Life & Culture

Jewish tech genius chose to help world’s most desperate people instead of accepting £6 million

Avi Schiffmann was offered a huge deal after building a corona-tracking site but turned it down


“Right, I think that’s everything. Thanks so much for your time, Avi. Unless there’s anything you’d like to ask me?”

A short pause at the end of what has been a two-hour interview. “There is, actually. You said earlier that you don’t believe life has any proper purpose.

“Could you unpack that a little? It’s an interesting idea and one with which I totally disagree.”

Avi Schiffmann is not your ordinary 20-year-old. He first made headlines at the age of 17 when he launched, the coronavirus-tracking site that, at its height, attracted 30 million visitors a day.

Fast-forward three years and he has set up InternetActivism, a non-profit that works with NGOs to create technologies to alleviate humanitarian crises — most recently, a housing website that matches Sudanese refugees with hosts in America.

Unsurprisingly, he describes himself as a tech optimist. “Technology enables us to store all of humankind’s knowledge into something which fits into a back pocket. Its endless possibilities are endless — that’s what first drew me to this world.”

Drew him at the tender age of seven, that is. Schiffmann was at his local library when he found his first book on coding, in 2009. By the end of the afternoon, he’d borrowed a stack of tomes on computer science that, “probably weighed as much as I did”.

Some more books and several YouTube tutorials later and Schiffmann became a coder — before he hit secondary school. What did his family make of his family make of his autodidactism?

“My parents have a background in science, so my interests aren’t alien to them.

"My younger siblings have more regular hobbies, frankly, but one lives in hope.”

You could describe the Shiffmanns as contemporary Wandering Jews. Avi’s parents met at Cambridge,work in physics and medical research, and gave their children a peripatetic childhood.

“I’d struggle to give you an accurate timeline of all the places I lived while growing up. We spent a few years in the UK, Ireland and France and in towns all over America. Locations across the globe.”

Did the globe-trotting affect his education? “People are often surprised to learn that I was far from a diligent student. In fact, I graduated high school with a 1.7 GPA (the equivalent to a C-).

“In the main, my teachers liked me because, although formal education isn’t my bag, they could see I wasn’t some arrogant kid who thought he didn’t need school. It’s just that my big thirst for knowledge always came first. When it came to college applications, it was my extracurriculars that pulled me through.”

It’s a very modest explanation for his extraordinary achievements, including one that could have made him extremely wealthy.

Shortly after he launched his non-profit, Avi, who lives in Seattle, was offered an advertisement deal that would have made him a millionaire six times over and earned him £240,000 a day in ad revenue. He turned the offer down.

“The thought of profiting from human suffering made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I created the website to help people, not to make money. I couldn’t stray so far from my original goal.

“And ethics aside, I’m only 20 — what would I do with millions of dollars? I don’t need a car, or an apartment, I like living in my family home. My money goes on economy plane tickets, takeaway pizzas, and socialising.”

There was also the sense that having that much money at a young age would be too life-changing, he says.

“When people read about my life they get the wrong idea, sometimes, which I can find annoying.

“I wasn’t some super-nerd who lived in his bedroom and was permanently glued to his computer screen. I went out with my friends, had a girlfriend, and played football. For the most part, my adolescence was ordinary.”

Life is a little crazier now, though, he admits, especially as he dropped out of Harvard so he can focus on InternetActivism full-time.

“Through my tech work I’ve met hordes of original thinkers and most of them haven’t had a Harvard education or, sometimes, even a college degree,” he says.

In addition to his peripatetic childhood, Schiffmann has, over the years, also made several trips to Israel, where most of his family live and where he plans to explore the country’s legendary tech scene.

“It’s one of the only countries in the Middle East without natural resources, so has always had to rely on its population’s ingenuity, a quality tech needs in spades,” he observes.

As for what his long-term future holds, Schiffmann is cautious.

“I really don’t know. This industry moves so quickly it will be unrecognisable in five years’ time.”

He pauses before adding: “I know this sounds a bit earnest, but what I find most interesting is meeting people from all walks of life who confuse and expand your way of thinking.

“The best way to spend your time is to ask questions, constantly.”

This could be why he describes himself as an agnostic, rather than an atheist, which is more common in tech circles. And why he ends our two-hour interview asking me to expand on the idea that life has no proper purpose.

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