The Journey from Iraq to the American Dream: Francis Dinha's Profile Story
As a young boy living in Iraq, Francis Dinha’s earliest childhood memory was of his family escaping the destructive bombing of their home in Northern Iraq. The devastation forced them to flee to Baghdad. In a new city, and no home - they faced many hardships and challenges, even struggling with simple necessities like where their next meal would come from. With no money to feed their family one day, Francis was inspired to think of a solution.
The need to survive became his first brush with entrepreneurship. He took what little money his mother had and bought a pack of cigarettes. He headed through the rough streets of Baghdad, boldly walking up to strangers and sold the cigarettes - one by one for a profit - until there was enough money for his family to eat that night.
“I asked my mother, what are we having for lunch? She responded with tears in her eyes, I don’t have enough money to make lunch for the whole family”, Dinha remembers.
Francis was not even a teenager at the time. As a minority Christian of Assyrian descent, families like his had to be especially careful not to speak out against tyranny. Ongoing violence was the norm - and when someone would muster up enough courage to take on their government, the Iraqi people would be forced to the city center to watch public hangings of those who dared to challenge the government.
“Even when I was young, I knew the meaning of fear and poverty,” Dinha says. “But I knew there was something better for me out there.”
The more he learned about Western culture, the stronger his desire grew to leave the oppressive regime. Listening to the Beatles was something that gave him hope – people singing about love, freedom, and unity. Was this an alternate universe that really existed? It was, and Francis was determined to leave everything he knew behind in search of what he craved the most - freedom.
“You can’t build a prosperous nation by creating fear or being divisive. With no free press to express various political views, no basic rights for my people (Christian Assyrians), I knew that moment that I have to escape the oppressive regime and move to the free country of Sweden which respects basic human rights, the right to express myself freely and prosper in life”, Dinha says.
His first stop was Sweden, where he was accepted to Linköping University. Bilingual in only Arabic and Assyrian at the time, Francis faced yet another roadblock on his journey to freedom - he didn’t speak Swedish. For 6 months he spent his days as a dishwasher at a local restaurant in the Nordic country. Every newly-cleaned plate brought him a little closer to fluency.
It only took him a few years to earn his Bachelor of Science in Physics and Electrical Engineering. Francis event went on to earn his Masters of Science in Computer Engineering and was soon accepted into a Ph.D program, Just one year away from completing his Ph.D, Francis received a phone call that would change the trajectory of his life.
“There was a U.S. technology company that offered me a job in Dallas, Texas,” Dinha said.
The dream of the Western World and living in the United States had now become a reality. Francis spent the next several decades working in technology before he sparked his entrepreneurial spirit in motion again. By then, his two daughters had been born and he was an established tech expert in the industry.
“I think what sets successful people apart is their ability to find a way to get things done – just because something’s never been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be. It can – but only when someone is not willing to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Dinha says.
But even with a proven and successful track record in innovation, sometimes not even the smartest people can control what happens to the economy. The company he started in 1998, Packetstream, Inc. became part of the dot-com bust, and he found himself from square one - starting all over again.
“I learned a long time ago that there is only so much you can control in life,” he said. “The only thing you can really control is your reaction to what happens.”
Around the same time in the early 2003, the U.S. State Department presented him with an opportunity to be involved in the future of Iraq project. Iraq was liberated from the oppressive regime, and it was a time of rebuilding for the war-torn country. Would he risk going back in order to make a difference in the country’s telecommunications infrastructure?
The war may have been over, but that didn’t make the country any safer. IEDs (improvised explosive devices) still laid on the side of roads, killing American troops and everyday people as they drove by - but Francis was willing to take the risk. After all, he had already survived the regime.
He soon went back to Iraq to help build a communications infrastructure so the Iraqi people would have access to communication through phone lines, and even the Internet.
“I thought, wow, this is my chance to be a part of history,” he recalled. “To help bring my home country into the 21s t century and allow them some of the freedoms we enjoy everyday here in the U.S.”
But his instincts about the dangers of Iraq lingered, understanding that democracy in a country riddled with war and an oppressive regime would take decades, and maybe even a century before the Iraqis would see any real change. During his time there, his vehicle was targeted – and his driver shot as they were on the road.
With his two daughters at home in the U.S., the need to provide for them became stronger than his need to help his homeland. Francis came back to America and focused all his energy in advancing the technology infrastructure here.
With his sights set on a new venture, Francis co-founded OpenVPN Inc. with James Yonan who authored the original open source OpenVPN software.
“Investing so much of my hard-earned money was terrifying,” Dinha recalls. “But I knew it was the right idea at the right time.”
His leap of faith was exactly what the market needed – OpenVPN provides secure remote access for businesses and safety for people who use the Internet.
With the advent and expansion of Internet cafes, wifi hotspots all across the country and free internet at every restaurant, hotel and Starbucks, the speed at which this technology was expanding wasn’t taking into account the importance of safety.
Every time someone logs on to the world wide web, they are exposing their personal information to an uncertain world filled with cyber hackers who want to do harm.
An innocent trip to buy a cappuccino at your local coffee shop can turn into a dangerous downward spiral - a hacker can easily be sitting nearby in their car, and snoop on exactly what you’re doing on your computer. Your passwords, usernames and everything they need to steal your identity, drain your bank account and hack your social media profiles are exposed.
“I still think people don’t understand just how dangerous it is – and the only explanation I can come up with is they have a mentality that ‘It can’t happen to me. Sadly, it does everyday, to individuals and even major corporations and even the government,” says Dinha.
What OpenVPN software service did was create a way to mask your computer’s IP address (think of it like your home address) – making it invisible to crooks. VPN is also known as a Virtual Private Network, and OpenVPN is considered the de facto standard software for those who want to surf safely.
OpenVPN is on the precipice of hitting the mass market; big companies like Tesla are already using OpenVPN. Tesla’s vehicles are equipped with the software to protect the ultra-tech cars from being hacked.
Large corporations like Google use it to protect their employees and the company’s private networks. Small and medium sized companies use it to keep their networks and sales in motion safely, without disrupting their limited resources and workflow. And everyday people are using OpenVPN’s consumer and small business product Private Tunnel , because they know it’s a small price to pay for the confidence that comes along with security and privacy.
The road to profitability is one of the biggest hurdles a company can face, but it only took OpenVPN business a couple years to experience big growth. Revenue with profits is something almost unheard of in the technology sector nowadays. Francis is now regularly asked to share his knowledge in advice columns including Forbes, quoted in books and news articles, and is quickly becoming recognized as a well-respected cyber security expert at technology forums he attends across the globe.
“You have to build a product your customers or target audience appreciate and love. It takes 3 things to build a successful business: Vision, Capital, and People (VCP). Without a clear vision with a roadmap you will be lost, without capital you can’t acquire resources and attract good talent, and without people you can’t make any progress. I use the VCP model to build my business incrementally and organically toward profitability. When your business is not profitable, time is your enemy and when your business is profitable - time is your friend,” says Dinha.
Francis Dinha is by all accounts, an American success story. His two daughters are also climbing the ladder of success through lessons passed on by their father. One of them is an aspiring Jazz musician, the other - a popular U.S. News Anchor who recently launched her own digital women’s magazine – following in the footsteps of her Dad’s entrepreneurial drive. The two know the opportunities they have would have never been made possible without their father escaping Iraq.
Francis has come a long way from that boy selling cigarettes on the streets of Baghdad in order to earn money to feed his family. With a multi-million dollar company poised to become an even bigger success - Francis will always remember where he came from.
Hundreds of thousands of miles and decades away doesn’t change this man’s inspiration, love for life and people .
Like the Beatles - a band Francis was so fond of growing up - sang, “There are places I remember all my life, though some have changed. Some forever, not for better, some have gone and some remain.”
The sentiments can also be found in the lyrics “When you’ve seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there.”
And he found that peace right here, in America, which is now and always will be - his home.
“When I became a U.S. Citizen, I felt really proud to be an American. America to me is like a garden with many colorful flowers representing tolerance, diversity, love, and beauty. It’s very important that we nurture and preserve this garden”, says Dinha.