Middle East Leadership Initiative fellow Anousheh Ansari is the CEO of the X Prize Foundation, which designs and operates incentive competitions to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. Ansari, along with her family, sponsored the organization’s first competition, the Ansari X Prize—a $10 million competition that ignited a new era for commercial spaceflight. In 2006, she captured headlines around the world when she embarked on an 11-day space expedition, accomplishing her childhood dreams of becoming the first female private space explorer, first astronaut of Iranian descent, first Muslim woman in space, and fourth private explorer to visit space. She spoke to the Aspen Global Leadership Network fellows and other leaders at the Resnick Aspen Action Forum this summer. The theme of the forum and of her speech was Borders: Within and Around Us.
ANOUSHEH ANSARI: I was born a long, long time ago in a country far, far away: Iran. Growing up, I had my head in the skies. I loved the stars. I loved sleeping outside on summer nights and letting my imagination go wild by looking at those beautiful, shiny objects. I could imagine a world where things would work the way I wanted them to work, where no matter what I wanted to do, I was able to do it.
That dream to go to space and be an astronaut continued. It made me interested in math and science, studying engineering and astronomy. Even when I was 7 years old, I knew this is what I would do. My family imagined it was something I would grow out of. I’m in Iran—there’s no space program. What are the chances of this young girl actually going to space? But I like to prove people wrong. This is the power of imagination. This is the gift we have as human beings. We imagine it and build it. We imagine things that do not exist. We build cities that are just a figment of the imagination when they start. Imagination is the spark of an idea.
I loved reading science-fiction books. I was a Trekkie, and I thought there will be a Federation and a Starfleet Academy, and I can apply to become a science officer and explore the universe on the Starship Enterprise. When I came to the United States, I was 16 years old. I didn’t speak English, and I was searching for this Starfleet Academy in the Yellow Pages. There was none. I was shocked. After all, it was 50 years ago that a human stepped on the moon—things have not changed fast enough in space program. I realized that my dream is very unlikely to come true through the traditional means of being a NASA astronaut.
As a tech entrepreneur, I was able to see what I can do to change that. There are millions of us out there just waiting for governments to fulfill that dream of space. As a tech entrepreneur, I had seen how fast technology moved in our business sectors in telecom and data science. But in space, it was moving at a slow pace. Then I had the good fortune of coming across someone named Peter Diamandis, the founder of the XPrize Foundation, and he shared his dream of starting a competition to open up space, commercialize it, and democratize it for everyone.
As an entrepreneur, this made sense to me. You pay someone who built a spaceship and you can go to space. What’s the risk there? What could go wrong? Well, of course, Diamandis had knocked on 150 other doors, and all the CEOs and big corporations had told him he’s crazy. He’s going to get people killed! So we as a family stepped up and said: “We’re going to do it. We’re entrepreneurs, we’re risk takers.” Now the XPrize Foundation has flourished, not only opening up the space program and making it possible for a new industry to thrive but looking at all the grand challenges in the world. We have launched 11 prizes, $50 million worth of prizes.
We have a global learning prize that will be awarded this year. We tested it for 15 months in Tanzania. Five teams all demonstrated extraordinary results. Kids were learning, just in two hours a week, the equivalent of a whole year of schooling. We’ve awarded an adult-learning XPrize, which teaches adults with very low literacy levels to elevate their learning and their economic status. We have awarded our Discovery XPrize to the advanced mapping technologies that can now map the entire ocean floor in three years versus a hundred years. We’re pushing boundaries and borders everywhere.
This is what we do and talk about every day at XPrize. We have an amazing team who believes that we don’t have all the answers, but the crowd out there does. We just need to frame the problem in a way that they can understand what they need to solve and put a big prize out there that they can win when they solve it.
When I was in space, I crossed many borders—personal borders, physical borders. Being able to look out the window of the International Space Station and look at our planet, I realized that all the things I had learned in school—where they showed me this planet with lines and colors separating us—weren’t real. What I was taught was completely false. This was what I saw: our world, our planet. You don’t see any lines. You don’t see any borders. There is nothing that divides us. And if we can see the world through this lens, it’s transformational. It transformed me. It’s important for us to be able to transcend our world and be able to see it for what it really is. Being part of the MELI fellowship allowed me to connect with really amazing leaders in the region. That gave me hope and a sense of happiness about how people in each country are trying to attack very complex issues and problems.
We’re in charge—here in these Aspen forums, in the conversations that are taking place in the rooms around the tables. That’s where the future is made. But we have to have the courage to ask the hard questions, to push those boundaries, and to come up with answers that will benefit humanity. Because the future can be what we imagine it to be here. Then we can work together at this Action Forum to make our pledges come true.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.