On April 26, 1986, 10-yearold Max Levchin and his family were living in Kiev, Ukraine—90 miles south of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. While the Soviet government scrambled to cover up the scale of the disaster, Levchin’s mother, a physicist, understood the radiation risk and immediately packed Max and his brother offto live with his grandmother in Crimea, hundreds of miles away. Five years later, the family arrived in Chicago as Jewish refugees with just $700; the ruble had collapsed and the government had limited how much money people could take out of the country.
“Part of the experience coming to the U.S. from a socialist country is that I just wasn’t prepared for a lot of the things that existed here, good and bad,” Levchin says. “I got my first credit card a couple years after coming to America and promptly destroyed my credit, because I had no idea how to use this power tool.” He’s speaking on January 13, the day Affirm Holdings—the buy now, pay later fintech Levchin cofounded and runs as CEO—went public. Its shares doubled that day to $96, making the company worth $24 billion and his stake worth $2.5 billion.
Levchin says he taught himself to program computers at age 10 to help his mom, a physicist, who had been instructed by her Soviet state employer to learn the new skill.
He’s talking to Forbes from the Big Island in Hawaii, where he has been with his wife and two kids since the December holidays. He’s shoeless, decked out in gym shorts and a black Affirm T-shirt. Wardrobe is the only thing even remotely laid-back about this serial entrepreneur. A math prodigy with an immigrant’s drive, he cofounded PayPal, which revolutionized online payments, at 23. His ventures include Yelp, where he was chairman until 2015; Slide, a media-sharing service he sold to Google for $182 million in 2010; and Glow, a fertility tracking app. His obsessive fitness and cycling regimen—a far cry from what he describes as a sickly childhood—was the subject of a breathless 2014 feature in Men’s Fitness magazine.
Still, at 45, Levchin is arguably a late-blooming billionaire. Other PayPal founders (a.k.a. the PayPal mafia) long ago reached ten-figure status; Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman are worth a combined $190 billion today.
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