“Czech tech entrepreneurs remind me of Silicon Valley”
Text: Martina Hošková and M. Zisso; Photo: Archive
Ambassador of the United States of America, H.E. Mr. Bijan Sabet, the son of immigrant parents who moved to the United States in pursuit of the American dream, presented his credentials to President Pavel in February of this year. “I see huge opportunities for Czech startups. In many ways, it reminds me of Silicon Valley with regard to the level of ambition and the diversity of different projects,” asserts the Ambassador on the topic of successful entrepreneurship. Why should we regard this opinion with utmost seriousness? What did four of Ambassador Sabet’s predecessors share with him? And which of Václav Havel’s words did he share with us?
Can you tell us about yourself, please?
I was born in New York, the son of immigrant parents who moved to the United States in pursuit of the American dream. My father was born in Iran, where he completed medical school before moving to the United States for his residency in the late 1960s. There he met my mother, another young doctor who had recently immigrated from South Korea. Both became U.S. citizens as soon as they could and taught me the values of freedom, democracy, and love of country. I studied in Boston, and have spent most of my professional life supporting entrepreneurs to build new markets and create tens of thousands of jobs. The first ten years of my career I worked as an executive in the tech sector in both Silicon Valley, California and Boston, Massachusetts. In 2005, I co-founded Spark Capital, a venture capital firm that backed numerous now-iconic startup companies including Twitter, Slack, Oculus, and others.
And most importantly, I am joined here in the Czech Republic by my wife and soul mate, Lauren, and our dog Sam. Lauren and I have three children who are currently students in the United States but enjoy their regular visits to us here in the Czech Republic.
What persuaded you to become the Ambassador to the Czech Republic?
When I was informed that President Biden intended to nominate me as Ambassador to the Czech Republic, I could not have been more thrilled. Following my nomination last August and confirmation by the Senate, I took the opportunity to meet with the previous four U.S. ambassadors. Two were nominated by Republican presidents, two by Democratic presidents. Although they each lived here at a different time, they all had similar experiences. They shared how they remember their work in the Czech Republic with great fondness. They all said that these were the best years of their professional lives. They remembered such small ordinary stories, anecdotes, places, restaurants, and so on. They also encouraged me to travel outside of Prague, so I decided to take that advice to heart and whenever I can I visit other regions. I was sworn in as Ambassador in December 2022 and presented my credentials to President Pavel on February 15th, 2023.
I had the highest expectations, but the reality so far has absolutely exceeded them. This job is the honor of a lifetime, and I’m just grateful to spend these years building ties between the American and Czech people.
It’s still quite a short time since you arrived, however, have you collected some anecdotes of your own yet?
I got some good tips on where to go and what to do on social media. And my wife is an avid traveler and comes up with her suggestions. My biggest hobby is photography, so I want to see and capture as much as possible. I am working with my team to achieve my goal to visit every region of the Czech Republic. In my first six months as Ambassador, I have already visited seven regions. Let’s see how quickly I get to the remaining seven!
What is the most difficult part of being an ambassador?
Being the U.S. Ambassador in the Czech Republic truly is the honor of a lifetime. It is such a privilege to work side- by-side with all my devoted colleagues at the U.S. Embassy and, of course, our good friends and allies here in the Czech government, business community, civil society, and across the country. I am now half a year into my time as Ambassador, and I would say one challenging thing is that I want to say “yes” to every meeting and event I am invited to. I love the work I do, and the important work we are doing together at the U.S. Embassy. I truly want to connect with as many Czechs as I can, from all regions of the country and all walks of life. Given the real depth of the U.S.-Czech relationship, we get so many invitations that I just am not able to attend them all, so I have to make very tough choices about where to spend my time.
You mentioned taking photographs, is that what you do in your free time?
I love photography! I’m kind of obsessed with old film cameras. I like to shoot in black and white and on old 35mm and medium format films. Everything is manually operated, no batteries. It is a much more creative and fun process.
I started taking pictures when my children were young, which is not an uncommon scenario. It was like having access to a time machine and being able to go back and see my children grow again. When they were older, we started traveling more, and I was still taking pictures.
Here in the Czech Republic, there are many beautiful places and amazing people to photograph. Taking portraits of people I meet on my travels is a fantastic icebreaker and a great way to just hear about their lives and opinions.
As a co-founder of Spark Capital, you focused on helping technology entrepreneurs reach their potential and build influential global companies. Can you advise Czech companies on doing the same?
Since my arrival, I’ve had many opportunities to meet with local entrepreneurs across the country. This past spring we held a competition for female startup founders at the American Embassy. After each of my meetings, I was left in awe of the energy and dynamism present here.
I’ve said it before, but I see huge opportunities for Czech startups. In many ways, it reminds me of Silicon Valley with regard to the level of ambition and the diversity of different projects. Artificial intelligence, climate, nanotechnology – Czech tech entrepreneurs are doing amazing things!
And I am excited that U.S. businesses and innovators continue to be the partners of choice for Czech entrepreneurs. In May, I hosted the U.S.-Czech Business Forum where I highlighted the business connections between our countries and provided a space for innovators from both of our countries to learn from each other. As President Biden says, “the United States is open for business.” And that is not just talking about exports or investments. It means we want to be partners. Our countries share a vibrant and innovative start up scene. As good as we are individually, I am convinced that we are better together.
The Defense Cooperation Agreement was approved by Parliament on July 19th, signed by President Pavel on August 1st, and by Prime Minister Fiala on August 16th.
Is this one of those situations where we are better together?
We welcome the signing of the U.S.-Czech Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), its quick approval by parliament, and recent completion of the ratification process with the signatures of President Pavel and Prime Minister Fiala. This is a strong symbol of our commitment to strengthen the strategic U.S.-Czech defense partnership. And that is exactly what the DCA allows us to do. The agreement strengthens our ability to face common security challenges, improves our joint defense readiness, and makes our already excellent defense ties within NATO and bilaterally even stronger.
The United States has a lot to offer to Czech travelers. How do you promote your country?
I’m in a fortunate position as the United States usually promotes itself pretty well! American popular culture is pretty ubiquitous, and as you noted, we are indeed a pretty big holiday destination for Czechs. That being said, there is so much more to America than what we see in the media. Our size and diversity means there is always something new to discover in America – whether your interests are national parks, arts and culture, shopping, or museums, we really do have it all. Just as I am trying to visit all the regions around the Czech Republic, I would encourage Czechs to see more of America than just the big cities. You will find amazing people, food, culture, etc. in every corner of America! The Embassy is organizing a U.S. Destination Showcase in October that will highlight numerous attractions and locales to Czech travel agents, tour operators, and travel media. I am looking forward to networking at this event with others who love to travel!
What is the current status of Czechia – USA relations?
The Czech Republic and the United States have long had an excellent relationship; this is a history I’m sure I do not need to tell your readers. We have long been key allies. Building on that strong history, I keep hearing at meetings with senior leaders from both our countries that U.S. Czech relations have never been better. And this robust partnership is something I experience daily in my interactions with Czechs from all walks of life. We have a great friendship, and my task is to keep strengthening it.
I want to focus much of my time here on getting to know diverse groups and strengthening our people-to-people ties, especially with young people – the future world leaders. I want to continue to enhance U.S.-Czech relations with those emerging voices and promote our mutual values centered on diversity, democracy, and human rights.
This interview is done on the occasion of your national day. Do you have a wish for your country? And for Czechia?
As I shared during my remarks, I am proud to not only celebrate our independence, but also the values that our two countries share. A shared commitment to freedom, democracy, justice, equality, and equity. And more importantly than just a belief in these ideals, our shared commitment to making those ideas real.
As Václav Havel once said: “Vision is not enough; it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.” Both of our countries have come so far, but there is still work to do – for example, toward ending gender-based violence or ensuring people have the same rights and opportunities regardless of who they love or how they look. It’s a duty and a privilege to continue scaling those “stairs” together with my American colleagues and Czech friends as we seek to live up to our ideals.