US Ambassador Bijan Sabet: What I experienced in Silicon Valley I’m seeing in Brno and Prague

Bijan Sabet

Bijan Sabet became US ambassador to Czechia in early 2023. Since then Mr. Sabet has become a familiar face in Prague, meeting top Czech officials and military top brass and hosting events with various civil society groups. In a wide-ranging interview, the successful tech investor speaks about his connection to Joe Biden, experience as an early backer of Twitter and training in the art of diplomacy, as well as more personal matters such as his interest in photography and how owning a dog is the “fastest friendship maker” in Czechia.

Ian Willoughby interviewing Bijan Sabet | Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International

About a month ago you tweeted a pretty photo of Prague that you had taken, with the words “Most days I pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming”. Why do you need to pinch yourself?

“For me now, I’ve been in the Czech Republic for nearly 11 months, and I just find I’m so pleased and happy to be here. The work, the people I’ve met, the connections – I have now this deep appreciation for being in this country.

“I’m just grateful every time I think about walking to the Embassy, all my interactions all over this country, inside Prague, outside Prague.”

“And I’m just grateful, is the word I keep coming back, every time I think about walking to the Embassy, all my interactions all over this country, inside Prague, outside Prague. So I just find this feeling that I have to pinch myself every day.”

Prior to being appointed, had you been to Prague or Czechia?

“I had not. I had not had the pleasure to do that. My wife, as I mentioned in a prior private conversation, had been here in June of 1990, after the Velvet Revolution of course.

“So she shared her experience with me. But you know, coming here, living here for 11 months, is far more impactful than any prior tourist visit or other kind of visit. I genuinely can’t imagine ever not being here.”

Just to come back to your wife, she came here in June 1990, during the first free elections after the revolution?

“That’s right. It was a bit of a spontaneous trip. She was a university student, studying in Strasbourg, and after the Wall fell she was very interested in the country and came.

“She has a number of photographs that we looked at quite a bit back in those days, because we’ve been together for quite a while. And then we took those photos out of the shoebox before we moved to Prague, and we have visited different areas of the country, looking at these photos from 1990, and the contrast is clearly remarkable.”

And she met Paul Simon on Old Town Square – that’s the story I’d like to hear!

“I beg your pardon [laughs]. Yes, you’ve a good memory: she did meet Paul Simon. He performed this historic concert here and she met him, just randomly, on the square. As well as Lorne Michaels, of Saturday Night Live fame – he was also here at the time. Really just something so special.”

When did you find out you had got the posting to Prague? And when you found out, how did you go about preparing to take the post?

“Well, I won’t forget. I received a call from the White House on March 4, 2022.  It was a Friday – I remember it very well. Basically the conversation was, The president wants you in Prague. I was trying to be very calm and professional, but on the inside I was doing acrobatics. I was quite pleased.

“The process is you’re nominated by the president and then confirmed by the Senate. So I received that call in March of 2022 and went through all the process and was sworn in in December.”

When you say the process, is there some kind of training? How did you go from being an investor to being a diplomat in this relatively short period of time?

“Our system is a bit unique compared to other systems in other countries. In the US system, about a third of our ambassadors come from the private sector.

“Our system is a bit unique compared to other systems in other countries. In the US system, about a third of our ambassadors come from the private sector.

“This has been the case for quite a long time, so I’m carrying on with this tradition of the president really choosing his ambassadors in a lot of countries; you’ll see this be the case with a lot of NATO countries.

“So I’m particularly proud to have the president’s trust to serve here.

“But the training was quite comprehensive, it was quite detailed. There’s an ambassador school that the State Department organises; that’s three weeks of intense engagements.

“Then I spent months with colleagues in the State Department and other US government agencies really preparing for the work and for the role.

“And all of that was incredibly informative. But, again, being here is far more informative than any training back in Washington.”

F-35A Lightning II aircrafts of the US Air Force at the airport in Ostrava Mošnov,  presented at the NATO Days | Photo: Zuzana Jarolímková,  iROZHLAS.cz

I guess the biggest items on your agenda are the Defence Cooperation Agreement, the F-35 fighter jets and the extension of the Dukovany nuclear plant, which an American company [Westinghouse] is tendering for. How do you get up to speed on all these subjects? Do you have huge dossiers that you have to study, like kind of homework?

“There’s a significant amount of material that the team puts together. And you’re right, a big priority of my work is on our shared security. The US and the Czech Republic are strong NATO allies and our work here, together, is to strengthen NATO’s Eastern Flank.

“And the two items you mentioned, the Defence Cooperation Agreement and the F-35 procurement by the Czech government, are two important elements of this work.

Dukovany nuclear power plant | Photo: ČEZ

“But we continue to do many, many other types of engagements to really strengthen NATO, strengthen the Eastern Flank, help protect Ukraine.

“But yes, the team prepares me diligently, and it’s really something I’m very grateful for.”

One reason I wanted to speak to you is that there isn’t that much information about you online, and I thought our listeners and readers would be curious to know about who you are. I’d like to ask you about your family background. Where did your parents come from?

“I was born in the United States, but my parents were not. My parents both immigrated to the US in the 1960s. My father came from Iran. He immigrated in 1967 to the United States, as a medical doctor.

“And my mother immigrated the same year, from South Korea. She is also now retired, but was also a medical doctor as well.”

Do you speak their languages?

“I don’t. In those days my parents’ common language was English, so that was the language spoken in the home. They didn’t come with large families or relatives, so I think their feeling at the time was just to assimilate and be part of the American dream.

“They both became American citizens as fast as they could and their hope and dream was that they were going to live this American dream, and raise an American family. That was kind of their attitude.”

Illustrative photo: JoshuaWoroniecki,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

You’re a Democratic Party supporter. How were your politics influenced by your upbringing? And also the fact that you come from an immigrant family?

“I grew around the kitchen table with a recurring theme of the importance of democracy and freedom. My parents came from different countries, but both had a profound sense of the importance of democracy and freedom.

“My mother told us about how grateful she was to US service members saving her country from communism.”

“My mother told us about how grateful she was to US service members saving her country from communism. And my father talked about the importance of equal rights and freedom and democracy, especially where he came from.

“So this was, I think, a very big impression upon me. And really I think the other thing my parents have always instilled in me is being engaged, and that apathy and disengagement were really things to avoid.”

You were a supporter of and donor to Joe Biden when he ran for president a couple of years ago, successfully of course. Why did you back Biden?

“I have been involved in supporting campaigns in the United States for quite some time, because I am engaged in areas and topics most important to me.

President Joe Biden shaking hands with Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala  (2022) | Photo: Office of Czech Government

“There are a lot values and priorities that then candidate and now President Biden stood behind that I found to be really inspiring. His experience I felt was really unmatched domestically and foreign-policy wise.

“But the thing that really I have always felt strongly about President Biden is his superpower, his unique superpower, is his empathy. He has an authentic way to listen and care and connect with people that, at least in my lifetime, I’ve never seen a US president with this level of genuine empathy.”

Tell us about the connection between him and your wife’s family.

“My wife grew up in the town of Wilmington, Delaware, which is where Joe Biden grew up. And my wife’s father was the police chief in Wilmington, Delaware, when then Senator Biden was taking the train from Wilmington to D.C.

“They’re of similar age, they grew up in the same neighbourhood and they knew each other quite well.

“In fact years later when I connected with President Biden, before he was president, we had a nice discussion and then he took one look at my wife and said, You’re Denny’s daughter. And his eyes just lit up and he started sharing stories about the two of them and their upbringing in this area called Forty Acres, this neighbourhood in Wilmington, Delaware. And yes, they really were contemporaries.”

What do you say to people who are concerned about whether Joe Biden has what it takes to win next time and potentially keep out Trump again, given that he’s already 81?

Joe Biden | Photo: David Lienemann,  The White House/Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“You know, my role as US ambassador is I’m not involved in elections or politics or anything like that.

“But I will say I believe the United States is in great shape having a president like Joe Biden. He is the right president for our nation and really has done a remarkable job, domestically and globally.”

I was reading that you have a science degree. How did you go from studying science to becoming an extremely successful venture capitalist in the tech sphere?

“I always had a bit of a love affair with computers, computer science and programming. I really loved this idea that you can sit in front of a computer and make something that didn’t exist before you sat down for a little while.

“So this idea of making something new really captured my attention, despite my parents wanting me to go become a doctor like them [laughs]. But I really found this excitement of creating things.

Silicon Valley | Photo: Zetong Li,  Pexels

“I went on to work in a number of technology companies in Silicon Valley, including a number of start-up companies and this was an area where I felt quite impactful, working with entrepreneurs, and that led me to start my own venture capital, or investment, firm nearly 20 years ago.

“My work was really centred around investing and partnering with young entrepreneurs, from the earliest days, and helping them to build important companies.”

One of the many companies that you were involved with was Twitter. You were there in the early days and you have a one-word Twitter handle, just @bijan. What was Twitter like when you were involved?

“I was first introduced to the product before I became an investor. The company had launched this product maybe a few months before I met them – and I was immediately hooked.

“I felt Twitter was something new, in that it was the first time I saw a product that combined utility with entertainment. It was useful and fun.”

“I felt this was something new, in that it was the first time I saw a product that combined utility with entertainment. It was useful and fun.

“Google I thought was useful, but not very fun. And games were fun, but not very useful. So this was something really extraordinary and new.

“And then I met the three founders and I just found them truly inspiring – they had a very strong vision. And it was at that point that I set out to join their board and become an investor.

“They had maybe 10 or 11 employees at the time and a very small user base, principally on the West Coast of the United States. But I really believed in what they were building.”

I’ve seen you say on Twitter that you prefer Threads now, but you’re still active on Twitter. How do you view what Elon Musk has done and is still doing to Twitter?

“I think the power of social media and social networks is significant. But we’re also now seeing the challenges of these platforms: disinformation, misinformation, other types of activities – you can see bad behaviour on these platforms, etcetera.

“And one thing I have been concerned about with the current ownership is whether there’s enough emphasis, prioritisation and energy around solving some of the challenges of these social platforms. And I’m not convinced this is happening. So that’s why I’m quite concerned.”

I know you and your family are based in Boston, where you studied. Previously, as you said, you lived in Silicon Valley. As an East Coast guy, what was the experience like of living in Silicon Valley?

“I was in Silicon Valley from 1991 to 2001, so for those 10 years. And I found it really instructive and informative about this idea about trying to build new things.

“At the time the East Coast of the United States in the tech sector was fairly conservative, in terms of their willingness to try new things. But at this point they’ve caught up considerably and I think you see a vibrant entrepreneur ecosystem all over the US. It’s not the same as what I experienced in Silicon Valley, during that time frame.

Silicon Valley | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“But what I took away from it – and it really gets me excited about being here in the Czech Republic – is this type of entrepreneurial spirit.

“And what I experienced in Silicon Valley I’m seeing Brno, I’m seeing in Prague, I’m seeing in different parts of this country, where young entrepreneurs have an itch they want to scratch – they have a passion that they want to build something new.

“And I’ve been really happy to meet with entrepreneurs all over this country and see if we can be helpful. And for me this has been very satisfying.”

Now of course you live at the lovely ambassador’s residence in Prague 6, the Petschek Villa, which one of your predecessors, Norman Eisen, wrote a very interesting book about. What’s it like to call that place home?

The Last Palace: Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen | Photo: Crown

“That’s a really great book. I think it should be required reading for anybody that serves as US ambassador. Because it tells the history of that house, from the family that built the house as well as the subsequent people that lived there throughout the next 100 years. So I think it’s a really very well researched book.

“But for me, living there every single day, clearly it’s beautiful, it’s historic – but it’s significant, it’s really significant. Because that home has been a place where Americans and Czechs have been engaged in a wide range of topics, before the Velvet Revolution and then, clearly, after.

“There are stories I hear from people, Czechs, that tell me, That’s the room where Václav Havel and US Ambassador Bill Luers used to talk about XY and Z. And that’s where Ambassador Shirley Temple-Black used to engage on these topics, and her dog used to run through here. They used to work with dissidents in this room.

“And now we’re having conversations with civil society leaders, entrepreneurs, members of civil society pursuing LGBTQ and same-sex marriage issues. So the work continues of Americans and Czechs, in that house, working together to solve global challenges.”

Bijan Sabet | Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International

As a first time ambassador, what have been some of the harder things to get used to about the position?

“It is definitely a change. My time is really the thing that I have to be the most thoughtful about, in terms of prioritising my time. This is something I’m very intentional about.

“There are other types of things where I would like… You know, if people could call me by my first name it would be nice [laughs]. So I’ve always insisted when I get to meet people that I want to break through any types of formalities and really just get to know people.

“My work here I consider the greatest honour of my life. This is not something I ever feel is anything but a blessing.”

“But really, my work here I consider the greatest honour of my life. This is not something I ever feel is anything but a blessing, so I’m so happy to be here.”

You mentioned LGBT rights; you took part yourself in the Prague Pride parade this year. You welcome women’s rights groups to your residence and the embassy. What are the values you feel like you’re promoting in your position?

“I have really come to understand that, as the US ambassador here, I can play a role using my platform, my voice, and share the discussions that I have with people in a more public way.

“These topics that we’re talking about, whether it’s LGBTQI+ rights or same-sex marriage, are global challenges that are challenges, you know, everywhere.

“I’m pleased that most Czechs would like to see advancements in these areas, so I am proud to lend my voice and stand with and for these types of topics.

“We would welcome more ways to create equality for members of the LGBTQ community.”

“And we would welcome more ways to create equality for members of the LGBTQ community, to have full and equal protection, as well as improving gender equality issues.”

You have three kids. Have they spent much time in Prague, and how do they find Czechia?

“My three kids have been here a lot since I arrived. All three spent the entire summer here, working and studying, etcetera. They will be back over the Christmas holiday.

“One of my children is studying here this fall semester. So they love it, they really love it.”

You’ve also got a dog. What’s the name and the breed, first?

“I do have a dog. His name is Sam, he’s 10 years old and he’s a yellow Labrador retriever.”

Does the fact that you have a dog mean that you have to interact with Czechs more, and maybe learn a couple of basic “dog Czech” words, like for female, male, and all that kind of stuff?

“Some of my Czech colleagues told me as a joking matter that Czechs may like dogs more than people, because it’s such a dog-friendly place.”

That’s not a joke!

“[Laughs] So I don’t know if this is true, but what I will say is it’s very obvious how much Czech people love dogs.

“I’ve met so many people in the parks, walking my dog, and getting to know their dog and their story. It’s like the fastest friendship maker ever, having a dog in Prague. It’s been wonderful.”

I know you’re also a music fan and you told me before that you used to go when you were a teenager, back in the day, to the famous New York club CBGB’s. Have you got to go to any gigs in Prague?

Coulours of Ostrava music festival | Photo: Maxim Oweyssi,  Czech Radio

“Yes, music is something I really have a passion for. I haven’t been to as many live shows as I’d like. It’s an area I would like to change next year.

“I have gone to see some jazz in Prague, but I missed some of the bigger music festivals this year – I couldn’t make the calendars work. But I will remedy this next year.”

You’re also a keen photographer. What kind of photography do you do?

“I love photography. I have a particular interest in analogue photography. I have some kind of personal connection to analogue films that I find really enjoyable.

“So I’ve been taking photographs all over the Czech Republic with these old analogue cameras, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

I saw online that you got a Flexaret camera. What’s a Flexaret?

“That’s right. Yes, the Flexaret was a Czechoslovak camera. It’s a very particular kind of camera – it’s a medium format camera. At that time it was very popular and it was designed very well.

“For those in the audience that may be familiar, it looks kind of like a competitor to a Roliflex-type system.

“I found one locally, in Prague; Janek Rubeš suggested this place to me and I went there and I saw it in the window and I had to buy it. So I’m so pleased to use that right now.”

You’ve also got a dedicated Instagram page to your street photography. I’ve always wondered about street photography – what are the kind of ethics of it? Do you approach people and ask, or do you just take a picture and then ask? How do you do it?

“It’s a little bit of a judgement call. I think in some countries it’s considered acceptable a little bit more than in other countries. Here in the Czech Republic, I’m very conservative on the photographs that I take.

“I tend to have it a respectful distance. I’m also looking to make eye contact with the subject and to give them a little nod, and if they give me a negative indicator I just smile or I may talk to them, but I certainly won’t take their photograph. So it’s kind of a use judgement type thing.”

You posted a photo of your dad in Prague, also taking photos. What does he make of the fact that you have become ambassador to Czechia?

“Yes, my dad loves photography. I am a hundred percent convinced this is where I got it from. He’s 84 years old and he was lugging around a big zoom lens all over Prague – I was really impressed.

“When [my parents] came here this year they were just so proud. For them it felt like a fulfilment of the American dream.”

“But for my dad, and my mother, when they came here this year they were just so proud. They have their own way of expressing themselves, but it was very clear that they just felt like this was something that they were immensely proud of.

“And for them it felt like a fulfilment of the American dream.”

My final question: I know you’re also a listener of Radio Prague International. Tell us about your listening habits.

“Yes, I’m glad you brought this up. When I was nominated I was doing everything I could to learn about Czech history, culture and news, so I immediately came upon this news programme.

“So every day, nearly every day I should say, I was listening. I heard your voice in my ears, and the Radio Prague jingle, every day.

“My wife and I would listen to it routinely, in the car or around the kitchen table. I learned so much about what was happening, different moments in history, different interviews of yours and the news.

“So I was listening to it routinely when I was in the States. And I continue to do so here.”

Bijan Sabet | Photo: Zuzana Jarolímková,  iROZHLAS.cz