From Cairo to MIT: How Rana el Kaliouby Overcame Adversity to Build a Multi-Million Dollar Startup

Danielle Newnham
23 min readOct 31, 2021

Rana el Kaliouby is co-founder and CEO of Affectiva, a software company that builds artificial intelligence that understands human emotions and cognitive states and activities by analyzing facial and vocal expressions. The company was spun out of the MIT Media Lab with Rana and professor Rosalind Picard as co-founders.

A self-described nerd at heart who felt like a misfit growing up, Egyptian born Rana also authored Girl Decoded, A Scientist’s Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity by Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology.

Rana has a hugely inspiring story which we discuss in this interview — from her Middle Eastern upbringing to her startup journey, why it’s critical for your company to have core values and the toll her chosen path took on her personal life.

This is one of the most honest and authentic interviews I have ever conducted with a startup founder. Here’s Rana’s story…

Newnham: Rana, can you tell me a bit about what you were like as a child?

El Kaliouby: I was born in Cairo. I’m originally from Egypt and I grew up around the Middle East.

Both my parents are technologists. My dad taught a COBOL programming class in the seventies; COBOL is an extinct programming language at this point. And my mom was probably one of the very early women to be in tech so she signed up, took his class, they met, got married and moved first to Kuwait where I spent the first ten years of my life before the first Gulf War.

I have two younger sisters and I would say that the ethos in our home was you worked super hard. There was a commitment to education. We are lifelong learners and I was always exposed to a lot of technology growing up too.

Rana, far right, with her sisters and mother

So I realized very early on how technology helps people connect with one another and that has been the common thread of my career.

Newnham: Talking about your mother there. I think you described her in the book as a trailblazer because I imagine, at that time, it was

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Danielle Newnham

Host of Danielle Newnham Podcast — interviews with tech founders and innovators. Writer. Author. Recovering Founder.