2011 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"My instinct and experiences tell me we are here to live life to the fullest and experience it with all our God-given abilities."
Anousheh Ansari, whose maiden name is Raissyan, was born in 1966, in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad—a town of parks and mosques nestled in the valley of the Nashaf River. Her mother comes from a long line of holy men, and her father from a proud family of prosperous merchants. Several years before Anousheh’s birth, her great-grandfather insulted Iran’s Shah Pahlavi, which resulted in the family’s loss of wealth. When Anousheh was born, her father was earning a small salary working in a print shop. Four years later, hoping to better his prospects by continuing his education, he moved his family to Tehran.
Anousheh’s family lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment, and her father worked odd jobs when he was not in school. Her grandparents moved in with them and eventually an uncle also came to live in their cramped quarters. Following the birth of Anousheh’s sister one year later, her father declared he was going to America to seek better opportunities. He sold most of the family’s possessions to buy Iranian handicrafts and rugs to be sold in America. After he left, Anousheh began sleeping on her grandparents’ balcony, where she could smell the jasmine, orange, and lemon trees that grew in large pots. It was a fragrant, cool place and offered her a bit of privacy. “I would lie on my cot and look up at the sky, pretending I was up in space,” she says. “This was my refuge. I once promised the night sky that one day I would visit the stars. I was always fascinated with the idea of space and felt it was my destiny that one day I would go into space.”
Anousheh was strongly influenced by her grandparents. Her grandmother was liberal when it came to women’s rights, and she often told her granddaughter she should become a doctor or an engineer. “My grandmother told me I should be the master of my life,” says Anousheh. “She told me I should never have to hold my hand out to my husband. It was good advice, and my mother promoted it by seeing that I got a good education.”
Anousheh and her sister attended a French Catholic school, and her mother worked two jobs to pay the tuition. It was then that Anousheh began to realize her potential, not only for academics but also for physical activities. She studied French, Farsi, and Arabic, and excelled in science and math.
In 1978, when Anousheh was 12, the Islamic revolution began in Iran. She watched as her quiet neighborhood became a place of angry, violent demonstrations. Often, when the demonstrations got too close, parents were asked to come to the school to take their children home. One night Anousheh was awakened by gun shots. The revolutionaries were setting fire to banks throughout the city, and the bank below her apartment was being attacked. Fortunately, they were not hurt. In 1979, the Shah was ousted and Ayatollah Khomeini took over. By then, Iran’s new regime had closed Anousheh’s school and her father, who had become a vice president in sales for a wine company, lost his job. Anousheh was required to wear the hijab—a scarf that covered her hair, as well as a long raincoat-like garment over her pants. Soon, Iran went to war with Iraq, a conflict that would last for the next eight years. Anousheh and her family were subjected to food and fuel shortages and lost their electricity nearly every night. She says of this time, “I was concerned about the war, but I was more concerned about my future. I wanted to be an astrophysicist and maybe even an astronaut, but in a country where women were no longer encouraged to get higher education, I wondered how that would be possible. The new Iran did not tolerate such dreams from a woman. I realized I faced a life of walls.”
In 1984, when she was 17, Anousheh’s father, who had failed to immigrate years before, renewed the process of immigrating to the United States. After nearly a year of red tape and her father’s ultimate denial for immigration, Anousheh arrived in Virginia with her sister and mother. They were sponsored by and lived with an aunt and uncle in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Anousheh was placed in a high school, knowing very little English. For a girl who had always loved school, she soon grew to hate her new high school. No one extended friendship to her and the other students made fun of her accent, which made Anousheh turn inward. On the other hand, she was ahead of her classmates in most subjects and she did well academically.
After her high school graduation, Anousheh enrolled at George Mason University. She had hoped to attend Princeton, where she could study astrophysics. However, her verbal score on the SAT was too low for acceptance at the Ivy League school. At George Mason she studied electronics and computer engineering, and worked part time in the university library and as a waitress in a French restaurant. Most of her college funding came in the form of loans. She graduated with honors three-and-one-half years later, and accepted a job with MCI Telecommunications. While at MCI, she took advantage of their graduate education program and earned a master’s in electrical engineering from George Mason. She also became a U.S. citizen.
In 1991, Anousheh married her MCI supervisor, Hamid Ansari. “Hamid and I began our marriage believing we could do anything together,” she says. “We were both citizens of our adopted homeland, we had great jobs with MCI, I had my master’s degree, and we felt poised for success.” But the couple was surprised when MCI moved their jobs to Texas. Not wanting to leave their families, they quit. Anousheh found a new job with Comsat, and Hamid started a used car business. One year later, the car business was not making much money and the couple decided to move to Texas, where they returned to work for MCI.
In 1993, the Ansaris felt it would be a good time to start a business. Their company, Telecom Technologies, Inc. (TTI), was a consulting firm that provided companies with expert engineers in telecommunications. They, along with Hamid’s brother, Amir, worked night and day to get the company off to a good start. Anousheh, who was the designated CEO, began taking classes at the community college on finance and business management. In addition to using their savings and corporate retirement accounts to fund the business, they applied for and won a $100,000 loan from a bank. They also found investors for their fledgling enterprise.
In 1995, their company developed a software program called Fastest, which dramatically cut down the time for testing cycles used by computer engineers. MCI was the first company to buy their product. Soon, other companies bought this innovative product and the Ansaris were finally starting to make a profit. They continued to build up their product line, and had expanded their company to include 200 employees. Inc. magazine recognized them as one of the 500 fastest-growing companies in the country, and Mrs. Ansari received Working Woman magazine’s National Entrepreneur Award. In 2001, the Ansaris merged TTI with Sonus Networks.
The Ansaris took the next few years off to rest and recuperate from their years of building a business. They traveled extensively and thought about creating a new business. In 2006, Anousheh and Hamid Ansari founded Prodea Systems, Inc., which services applications to both in-home smart devices and networked appliances. Mrs. Ansari serves as the company’s CEO. “This company will dramatically alter a consumer’s digital living experience and unleash the power of the Internet to all consumers,” she says. “We have not yet launched our product to the market, but we are very excited about the possibilities.”
Also in 2006, Mrs. Ansari received an opportunity to participate in Space Adventures, a company that contracts with the Russians to send private citizens on flights to the International Space Station. When confronted with the possibility of making her lifelong dream come true, she did not hesitate to act. Mrs. Ansari went to Russia and entered a six-month cosmonaut training program. Within a week of her fortieth birthday, Anousheh Ansari blasted into space for a 10-day trip. She became the first Iranian in space, and the fourth self-funded space explorer—as well as the first self-funded woman—to fly to the International Space Station. Upon her return, she said, “My life is business, but my journey to space is never far from my thoughts. By leaving this world, I have become more connected to it and have a better sense of where I fit.”
Mrs. Ansari’s memoir, My Dream of Stars, tells about making her dream to go to space a reality. Now working toward a master’s degree in astronomy from Swinburne University, she has committed herself to making space exploration more available for regular citizens. Her company, Prodea, recently partnered with Space Adventures, Ltd. and the Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation to create a fleet of suborbital spaceflight vehicles for global commercial use. “I want to see the sunrise from space again,” she says. “I want everyone to see that. One of the things I hope to change someday is to make flying into space a normal thing. That is my hope and my plan.”
Today Anousheh Ansari often addresses young people to tell about her experiences in space. She says, “I have faith in young people. Their minds are not hindered by artificial boundaries and they are willing to question everything. This is how progress occurs. I tell them that seeing Earth from space changed me and made me realize how we are all connected as human beings. My instinct and experiences tell me we are here to live life to the fullest and experience it with all our God-given abilities.”
Anousheh Ansari has received many honors, including the World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, the Working Woman’s National Entrepreneurial Excellence Award, George Mason University’s Entrepreneurial Excellence Award, and George Washington University’s Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award. Mrs. Ansari is involved with the X Prize Foundation, which offers competitions that fund technological breakthroughs that benefit humanity. She currently serves as a trustee of the X Prize Foundation.
Her philanthropic work focuses on two organizations: Ashoka, which works to recognize individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems; and PARSA, which promotes philanthropy and social entrepreneurship among the global Iranian community.