This November, Naeim Khanjani, BS ’16, MBA ’17, will vote for the first time as a United States citizen.
It’s a huge moment for the former refugee, who came to the U.S. eight years ago to escape discrimination and achieve his goals—but he’s not stopping there. Through his nonpartisan civic tech startup, Electo, Khanjani is working to help others become better informed citizens.
“Very few people have experienced living in a country where democracy was lacking, where democracy was just a name,” he says. “As an American, I am looking for ways to contribute back—to help practice our democracy and keep it alive.”
From a young age in Iran, Khanjani faced persecution simply for being a member of the Baháʼí Faith. He saw family members unjustly imprisoned and forced to close their businesses, and was barred by the government from pursuing higher education because of his faith. At 17, he decided to leave the country, spending brief periods in the United Arab Emirates and Turkey before finally settling in Buffalo in 2012.
“Leaving my family, friends and country without knowing when or if I was going back was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made,” he says.
Once in Buffalo, Khanjani was inspired by his family to seek a career in business with a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from the UB School of Management.
“Because of our limited options, my family always had our own businesses, our own ideas,” he says. “I grew up around successful entrepreneurs in an environment where people identified problems, tried to solve them and created jobs.”
As a School of Management student, Khanjani learned the importance of teamwork and how U.S. businesses operate through his coursework and co-curricular activities, like case competitions and entrepreneurial opportunities. Even before graduating, he began working as a business analyst at a local boutique financial services company and, later, as a financial services representative at Mass Mutual.
After commencement, Khanjani moved to Washington, D.C., and went to work for a think tank in its foreign policy and defense division. By then, the 2020 presidential race was already ramping up, and with a historically large field of candidates, he and his wife, Soraya Bagheri, wanted to educate themselves on the candidates’ positions and records—without the influence of media bias or online commentary.
“In the mainstream media, we are used to hearing opinions on an event or politician from individual pundits,” he explains. “I wanted updates directly from the source.”
But when they couldn’t find a tool that easily met their needs, they decided to create one: Electo, a nonpartisan app that allows users to quickly become more informed about their elected officials. For federal-level offices and state governors, the app aggregates each politician’s social media feeds, as well as their contact information, upcoming events and voting record.
After going full time on the venture in 2019, Khanjani and his team launched the app this fall. So far, he says, the response has been phenomenal, with interest coming from both major tech companies and nonprofits for future partnerships. The company is planning to launch its first round of fundraising this fall, and eventually hopes to add state and local officials to the platform and expand to other countries.
“We are at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, when our representatives can help us reshape society on principles of love, inclusiveness and reciprocity,” says Khanjani, who keeps busy outside the office as a board member for Men of Color in Communications and a volunteer mentor for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “We all need to stay informed, hold our elected officials accountable and vote in every election.”
Written by Matthew Biddle