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WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum’s tale of two cities

by Julie Wiener, JTA

February 24, 2014 | 9:52 am

WhatsApp’s Ukrainian Jewish founder and CEO Jan Koun became a household name this week. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)<br />

WhatsApp’s Ukrainian Jewish founder and CEO Jan Koun became a household name this week. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Jan Koum’s birthday is today, and he’s already received his big gift.

The Ukraine-born CEO and founder of WhatsApp has catapulted from relative unknown to a poster boy for rags-to-riches immigrant triumph since selling the rapidly growing messaging company to Facebook for a record-breaking $19 billion earlier this week.

Koum, who is about to turn 38, grew up in a village near Kiev and immigrated to the United States as a teen, part of the exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the aftermath of its collapse.

According to Forbes , which has published the most detailed profile of him so far, Koum grew up in a home without hot water, and his parents “rarely talked on the phone in case it was tapped by the state.”

Koum first settled in Mountain View, Calif., with his mother when he was 16. To make ends meet, his mother — who apparently brought over pens and notebooks in order to avoid paying for school supplies in the U.S. —  babysat while he swept a grocery store.

In an interview with Wired’s editor, David Rowan, at the Digital Life-Design conference in Munich last month, Koum said his interest in WhatsApp — which enables people to exchange free text messages with friends and family all over the world — was partially inspired by his memories of how difficult and costly it had been as a new immigrant to stay in touch with relatives back in Ukraine.

Wearing an olive-colored “John Deere” T-shirt, black hoodie and jeans, the Russian-accented Koum noted that his early years in an environment lacking the “clutter” of advertising he encountered in the United States shaped his commitment to keeping WhatsApp free of advertising.

“There were a lot of negatives, of course, but there were positives to living a life unfettered by possessions,” he told Rowan. “It gave us the chance to focus on education, which was very important in the Soviet Union.”

Given that this week Kiev erupted in flames — as clashes between protesters and President Victor Yanukovych’s security forces escalated — it’s hard not to notice the stark contrast between Koum’s current and childhood homes.

At least 39 people were killed Thursday in Kiev’s Independence Square  – that’s the number the municipal government reported, but protesters estimated the death toll to be more than twice that, according to the New York Times. Just hours earlier, in sunny, tranquil Mountain View, Koum and WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton were signing the deal with Facebook, standing right outside the government office where he and his mother once stood on line to get food stamps.

The money changing hands in the WhatsApp-Facebook deal that day is a sum equal to more than 10 percent of Ukraine’s entire GDP.

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