Who is Jawed Karim?
Cliched though it may now be to say so, an idea truly can change the world. Even a social media behemoth like YouTube, internationally recognized and used regularly by billions of people all across the world to post video content about almost every conceivable subject, was at one time just an idea — an idea in the mind of a man named Jawed Karim.
Jawed Karim is an American software engineer, internet entrepreneur, and philanthropist of German and Bangladeshi descent who is best remembered today for being one of the three co-founders of YouTube. And though he has kept a relatively low profile since selling YouTube to Google’s parent company Alphabet back in October of 2006, he has nevertheless remained quite busy, investing in and working to create various internet startups around the world in an effort to nurture the spirit of creative dynamism that exists in Silicon Valley and export it to other lands.
Underneath his generally soft-spoken demeanor, Karim has always retained a deep and passionate faith in the power of talent and creativity to solve difficult problems once it has been properly harnessed. The fascinating story of his life and career is an undoubtedly powerful testament to that belief. As we discuss his life, we will inevitably also discuss the many twists, turns, and relationships that stud his career, particularly his collaboration with his fellow YouTube co-founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley. Many other important software engineers, investors, and tech entrepreneurs also feature importantly in Karim’s story.
Jawed Karim was born on October 28, 1979, in Merseberg, a city in what was then communist East Germany. His father Naimul is Bangladeshi, while his mother Christine is German. Both of Karim’s parents have had careers as scientific researchers, and though they had generally worked as chemists of one stripe or another, the precise details of their professional work have changed as the family has moved around over the years.
According to some accounts, the Karim family encountered some significant xenophobia in East Germany during the early 1980s because Naimul Karim was not a native-born German. Because of this, Naimul and his wife took their son, fled over the border into West Germany, and eventually settled in the city of Neuss. Despite hopes for a better life in West Germany, and despite the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 offering some prospect along those lines, Naimul Karim continued to be subjected to xenophobic treatment in Neuss until finally, in 1992, the family made the decision to leave Germany entirely and move to the United States.
The Karim family decided to set down roots in Saint Paul, Minnesota. There, both of Jawed Karim’s parents settled into rewarding scientific careers — his father as a chemist at the international manufacturing conglomerate 3M and his mother as a Research Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics. Christine Karim specializes in research related to heart disease, while Naimul Karim officially retired from his position at 3M in April of 2020.
In the year after the Karims moved to Saint Paul, Jawed enrolled at Saint Paul Central High School, eventually graduating from there with distinction in 1997. The story of how and why he decided to continue his education at the University of Urbana-Champaign is an interesting one, and it reveals a great deal both about his general character and the deep love and respect that he bears for the spirit of creativity.
As Karim recalled while delivering a 2007 commencement speech at his alma mater, while still in high school, he had read somewhere that the world’s first popular web browser, Mosaic, had been developed at the University of Illinois. Seeing that Illinois was not far from Minnesota, he then resolutely decided that he had wanted to be in the same place where other great innovators were, and therefore proceeded to apply to the University of Illinois, asking to be admitted as a student into its computer science department. He was initially met with disappointment, however, as the university wrote back saying that its computer science department was full and assigned him instead to the unlikely niche of ceramics engineering. Not satisfied with this, Karim replied asking that his application be reviewed again and that, if accepted, he would be a “highly motivated, dedicated, and ambitious student” at the school. This worked, and Karim matriculated into the University of Illinois’ computer science department shortly thereafter.
At this point, however, Karim’s education and his career begin to dovetail. We will thus discuss them concurrently.
Education and Early Start at PayPal
During his junior year at the University of Illinois, Karim received a letter offering him a job at PayPal. At that time — which is to say, during the year 2000 — PayPal was far from the internationally-recognized payment processing behemoth that it is today, and the members of the so-called PayPal Mafia were far from household names. Indeed, the company had only been founded barely two years before, but Karim, ever-infatuated with what’s on the cutting edge, saw something in it even at those early stages.
Reciprocally, of course, PayPal had also seen something in Karim. Prior to this job offer, Karim had interned at Silicon Graphics, a company that had once specialized in creating high-performance computer hardware and software but went defunct in 2009. Karim’s responsibilities involved managing large quantities of voxel data which would then be rendered into two-dimensional images. A significant portion of Karim’s work at this time was done for the Visible Human Project, an effort to create large numbers of detailed two-dimensional, cross-sectional photographs of various parts of the human body. A voxel is essentially the three-dimensional equivalent of a pixel. Apparently, Karim’s work at Silicon Graphics had made enough of a splash to make PayPal perk up its ears.
Karim recalls that he agonized over the PayPal offer for about two weeks, knowing that accepting it would force him to interrupt his studies. Eventually, however, he did accept it, entering into an agreement with the University of Illinois to remotely take on a reduced course load as he worked, thus enabling him to eventually graduate with a B.S. in Computer Science in 2004.
Each of YouTube’s three co-founders has provided a slightly different account of exactly how the video-sharing website was founded. Despite their differences in some details, however, their stories line up on virtually all of the essentials.
Before meeting Karim, Chen and Hurley had already been colleagues at PayPal. The duo had spent some time dreaming of a way to upload videos to the internet. Given that we now live in the age of social media, with sites like Instagram and Facebook making it child’s play for billions of users to upload content of all kinds, it may be difficult to imagine that this was ever true. The internet of the early 2000s, however, was a very different place from what it is today. Sites like Flickr were able to cater well enough to those who wished to share photos, but the video was a tougher nut to crack. In those days, to play videos that you found on the internet, you needed to install a video player, and not every video player could play every video. Your video player had to be compatible with the video you wanted to play.
For his part, Karim recalls that in late 2004, he had wanted to find and watch certain video clips online — specifically, video of Janet Jackson’s and Justin Timberlake’s infamous performance at the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, and video of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that had killed more than 200,000 people. Since he couldn’t easily find the video of these events — even though they were both recent and had riveted the attention of the entire world — Karim started to wonder what it would be like if a video sharing platform existed where people could easily track down and watch whatever videos they wanted.
With their thoughts and aspirations converging in this way, it may seem, in retrospect, that Karim, Chen, and Hurley were destined to partner up. Indeed, though Karim had by then only worked at PayPal for a short time, he had already distinguished himself as an excellent programmer. Karim had designed PayPal’s real-time anti-internet-fraud detection system by this time, which would prove to be a quantum leap not only for PayPal but for virtually all of the online payment processing services that followed it. Chen — a skilled coder in his own right — knew about this and wanted Karim’s know-how to assist him and Hurley on their video-sharing idea. It was then that the men and the moment had met.
The major divergence between the Chen-Hurley account of YouTube’s founding and Karim’s own account is that Karim insists that the dinner party where Chen and Hurley say they first dreamed of being able to share videos online never happened. Karim is adamant that the whole concept was his idea and his idea alone. Regardless of who is right, video-sharing was at the heart of everything from the very beginning.
One final influence on YouTube was HOTorNot, an early precursor to a Tinder-like dating app. Users would upload photos of themselves online, and other users would rate them on their attractiveness. The original idea behind YouTube, its founders say, was the same: users would upload videos to the site, and other users would rate the videos. What particularly impressed Karim and his colleagues about this was that users themselves were in control of what content was uploaded to the site.
The trio began work on its website on Valentine’s Day 2005 — ironic, considering that a dating site ultimately inspired it, but Karim has jokingly cautioned not to read too much into this fact. YouTube went live on April 23, 2005, and was hosted on just a single web server that was rented at a price of $100 per month. As might be imagined, the site’s beginnings were rocky, and it struggled to attract users and establish a coherent identity for itself. At first, videos were suggested to users totally at random — videos that Karim himself had uploaded of airplanes taking off and landing, or perhaps YouTube’s first-ever video of Karim at the zoo. Groping to put “dating” content onto their site, Karim, Chen, and Hurley even turned to Craigslist and offered to pay people $20 to upload videos of themselves there — all to no avail.
But eventually, something started to happen that was both unexpected and beautiful: YouTube’s users themselves, though their content, had begun to provide the site with the identity it had so desperately needed. Shortly thereafter, the site would grow and attract both users and venture capital funding. At this moment, Karim’s, Chen’s and Hurley’s connections to the PayPal Mafia proved invaluable, as they were able to attract an $11.5 million investment from Sequoia Capital, a venture capital firm which was then overseen by Roelof Botha, a South African actuary and tech investor who worked for PayPal back in 2000. With Botha at the helm, Sequoia has invested in everything from social media giants like Instagram, to house rental services like Airbnb, to payment processors like Stripe, and even the gene sequencing service 23andMe.
Starting in 2006, YouTube began experiencing explosive growth, and big players in the tech world began to take notice — especially Google. Indeed, on October 9, 2006, Google purchased YouTube from Karim, Chen, and Hurley for a total of $1.65 billion worth of Google stock. Of that total sum, Karim received 137,443 Google shares, which were valued at the time at about $64 million. This is significantly smaller than the payouts that Chen and Hurley received. Almost certainly, the reason for this is that, after YouTube got up and running, Karim wanted to go to Stanford University to continue his education and merely remained an advisor to the company rather than a formal employee. In the history of YouTube, therefore, Karim is the silent partner.
Just 12 days after officially cashing out, Karim went and delivered a lecture on the history of YouTube called “YouTube: From Concept to Hypergrowth.” You can watch it here. Now, all these years later, YouTube sits atop the grand heights of social media supremacy, along with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.
Subsequent Philanthropy, Business Consulting and Education
As mentioned, Karim’s role in founding and developing YouTube, though absolutely indispensable, was not something that he initially had much interest in capitalizing upon. Instead, Karim chose to go off to Stanford University to continue his study of computer science while his two colleagues took care of the day-to-day operations of the site. In 2006, Karim earned a Masters of Science in Computer Science from Stanford University.
Following this, Karim founded his own venture capital firm with his partners Kevin Hartz and Keith Rabois called Youniversity Ventures. The firm has since become known simply as YVentures, and it offers not only startup capital but also consulting services to young and interesting companies in the technology sector.
One of Karim’s most distinguished and consequential philanthropic acts was to become a seed investor in Airbnb, the house and apartment rental app, in April of 2009. YVentures has also provided seed investments to companies like Reddit, Postmates, Eventbrite, and HEO Robotics.
Since stepping away from YouTube, Karim has also done quite a bit of public speaking over the years on technology-related topics. In particular, he has expressed great interest in providing seed investments, consulting services, and motivation for tech startups in countries like Malaysia. From time to time, he has also expressed interest in following in his mother’s footsteps and becoming a professor, though he thus far appears not to have done so.
In 2013 and 2021, the generally reticent Karim managed to attract some public attention and support for opposing certain policies that had been enacted at the company he had helped to start. In 2013, he publicly opposed Google’s decision to, announced on November 6, of that year, to force all YouTube users to make Google+ accounts as a condition for commenting on videos. In the wake of this decision, Karim simply wrote wryly on his YouTube account, “[W]hy the fuck do I need a Google+ account to comment on a video”? By April of 2019, Google had closed Google+ plus in response to a combination of public pressure and persistent security threats.
Then, in November of 2021, Karim began sharply criticizing Google’s decision to remove the dislike counter on YouTube videos. In the description of “Me at the zoo,” Karim initially said that, “When every YouTuber agrees that removing dislikes is a stupid idea, it probably is.” In an expanded statement in the description of the video, he later said of the decision that, “I have never seen a less enthusiastic, more reluctant announcement of something that is supposed to be great,” and that the reason for the change is “not a good one, and not one that will be publicly disclosed.” He then predicted that because YouTube has essentially eliminated users’ ability to sift good content from bad content, the platform will inevitably decline.
What is Jawed Karim known for?
All of Karim’s important accomplishments have been described in detail above, but to summarize them, he:
- created PayPal’s real-time anti-internet-fraud detection system
- co-founded YouTube with the help of Steve Chen and Chad Hurley
- uploaded the first-ever video to YouTube: “Me at the zoo”
- created the venture capital firm YVentures, through which he provided seed money to companies like Airbnb and Reddit
Jawed Karim – Marriage, Divorce, Children, and Personal Life
Karim has notoriously kept a rather tight lid on information about his personal life, and details about it are therefore rather sparse. Unlike many important tech entrepreneurs and investors, he does not like to be in the public eye. Here is some of the most important and up-to-date information that we can glean about his personal life.
There are all kinds of conflicting information about Karim’s net worth, but all of the various available reports place at anywhere between $140 and $300 million. When YouTube was sold to Google, he received 137,443 shares of Google stock in exchange for his ownership of the company. Today, that number of shares would be valued at more than $390 million, though Karim has almost certainly sold at least some of his shares since receiving them in 2006. Given that his subsequent investments and ventures have also affected his net worth, it’s hard to accurately ascertain just how much money he has.
Family, Marriage and Children
Jawed Karim has a brother named Illias who is younger than him in age by about 10 years. Some sources erroneously report that Ilias is Jawed’s sister.
According to all available sources, as of yet, Karim has no wife and no children. However, despite not having a wife, he may not be completely single. There are rumors that he may be dating the British writer, Kia Abdullah, as the two have frequently been spotted together.
Like many other wealthy tech investors and entrepreneurs, Karim lives in a large house in Palo Alto, California.
Awards and Achievements
Karim has received the following awards in his career, among others:
- the GITA (Global Indus Technovator) Award (2008)
- the Young Alumni Achievement Award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2014)
Published Papers, Books and Other Works
According to the publication resources Semantic Scholar and the ACM Digital Library, Karim has thus far written and co-written a few papers on computer science and engineering, among which are:
- Porting MS-DOS Graphics Applications (1998)
- Navigating the Web With Query Tags (2009) (with Ionnis Antonellis and H. Garcia-Molina)
- The effects of group composition on decision quality in a social production community (2010) (with Shyong K. Lam and John Reidl)
Notable Quotes From Jawed Karim
- “My observation is that there’s talented people everywhere. And so, bringing Silicon Valley innovation to other places in the world, I think, is mostly a matter of importing the culture. So, it’s not that any other place lacks talented people.”
- “Are people willing to take risks? Is there a personal network of people that you can look up to? It’s a little bit difficult if there’s no one that you can aspire to. You need advisors. You need role models, mentors.” (Speaking about how to ignite creativity in other countries.)
- “We started working on the site [YouTube] on February 14 — Valentine’s Day. That’s one of those things about being a computer science major: Valentine’s Day is just another day.”
- “Take risks while you can.”
- “We can all agree that… possibilities exist in hindsight, but how do you find them ahead of time? Well, you have to look for them. And you can do that simply by staying informed about your field.”
- “Most ideas don’t come to you in a flash, but they stew in your brain for a while — and that’s how it was with YouTube.”
- “Our users were already one step ahead of us. They began using YouTube to share videos of all kinds — videos of their dogs, vacations, anything. We found this very interesting. We said, ‘Why don’t we just let the users define what YouTube is all about?’”
- “Don’t listen to so-called ‘experts.’”