This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It takes a look at successful business leaders to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what brings them out. from bed in the morning to their daily routines.
Today, Anousheh Ansari is the CEO of XPrize, the nonprofit organization founded in 1996 that hosts public competitions to encourage technological development that benefits humanity – such as its most recent partnership with Elon musk to offer $ 100 million in prizes for the best carbon capture technology to fight climate change.
But that’s just one of Ansari’s accomplishments.
Self-made multimillionaire tech entrepreneur, Ansari paid more than $ 20 million for a seat aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft (via tourism company Space Adventures Ltd.) for the 10-day mission.
“The only distinction you can make when you’re out there is that the world is so interconnected,” Ansari, 54, told CNBC Make It. “It is not made up of countries or religions, it is made up of oceans, mountains, forests, deserts and clouds.”
Ansari dreamed of becoming an astronaut growing up in Tehran, Iran, in the 1970s. She watched reruns of “Star Trek”, read science fiction books, and attempted to build her own spaceship.
“I don’t think anyone took me seriously. They thought it was just a childhood talk,” Ansari told CNBC Make It. “They underestimated my persistence.”
After immigrating to Virginia with his family at age 16 to escape the Iranian revolution, Ansari learned English and then graduated from George Mason University with a bachelor’s degree in electronic and computer engineering, then from George Washington University with a master’s degree in electrical engineering.
Ansari used part of this money to finance the first XPrize: $ 10 million to anyone who could create a spatialship which could safely transport a pilot and two passengers to the edge of space – then repeat the feat within two weeks. (Mojave Aerospace Ventures, co-founded and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, won with their SpaceShipOne in 2004.)
In 2018, The XPrize Foundation has appointed Ansari CEO.
“I can’t sit back and do nothing. I always want to do more, ”says Ansari.
Here, Ansari talks to CNBC Make It about growing up in Iran, how she turned her dream of going to space into reality, partnering up with Elon Musk and more.
Growing up in Iran, I had a life like most Iranian girls. I went to school and had a middle class family. Nothing extraordinary happened until the age of 12, when the revolution occurred in Iran.
This is where things started to change. I was seeing violence and upheaval for the first time in my life. Then the war with Iraq broke out. There was this constant fear of bombing and a scarcity of basic needs for the family. An explosion happened so close to us that our windows smashed.
But until then all I was interested in and wanted to do was study space and go to space.
I just fell in love with what the night sky represented, which was this huge playground for my imagination. I was a curious young girl and would have tons of questions that no one could answer.
My passion became trying to figure out what was going on there and if there were aliens and praying that aliens would come and kidnap me and show me their world. I hoped their world would be better and more peaceful than mine.
The universe we live in is so vast and incredible, it would be arrogant to think that we are the only ones alive.
I don’t think anyone took me seriously. Everybody say, ‘Oh that’s good’, but I don’t think anyone ever thought that [my dream of going to space] is something that would last and that it would never be possible. But it’s part of my DNA.
Growing up thinking about space, I wanted [create an] amazing invention that I would be selected to fly my invention in space. I started by designing spaceships. Many of them looked like saucers. I had all kinds of brilliant ideas when I was 10 about how spaceships went in space.
But it’s an entrepreneurial path that allowed me to go into space later. [My husband and family] were understandably concerned about my life, but they were all very supportive as they knew I don’t like living a life of regret.
I am a firm believer in routines, especially in busy or very stressful environments. Routines keep me calm.
One of the most important parts for me is the morning. I need to spend at least an hour exercising. It can be a race or a bicycle. Something outside the house. [Ansari lives in Los Angeles, California with her husband, Hamid.]
I do meditation sometimes, but I get to a point where my brain is so intense and busy that I can’t sit still for long. But when I walk outside, it’s meditation for me. I can stop everything, concentrate.
At night I try to watch something that doesn’t require thinking at all so that I can turn off any thought power in my head or read something or listen to music.
When [my husband and I] sold our business, it was the first time I had the opportunity to pursue my dream full time without having to worry about who would support the family. I went back to school and studied astronomy. At the same time, I was looking for the opportunity to find a way for a commercial passenger to go into space.
This is where I met [XPrize founder] Peter Diamandis, who announced the competition for people to build a spaceship and [sounded like] a very promising business. I felt like … this is it. If I wanted to go and build a spaceship, I would just have a chance to do it and spend a ton of money. But doing a competition allows me to find the brightest creative minds from around the world to build a spaceship. It made sense to me as an entrepreneur.
We became the title sponsor of the first competition that launched [XPrize] that I’m heading now. I have come full circle.