reject racism and reaffirm our commitment to build a brighter and more tolerant future.”
“Kansas welcomed my family and gave me the confidence to succeed in ways my parents could never have dreamed of,” he said. “I want future generations of immigrant families to get the same opportunity – so that they can build bright futures here and lift us all up along the way.