LONDON — Over the weekend, British-Iranian healthcare entrepreneur Ali Parsa sent an impassioned memo to his employees and contacts.
“We judge people by the humanity of their hearts, the ambition of their dreams, the purpose of their hard work, and the extent of their wisdom and not by the country of their birth. Anything else is economically shortsighted, politically divisive, and socially abhorrent,” he wrote.
Since newly elected US president Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday suspending the United States’ refugee program and blocking immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, many in the tech community (and the broader world) has exploded in outrage — and Parsa is no exception.
But what makes Parsa different is his own experience: He was a refugee himself, fleeing Iran after the revolution in the Eighties, aged just 16. He now runs Babylon Health, a London-headquartered health-tech company that uses artificial intelligence to help triage patients using their smartphones.
In a telephone interview on Monday, amid confusion as to whether he would be allowed to visit the US if he tried to visit, he expressed his disappointment with President Trump’s executive order: “Humans are humans, and it’s inhuman to discriminate,” he said.
‘I think my life was in danger’
“I’m one of these guys you see on the TV,” he said, referring to the ongoing global refugee crisis.
“I left Iran in 1982, when I was 16 years old … the revolution had happened, the universities had all closed … and I also was involved in the wrong political organisations. And basically I think my life was in danger, so I had to get out, like any other political refugee.” He is now a British citizen, and has never returned to Iran.
“No one leaves a country because there’s more candy somewhere else. They leave because they have to.”
In England, Parsa took his O-levels and A-levels (“I just locked myself in a room”), and went on to study at UCL, ultimately getting a PhD. He became a banker — “the last thing I did was helping with running the technology investment bank at Goldman Sachs in Europe” — before the birth of his child spurred him to change tack, and enter the healthcare business.
“I built a chain of hospitals in Britain. It was called Circle, I got lucky, it went from nothing to 3,000 employees, a few hundred million in revenue, I took it public,” before leaving the business and founding his current venture — Babylon Health.
“We sat down and said, ‘can we make healthcare accessible and affordable, and [as a] result be able to put it in the hands of ever human being on earth?’ And that’s how we started Babylon.”
‘Values matter in everything’
When Parsa and I spoke on Monday, there was some confusion as to whether he — despite holding British citizenship and a global entry visa to the US — would be able to return to America, with UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson and the US embassy in London issuing conflicting advice. (Downing Street currently insists that dual-nationals like him will be unaffected, according to The Guardian.)
“Frankly, my attitude towards that is the rest of the world is ginormous. We just do business with the rest of the world, right?” It’s a position that Parsa, because of his success, can take. But for others — like refugees seeking asylum in America — there may be nowhere else to turn.
“In a global world in which we live, these things are bad for business, immortal, and antisocial. And it’s also bad economically. I thought we left that kind of nonsense years ago,” he said.
Parsa also spelled out his thoughts in the memo sent to Babylon Health staff and professional contacts over the weekend, expressing his dismay at the ban. “Values matter in everything, including our national security and prosperity,” he wrote. (You can read the full memo below.)
In Britain, Parsa’s home, there has been widespread opposition to Trump’s executive order. More than 1.6 million people have signed a petition calling on Prime Minister Theresa May to rescind Donald Trump’s invite to come to the UK in an official State Visit, and thousands protested outside 10 Downing Street on Monday night.
Parsa believes other companies have a duty to speak up
“I just think it’s short-sighted. If you look at my background, I was born in Iran, I grew up in a multicultural town, I came to Britain as a young kid, all my friends in London are from all over the world. I hire about 200 people in my office in here, I don’t know any nationality that represents more than 15 of those 200,” Parsa told me.
“Companies need to take a stand. And my stand on this is if US doesn’t want my employees — I have lots of people from those seven countries in here — then maybe I don’t necessarily need to rush in the US.”
I spent much of Monday on the phone and sending out emails, trying to gauge the reaction of the British and European technology industry to the executive order. While some were vocal in their opposition — like buzzy money transfer startup TransferWise — but other companies, like food delivery app Deliveroo and music streaming streaming service Spotify, declined to comment.
But Parsa believes companies have a duty not to remain silent on important issues. “People have values, they identify with values. Why do people love Body Shop? Why do they love Innocent Drinks? … [other] companies are standing and saying ‘I don’t want to say something that upsets people.’ I mean companies need to have humanity, and have a point of view.”
He added: “So no, I don’t have much time for people who say ‘that’s ok’ … that it’s ok to stay quiet on issues.”
Here’s the full memo that Ali Parsa sent to his employees and contacts (emphasis ours):
“I have been lucky: I have lived in developed countries and in emerging countries; I have been a native and an immigrant; I have habited among the poor and the rich. But it doesn’t matter where I was, what I have been or who I have been with, people always seem to have the same dreams, just different opportunities. The US stood for a promise to give the opportunity to live that dream. That promise attracted the best talents from far and wide, and made America amongst the most prosperous in the world. We judge people by the humanity of their hearts, the ambition of their dreams, the purpose of their hard work, and the extent of their wisdom and not by the country of their birth. Anything else is economically shortsighted, politically divisive, and socially abhorrent. Values matter in everything, including our national security and prosperity.”