Miami Tech Guru Under Fire After Stanford University Says It Has Never Heard of Him

Alberto Chang-Rajii has become a major player in Miami's tech industry, but at least part of his backstory seems to have been inflated.
Alberto Chang-Rajii has become a major player in Miami's tech industry, but at least part of his backstory seems to have been inflated.
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Update 3/31: Alberto Chang-Rajii has resigned from his seat on Endeavor Miami's board of directors. 

As far as tech guru origin stories go, Alberto Chang-Rajii’s is as good as they get.

As a humble Chilean-born student at Stanford University in the mid-'90s, Chang-Rajii has told audiences and journalists from Miami to Sydney, he met fellow students Sergey Brin and Larry Page just as they were brainstorming the idea that would became Google. Even better, Chang-Rajii snagged an early 1 percent stake in the firm with $10,000 he scraped together. That smart bet turned into a billion-dollar global investment empire.

At least part of Chang-Rajii’s tale seems to have been inflated, though. Stanford says it has no record of him attending the university, and Chang-Rajii has now removed claims of earning degrees from the California school from his online bios. Google experts and insiders, meanwhile, cast doubts on his claims of being an early investor. And in Chang-Rajii’s native Chile, journalists have raised questions about the financial bona fides of his company, Grupo Arcano.

All of that adds up to a potential headache for Miami’s own tech sector, where Chang-Rajii has become a major player in recent years. The Chilean is a board member on Endeavor Miami, a nonprofit with a $2 million Knight Foundation grant, and has sponsored programs at LAB Miami in Wynwood.

Chang-Rajii sent his investors a letter Tuesday reassuring them that his firm is on solid footing and re-doubling his claim that he was indeed an early Google investor. (Chang-Rajii’s attorney, Juan Pablo Cappello, asked New Times to email questions for his client. He forwarded the letter to investors in response.)

"I want to be categorical: I was an early investor, and I have benefited with the evolution of the market value of the company,” Chang-Rajii writes in Spanish of his role in Google. "But today I do not have the same percentage given logical dilution of my equity participation in the time since the company has been traded publicly."

As for his ties to Stanford, he writes, “I was a student in that institution," but confirms he in fact never graduated.

That contradicts claims Chang-Rajii has made in speeches and on his bio at Grupo Arcano, the investment firm he founded in Chile in 2001. In a speech to the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in 2014, he described winning a scholarship in 1996 to attend the school at the height of the dot-com boom. "I still believe they had some mistake in the computer and there was another Mr. Chang, probably a Chinese gentleman with a very high IQ," he told the audience.

He studied there three years before graduating with a "very fancy diploma," he told that audience. And until this week, his official online bio noted he "earned postgraduate degrees in Business Administration and Behavioral Sciences from Stanford University." 

But Heather Lynch Hansen, a spokesperson for Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, says, “We have no record of Alberto Chang-Rajii." Soon after New Times contacted Chang-Rajii, he removed any mention of Stanford from his online bio.

However, his years at the school are central to the other piece of his origin tale: his early Google stake. In his speech in Arkansas, he described meeting Brin during summer school at Stanford.

"His business plan was literally dot-matrix-printed and this thick, full of algorithms I couldn't understand. But the thing I could understand was it was providing an effective search better than Yahoo," Chang-Rajii told the crowd. "I had $10,000 saved. My math was either to buy a 1996 Mitsubishi Eclipse convertible... or, then again, follow this guy, who was named Sergey Brin, and invest in 1 percent in Google.”

But that claim has also been questioned by experts. One doubter is David Cheriton, a Stanford professor who was among Google’s first investors in 1998. There's a post on Quora.com, a question-and-answer website, from 2014 purporting to be from Cheriton confirming that Chang-Rajii was an early shadow investor in Google. 

But Cheriton tells New Times he doesn’t know the Chilean. "The Quora information is fraudulent," Cheriton says in an email. "I never wrote that answer, and it is completely incorrect as far as I know. I've asked Quora to remove it." 

Mark Malseed, a journalist who co-wrote one of the first accounts of Google's corporate history, The Google Story, says he never heard Chang-Rajii's name during interviews with scores of the firm's earliest investors and employees. The first round of funding Brin and Page received from family and friends amounted to about $1 million around 1998, Malseed says.

"This makes Chang-Rajii's claim of getting 1 percent of the company for $10,000 suspect, as at that rate, the founders would not have anything left for themselves, and we know they held onto a significant chunk," Malseed says. "[It's] not impossible if they badly needed cash for servers and sold off some equity, but doubtful.”

Those doubts are echoed by Alberto Arébalos, who was Google's chief of global communications for Latin America from 2007 to 2012.

"In my years with Google, I never, ever heard about that story. When you join the company, you learn the history of the company, who put in the money and what happened," he says. "I'm not saying he's lying, because I don't have proof. But I never, ever heard that story in my five years with Google."

In the past decade, Chang-Rajii's current firm, Grupo Arcano, has gone global, opening offices in London, Sydney, and Miami Beach, right on Lincoln Road.

He has insinuated himself into the burgeoning tech scene in Miami, scoring a board seat in 2013 on Endeavor Miami, which seeks to incubate up-and-coming tech firms in South Florida, and sponsoring educational programs at LAB Miami. (Chang-Rajii no longer has an active role in LAB Miami, says Wifredo Fernandez, LAB's cofounder.) Just three weeks ago, eMerge Americas, an annual South Beach tech conference, announced Chang-Rajii's company would present this year’s showcase for startup firms.

Back in Chile, though, he has faced hard questions about Grupo Arcano over the past month. El Mercurio, one of the largest dailies in Santiago, published a story over the weekend headlined with a quote from the investment firm's local head, Jorge Hurtado: "We are not a pyramid scheme." That piece was followed by critical reports in several Chilean financial journals.

In his letter to investors, Chang-Rajii criticizes the Chilean reporting and says journalists there ignored evidence from his firm about their strong investments and robust returns. "In the case of El Mercurio, they interviewed Jorge Hurtado... who handed over documentation and arguments that were not published in full,” Chang-Rajii writes.

The investment chief says his firm is on sound footing and its "level of compliance has always been irreproachable, and this will remain so in the future.”


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