Egyptian democracy activist Wael Ghonim joins Google Ventures
FORTUNE — Wael Ghonim, the Google (GOOG) executive and Internet activist who became a leader of the Egyptian revolution in 2010, has joined Google Ventures as an entrepreneur-in-residence.
After an extended sabbatical from Google, Ghonim, who is 33, began working at the company’s venture arm late last year. His position was kept quiet while he worked out visa issues.
Bill Maris, the partner who heads Google Ventures, declined to describe the project Ghonim is working on. Before he became known globally for helping to galvanize the pro-democracy movement in Egypt — and before he spent 11 days in jail for his activism — Ghonim was a marketing executive with the company in the Middle East.
Through a Google Ventures spokeswoman, Ghonim declined to be interviewed either about his entrepreneurial plans or about the situation in Egypt.
“He’s really trying to move his life forward,” Maris said. While his role in the Egyptian democracy movement was important, Maris added, “there is a lot more to him than that.” Despite his prominence — Time magazine named him to its list of 100 most influential people in 2011 — Ghonim does not relish the media’s spotlight and in particular does not want to spark a round of headlines on the subject of Egypt, Maris said.
Many young pro-democracy activists have become disenchanted with the turn of events in Egypt, where the revolution ushered in a democratically-elected, but autocratic regime, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn was overthrown by a military dictatorship. This week, Egyptians are going to the polls in an election that is almost certain to anoint Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the army officer who led the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government, as their next president.
Maris said Ghonim reached out to him after the Egyptian revolution to ask about entrepreneurship and the venture business. Over a series of video conference calls and face-to-face meetings at Google during 2012 and early 2013, the two became friendly, and Maris invited to Ghonim to join Google Ventures.
“He isn’t a seasoned entrepreneur, so spending time with us and learning from the companies we have invested in and from the team itself, is a great way for him to get a head start,” Maris said. “If he started on his own he would be in a much worse place.”
Google Ventures has not invested capital in Ghonim’s project so far, Maris said.
Ghonim rose to prominence late in 2010 after he created the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page to honor a young Egyptian who was tortured to death by the country’s police. The page helped to energize and organize the anti-government protests that were brewing at the time. In February 2011, Ghonim was arrested for 11 days. His profile rose after his release and he continued his activism. In April of that year, he announced he was talking a long-term sabbatical from Google to focus on an NGO dedicated to fighting poverty and helping to educate young Egyptians.
With an unconventional approach to investing, described in a Fortune story this year, Google Ventures has emerged as one of the buzziest venture firms in Silicon Valley. Maris said the entrepreneur-in-residence program is something of an experiment intended to tap the knowledge, ideas and energy of “high-potential individuals” like Ghonim. The entrepreneurs may end up joining Google Ventures full-time, start a company or join one, Maris said. While at Google Ventures, they may help select investments, coach startups or improve internal systems. “This is a relationship business,” Maris said. “The goal is to keep a healthy flow of people who add a diverse point of view and help us do what we do.”
Maris said Google Ventures is adding two other entrepreneurs-in-residence: Anish Acharya, a veteran of the investment team at Google Ventures and co-founder of SocialDeck, a mobile gaming company Google bought in 2010; and Chikai Ohazama, a co-founder of Keyhole, the company Google acquired in 2004 which became the foundation for Google Earth.