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2011 Horatio Alger Award Recipient

Anousheh Ansari

CEO

XPRIZE Foundation

“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, 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 came from a long line of holy men, and her father from a proud family of prosperous merchants. Years before Ansari's birth, her great-grandfather insulted Iran's Shah Pahlavi, which resulted in the family's loss of wealth. When Ansari 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.

Ansari'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; eventually an uncle also came to live in their cramped quarters. Following the birth of Ansari's sister one year later, her father announced that he would move to America to seek better opportunities. He sold most of the family's possessions and bought Iranian handicrafts and rugs to sell in the United States. However, his plan was ruined when he was denied immigration to the United States

Ansari 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 it 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."

Ansari was strongly influenced by her grandparents. Her grandmother was liberal when it came to women's rights and often told Ansari that she should become a doctor or an engineer. "My grandmother told me I should be the master of my life," says Ansari. "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."

Ansari and her sister attended a French Catholic school, and her mother worked two jobs to pay the tuition. It was then that Ansari began to realize her potential in both academics and sports. She studied French, Farsi, and Arabic, and she excelled in science and math.

In 1978, when Ansari was 12, Iran's Islamic revolution began. She watched as her quiet neighborhood became a place of angry, violent demonstrations. Often, when the protests got too close, parents were asked to come to the school to take their children home. One night, Ansari was awakened by gunshots. The revolutionaries were setting fire to banks throughout the city, and the bank below her apartment was being attacked; her family escaped unscathed. In 1979, the Shah was ousted, and Ayatollah Khomeini took over. By then, Iran's new regime had closed Ansari's school, and her father, who by then had become a vice president in sales for a wine company, lost his job.

Shortly thereafter, Iran went to war with Iraq, a conflict that would last for the next eight years. Ansari and her family were subjected to food and fuel shortages, and they suffered blackouts nearly every night. "I was concerned about the war, but I was more concerned about my future," she says of this time. "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."

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In 1984, when she was 17, Ansari's father renewed the U.S. immigration process for his family. After nearly a year of red tape and her father's continued denial for immigration, Ansari arrived in the United States with her mother and sister, and they moved in with an aunt and uncle who lived in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Ansari soon grew to hate her new high school because the other students made fun of her accent and would not extend friendship to her. Despite facing social challenges, Ansari did well academically and was ahead of her classmates in most subjects.

After her graduation, Ansari enrolled at George Mason University (GMU). 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 GMU, she studied electronics and computer engineering, and she 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 a half years later, and she accepted a job with MCI Telecommunications. She enrolled in MCI's graduate education program and earned a master's degree in electrical engineering from GMU.

During that time, Ansari also became a U.S. citizen, and in 1991, she 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 they were transferred to Texas. Not wanting to leave their families, they quit their jobs at MCI. Ansari found a new job with Comsat, and her husband started a used car business. One year later, the car business was failing, and, changing their minds, the couple decided to return to work at MCI and moved to Texas.

In 1993, the Ansaris felt it would be a good time to start a consulting firm. Their new company, Telecom Technologies, Inc. (TTI), provided other companies with expert telecommunications engineers. Ansari worked night and day with her husband and brother-in-law to get the company started. Ansari, who was the designated CEO, began taking community college classes in finance and business management. In addition to using their savings and corporate retirement accounts to fund the business, they borrowed $100,000 and also found investors for their fledgling enterprise.

In 1995, TTI 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 this product. Soon, other companies bought Fastest, and the Ansaris were finally starting to make a profit. TTI expanded to 200 employees, and was recognized by Inc. magazine as one of the nation's 500 fastest-growing companies.

In 2001, the Ansaris merged TTI with Sonus Networks and took the next few years off to rest and recuperate from their years of building a business. They traveled extensively and in 2006, founded Prodea Systems, Inc., which services applications to both in-home smart devices and networked appliances.

Also in 2006, Ansari got the chance to participate in Space Adventures, a company that contracts with Russia to send private citizens on flights to the International Space Station. Jumping at the chance, Ansari began the six-month cosmonaut training program in Russia. One week shy of her 40th birthday, Ansari blasted into space on a 10-day trip, becoming the first Iranian in space and the fourth self-funded space explorer, as well as the first self-funded woman, to fly to the 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."

Ansari's memoir, My Dream of Stars, tells about her dream of space travel becoming a reality. She committed herself to making space exploration more available for ordinary people. Prodea partnered with Space Adventures Ltd. and the Russian government's space agency 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."

Ansari often discusses her experiences in space with youths. "I have faith in young people. Their minds are not hindered by artificial boundaries, and they are willing to question everything," she says. "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."

Ansari has received many honors, including being selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2008. She has also won the Working Woman National Entrepreneurial Excellence Award, GMU's Entrepreneurial Excellence Award, and George Washington University's Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.

Ansari's philanthropic interests primarily focus on two organizations: Ashoka, which recognizes individuals with innovative solutions to society's most pressing social problems, and the PARSA Community Foundation, which promotes philanthropy and social entrepreneurship among the Iranian diaspora. She also serves as a trustee of the X Prize Foundation, which offers competitions that fund technological breakthroughs to benefit humanity.

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