Sam Gharegozlou's unlikely and inevitable journey into politics starts now
The Dapper Labs co-founder teases a future in politics, but one could argue it’s already started.
Sam Gharegozlou isn’t a big fan of interviews. “I'm not much of a spotlight guy. Rachel [Rogers, a Dapper Labs communications staffer] is gonna cringe and say, ‘Why are you talking about this, Sam?’ I generally like to avoid interviews and that type of stuff. It's a rare experience for you to talk to me. I go out of my way not to,” he tells me on the other end of a Zoom screen. And fair enough—as Gharegozlou tugs at his hat while he speaks, one gets the impression he isn’t all that used to this whole interview thing.
I have the BC Tech Association’s Technology Impact Awards to thank for this rare one-on-one. When I met Gharegozlou at the 2021 TIAs, he was leaning over a balcony on Science World’s mezzanine level, watching the awards get dolled out. It’s rare to see someone alone at the TIAs, especially the co-founder of a unicorn, so I went over and struck up a conversation. This undoubtedly wrecked his meditative solitude, but to his credit, he didn’t shoo me away. I couldn’t help but think that his perch that evening was emblematic of his company, Dapper Labs, and its place presiding over the Vancouver tech ecosystem.
Upon being handed Dapper’s first TIA, won for Excellence in Technology Innovation, he let out a shy Woo—think Rick Flair but in a library—before embarking on his speech (at the 48:10 mark of the event):
As hinted at in his acceptance speech, the Sam Gharegozlou story begins in Tehran, Iran. That’s where he was born, the middle child sandwiched between an older brother and younger sister. Shortly after, the family moved to Dubai and then Paris, before finally settling in Vancouver. The move happened just in time for Gharegozlou to attend a local high school and fall in love with the Canucks—despite the team’s ineptitude. “Vancouver is home for me. It always will be, I think. But, yeah, we've moved around quite a lot,” he continues.
Gharegozlou continued by saying that he values his hometown and seeks to support the tech scene locally, with an example being Dapper’s linking up with the BC Tech Association. Clearly, that agreement was in the works before we met, when the guy who doesn’t like interviews was holding virtual court to a sizeable Zoom room a few weeks prior to the TIAs. The featured guest of the early November BC Tech ScaleUp Roundtable virtual event, Gharegozlou was asked by host and Association president and CEO Jill Tipping what even being nominated for a TIA meant to him and the team.
“Yeah, they're honestly pretty pumped. It's something they can show their friends, their family—local people know about it,” Gharegozlou shared at the Roundtable. “We're just the finalists, whatever, even if we don't win, it's still pretty exciting to feature that we’re BC Tech award finalists. I had people pinging me saying, ‘Hey, that's really cool. You guys are finalists.’ I was like, ‘I didn't tell you about it,’ but they knew about it. Yes, we get recognition globally and that's always fun. But for me, something in B.C., in Vancouver, is pretty cool.”
Of course, they won. With all the awards, the raises, the NBA superstars yelling “TOP SHOT THIS!” as they posterize some backup small forward, I couldn’t help but wonder if Gharegozlou longed for the spotlight a little bit more. In line with a meteoric rise, Dapper got quite a lot of deserved press in 2021. Yet, it all seemed to focus on his older brother and co-founder, Roham.
A Financial Post feature, mostly about Sam, is still titled “The Brothers Gharegozlou” and references how his apartment is six floors lower than Roham’s in the same building. Sam gets no mention in an in-depth CoinDesk feature for the publication’s Most Influential 2021 series, nor can he be found in a similar Fast Company offering that labels Roham as Top Shot’s “creator.” At the TIAs, when I asked how New York was, alluding to a series of Top Shot parties and activations, he informed me that he didn’t go. Luckily, that wasn’t a fatal faux pas on my part and Sam accepted my Zoom invitation, where I could ask him about the spotlight and if he ever longed to break out on his own.
“I think we’re stronger together,” Sam told me of his relationship with Roham. “But who knows what the future holds. I've talked about, jokingly, to friends and colleagues—I talked about it in the Financial Post interview—politics is something I won't rule out at some point,” he continued. I found the political revelation fascinating, especially considering the totality of his journey. In chatting with Sam, I found that Roham was more of a mentor or sidekick, not a commander. Henrik Sedin, not Marc Crawford. Nate Dogg, not Suge Knight. Perhaps the last one is the most fitting, considering one of Roham’s earliest influences on Sam.
“As the younger brother, I look up to him a lot. In our early years, it was watching what he was doing when we were kids trying to copy him and mimic him. I really liked hip hop when he got into hip hop, first gangsta rap, Tupac, Biggie, whatever. Then I copied him and started getting into [entrepreneurship] as well. It's been mostly me following him and what he's been doing,” he reflects. “I'd like to think he learns from me from time to time, but less so probably. To this day, I still look up to him, I’m still learning from him. And hopefully, I will be doing that for many, many more years to come.”
After high school, Sam headed to the University of Western Ontario to complete a joint degree in history and political science. Roham, meanwhile, was in Silicon Valley working in venture capital and gave a distinctly entrepreneurial pep talk to his younger brother. At the time, Sam was leaning towards law school. “He just approached me and said, ‘Dude, why do you want to be in school for another four or five years and then take the bar for another year after that? It'll be five or six years before you actually start making an impact somewhere. Let's get together, let's put our heads together, and let's think about something we can do together.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The pair founded Axiom Zen, the North Star that presides over the Gharegozlous’ entrepreneurial endeavors. It was from Axiom Zen, an enterprise that is equal parts startup, venture capital firm and incubator, that they hit their first home run: the pioneering NFTs known as CryptoKitties. They were so successful that it shattered the Ethereum blockchain. “CryptoKitties went viral so fast that Ethereum traffic spiked by sixfold, the network clogged, users grumbled,” wrote Jeff Wilser in the Coindesk piece. Gharegozlou shared that this led to a pair of realizations for the Axiom Zen team: that they had proof of concept of the demand for NFTs, and that they had to build a clog-proof blockchain. The groundwork was laid for Top Shot and the blockchain it was built upon, Dapper’s own, known as Flow.
Groundwork, too, is being laid for that political career.
“As a tech guy, and an immigrant, his first priority were he ever elected would be to hack away at government red tape. ‘Why do we have to jump through a million hoops in order to do something?’” wrote Jim O’Brien in the Financial Post, quoting Gharegozlou.
When I asked him what he would do for Vancouver specifically, Gharegozlou empathetically named the eradication of homelessness as number one on his agenda. I also know a lot of people on Twitter who have been pining for some tech representation at 12th and Cambie. But despite the repeated requests for Gharegozlou to provide some forward thinking statements, Gharegozlou’s political aspirations are playing out in the present.
Earlier this year, Dapper became the first NFT-focused company to register to lobby the US federal government. Dapper linked up with lobbying firm Crossroads Strategies to lobby on “policy related to NFTs, blockchain, and financial services,” reported Politico.
Rogers, speaking on behalf of Dapper, told Politico, “In this increasingly digital world, we believe in openness, transparency and equality of opportunity,” and that this foray into Washington was “intended to promote ‘education and mainstream adoption of Web3’” and champion “the benefits of this technology to society.” I asked Gharegozlou to expand on this, perhaps accelerating that career in politics.
“It's still very new tech, and a lot of people know very little about it, especially politicians. Some people are very interested and have done the research. Others not so much. So, we want to explain the benefits that it can provide. The best way to do that is just getting out there and getting the message out. We'd like to think we have a solid track record to date of things we've launched and things we're working on. So, we want to partner up with politicians, with influencers, with lobbying organizations to get together and show that this is not a big scary thing you should be worried about,” Gharegozlou says, arguing that governments should want to embrace what Dapper and other blockchain companies have to offer.
“There are a lot of benefits behind it. Work with us to tell the world about the benefits, but also help us regulate the space and help us do it properly. With that, essentially, we can have input, but we need your guidance, we also need your support. So I'm trying to do that. We’re working on the Canadian front as well. We're going to probably work towards organizing some sort of get together with other like-minded companies and go to Parliament, to politicians, to the Prime Minister's Office, to just explain the benefits of the technology.”
Investments, in addition to education, are also going to be a facet of the personal and professional future of Gharegozlou and Dapper. Dapper’s focus, through the company’s appropriately named venture capital arm, Baller Ventures, will focus on the blockchain space and Web3 companies. Baller Ventures’ recent highlight reel includes Burrata, a startup working to integrate consumer data from Web2 systems into Web3, and SZNS, an NFT fragmentation service platform. For Roham and Sam personally, their investment strategy is more overarching and hands-on.
“We try and find interesting companies. Then, not only put our weight monetarily behind them, but lend our support, help out in any way we can. The worst thing you can do is just give someone your money then peace out and let them do their thing. I mean, it's a good sign that you trust them. But we'd like to think we bring some sort of experience and value, and that people are coming to us not just to get a cheque, but also to get some help. So, we're going to keep doing that. It's not tied to the blockchain space, per se. We're looking at things all over the place as with this LOI fund we just invested in,” he said, referring to LOI Venture, the $20 million pre-seed fund launched this past December by Ryan Holmes and Manny Padda.
Like investments and politics, there is some shared connective tissue amongst the rare public conversations featuring Gharagozlou. He often shares that he and Dapper are just getting started, that they’re not going anywhere and that they’re not done. His energy resembles a much more PG version of Leonardo Dicaprio’s Jordan Belfort reminding his firm he will be sticking around a little while longer—but with a more pure agenda to match the welcomed lack of profanity.
And it’s true. Just last week, Dapper launched Top Shot’s UFC sister, UFC Strike, and an ad campaign featuring NBA superstar Kevin Durant, who was also an early investor in Top Shot. Belabouring the 90’s rap metaphor one last time, even though All Eyez are on Gharegozlou and Dapper, the Sky’s the Limit.
Subscribe to our Sunday Briefing for more profiles on the people powering BC’s unicorns.