An Investor Blends Business with Social Service, and Reaps the Rewards

Iranian-born entrepreneur-investor Shervin Pishevar has become a well-known brand in Silicon Valley in recent years largely because of his social entrepreneurship, not his startup prowess. His particular cause has been eradicating many of the hurdles that foreign-born entrepreneurs still face in entering and remaining in the U.S. But clearly, Pishevar’s social conscience has been good for business.

It’s fair to say that Pishevar’s track record as an entrepreneur has been impressive. He smartly returned nearly half the $10 million he raised for his first company, WebOS, after the dot.com implosion killed its chances of going public or otherwise scaling, and he formed another company out of its ashes, HyperOffice, which remains privately held.

Pishevar, 38, also founded Social Gaming Network, which sold in 2011 for an undisclosed amount of stock to the casual games network MindJolt. (It has since been renamed. Pishevar told me in a call yesterday that his financial outcome on the deal is “TBD. But I’m tracking all their progress on all the mobile stuff that they acquired from [the original Social Gaming Network], and I’m pretty confident that it’ll be great.”)

The rest of Pishevar’s career has produced even better returns. Webs.com, a digital marketing startup that appointed Pishevar president in its early days, went on to sell to the office supply company VistaPrint in a $117.5 million cash deal in late 2011. Pishevar has enjoyed numerous wins as an angel investor, including SocialCam, a seed-funded company that sold to Autodesk for $60 million last summer, and Aardvark, which raised $6 million and sold to Google for $50 million in 2011. And Pishevar so impressed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg with a single email that they became friends. She even wrote to a handful of venture capital firms, suggesting that they hire him in some capacity. By January 2011, he was a managing director at Menlo Ventures.

That Pishevar left that post earlier this month to cofound a new, still mostly stealth incubator and associated fund in San Francisco, didn’t come as a huge surprise. Pishevar, who remains a “venture advisor” with Menlo, says he was hired to build up Menlo’s consumer Internet practice, and that “I did,” winning numerous competitive deals for the firm –including investments in Uber, Fab, Warby Parker, and Tumblr — as well as bringing Menlo into roughly 20 35 seed-stage deals.

More, despite Menlo’s powerful brand, Pishevar’s social stands have gained him his own growing renown. In the fall of 2011, for example, he testified before Congress on the importance of allowing more skilled immigrants into the country to found companies and create jobs. Pishevar has also organized eight round-tables between government bigs and tech elites, including a campaign event last year at San Francisco’s InterContinental hotel with President Obama, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Zynga CEO Mark Pincus, and a dozen other star entrepreneurs. (Over many months, Pishevar helped collect roughly $2 million for President Obama’s reelection campaign.)

Yet Pishevar has made an impact on other social issues, too. He’s active with charity:water, a fashionable nonprofit that’s bringing clean drinking water to people in developing nations; he has traveled to Uganda on behalf of the American NGO Invisible Children; and he has asked startups to donate 1 percent of their equity to their charity of choice. (He says he used proceeds from one of his companies to build homes for war widows in Afghanistan.) Earlier this month, Pishevar also announced the Cyrus Prize, a $100,000 genius grant for Iranian innovators.

Pishevar has a surprisingly long history of working on social issues, in fact. As a 17-year-old high school junior in Maryland, he won a heated election battle to become the one student member of the Montgomery County Board of education, a role that the Washington Post characterized as “the most powerful student position in the Washington area.” According to the paper, Pishevar used the perch to try imposing a $10 education tax on every county taxpayer, funnel more student projects to charity, and ensure the placement of contraceptive display kits in Montgomery schools to help educate students about their options.

As a 20-year-old undergrad at UC Berkeley, Pishevar also reached out to a Bosnian children’s doctor after reading about him in New York Times column, helping him create a camp for Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian orphans whose parents had died in the Bosnian war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.

As if that weren’t enough, the following year, Pishevar co-authored a research paper about doctors who were complicit in the torture of political and criminal detainees in Turkey. (He says, convincingly, that the paper helped to establish new international guidelines around recognizing and documenting torture.)

It’s almost as if Pishevar’s collective efforts have been leading toward an eventual career in politics.

Pishevar doesn’t rule it out, saying simply that, “I’m happy doing what I’m doing right now and think for the long-term future, I’ll be do doing this.”

It’s hard to blame him. He’s plainly enjoying the best of both worlds. As Pishevar puts it: “I’m really happy doing round-tables and helping people I believe in and who I believe will make the country a stronger and safer place. But I also love building companies and helping to create jobs —  and that’s a way of being of service, too.”

Photo courtesy of Menlo Ventures.

Corrections: This story originally stated that Pishevar brought “Menlo into roughly 35 seed-stage deals.” Pishevar closed 20 of the 35 seed deals in the Menlo Talent Fund. Pishevar also asked that we remove Fab from a list of deals that he led for Menlo. He attends Fab meetings as an informal observer and introduced both actor Ashton Kutcher and Lady Gaga’s manager Troy Carter to the company; they subsequently invested. Finally, Pishevar added that he is not interested in pursuing a political career.

PROMOTION

If you’d like to hear Pishevar share some of his industry views, you can catch him in Boston the week of April 3rd. Pishevar will be a keynote speaker at our Venture Alpha East event, along with Carlyle Group cofounder David Rubenstein; Jane Mendillo, CEO of Harvard Management Company; and numerous other luminaries. You can click here to register.

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2 Comments

  • Impressive background and varied experience. Not your usual venture capitalist.

  • one of the most interesting details, i thought, was that sheryl sandberg was writing numerous vcs emails, telling them they should snatch up pishevar. that also seems exceedingly generous.

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