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Afghan Entrepreneur is Behind one of Maryland’s Most Successful Technology Startups

Haroon Mokhtarzada knows all too well what it’s like to start over. When he was just 3 years old, his parents fled the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, ultimately moving their family to the United States as political refugees. Although his family was quite well off back home, the war quickly erased the family wealth. “It was like a total reset when we came here,” Mokhtarzada recalls. “Our family of 6 crammed into our grandparents’ two-bedroom apartment when we first arrived in the States.” He watched his parents turn that setback into something workable: They started a visa and passport procurement firm in their basement, which allowed them to build a comfortable life for their family in suburban DC.

This resourcefulness and desire to be independent heavily shaped Mokhtarzada. As a kid, he dabbled in entrepreneurship, starting a lawn mowing business and a service that provided magic shows to kids’ parties. But it wasn’t until he got to college that he landed on his first truly big idea. Interning at a Web design firm at the start of the dot-com era, Mokhtarzada says, “I saw companies paying thousands of dollars for basic Websites that a 14-year-old could build. It was crazy.” So in 2001, Mokhtarzada and his brothers, Zeki and Idris, started Webs, the first major company that allowed users to easily design their own Websites for free using templates without obtrusive ads and popups.

Webs started small. The brothers bought a single server from a company that went bankrupt in the dotcom bust, stashed it in Zeki’s closet, and had Idris, still in high school, write some of the initial code. But it grew quickly. By 2006, Webs had raised $12 million dollars in venture capital funding. By 2011, the company was bought by Vistaprint, the online marketing and printing firm, for $117.5 million. By then, Webs had grown to roughly 60 employees. It had also produced roughly 50 million Websites.

When you come here as an immigrant or refugee, you have no network and fewer job options—so you make opportunities for yourself.

But Mokhtarzada’s contribution extends far beyond Webs. Mokhtarzada started an angel fund that has provided valuable seed money to dozens of startups, which have created hundreds of U.S.jobs. He has also seen the “Webs mafia”—as he affectionately calls his old staff—have a large economic impact: Former employees have gone on to co-found major internet startups like Instacart, the grocery delivery behemoth, and Hyperloop One, a new rapid transportation method making use of near-vacuum tubes.

Mokhtarzada says in some ways his story isn’t so different from the story of so many other American newcomers. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many immigrants wind up becoming entrepreneurs,” Mokhtarzada says, “When you come here as an immigrant or refugee, you have no network and fewer job options—so you make opportunities for yourself.” But he credits his family’s experience coming largely as refugees with giving him an extra push. “Our parents would always remind us to think about those who weren’t able to leave Afghanistan, and be cognizant that we were immensely fortunate for the opportunity we had been given,” he says. “We knew we had to do something with this opportunity—this lottery ticket—that we had received.”

For these reasons, Mokhtarzada says he supports immigration reform that would allow the country to continue to accept refugees. He also wants to ensure we continue to attract the best and brightest minds and entrepreneurs. “If I could snap my fingers and increase the number of technical visas issued, I would do it in a heartbeat,” he says. “I would also figure out ways to offer permanent status to entrepreneurs who start companies here and reach certain growth or size milestones.”  He adds that while he doesn’t think it is unreasonable for people to want immigrants to be vetted, he believes broad bans or prejudicial targeting is not the right approach.  “I understand the desire of some to vet some people more than others,” he says, “But if your goal is safety, banning people from some countries or profiling based on religion is not only ineffectual, it’s actually counterproductive.”

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