The Making of a Tech Mogul
Follow Max's journey from refugee to tech pioneer—and discover a life defined by transformation
Max Levchin is the poster child for transformation. From Soviet refugee, through the halls of the Computer Science department at Illinois (B.S., 1997), to becoming one of the world's most influential tech pioneers alive, each step of Levchin's journey has shaped him into the prolific figure he is today.
The serial entrepreneur, perhaps best known for co-founding the global online payments system PayPal, added "Commencement Speaker" to his resume with an inspiring keynote address at the 2018 Illinois commencement ceremony. Video | Transcript
"I loved my time at U. of I., and I take great pride in being an Illinois alumnus! And, I am happy to report, your Chambana-conferred degree will serve as a badge of honor out there in the real world."
During his visit to campus, Levchin also made time to share thoughts and reflections on his time at Illinois, lessons gained through his entrepreneurial experience, the future for Affirm and the financial services industry, and to offer bits of advice as he joined Provost Andreas Cangellaris and a room full of students for a fireside chat.
As our graduates prepare to transform the world with their own pursuits, Levchin will no doubt continue to re-invent himself. Join us on a journey through a few of the milestones along the way to pursuing his inspirational version of the American Dream.
This is the making of Max: the tech mogul, the financial services pioneer, the heavyweight investor, the Illinois graduate.
1975: Born Survivor
Behind the curtain of Soviet-era Ukraine, Maksymilian Rafailovych Levchyn is born to a family of physicists. As a child, Max struggles to overcome life-threatening respiratory diseases. His parents are told he won't live past childhood. With his mother's urging, a determined young Max begins playing the clarinet to build lung capacity. Doctors would eventually give up on predicting how long he had to live.
Levchin was in Kiev at the time of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. When his parents got news of the explosion, they packed Max and his younger brother onto a train and sent them to Crimea. Max remembers getting off the train and being tested with a Geiger Counter, which measured radiation levels.
1991: A Man Without A Country
In 1991, Levchin and his family left the Soviet Union under political asylum and headed for the United States, settling in Chicago. He remembers taking a Pan Am flight from Moscow with only $700 in their pockets to start a new life in America. By the time they reached the United States, the Soviet Union had collapsed.
"My family immigrated to the United States as refugees. I was a man without a country. My red Soviet passport was a passport to no country. America offered us safety and opportunity."
1993: Welcome to Illinois
Levchin attends the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he majors in Computer Science. At Illinois, he is already building his resume as an entrepreneur. His first ventures include NetMeridian Software, a developer of early Internet applications, and SponsorNet New Media, Inc., an advertising company, with fellow Illinois students Luke Nosek (B.S. Computer Engineering, 1996) and Scott Banister (Computer Science). Levchin graduates with a B.S. in Computer Science in 1997.
"I actually hung around campus for a little longer because one of my companies was failing, and I didn't feel like having it fail in transit. I finally said, 'This would be a good opportunity to go to Silicon Valley since that's where all my friends go, and sometimes their companies don't fail."
1998: The Entrepreneur Goes West
Levchin embraces his new home in Silicon Valley, where he meets Peter Thiel and co-founds Fieldlink, a security company that allows users to store encrypted data on their PDA devices. The idea was that these devices would serve as "digital wallets." Fieldlink's name is changed to Confinity that same year. Levchin continues recruiting fellow engineers from Illinois to join him and Nosek in the Bay Area working for the company that would become PayPal.
"The very first company I started failed with a great bang. The second one failed a little bit less, but still failed. The third one, you know, proper failed, but it was kind of okay. I recovered quickly. Number four almost didn't fail. It still didn't really feel great, but it did okay. Number five was PayPal."
2002: PayPal Goes Public
In 2000, Confinity merges with X.com, an online banking company founded by Elon Musk. The joined companies are renamed PayPal and made public in 2002. The same year, PayPal is acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion. Levchin's 2.3 percent stake in PayPal is worth approximately $34 million at the time of acquisition.
Levchin continues working at PayPal but the buyout comes with a price as their working environment shifts to a more traditional corporate culture. Within four years, all but 12 of the original 50 PayPal employees had left. Levchin and his colleagues remain connected as social and business acquaintances, and a number of them worked together to form new companies in subsequent years. The prolific group would become known as the "PayPal Mafia."
“The reason so many people out of early PayPal wound up starting more companies is that we selected for more people like us.
We said, ‘We want kids that have nothing to lose, that are going to go big or go home every time, that basically all think this is their final training ground. Their next company is going to be their own.'"
In 2002, he was named to the MIT Technology Review as one of the top 100 innovators in the world under the age of 35, and named "Innovator of the Year." His contributions to PayPal were primarily focused on anti-fraud efforts. He is the creator of the Gausebeck-Levchin Test, one of the first commercial implementations of CAPTCHA.
2004: The Innovator Turns Investor
In 2004, Levchin founded Slide, a personal media-sharing service for social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Later that same year, Levchin met with fellow Illinois graduates Jeremy Stoppelman (CE '99) and Russell Simmons (CS '98) to launch Yelp, an online social networking and review service.
"At my 29th birthday party, Russ and Jeremy were sitting at the back of the table at Slanted Door in San Francisco, and while we were eating noodles I can see their heads are slowing getting bigger.
At the end of the lunch they said, ‘Dude, I think we figured out what’s going to happen to Yellow Pages and it’s going to be amazing.' I basically wrote them a million dollar check on the spot and it was literally the single best investment I made in my entire life, so far."
2008: Family Man
In 2008, Levchin marries his long-time girlfriend, Nellie Minkova, and together they would have two children. His experience as a father would later inspire Levchin to launch Glow in 2013, a fertility app that helps couples conceive naturally.
"I am actually not someone who had to go through this, but I had an understanding of how painful it could be watching my friends. It makes us very aware of what we have to build and how sensitive these issues are."
2010: Mogul Status Achieved
Slide is sold to Google for $182 million in 2010 with Levchin serving as Vice President of Engineering. The next year, Google closed Slide, and Levchin left the company. After leaving Slide, Levchin launched HVF Labs (Hard, Valuable, Fun) to explore and fund projects and companies in the area of leveraging data, like analog sensors. Out of HVF Labs, Levchin co-founded a financial technologies company called Affirm, with the goal of building the next generation credit network. He currently serves as CEO of the company. In December 2017, it was announced that Affirm had raised an additional $200 million and is now valued between $1.5 and $2 billion.
Levchin is also founder and general partner of SciFi VC, which was created to take risks in the service of transforming science fiction into reality. He was appointed to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Consumer Advisory Board in 2015, making him the first executive from Silicon Valley to be appointed to the Board.
In 2015, Levchin created a prize to recognize and celebrate significant contributions to real-world cryptography. Winners of the Levchin Prizehave so far included the key creators of the AES block cipher, Signal encryption protocol, and SSL – technologies that have advanced secure online communications and commerce.
Levchin's role in media and politics include an executive producer credit on the movie "Thank You for Smoking" (2005), and a collaboration with Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel on the book, "The Blueprint," which calls for a revival of world innovation. He also narrated his personal experience as an immigrant in a video for FWD.us, a Silicon Valley-based lobbying group spearheaded by Mark Zuckerberg and Joe Green. Their focus is on immigration liberalization for bringing more highly-skilled international talent to the U.S.
"The primary driver of the U.S.’s position as the worldwide leader in innovation and entrepreneurship is due to tireless, talented, hardworking immigrants coming to our shores over the years to live their dreams and build better lives for themselves and their families. I know it, because I’ve lived it.
I owe everything to this country. I want others to dream big, come here to start their businesses, and create American jobs."
Through the course of his meteoric rise to success, Levchin has maintained a close connection with his alma mater. He has given talks on campus several times over the years, including a 2014 keynote for Computer Science’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, hosted networking events for students and alumni, and created the Frima Lukatskaya Scholarship in Computer Science, in honor of his grandmother.
2018: Returning to Campus
On Saturday, May 12, 2018, Max Levchin returned to campus once again to address a stadium full of graduates as keynote speaker for Illinois' 147th Commencement ceremony.