PayPal co-founder to speak at UI commencement


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CHAMPAIGN — PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, a Ukrainian immigrant and University of Illinois computer-science alumnus, will deliver the keynote address at the UI's May 12 commencement.

Levchin, a 1997 UI graduate and tech entrepreneur, helped create the worldwide online payments system PayPal, chaired the board of the crowd-sourced business-review site Yelp, and is now CEO and founder of the consumer-financing platform Affirm.

"We're extremely proud to have Max Levchin as the 2018 commencement speaker," Chancellor Robert Jones said in a release Monday. "He is an inspiring entrepreneur and innovator, and he has had great success in changing the lives of millions of people through his work with PayPal, Yelp and Affirm. Even more importantly, he has also shown himself to be a kind and generous colleague and mentor. We're proud to have him representing our alumni during this celebration of our graduates."

The commencement ceremony will begin at 9:30 a.m. in Memorial Stadium.

According to the UI, Levchin was raised in a family of Soviet scientists. The family was told multiple times that he would not survive the respiratory diseases of his youth, and he was prodded to take up the clarinet to build lung capacity. When the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in 1986, his family loaded Levchin and his younger brother on a train from their home in Kiev and moved to Crimea.

The family left the USSR under political asylum in 1991, shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed. With just $700 to their name, they settled in Chicago, where Levchin attended Mather High School on the city's North Side before enrolling at the UI in 1993.

By the time he graduated, Levchin had co-founded with classmates two companies that made internet tools. Those first ventures failed, as did the two that followed. As he told the publication Business Insider, he moved to Silicon Valley "since that's where all my friends go, and sometimes their companies don't fail."

A company he co-founded with Peter Thiel came up with the money-transfer service known today as PayPal, which eventually went public before being purchased by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion.

In 2004, Levchin helped start the online social-networking and review service Yelp, serving as board chairman until 2015.

Affirm, a financial technologies company Levchin co-founded, was recently valued between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

He has remained involved with the UI, making several appearances on campus and co-hosting the Technology Entrepreneur Center's Silicon Valley Workshop, where students take a weeklong tour of Silicon Valley companies and startups.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).