I was given a chance that changed my life
I came to the United States with my family from Egypt in 1986 on student visas. My immigrant parents encouraged us to aspire, struggle, and achieve; it was the immigrant mantra. Thanks to this motivation, my first class at the University of Utah was in the fall of 1988 at the age of 15.
My first 10 years in the country were incredibly difficult. Our visas only permitted us to work on-campus, up to 20 hours a week, for minimal pay. Despite this, as foreign students, we were required to pay non-resident tuition even after residing in Utah for years. Add to this that we were not white, we were not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we were not American, and we were not wealthy―all things we would have to overcome.
To this day, I vividly remember my rejection letter from the graduate computer science program at the University, despite having completed my undergraduate studies with worthy grades and test scores. While this would not have been so tragic for an American student, as an immigrant, my visa was dependent on being enrolled, and not getting into the program could have spelled catastrophe.
At the time I was told that, had I been an American, my scores and grades would have been more than good enough to admit me but, because I was a foreign student, the bar was different and much higher to ensure that American students would have enough spots. This rejection shook me to my core. Was I not smart enough? Had I been judged against too low a measuring stick? Had I selected a field, computer science, that was simply too competitive for my natural talents?
From that point on, I had something to prove―to myself and to the world that had for so many years made me feel like an outsider. I was intent on proving I was capable of succeeding both academically and professionally, I just needed a chance to prove myself. Finally, one person stepped up to help me. Thanks to Dr. Lee Hollaar, a professor who gave me a chance as a summer graduate research assistant, I was able to complete MS and MPhil degrees in computer science as well as an MBA. And thanks to my graduate research, I was finally able to secure an H-1B visa to work off-campus nearly 10 years after I arrived stateside.
That first, not-on-campus job triggered a 20-year corporate-America career that culminated in 2015 with my serving as COO of a software and services company with a nine-figure revenue. I was overseeing the largest and most geographically-dispersed organization of my career: 2,100 people (600 permanent and 1,500 hourly coworkers), 18 offices around the world, and a broad range of product and service offerings.
Managing the inner conflict of entrepreneurship
Despite all of my good fortune, the graduate school rejection from 20 years earlier still had me doubting myself and my ability as a businessperson. Did I really know what I was doing? Why had I always written off my friends’ encouragement to become an entrepreneur? Was it because, deep down, I wasn’t sure I would succeed on my own?
I had a clear case of imposter syndrome, and I struggled with it for years. It was my wife and friends who finally gave me the courage to give up the stability of my career, and to forego the security of my executive paycheck. So in early 2016, 30 years after arriving in the US, I began my entrepreneurial journey and founded Mindshare Ventures and AtlasRTX.
This current chapter of my life is far from written, but the past five years have taught me more about business than the prior 20. They’ve easily been the most intense, overwhelming, all-consuming, and fulfilling years of my professional life. Until I experienced it myself, I hadn’t appreciated the inner conflict that exists inherently in founder/CEO/owners.
Though there are many founders, many CEOs, and many investors (“owners” in this metaphor), there are very few founder/CEO/owners. The three roles may sometimes be conflated when, in reality, each represents a different perspective that must be reconciled. As a CEO, I’m an employee; I’m hired by the shareholders/owners to in turn hire and manage the team, and to deliver on the company’s commitments. This requires me to play the role of a parent where I must be willing to take on difficult conversations, decisions, and discipline. It’s a tough, unpopular, and frequently thankless role, much like being a parent.
As a founder, I don’t see myself as an employee. I am so passionate about the mission and would prefer to serve as a grandparent, a cheerleader and bringer of happiness. In that capacity as a grandparent, I can afford to show my love and be popular thanks to the CEO’s role as parent.
As an owner, I’m an investor. I have risked our capital because of my belief in the business and its potential to turn our investment into return in a capital efficient way. To some investors, this is potentially one of many bets they’re making within their portfolio, but to me it’s the professional and financial bet of a lifetime.
Being CEO is thus less inner-conflict-inducing than being a founder and CEO. Adding in owner to the mix makes it a trifecta of inner perspectives and conflicts. Every owner/investor seeks a great founder, every founder seeks a great CEO, and every CEO seeks a great team.
Paying it forward
I look forward to writing the conclusion to this chapter and hopefully overcoming imposter syndrome once and for all. In the meantime, I’m getting incredible fulfillment from paying forward the chance I was given 25 years ago by giving happy, humble, hungry people a chance that they really need―just as I was given on multiple occasions in my career and life.
As the CEO of AtlastRTX, we sponsor scholarships each year for a few first-generation immigrants who are eager to go to college. We offer internships to these students as “Salem Scholars” the summer before they start college and provide them perspective on being in a professional office and team environment; it’s been so incredibly impactful and one of the things I’m most proud of.
We also offer college internships and post-college apprenticeships to early-career professionals who have a lot of potential but haven’t been able to get their foot in the door somewhere―we like to be that “somewhere” for them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many of my founding team needed a chance to flourish and struggled to find it elsewhere.
For example, we have a woman leader at our company who felt that her gender had held her back from professional progress. However, at AtlasRTX she was able to become a senior director and lead a team. She was just one example of a person who founda home with us who needed a chance to go from a terminal job to a career that allows unlimited advancement. We are proud to provide those colleagues that chance.
These things have been central to my entrepreneurial mission and have easily provided me the necessary fulfillment to offset the pressures of this journey. The important factors for us in any candidate are the 4Hs, which may seem like words on a wall, but they’re real to us: happy, humble, hungry, and horsepower. A very small percentage of applicants have all four, and it takes us more than 200 applicants to select a new colleague.
We’ll stick to one in 200 and we’ll always give chances to deserving people. It’s what makes this entrepreneurship journey special.