Today, Jan Koum, the founder of WhatsApp and its biggest shareholder, is rumored to be worth more than $6 billion. But as a teenager, he was on food stamps, a recent immigrant from the Ukraine, starting over with his mother in the US.
It’s a detail that’s been mentioned in accounts of the $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook, and Koum himself isn’t dodging the importance of his humble origins. He signed the deal with Facebook on the door of the California social services building where he used to wait in line for assistance. But its larger significance seems to have been missed in the rush to marvel at the success of Koum’s company.
It’s supremely ironic that just as Facebook dumps a quarter of its cash on hand on an app, the US Federal government is trimming food stamp benefits by $8.6 billion. On average, that’s a $90-a-month hit to 850,000 of the US households that can least afford it. It’s also ironic that Koum is benefiting from the cash generated by venture capitalists in notoriously government assistance-averse Silicon Valley.
Without that government benefit, would Koum have been forced to miss out on the educational opportunities that led him to become a developer? Without an adequate social safety net, would there even be a WhatsApp?