Mark Shuttleworth

“Each of us has a dream, something we want to fulfill in life.” This is how Mark Shuttleworth, tech specialist and philanthropist, explains how he went from a dusty mining town in South Africa to being the first African man in space. Nevertheless, his name will always be associated with Ubuntu, the most widely used Linux distribution, which he helped create.

Fascinated with technology as a child, Mr. Shuttleworth developed a passion for computer games before discovering the Internet while studying towards a Degree in Finance at the University of Capetown. His true story starts in 1995, with the founding of Thawte Consulting, the first South African digital certificate and Internet security company for e-commerce. He managed to turn it into a world-class company, increasing the trustworthiness of Internet retailers and boosting the number of online sales. At the age of 26, he became one of the youngest self-made billionaires in Africa after selling Thawte Consulting in 1999 to VeriSign for a hefty $575 million.

Shuttleworth dedicated a fraction of his profits to kick-start another company, Here Be Dragons Capital (today known as Knife Capital), an emerging markets investment fund. The name is a reference to the Latin phrase “Hic sunt dracones”, used on medieval maps to describe uncharted territories. The company did exactly that: it sought out untapped South African talent and tried to put their names on the map. He funded innovative IT start-ups and helped them grow. This vision paid off, and giants such as GE or Visa later bought many of these start-ups. In Shuttleworth’s own words,“education helps young people to recognize that anything is possible”. With this in mind, he created the Shuttleworth Foundation, dedicated to improving education in Africa by increasing the appeal of STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) among young students. The Foundation is an experiment in what he called open philanthropy, awarding fellowships to future young leaders from around the world.

It was around this time that Shuttleworth moved to London and began preparing for the First African in Space mission, spending almost eight months in Star City, Russia. His dream came true in April 2002, when he flew to the International Space Station as a member of the crew of Soyuz mission TM34. He spent almost two weeks in outer space, participating in several experiments on stem-cell research, HIV and the impact of micro-gravity on the human body. These experiences formed the impetus behind Hip2BSquare, a project that aims to challenge the perception of science from the traditional one of being ‘square’, to something more “trendy” and “hip”.

Open Source Software

After spending some $20 million on this trip to space, Shuttleworth took an interest in expanding the number of computer users everywhere. Being computer savvy himself, he realized the potential Linux had: an open-source, community-driven free operating system. He started the Ubuntu project, named after a South African philosophy that preaches “humanity to others”, which quickly became the most popular Linux distribution. However, he had higher hopes for this project: to break Microsoft’s hold of the market, a goal called “Bug #1”.

Canonical Ltd, another Shuttleworth company which now provides support on a commercial basis for Ubuntu OS, has developed the project. He doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that the company only breaks even, and rather boasts the fact that Ubuntu is the number one platform for most cloud computing services, like Instagram for instance.

In 2011 Ubuntu had an estimated 20 million users worldwide, and the actual figure could actually be even higher, since no official numbers have been released by Canonical. Drawing inspiration from Shuttleworth’s work, the Android system was later developed by Google, helping to bring technology closer to consumers around the world.

Open Source Philanthropy

To borrow a page from tech CEOs, the self-sustaining ecosystem Shuttleworth created with Ubuntu has changed the world of computing by showing that an operating system does not have to cost over $300. This is the lesson of open philanthropy that he has tried to advocate.

He says that “if you do the same thing as everyone else, you are going to get the same result as everyone else. You won’t stand out. Be conscious of the things you do differently”. Instead of choosing to embark on splashy endeavors that receive big media attention but do little to change the lives of those it targets, Shuttleworth tried to bring about social change in his own way, by encouraging education through free software and working towards universal access for the tools of the digital era.

He currently lives on the Isle of Man, along with 12 ducks and his wife Claire and spends his days tinkering on future Ubuntu releases.







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