Zia Chishti tells the Brunswick Review why Pakistan is an underrated and overlooked investment opportunity.
While still a student in Stanford’s MBA program, Zia Chishti built his first business: Align Technology, best known for making Invisalign corrective braces. When Mr. Chishti took the company public in 2001, he became one of the youngest CEOs of a publicly traded US company. Its current market capitalization exceeds $25 billion.
Mr. Chishti followed that by starting The Resource Group (TRG), a private equity fund he still chairs, with assets estimated at $2 billion.
Today, Mr. Chishti is working on his third venture, Afiniti, a company that uses sophisticated algorithms to transform how companies pair customers with employees in real time. Afiniti closed a $130 million round of funding that valued the company at $1.6 billion.
As remarkable as being the architect of three billion-dollar businesses is Mr. Chishti’s age: he’s set to celebrate his 47th birthday later this year.
Born in the US, Mr. Chishti was raised in Pakistan, his mother’s home country. He returned to the US to attend college, where he has remained since. However, Pakistan has been an integral component for each of Mr. Chishti’s businesses: It’s where Align Technology manufactured its products, TRG operated a call center, and a majority of Afiniti’s employees are based.
Over tea at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, Mr. Chishti spoke with Brunswick’s Will Rasmussen about building companies and algorithms, and the opportunities for doing business in Pakistan.
Mr. Chishti was in New York to host Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, at Afiniti’s office on the top floor of the iconic Chrysler Building.
In 2001, you were on People’s “50 most eligible bachelors” list, alongside celebrities like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. And I think a lot of people wonder: What happens the day after something like that goes to print?
Oh, gosh. [Laughs]
Can I make a couple points? First, I wasn’t a participant in the creation or publication of that. They had a Silicon Valley quota – so they had to have somebody. And they surreptitiously managed to get quotes from people who worked at my company and spun it into that story. The photograph that you see there is from one of our publicity files. I’m slightly embarrassed that it exists. So it wasn’t my doing.
Nothing really changed other than occasionally people going, “Hey, did you know that when you Google your name … ?”
So no, my dating life has improved not at all. My net worth has not changed as a result. I can’t speak to any noticeable difference.
You often act as an unofficial ambassador for Pakistan, especially for US audiences. How do you handle that responsibility?
It’s kind of you to classify me that way, but there are a lot more successful Pakistanis in the US who play that role. But I do describe Pakistan in all its glory because our business has a significant component there – of the 1,000 people at Afiniti, 650 are in Karachi or Lahore. It’s a legitimate topic of discourse in pretty much any meeting that’s designed to understand what we do, how we do it. I try to describe the local economy, the culture, the friendliness toward business, our success there over time.
What’s a common misconception?
The relative levels of risk. You say to somebody, “Hey, do you want to go to Pakistan?” and in the US, most people go, “My God, I’m going to get killed in the streets.” They think there’s some kind of war afoot.
That’s diametrically opposed to the reality. The homicide rate in Pakistan is about four per 100,000 people; in St. Louis, Missouri, the rate is 30 per 100,000. The relative risk is vastly greater in any major US metropolitan area than Karachi or Lahore or Islamabad.
In terms of economic growth, I think the first image people have is it’s an incredibly poor country. And again, it’s just not the case. Pakistan is actually a middle-income country. The PPP GDP per capita is around $6,000. It’s got infrastructure, airports, roads. It’s growing at around 5 to 6 percent annually – putting it among the top ten economies worldwide.
And I’ve been trying to correct this impression largely for selfish reasons. Because if we hire people or look to raise capital, these false snippets tend to pervade the discourse.