Sunday Sitdown: Sam Yagan, tech guru, son of Syrian immigrants

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Sam Yagan

Sam Yagan, the Chicago tech guru who’s the CEO of Match Group, the dating services juggernaut that includes and Tinder, tread carefully last week in discussing the firm he’s steered since 2012, which just went public. The 38-year-old start-up ace, the son of Syrian immigrants, spoke openly, though, about the crisis involving his parents’ homeland, ISIS and the anti-immigrant sentiments spawned by the Paris attacks. Born in Chicago, raised in Bourbonnais, the married father of three attended the Illinois Math & Science Academy, Harvard and Stanford Graduate School. He spoke with reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika. A condensed transcript follows.

Question: Talk about your family’s history.

Answer: My parents were born in Syria and immigrated to the United States. My dad is a retired computer scientist who worked for the University of Illinois hospital system. My mom is a retired pediatrician. My dad came to pursue his education in the late ’60s and attended the University of Tennessee, where he studied mathematics because there was no computer science at the time. He later went back home, got married, brought my mom in ’75. She went to med school at the University of Illinois. I have a younger brother who’s a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Q: You studied applied mathematics and economics at Harvard, got an MBA from Stanford. What was your trajectory into tech start-ups?

A: I founded SparkNotes in 1999 with my two best friends from Harvard while we were seniors in college. It does educational study guides — basically Cliff Notes for the Internet. We sold to Barnes & Noble after three years.

Then, I started eDonkey, a media technology company, in 2002. Due to legal and regulatory constraints, we ended up shutting down after three years.

I went to Stanford, then founded the dating site OkCupid in 2003 with most of the team from SparkNotes. I started working on the company on the East Coast, then moved back to Chicago in 2007 with my wife. My parents live here in Chicago, and we wanted to begin raising a family.

I realized the tech community here was not quite as vibrant as in New York, Boston and San Francisco. So I co-founded Techstars Chicago. Each year, we take 10 start-ups, mentor them, help them grow. Now in our sixth year, our companies have raised well over $100 million from investors.

In 2011, we sold OkCupid to Match Group. I stayed with OkCupid for a year before becoming CEO of Match in September 2012. And I started Corazon Capital, a venture capital fund, in January 2014.

Q: Your family is clearly an example of a successful immigrant story. What are your thoughts about calls for the U.S. to shut its borders to Syrian war refugees after the attacks in Paris?

A: Mostly, I’m saddened — by the policy and by the discrimination that leads to that. I’m also just tremendously disappointed. We are a nation of immigrants.

I was in Syria as recently as 2010, still in the midst of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Syrians, they’re just like anyone else. They wake up in the morning, they want to have breakfast, take their children to school, go to work and come home like anybody else. They’re peaceful people.

When I was there, a taxi driver recognized I was American. Being American, I’m richer, of course, than he is. Yet he didn’t let me pay for my ride. He said: “I don’t want your money. Just go tell your fellow Americans that we are good people.”

Q: The civil war has gone on for more than four years in Syria, left more than a quarter of a million dead and forced nearly half the population to flee the country. Have you had family affected?

A: I have cousins and other family members who have been displaced by the war. Most of my family has fled over the last couple of years, immigrating to Europe, Malaysia or the U.S. Thankfully, no one has been killed or injured.

My parents are still thinking they’re going to go back. They’re getting older, and their dream was that, when they retired, they’d go back and spend time with their families back in their hometown.

My dream is just for peace, really; there, and here, for us to not judge people by their country of origin, religion or race.

We’ve had Americans who are part of ISIS and al-Qaida. That doesn’t mean all Americans should be forbidden from traveling and immigrating.

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