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…



Danielle Newnham

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