In 2007, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Omar Ahmad had decided to take a stab at politics after working at a string of successful high-tech startups and companies. While charging up the San Carlos, California hills on his trusty Segway meeting potential voters, he came across a woman who struck up a conversation with him. After finding out about his Islamic faith, she replied that she could never vote for him because she didn’t trust Muslims. Rather than take offense at the remark, Omar replied with his characteristic optimism that she should visit his website anyway and read about his positions.
His reaction left an impact on the woman, who sometime soon after approached him as he handed out flyers in front of the San Carlos CalTrain station. She told him that she had read his site, was impressed at his passion for improving the city, and promptly proceeded to join him in handing out flyers. Later, when Omar was elected to the San Carlos city council, she joined him at his victory party, and Omar would soon move on to serve as that city’s mayor, as well as a board member of CalTrain and SamTrans, two regional mass transit districts.
As the mayor of San Carlos and a public servant in general, Omar put in as much energy as he did with his various startups, and he didn’t stop until his body finally gave out. Omar Ahmad passed away suddenly on the morning of Tuesday, May 10th of a massive heart attack, after having worked late into the previous night serving his constituents at a city council meeting.
It’s one thing to be a successful entrepreneur, as Omar was. He spent five years at the Discovery Channel helping to build its most signature programs and properties before feeling the lure of Silicon Valley just as the first dot-com boom started. He spent time at @Home, Grand Central (now Google Voice) and Netscape before moving on to serve as CTO of Napster, where he was the one who pulled the plug on the famed music-sharing network when the courts decided that it was time for it to go. He co-founded and/or served as CEO of a string of other startups – TrustedID, Logictier, and the ambitious SynCH Energy, which aimed to convert greenhouse gases from sewage treatment plants into unleaded fuel that you can put right in your car.
It’s another thing entirely to devote that same passion towards your personal and philanthropic life. Omar went out of his way to serve the people around him in multiple ways, whether it was tutoring kids at National Youth Science Foundation camps, giving TED talks (in this one, he talks about how to influence elected officials, and a TED book on the topic is pending publication), and serving in leadership positions in community organizations (he served as director of the visionary Muslim organization AMILA). Before his untimely passing, he was working with me to bring one of his biggest dreams to life: a $5 million venture philanthropy fund driven by Islamic charitable values.
Even though he ventured into politics and business leadership, he never lost his love for programming. He was a hacker at heart – first with respect to software, but eventually (metaphorically) hacking everything he came across. He always sought to break molds, find new ways of helping people, looking for solutions in what seem to be no-win situations. After enduring annoying stints on Southwest’s no-fly list, he penned a public letter to the company’s CEO that managed to get under his skin and break the logjam. And as San Carlos mayor, he made some difficult decisions that made a lot of people happy but some people very upset. He told me wearily that he had to break the status quo in order to make positive change happen. This were the qualities that made him a true leader.
He lived life to its fullest – attending storytelling festivals, indulging in sports (he was a die-hard Gators fan and just last weekend had attended a SF Giants game), collecting guitars (he had dozens of them, each signed by a famous rock star), being a skilled aviator, and most of all climbing the tallest mountains in each of the seven continents (he managed to do 4 of the 7 at the time of his death). He was on a first-name basis with the folks at a Redwood City cigar lounge, where his locker with “Big Kahuna” etched on the door held his favorite stogies. Last November, Omar officiated my wedding in Washington DC, and not content with just delivering a typical speech, he created a whole new ceremony – entirely American, yet entirely Islamic – that showed everyone that Omar had already achieved that unified identity that too many of us still struggle for.
Today, hundreds of friends, family, and well-wishers will say goodbye to him as flags in San Carlos fly half mast, obituaries appear in Bay Area media, and the California State Assembly honors him before adjourning. And while the Muslim community loses one of its favorite sons, it also gains a role model for future generations of Muslim-Americans who have someone they can look at that shows them, definitively, how to be true to faith, country, and community while having a big smile on your face. And, if Mayor Ahmad has his way, while puffing away on a cigar.
Omar, you did it all, and you made it seem so easy.
Shahed Amanullah is the founder of altmuslim.com