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February 23, 2014 6:10 pm

Mazal Tov to Jan Koum of WhatsApp

avatar by Ronn Torossian

The Facbook login page. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The latest Russian American Jewish success story is truly a special one. Jan Boris Koum just so”Ž”Ž”Žld his company, WhatsApp, to Facebook for $19 billion dollars. In a particularly sentimental move, the man who was born and raised just outside of Kiev, Ukraine, signed the agreement to sell the business on the door of the office where he and his mother stood in line only 20 years earlier to collect food stamps.

What a great story. As one venture capitalist wrote, “When he arrived in the U.S. as a 16-year-old immigrant living on food stamps, he had the extra incentive of wanting to stay in touch with his family in Russia and the Ukraine. All of this was at the top of the mind for Jan when, after years of working together with his mentor Brian [Action] at Yahoo, he began to build WhatsApp.” Forbes Magazine, in the only in-depth profile of Koum thus far says his family left Ukraine because of anti-Semitism and political instability.

Much like other Russian-speaking American Jews, Koum grew up with little money, and once he emigrated to the United States, his friends were other Russian speaking Jews. Like many other high-achievers, he was a troublemaker in school, dropped out of college, and held a bunch of odd jobs, including bagging groceries.

K”Žoum was a founding member of the San Francisco Bay area’s Jews for Entrepreneurship, (JFE), a non-profit networking organization for Jewish entrepreneurs. Of course he worked tremendously hard building his innovative business and has had tremendous success professionally for which he must be commended. What a beautiful, great story.

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As I have said repeatedly, the 750,000 Russian-American Jews are such a flourishing community within American Jewry. Just as Russian Jewry changed the demographics of, and did so many great things for, the State of Israel, so too will the Russian Jewish community continue to do great things for America and American Jewry. There are already so many great Russian-American Jewish success stories.

Take Sergey Mikhaylovich Brin, who was born in Moscow in 1973 and moved to the U.S. to escape the persecution of Jews in Russia, and co-founded Google. Today, he is one of the most successful and influential people in the world. There’s actress Mila Kunis, who was born in Kiev and has been named by Esquire Magazine as the Sexiest Woman Alive. Leningrad-born Gary Shteyngart has been recognized as one of the best writers of our time. His books have won numerous awards, and his second novel was named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, as well as a best book of the year by Time and The Washington Post Book World.

Entrepreneur Evgeny Freidman, the New York City taxi mogul, is an immigrant by way of St. Petersburg, and Edward Mermelstein, one of the most powerful real estate attorneys in New York is also Ukrainian-born. There’s Olympic swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg and nightclub king Eugene Remm. All of these people speak Russian as their native language – and there are so many other Russian-Americans who contribute so much to American culture, science, business, sports, and other arenas and are overlooked. (It’s also well past time to do away with “Russian mafia” headlines and related suspicions that we hear repeatedly and are a tremendously unfair stereotype.)

Russian-American Jews have had such a great impact on America – and the world. There is so much success already for them to celebrate. Let us say Mazel Tov to Jan Koum of WhatsApp. Wishing you continued success and only happiness and good things.

Ronn Torossian is not Russian, although his wife Zhanna is. He is a board member of the largest Russian-American Jewish organization, RAJE.

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