Meet the Startup Poet

Entrepreneurial wunderkinds are finding inspiration in an ancient art.

It takes a rare breed to caption an Indiegogo campaign for an Ebola detection device with a quote from an insane alcoholic poet, but Rostam Zafari is a pretty unique bird. The 21 year-old poetry major—still only a junior at Emory—is already a lauded medical device inventor, genius grant recipient, educational philanthropist, and startup founder. With a foot in many worlds, he synthesizes them all.

Rostam rose to prominence after designing REDS (Rapid Ebola Detection Strips) with a classmate in a sophomore biology class. What began as a way to get extra credit points on a quiz became national headlines. Emory has a patent application pending for the technology, which could potentially affect hundreds of thousands of lives.

For his work on REDS, Rostam won the $100,000 Cyrus Prize. Its previous recipient was the co-founder of Dropbox. He donated the prize to the New School, a high school in Atlanta focusing on entrepreneurship, where Rostam teaches part-time as an “entrepreneur-in-residence” and serves on the Board of Directors. He also runs his own start-up, Mystro, which connects students with independent tutors throughout Atlanta.

We’ve seen plenty of tech wunderkinds, but Rostam represents something new. He’s guided less by the old Jobs-ian paradigm than he is by epic poets like Bukowski, Ferdowsi, and Attar. Rostam is himself a poet, which evinces his unique approach to entrepreneurship, one that we’re going to see a lot more of in the post-Millennial generation. It’s not just an obsession with building, but building with a sort of creativity that the mainstream hasn’t seen in quite a while. Creativity that goes beyond just commerce or even purpose and into something deeper. Startup poets will be the new philosopher kings.

Here Rostam describes his path to poetry and how it has affected his entrepreneurial journey. We’ve also included several of Rostam’s own poems.

Why are you a poetry major? Why not something practical like computer science or engineering?

When I was two years old, my parents got divorced. My mom moved up to Lynchburg, Virginia, my dad was here in Atlanta, and that's like a 500 mile drive. My dad would drive up every week and pick me up, and we'd spend some time together. Most of our time was in the car and instead of just letting me listen to my iPod, he grilled me on poetry, me and my twin brother. As I grew up, he made me memorize hundreds of verses of poetry and dozens of poems in English, in Farsi, and they were all very epic poems. They were all very Bukowski-esque about going out there in the world and breaking some glass if you have to.

What sort of Persian poems?

There are two books or collections of epic poems, one is "The Book of Kings" by Ferdowsi. He's Persia’s greatest poet because when the Arabs invaded, a lot of the countries in the region were forced to leave their language and adopt Arabic. This man, Ferdowsi, sold all his land basically, and all his wealth to write a book and spent 30 years of his life writing a 60,000 verse poem of epic poetry in mostly pure Farsi to save the language. And he did. Several heroes of that story, such as Rostam, Zaal, Sohrab, are where my family members get their names. Two of my brothers are named Zaal and Sohrab.

What’s your favorite Bukowski poem?

I love the poem "Roll the Dice." It's about going all out, going all the way.

Why do you think we’ve lost an appreciation for poetry?

It's because a lot of times as we go through school, we're taught only about the Shakespeares, the Hemingways, the Audens. We’re not really connected to contemporary poetry and poets and that makes the art feel old and stagnant. There are so many talented current and upcoming poets who students can learn about and engage with. One of my favorite parts about my time at Emory has been the handful of amazing poetry professors such as Richie Hofman, Jericho Brown, and Natasha Trethewey. It’s important to see amazing writers and poets not as things belonging to the past, but rather the latest descendants of an art form in evolution.

Rostam's tattoo, described below.

Rostam's tattoo, described below.

How does your love of poetry inform your work?

Poetry is the single most important thing I've learned in my life. It's the reason I’m not some cynical bystander. The poems my grandfather told me as a kid were always about fighting injustice and about being the hero of the story. They painted the way I see the world and my place in it. I never wanted to go through the motions in life. I want magic. As Bukowski wrote, “I wasn't much of a petty thief. I wanted the whole world or nothing.”

The two works that inform my work the most are the Books of Kings and the Conference of the Birds. In the Book of Kings, the phoenix gives the hero three feathers to light when the world is in trouble. At the end of the story, he only uses two. The point is that you, the reader, are the last feather and you have to light it. The world needs its heroes.

 In the Conference of the Birds, the bird world is in trouble and they have to find the bird god, Simorgh (means “thirty birds” in Farsi), and ask him to save the world. Thousands of birds endure a long journey over mountains. By the end, there are only thirty birds left and they realize there is no bird god to save them. They, together, are Simorgh. I love this story because it shows that no one person, one country, or one religion is Simorgh. We can only be Simorgh together. The bird that gathers the other birds is the hoopoe, which is why I have it tattooed on my right arm. I want to gather the birds of the world just like the hoopoe did. I want us all to conquer the mountains and find Simorgh.

How specifically does poetry balance with the tech world?

Technology is just a tool. I believe we have to figure out what the problem is before we figure out what tools we should use. Technology is not the answer to every problem. Sometimes the answers are much harder and more complicated. There's not an app for everything. As a startup founder, many people seem to think I'm loyal to technology, I'm not. I'm loyal to global development and solving problems, and if technology is the tool, great. If fucking stuffed animals are the best tool, then that's what I'll use.

In terms of poetry, there’s a concept of ground and sky. Ground symbolizes the concrete words in the poem such as lipstick, axe, a ray of sunshine. Sky symbolizes the abstract ideas in a poem like love, war, hope. The best poems have a blend of ground and sky because they discuss big ideas in a way that is granular and understandable. The best ideas are like that, too. They should attempt to tackle big problems like healthcare, education, poverty, but do it by starting small and proving a model.