A version of this article was originally published on Business Insider.
Obviously, our favorite soft skill is language learning (the linguistic kind, although we owe a great deal to the computational type as well), and we were interested to know if any of the leaders in technology shared our enthusiasm. As it turns out, quite a few of them do.
Mark Zuckerberg made headlines in 2014 when he surprised students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University by answering every question during a 30 minute Q&A exclusively in Mandarin.
While addressing the students, Zuckerberg stated that he studies the language daily, and his reasons for learning are personal; he wanted to be able to communicate better with the family of his wife, Priscilla Chan, including her grandmother, who he says speaks only Chinese. The media speculates there are also business reasons for Zuckerberg’s study of Mandarin due to the fact that Facebook and other websites, including Google and YouTube, are blocked in China.
Native speakers say Zuckerberg’s Mandarin is far from perfect, and that his pronunciation, in particular, has room for improvement. Yet each time Zuckerberg speaks publicly in Mandarin his skills become more sophisticated, specifically his vocabulary and grammar, which shows his dedication to learning a language that is notoriously challenging for English speakers to master.
Alibaba is China’s largest e-commerce company, and the sixth-largest Internet company in the world. The man at the head of this tech giant is Jack Ma, who believes himself to be involved in entrepreneurship and not technology (“The only thing I can use my computer for is to send and receive emails and browse,” he joked in a 2011 interview). Ma may not be a coder, but he’s a visionary leader of an incredibly successful company that accounts for 80 percent of China’s online shopping market and handled $248 billion in transactions last year — more than eBay and Amazon combined.
Ma’s strong work ethic can be illustrated by how he practiced his English. Ma grew up in Hangzhou, the capital of China’s Zhejiang Province. At age 12 he became interested in learning English, and would ride his bike each day for 40 minutes to a hotel where a lot of foreign tourists stayed. To practice his English, he would give free tours around the city to these visitors, which is something he continued doing for eight years. Ma studied to become an English teacher, and would later be exposed to the Internet for the first time while working in Seattle as an interpreter for a trade delegation in 1995. The rest, as they say, is history.
Google is a company that needs no introduction (but if you want to learn more, you can Google it). The search company was founded in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who met as graduate students at Stanford University and later dropped out to pursue the vision they shared for Google.
Brin was born in Moscow, and moved to the United States with his family when he was six years old. Leaving Moscow wasn’t an easy choice for his parents, but they made the decision because of the antisemitism they faced in the former Soviet Union. Brin continues to speak Russian at home with his parents. Earlier this year, he made an appearance at a San Francisco airport during a protest against the Trump administration’s travel ban, simply stating, “I’m here because I’m a refugee.”
“Making the world suck less” is written on the masthead of Alexis Ohanian’s personal website. The tagline is a nice respite from the lofty “Making the world a better place” rhetoric that permeates most of the tech world, and social media companies in particular. And perhaps a break from the status quo is exactly the right way to describe Reddit, the platform that Ohanian co-founded in 2005, which bills itself as “the front page of the internet.”
Ohanian grew up speaking German, and minored in it at the University of Virginia, adding on his LinkedIn profile, “but this was kind of cheating since my mom is from Hamburg.” Ohanian tells the story of his family, including his undocumented immigrant mother and his great-grandfather who fled the Armenian genocide, in an open letter opposing the travel ban, writing that without immigrants and refugees, “there’s no me, and there’s no Reddit.”
Marissa Mayer has one of the most impressive resumes in the tech industry. She attended Stanford University, graduating with an undergraduate degree in symbolic systems, a master’s degree in computer science, and 14 job offers in hand, including a role at Google. She joined Google as employee number 20 and the company’s first female engineer. Mayer oversaw the creation of Google’s iconic homepage, and rose through the ranks working on a range of Google products, most notably AdWords, which is responsible for the vast majority of Google’s revenue.
In 2012, Mayer became president and CEO of Yahoo!, where she was responsible for turning around the legacy tech company. Although she stepped down in June of this year amid criticism of her performance, she remains active in the tech and business world. A broad range of activities and interests is something that has characterized Mayer’s career, and has been a constant since childhood, when she was involved in everything including debate, ice-skating, piano and ballet. In high school, she was president of the Spanish club, and has said she speaks some Spanish, and some German/Swiss German.
WhatsApp founder Jan Koum has stated that his goal is to have his app installed on every smartphone. When it was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion, WhatsApp had 350 million daily users. Today, that number has reached 1 billion, bringing Koum closer to making that seemingly impossible goal a reality.
But Koum is no stranger to overcoming seemingly impossible challenges. Raised in a small village outside Kiev in Ukraine, Koum came to Mountain View, California, at age 16 with his mother and grandmother. Shortly after arriving in the United States, his mother got cancer, and for a time they lived on food stamps and government assistance while Koum also worked as a janitor. But after teaching himself computer science from manuals he got at the used bookstore, he eventually attended San Jose State University before dropping out to work for Yahoo!, where he stayed for nine years and met his WhatsApp co-founder, Brian Acton.
The pair eventually left Yahoo! and took a year off together to travel around South America. Koum has said that his experience traveling internationally made him realize the limitations of the existing communication tools like Skype, which involves registering for an account and a username. After returning to the United States, both Acton and Koum applied and were rejected by Facebook. While trying to decide his next step, Koum came up with an idea for an app that would allow people to set their statuses on their phones. While that idea didn’t take off, the next iteration of the app did, which added the ability to message. Fast forward a few years, and the WhatsApp success story is the stuff of Silicon Valley legend with both its record-breaking Facebook acquisition and rapid user growth.
Although he has lived in California since he was 16, Koum speaks fluent Russian, and has built WhatsApp into a truly global company that supports 60 languages, with users all over the world.