Dr. Anousheh Ansari is Co-Founder, Chairwoman, and Chief Executive Officer of Prodea Systems. As her new company launched, on September 18, 2006 she blasted off on an eight-day expedition aboard the International Space Station and became the first female private space explorer. She was the first astronaut of Iranian descent and first Muslim woman. Kyivstar sat down to talk with her at the International E-Governance Symposium.
So let’s start with the interesting things. What was it like being the first Muslim woman in space?
Ansari: Just being in space regardless of your gender, religion, or where you are from is an amazing experience. It is something that will change your life forever and impact the way you view the world, the way you view your relationship with it, and with the environment. You re-prioritize everything. It gives you a global view that stays with you throughout your life and everything that you do. Since I had that experience every project I work on, and every activity I am involved with has me looking for the global impact.
What was it like taking a dream and making it real?
Ansari: I am very fortunate, but I do believe that people who have a strong passion for something and are able to apply their energy and focus and not give up on their dream, that the universe finds a way, and you will find a path to achieve those dreams. What happens in most cases is that people give up too easily once they see the first obstacle or someone tells them they can’t achieve it they lose faith, so even when the opportunity presents itself later on they won’t see it.
I believe that as long as you don’t give up on it even if nothing seems to be going your way eventually you will find a way. That is what happened to me.
When it comes to times of crisis what can you do to overcome limitations?
Ansari: It’s very important for people to figure out how to find the optimal way to use the resources they do have, and how that can lead to a way of getting yourself out of whatever situation you are in. For me, one of the most important tools I have no matter what is my education. Because of that education no matter where I live in the world there is always something I can do with what I have learned.
I studied and became an engineer, and the most important gift I received from studying engineering was problem solving. That is how I approach life. There are always challenges, sometimes small ones, sometimes big ones. But I don’t think anyone can count on life being constant and up beat. Even if you are at the height of your life there is always a chance that things will just fall apart. When the [Iranian] Revolution happened a lot of people lost everything and had to start over again. When the [Iran-Iraq] War started people lost their lives, homes, everything they had. But as long as you have an optimistic view and hope for the future, and you look forward to building things, whatever happens you can rebuild it. You can find resources to help you, you can pull together people and resources. I have experienced that many times in my life. Whether that was after the war in the Iran or rebuilding my life in the United States, with a new country, culture, language everything, or building my companies. It is always find what you have, use your resources, find good partners that will help you mentally and emotionally, with their skills, and build.
How can a developing country use that mindset and apply it to e-services and citizen authentication?
Ansari: I spent some time in Ukraine in the past. I did my survival training for the space mission in Sevastopol. One gift this country has is its intellectual capital. It has a highly educated population with a very strong IT sector with a lot of potential. This is untapped potential. It is like a small plant you have planted. If you take good care of it with the right nourishment it can grow into a very beautiful strong tree. With the right kind of support and nurturing the government and e-services can nurture the IT sector and build up the entrepreneurial spirit that can lead to a lot of job creation and innovation. Government plays a huge role with policies. They don’t have to go give money to people. Policies don’t cost much. The right tools, like access to data, will fuel this potential.
What is an example of an inexpensive policy that could be useful?
Ansari: Right now the IT sector here is mainly focused on outsourcing. People here have a lot of great ideas, but it is difficult for them to start companies. There isn’t much emphasis on the education and the tools they need to be a successful start-up. Creating an environment that nurtures start-ups and entrepreneurship will help build products. It is higher up in the value chain. Things will be made here instead of being hired hands.
As someone who has started her own business multiple times, what are some of the best things a government can do to encourage that?
Ansari: There are three basic examples: 1. starting a company. Just make it very simple and easy to register and start a company. That can be done on-line very simply 2. resources for young start-ups to teach them what they need to know when they start a company. Tax policies, environmental policies, employment policies anything they just need to know. 3. Providing small loans for new companies. It doesn’t have to be huge amounts, but low cost. That along with some tax benefits for the first few years. Anything to lower the entry cost for a start-up.
What can technology do to limit corruption?
Ansari: Creating a secure ID for an individual helps to protect them against identity theft and fraud. But more generally anything that furthers transparency, and that includes the availability of data. As long as the data is available for people to access and they can do so easily and use it for comprehensive analysis then you will have people who will go crazy with finding ways to visualize this data for others. That creates transparency that helps prevent corruption.
The other aspect is allowing the public to interact with the government easily online. That kind of interaction which is available through social media or elsewhere puts officials in the spotlight, and once you are in the spotlight usually you are a little more careful about what is happening around you. Putting things online and opening information will help elevate and reduce corruption. Citizen engagement. The more citizens are involved in every day interaction with the government that also provides a check and balance.