As a Palestinian refugee growing up in Kuwait, Faris Alami was a straight-A student on his way to university and a stable career. And then life intervened when the Iraqi invasion turned his world upside down.
Fresh out of high school, in the midst of a war zone, Faris found himself in charge of a local grocery store, a precarious experience that he barely escaped with his life. Yet, it was an experience that taught him how to think like an entrepreneur.
In this episode, we talk about his transition from being a straight-A student who knew how to follow the rules to learn how to survive in a war zone and how by selling T-shirts, he became an unlikely entrepreneur.
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Read the transcript below.
How Wartime Survival Taught Me To Think Like An Entrepreneur With Faris Alami
Faris, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me in such a wonderful program that you do.
Thanks, Faris. I was thinking about this. We met in 2008. I was out interviewing entrepreneurs for a project we were doing for the Cisco Entrepreneur Institute. I stumbled across you and your story at TechTown. We were connected with TechTown in Detroit and that’s how we were introduced. That’s where I first learned a little bit about your story. I’m so glad to come back and have another bite at this apple to learn more about your story and to share it with our audience.
One of the interesting things about your story is you said to me once that you always thought of yourself as a rule follower. You’re a straight-A student. You did exactly as you’re told and you know how to follow the rules, then you found yourself in circumstances where the rules are out the window, and you’ve got to figure it out for yourself. That’s a super interesting thread I’d like to pick up on but before we get into that too much, I want to understand, where did that rule-following come from?
Thank you so much, Gary. I feel very lucky to have met you and learned about your story yourself. I hope that one day, you’ll open up to the world and share more of your story. There are lots to learn from you, your journey, your family, and all the things that you’re doing. To answer your question, I grew up in a house where my mom and my dad were both refugees. They would never have said that, by the way. If you said, “You were refugees,” they would have said, “Absolutely, no.” My dad refused to register with the UN as a refugee. Although we carried a refugee document from Egypt all my life, he would never say that.
We learned quickly at a young age that you better follow all the rules because if you don’t, first of all, no one acknowledges you as a person that exists anyway. When we went over to visit my grandparents, my grandmother, my uncles and aunts, specifically from my dad’s side during the summer in Gaza and Palestine, if you didn’t stay in line, you could potentially get shot. You stayed in line and you did what you were told. You had to jump through many hoops that if you did not jump through all the hoops or to your point, follow those rules, you already know when I acknowledged you what you’re trying to do. Now, you got out of the line. You have given anyone to dismiss you anyway. I learned quickly at a young age that you better follow all the rules.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Kuwait, but my parents, both my mom and my dad, and myself were considered Palestinians. My mom was born in Be’er Sheva, which is South Israel and my dad was born in Jaffa, which is Tel Aviv in Israel. They became refugees in the 1948 war. My parents became refugees one more time in 1967 because they were not in Gaza when the war broke out. They couldn’t go back to Gaza, although they had their homes, parents and so on and so forth there.
Living in Kuwait, did you have to follow rules as a refugee?
In Kuwait, first of all, my status was based on my dad’s status working. It was a work permit for my dad that was renewed every year and every year it expired. We have a lot of rules to follow. First of all, you don’t have a status. Your parents have status. Second, you are not a citizen or a resident so you could potentially get in trouble if you don’t follow the rules.
For instance, you can’t even get a driver’s license at the time being a foreigner. You have to prove the reason why you need a driver’s license because you are doing something that requires you to do that. Part of it was to control traffic and all this other good stuff, but part of it was that we were not residents or citizens of that country. You could feel that with my parent’s sentence because we lived in an apartment and we always talked about going to Gaza one day. That was the whole discussion.
Why did your mom and dad refuse to accept the refugee status?
It’s a deeper conversation that I feel like I’ve been trying to avoid all my life to dig in too much. My impression is they had a nice life before that they could remember. They didn’t want to think that they lost that life. They started creating a nice life based on what they had and what they can do with what they got. I don’t want to say that if you look at us, the photos and what we did, you would never think that we’re refugees. My parents said, “Without a degree and without being top of your class, you have no life because this is your passport. You don’t have a passport,” which is true.
Back to rule-following, when we went to visit, we first had to go apply for the country that we wanted to go to. Let’s say we wanted to go to Greece. First, you have to go back to the Egyptian embassy to request adding the country of Greece to our refugee document. You get a stamp and get approval. It takes a couple of days and then you get it back. Now, you’re authorized to apply to Greece to get a visa. That’s exactly to your point, follow those rules. Otherwise, you can go apply to Greece directly because if you apply directly, they will stamp it that you were rejected. You’ll never be able to go back again for another six months or a year.
It was a very harsh rule to follow. If you don’t follow those rules, you’re going to get yourself in trouble and would potentially be killed. Also, it could be killing your future, your trip or whatever it is that you’re trying to do if you don’t follow it. To your question, they refused to acknowledge that because they kept hanging on to the idea that my dad grew up with a nice life family. They owned lots of buildings. They have nice businesses. He wanted to live like that and he had a window of it whenever we went to Gaza to live like that, the same with my mom.
Being in Kuwait from their own perspective is a temporary situation. They should be able to go back to their home one day. Not necessarily in Kuwait, but at least in Gaza. Therefore, the idea of being a refugee gives them the idea that you have no place. In their mind, they have a place, a home and things that they could go to. I was trying to make sure that I don’t choke and lose my emotions describing it. That’s what comes down to it. It’s a powerful question that you asked and I hope that I answered it.
That’s good. That helps set the context for your upbringing. It’s a powerful part of your story. In some ways, I can relate. My father immigrated to the United States. His status was enemy alien. The other thing I could relate to is my dad lost his leg in World War II. He would never think of himself as disabled. He never had a handicap thing on his license plate.
That’s how I was interpreting your parents’ position. It’s a matter of pride like, “I’m not going to let this get me.” It’s a powerful part of the story. I’m grateful that you were willing to share that. You said something else I wanted to dig into and that is your parents taught you that if you don’t have a university degree, you’re nothing. You’re not going anywhere. Could you say a little bit more about that?
Right away at preschool, although there was no grade, they graded you for your cleanliness, following the rules, listening to the teachers, and dressing the right code. I learned that when I do those things and I get an excellence award for the school I’m attending, my mom and my dad will buy dessert for the whole school. My dad will show up with this big tray to feed the whole school. Small pieces of candy, Arabic dessert or baklava for the entire school. That’s 300 people.
I was being rewarded with those things. I was lucky because all the way to my high school if I wasn’t top in my class, there was no question about should I be second or third. It was like, “You’re going to be at the top of the class and that’s all that was expected from you.” That’s what I ended up doing because I learned that looking at my uncles, grandparents and my parents themselves.
My dad was still going to school at age 40. He kept taking classes even for other things, not necessarily for college. He took how to be a fireman class and how to manage in English. He kept taking more classes. Every time I saw him, he was going to do something else beyond what he’s doing. My grandfather was going to college when I was growing up. It feels like it was an important thing because I also noticed that if you follow these rules, companies will follow you and try to hire you because they want someone with that degree.
If you’re good at it, if you’re top of your class, they’re going to make sure that you have a job and you’re going to be working there forever. That’s what I learned. I also saw with one of my uncles, they had meetings with closed doors, and he wasn’t invited because he didn’t have a degree. Until you got a degree, then you got invited to those meetings. That reinforced it to follow these rules, get your degree, get a job and get stable because we don’t have a place to be stable.
Was that a familial rule or was that a broader cultural rule? It’s like, “You can’t come to this meeting if you don’t have a degree.”
It might have been both. I’m not sure. What he told me, which I asked about as I grew up reflecting back, I’m like, “Why didn’t he go to all those meetings?” I remember him saying there’s a meeting that he can’t go to but I never understood why. My understanding is that they all had some engineering degree and although he’s been practicing engineering, he was not included. It could be also because he was carrying this refugee document that doesn’t give him the status. God only knows but his impression was he didn’t have the degree to get into these meetings to discuss. They’re happy to hear his input but he was not part of the decision-making.
One other thread I want to understand is if your family is from Palestine and you’re living in Kuwait, how does Egypt come into the picture?
I’m sorry I say these things because to me it’s natural. The readers are probably thinking, “Where’s Gaza, Palestine, Be’er Sheva and Jaffa?” Egypt took control in 1967 over the Gaza Strip from Palestine. Egypt gave all the people from that territory documents that say they’re not Egyptians because they’re not. They’re Palestinians from the Gaza Strip.
That’s how I carried a document that said, “The government of Egypt is showing this document for refugees of Palestine.” When we traveled, no one acknowledged it as a passport, it was considered a refugee document and that’s what it says on it. Egypt was kind enough to give us some travel documents that we could use to be able to move around. Otherwise, we have no documents to allow us to travel. You don’t have it because you’re not a country of power or a country that’s been acknowledged by anyone.
What happened that knocked you off of your track to go to college? I know a little bit of the backstory. Maybe I’m jumping ahead here, but I know that something happened when you were a teenager, maybe 18 or 19, that threw a wrench in the gears. Can you talk a little bit about what that was?
I’m always impressed with your memory. I finished high school and the plan was to go to Canada because we already have some best friends there. Again, following all these rules and getting good grades to go to Canada, I applied for McGill University and Concordia University to study there. My dad was going to join me on the trip to speak to our lawyer about immigrating to Canada. That was the trajectory of exactly what’s going to happen.
On August 2nd, 1990, we had an appointment at 2:00 PM to go to the Canadian embassy to get the visa. It was approved. On August 2nd, 1990 at 5:00 AM, tanks started rolling into Kuwait from Iraq. At the time, Saddam Hussein was wanting to take over Kuwait and claiming it as part of Iraq. I’ll never forget me and my grandfather were having a conversation about me going to the embassy no matter what happens. He’s like, “You’re not going anywhere. The embassy is closed.” I said, “We’ll see.”
At 9:00 AM tanks are rolling through the streets in front of our eyes besides the bombs that we heard before that. That threw a wrench at it. I can no longer go to Canada to study Electrical and Computer Engineering. That’s all I wanted to be and that’s all now out of the window. Coming up with a backup plan that I never thought I would have, I was able to come to the US instead of going to Canada.
Was that the summer after your senior year in high school?
Yes, 1990. I was eighteen years old.
It’s the summer and you’re planning to go to Canada and become a citizen of Canada, study at McGill or another university and continue on your way, and the Iraqi invasion happens. What happens to you and your family? How did that affect you besides not being able to immigrate to Canada?
It affected us immediately because the Kuwaiti government no longer exist. As a residence of a place that doesn’t exist, it’s similar to what had happened to them in Palestine. It’s another reminder that you have no place to go and we had to stay still. On the first day, on August 2nd, 1990, nothing happened. On August 3rd, 1990, it was clear that the Iraqis were there to stay.
My parents stayed still. I think the 2nd or 3rd day, someone showed up at our house telling my dad, “You better report to work or we’re going to come to get you to go to work,” because now they have access to all this data. He ended up starting showing up to go to work. My high school teacher called me up and said, “Faris, I have the keys to the grocery store.”
As you know, the government has collapsed. Most of the grocery stores at the time, not all of them, but the big ones were run by the government. Sometimes they were subsidized by the government to allow people to buy food and things like that. I think of the Midwest area like Kroger Plaza and all the things that come with it. The hair salon, shoe repair, dry-cleaning place and all of that are in the plaza. He gave me the keys and said, “Would you run it? Hire the people.”
You’re eighteen years old. The government-run grocery stores are gone. Your high school teacher calls you up and says, “There’s a grocery store here. It’s abandoned. We’re going to give you the keys. You’re going to run it.”
It’s owned by the government. I’m assuming that he or someone from his family worked for the government for that piece of it. He’s a Kuwaiti citizen and at the time it was dangerous for any Kuwaiti to be running around in the streets because sometimes they got tortured by the Iraqi soldiers. Not all of the soldiers are bad. I was lucky. I was saved by an Iraqi soldier who called us and said, “You better leave.”
There were some that we’re following the rules to say, “If you find a Kuwaiti, jail them, especially if they’re resisting.” They considered running the store as part of the resistance because now you’re operating an institution that should belong to the Iraqi government, not to the Kuwaiti government. He gave me the keys and he called me up and said, “I have the keys. Would you come to pick them up and run the store?” I said, “What does that mean”? He said, “You’re going to hire the people and make sure that the supplier is done. I’ll give you all the phone numbers for the supply companies because they’re all operating now. You could maybe start seeing if you could get refurbishing some of your things that you’re selling and here are the keys.”
Why did he pick you? Is it because you were a good student and you are a rule follower? Was he a friend of the family? That’s super interesting. You don’t have any idea.
I asked my brother because I said I don’t remember why he called me. He said most likely because I was a very well-organized student. I did follow the rules really well. I was top of my class. He’s getting this young and nice kid that could potentially keep things in line and keep it running. He seems to be well-organized enough to maybe do that. I’m assuming.
If I’m understanding you correctly, he’s asking you to do something that’s going to jeopardize your safety, perhaps your life.
You’re much more mature than I was when I was eighteen, so I didn’t think that far. I thought I get to open the store for people who have not been able to have access to food. I’m going to be able to serve food to the community that I live in because it was in the community that we reside. Everybody’s welcome to get it. They all have little documents that show us what they’re doing.
Looking back, it was awesome that I did it but when you think through it, I somewhat put my life in more danger because I took the food that was supposed to be divided for certain families, specifically Kuwaiti families. I put it in the trunk of the car at the end of the day. What I did after the curfew, I drove around to those people’s homes, knocked on the door, drop the stuff and drove off. I didn’t want them to recognize me because I was afraid someone might be there or maybe there’s a soldier that is not a Kuwaiti. I was afraid that I will get reported.
I wanted to make sure that I gave them the food and took off because I’m also after the curfew. I could be shot at while I’m driving, but I drove very slowly. I turned the lights off and did all those things. I was doing all this stuff. I’m not really thinking too deep. I thought it’s my obligation to fulfill the order that I got to give the food.
I have now the keys and the food that no one has access to beyond me. Maybe it was a blessing that I didn’t think, “What am I doing? Turning the lights off and driving my car in the neighborhoods that I don’t even know and dropping off food.” I share that with you because it was in 1992 when my dad called me up and said, “There’s this guy who stopped me and argued with me that this car doesn’t belong to me because it belongs to this young kid that used to drop off food that they never met.” It still gives me a lot of emotions.
Someone knew of the car. Did your dad know you were doing that?
No. I didn’t tell anyone. I told them occasionally but not the details.
How did that end? You’re eighteen years old. You got to figure out how to run a grocery store essentially in a war zone. How do you keep the supply chain going? How does all that work?
The grocery store was upstairs and then you took about 100 steps down and the police station, which is now occupied by Iraqi soldiers was there. On a daily basis, I was detained for questions. Every day they pulled me down because I had the keys and they’re like, “How did you get the keys?” I was lucky because I had access to everything. I made IDs and I made everything predate August 2nd, 1990. Therefore, it looked like I’m the employee. I’m the guy who’s supposed to be running it. I also get IDs for everyone else.
I was questioned every day, but I learned that I need to be nice to them. I give them food and stuff if they came to the place. I had one soldier say, “I’m going to take the whole shelf.” I said, “If you take the whole shelf, I won’t have anything for you to come to take tomorrow. Why don’t you take small portions for yourself and your family, and then come back again? I’m happy to give you again tomorrow.” He seemed to like my attitude.
They kept me and then occasionally they release me day in and day out. That’s how I did it. For the supplies, you had to call them and say, “Here’s the new process and you always have to come with a little extra because there are always going to be soldiers that are going to show up. You’re going to have to give them something.”
What is it like to be eighteen years old and finding yourself in a situation where there is no rule book anymore? You’re running a grocery store. I think of an eighteen-year-old kid now and go, “No way.”
I hired 50 people and make sure they show up on time, schedule them, deliver the food and divide it. I reflect back and I think that was a miracle because I don’t know how I did it. Part of it could be something you speak a lot about. It was the mindset. I had to figure out quickly how to do all of this or I’m going to be in trouble because the soldiers would have been mad if I had no food for them the next day. The community will starve to death because I’m their supply of food.
It was a responsibility that forced you to figure it out. That’s super interesting.
The situation made me think, “I don’t have time to follow any rules. I’m going to make up the rules.” I’m the one who went and said, “I’m going to make all these IDs because they’re always questioning me about where you’re working and why you’re doing all this stuff.” I said, “Forget it.” I got all the stamps that I could create. I got all the IDs that are blank. I’m going to take some photos and put them in, stamp and sign them. I’m going to give them out because I’m the guy.” I had to throw all those rules out and create my own rules to make sure that I survived. I call it survival mode or intuition, but that’s what I had to do.
I’ve been having a conversation with a friend at the Graduate School of Education at Penn about a mindset is an unconscious adaptive mechanism. I push back on the idea of these tests that can tell if you have an entrepreneurial mindset or if you don’t because it’s a weird thing. The mindset is a result of functioning in certain conditions. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s not a dispositional thing. It’s a situational adaptive thing. I think that if they would have asked you to take that test the day before the Iraqi invasion, you would have scored very low on the entrepreneurial mindset test.
I would fail miserably. If you said make a left and if it’s not right or make a right 90 degrees versus 75 degrees, I would say, “Absolutely, no way, 90 degrees only.” I would have failed beyond miserably if I would have taken any of these assessments that I personally have seen and used.
You’re eighteen years old, but you have this weight of responsibility like, “All these people are counting on me. I’ve got to figure out how to negotiate with the Iraqis. I’ve got to figure out how to keep my employees going, how to purchase the food, and how to keep this whole organization running without getting in trouble. The community is depending on me.” How did that unfold? Can you tell us how that played out over time?
The first thing was how to get anyone to show up because nobody wanted to leave their house knowing that there is a checkpoint on the way to the store. Whether it’s employees or people coming to the store, the first thing was to get people to show up. It’s unfolded with me making tons of calls, calling people that I know, people that could potentially be helpful to me and learning from the network that I had.
At the time, I never thought about it the way you’re asking me, but I took time when we talked last to reflect and say, “What really went on now that I know what I know reflecting back.” The first thing was my grandfather said, “Take all the documents and hide them.” That’s what I learned because that’s what he learned because they don’t want to show any ID of who you are because if they know who you are, they could potentially kill you, jail you and they could do whatever. We don’t know their motives yet.
You’re saying that your parents and your grandparents already had an advantage because they had seen this movie before and they had experienced it.
They have seen it a couple of times.
They were prepared for it.
They were but I was not. Learning from them and then occasionally, I have to take some of the learnings because he said, “Hide it.” I learned, “I got to create these IDs. I can’t hide them. I need them to see that I belong here because if I don’t show them that I belong here, then they’re going to say, ‘You don’t belong here. You need to get out. Give us the keys.'” I had to learn from it and be aware of it and then know what other options do I have? It gives me the advantage to know that first hide it and then that didn’t work. I said, “I going to need to come up with something else because that’s not going to work in this situation.”
You got to convince people to come out of the house. You create the IDs so you can get people to come and work in the grocery store. What was the next hurdle? What were some of the other challenges that you were facing?
I can’t take the money to the bank. I had to hide the money. I’m collecting all this cash that I have to hide it and I also have to be careful because if we get caught with that volume of dollars, at the time it was Iraqi dinars, they could easily kill me and keep the money. Forget that they could turn me in. I was putting a lot of danger into that. I’m taking the cash every day and hiding it, and then paying for the suppliers. I’m making sure that they don’t see that I had more cash than I had because it’s a war zone. They could say, “We want more and we want this.” Who am I going to complain to, the soldiers?
There are lots of hoarders. These are some of the things that come to my mind. Keeping the soldiers happy because there were a few times that I felt that I was going to die. That’s what ends up happening. I ended up having to leave because there was a time that they wanted to kick out. There were lots of daily hurdles. You get families that also panic. They want to take all the food, “Can you give us three months versus one month’s supplies?” There are lots of things like people at the store were also thinking that maybe they don’t have to show up. They want to take a break when we are busy.
There are lots of things that I had to learn how to manage without the experience. I think as humans, we probably have the capacity but sometimes because we live in a much more comfortable space, we don’t have to use it. I feel like there are some things around us, and then the community that you’re around. The thing that I’ve been using in a lot of this work is leverage. I didn’t learn it back then. I learned it reflecting back at it to say, “I leveraged my parent’s and grandparent’s experience. I leveraged the network that I had to get people to show up.” These are the things that I learned through my journey only by reflecting back, not necessarily doing that.
You’re not aware of it at the time, but it’s also interesting that we were talking about you learn to follow rules and your grandfather told you to hide the documents. You tried that for a minute but then you thought, “Nope. That’s not going to work. I’ve got to ditch those rules.” It’s interesting to me. I sometimes ask people, “Did you jump in the entrepreneurial pool? Did you get pushed in the pool? Did you wade into the pool? Did you fall backward into the pool?” I’ve never heard a story like this where you literally got shoved into the pool in a sink or swim situation.
It’s just stories. I’m sure someone probably had a similar story. Maybe they didn’t articulate it this way.
There’s an important point that I want to maybe tease out for a minute. I say this to people. You could have a managerial mindset or an employee mindset, but when push comes to shove and you’re out in the jungle was a sharp stick and you’ve got to survive, your mindset is going to change very quickly or you’re going to perish.
You’re giving me goosebumps. You’re onto something.
It’s going to change. I’m forever saying that the entrepreneurial mindset is an effect. It’s not the cause of the behavior. It’s an effect of functioning in a certain environment. Most of us learn to function in other-directed rule-bound known systems. The entrepreneurial mindset atrophies. Those skills are not called upon, but when you’re put in a different situation, you’ve got to think differently. You got to learn to act differently and adapt. It’s interesting. How did that scenario play out over time? How did that end?
It lasts for a few months, three months or so. By the time, I got lucky, a soldier called the house and I was loading the car with stuff. He talked to my brother and said, “Don’t have your brother come today. It doesn’t look promising for him.” He went and grabbed me and said, “You got to leave.” I went upstairs, packed the two bags and took off.
An Iraqi soldier took a liking to you because you were helping them. He called you and gave you a heads up like, “Don’t show up,” for you and your brother.
I was being questioned daily. I already know that I was going to be pulled down to be questioned. Occasionally, I felt threatened to where they wanted to kill me that moment or at least torture. A couple of them liked us because not only we gave them food, but we talked and we help each other. I wasn’t doing anything trying to harm anyone. I was trying to serve food for people who are in need. That’s what it came down to.
I didn’t carry a gun to shoot anyone. I was trying to be helpful to the community and occasionally for the soldiers that wanted to eat, “You can have some food. Just don’t take everything.” That’s how it worked out. I was lucky. That one person called. My brother got me and I left that day. Another shift comes in and now you got to think, “I can’t keep following the rules of showing up because that’s not going to work today. I got to figure out something else.” I packed the bags and drove up to Baghdad.
You abandoned the grocery store. Your life is being threatened and now what are you doing?
I was lucky because my uncle at the time who is Canadian went to Canada and then sent my high school diploma to my cousin who was at the time in Arizona. He sent a new acceptance for the university because my old ones were no longer legit. They were pre-August 2nd, 1990. They sent a new one for the fall of 1990 from Arizona. I took that and I said, “Let’s try going to the US.” It was something that I would never dream of. I would never want to go to the US. I want to go to Canada but I have to change really quick.
What happened then is I took it to Baghdad and from Baghdad I got a visa to go to Jordan. I have three days to go in and out of the country. When I arrived in Jordan, they said, “Where is your ticket for leaving the country?” I said, “I need to go to the US embassy to apply for a visa.” They said, “You don’t have a ticket. We’re going to send you back.” They jailed me in this detention center and they told me to go back. I hitchhiked. I got in a car and was able to go back to Iraq. The Iraqi said, “Where do you live?” I said, “In Kuwait.” They’re like, “There’s no Kuwait. You need a visa to come back to Iraq.” I said, “I left roughly eight hours ago. If you look at my document, I have not entered Jordan. I can’t enter Jordan. I need to come back.”
I was lucky that soldier convinced another soldier to let me back in. Otherwise, I would have spent on the border between Iraq and Jordan. I got back in and then I got a second visa to go this time through the airport. At the time I went through the car and this time I’m going to go through the flight. I flew from Baghdad to Amman. I landed. I was questioned for about four hours and then I was released. I went to my uncle’s house for dinner. He said, “You should show up tomorrow to the embassy at about 4:00 AM if you want to get a number and get served.”
I showed up at 4:00 AM. I’m back to following the rules again. At 4:00 AM, I was the fifth person in the line and the embassy opens at 9:00 AM. That’s how it started. I was lucky again because the lady at the embassy said, “Have a seat,” and I sat down. The 2 or 3 people before me got denied and these are Jordanians who are going for their Master’s and they have all the money. I’m thinking, “I am never going to get a visa. I don’t have what they have.”
The lady said, “Because of your good grades, I’m going to give you a visa to go and attend school and you have six months to go.” Although she gave me six months to attend and fly to the US, I only had three days total to be in Jordan. That was the second day. We went from there to my uncle’s house. My uncle paid for a one-way ticket from Amman to Jordan the next morning and I left that day. On the third day, I was gone with a one-way ticket. I don’t think they sell those anymore.
A one-way ticket to New York City. Is that where you landed?
Yeah, New York City on Halloween night.
Halloween night 1990. You wind up in New York. What are you doing now?
I was beyond petrified. I’ve seen Halloween on TV but I’ve never understood it. Being in New York back in the ’90s, everybody was dressed for Halloween, including the people in the hotel. People are inviting me to come to join them. I’m like, “Are you crazy? I don’t even have anything that looks like this or to dress like this to be with you.” I never forget. I put my two bags against the door because I was afraid they’re going to break into my room.
Where were you staying?
It was a hotel like a Days Inn or something like that. I probably have the receipt somewhere. I stayed there. The next day I flew to Arizona. It is where I was accepted. It was a culture shock because New York is what I expected the whole US to look like. I don’t know. All nice big buildings and traffic everywhere. I ended up in Tucson, Arizona and my cousin said, “Step outside the airport. I will pick you up,” and I’m thinking, “Are you crazy? The airport is going to be humongous.” Once I landed, I realized I stepped outside. I was the only person outside. She’s going to pick me up. Talk about culture shock from New York to Tucson. That’s how I ended up in Arizona.
How did you get from Arizona to Detroit? You got a visa to study for six months. That was an American visa, right?
I was doing some work in South Africa a few years ago. We were flying from London to Johannesburg. The South African government won’t let you get on the plane in London if you don’t have two pages in your passport completely free of stamps. That was something in the fine print that I had overlooked and they wouldn’t let me on the flight. I had to spend the weekend in London and get to the embassy on Monday morning to get a temporary passport.
Like you, I was there at 7:00 in the morning. I was there at 4:00 but I was early. When I came out of the embassy, there was a line of people of every origin you can imagine. It was a huge line and they were all trying to get into the US embassy. It gave me a sense of gratitude. It was a powerful thing. I’m really happy. I’m grateful that you shared that part of your story as well. You got a visa from the US government to study for six months. I don’t even understand that, but how does that work?
I was accepted at the university to study English because that was the easiest thing to get versus trying to get into an Electrical Engineering degree with the goal to study Electrical Engineering. Looking back, it’s amazing that they gave me the visa because you’re talking about October. The semester starts in August and I’m asking her to give me a visa to attend the school that started in August. I’m very lucky to be here. I’m fortunate. It was November 5th by the time I got to the school. The semester has maybe five weeks left. I attended them.
I went to school there and I finished it and then once I finished, I started realizing, what else do I need to be doing? You got to take the next English courses. I signed up for the next ones and I kept going until February 1991. The following year, a few months later where I learned my dad and my mom sent me a note saying, “We don’t know what’s going to happen but please be careful because another war broke up to liberate Kuwait.”
When they got liberated roughly about February. By the time I got to them, they said, “We are being ordered deported from Kuwait because we’re Palestinians.” It’s because of the political environment at the time, Arafat was lining up with Saddam, “All the Palestinians are going to get deported and you need to figure out what to do because you can’t come back.”
When they said that I can’t come back, I panicked because the whole plan was maybe this is temporary for a couple of months and we all go to Canada. It was all part of the thought process. He said, “Why don’t you try to go to Canada? See if you could go back to Concordia, apply and see if you could get in.” I applied back to Concordia. I got accepted into their English Department, ESL, English as a Second Language. I went to the Canadian embassy in Los Angeles to apply.
They denied it. Who’s going to give this guy a visa? First of all, you’re already in the US but you have no status. You’re a student, so you’re supposed to be leaving soon. You have no way to prove that you have an income to come to Canada and you’re accepted to study English in Montreal, which is a French-speaking province.
All these things, I didn’t think about at the time. I’m like, “They should give me a visa. All of my friends are there and my uncle is there and all this stuff is going on.” They denied it. They said, “No, and then you had six months that you cannot apply for another six months before you could reapply again.”
You’re back in Arizona. What are you doing?
Yeah, I’m in Arizona.
Do you have a relative there? How are you supporting yourself? How are you living?
He left in roughly December, January timeframe of 1991. He was with me for a couple of weeks before he took off back to Canada. He’s Canadian, so he went back to Canada. I’m by myself now, so up until the February 1991 timeframe, I was okay because of the funding that I had from my uncles and dad at the time. I was covered. At the end of March, I ended up having to leave my apartment and then moving to people’s homes and becoming homeless. I didn’t even say that word until a few years ago, reflecting back again because I probably did the same as my parents, “I’m not homeless. I’m just looking for a place.”
“I’m not a refugee.”
I did that for about six months and stayed at a mosque for many nights. I’m thankful for that, for the guest rooms that they provided. Some people’s friend’s homes here and there. I applied for political asylum in the US.
You can’t get into Canada, your visa is running out, and you can’t go back to Kuwait. You’re between a rock and a hard place. Are you thinking you’re going to go back and study in Arizona?
I enrolled in a cheaper place called Kaplan where you could self-pace to learn how to speak English. I enrolled in that to stay as a student. You just go listen to tapes. This is 1991 and then you put on the headphones, you listen, learn and you take exams. I did that to keep my status going because I was trying to follow all the rules that I can with these I-20s which is an acceptance by a university or an institute that allows you to study in the US.
While that is going on, based on the recommendation of the few lawyers that I spoke with, I went to spoke with a couple of lawyers and say, “I’m somewhat in trouble. I can’t go back to Kuwait. I’m already out of cash. I’m going to run out of things to do like studying. What am I going to do?” He said, “You should apply for political asylum. We welcome people like you.” I talked to three attorneys and I paid $150 at the time for each one of them to give me that kind of advice.
You got political asylum. Now you don’t need to have a visa.
No. I started the process. In the end, it got denied. For the moment, as I’m going to apply for political asylum, you have somewhat a temporary status that allows me to apply for a work permit. That allowed me to stay in the country and immediately get some advantage. I applied for my work permit. I got a work permit, so now I’m authorized to work in the US. I wasn’t authorized before so I didn’t work. I started looking for work and getting the political asylum to take its course. It got denied at the end, but that’s a different story.
You’re authorized to work. What work are you doing?
I applied. I’ve been in the country for six months. I don’t speak English that good. I applied at McDonald’s, at the library at the school, everywhere. As you could imagine, I didn’t get any jobs. I’m homeless. I’m staying at the mosque. I’m staying at people’s couches, having to pack every time that they have a guest at the mosque because it’s a guest room for the visitors that come to speak or lecture. I’m fortunate to have such wonderful people that allow me to do that anyway. Now, I can’t get a job because no one’s giving me a job. I applied everywhere, but no one would give me the work.
They probably wouldn’t give me the work because I speak barely any English. I barely communicated enough to say what I could do and not do. I started volunteering at the mosque doing some things. As I was volunteering, I heard they’re trying to raise money. They said, “We need to raise some money to give it to the people who live in tents or something like that.” I said, “Why don’t we sell t-shirts with a little nice message on the t-shirt. We could buy the t-shirts wholesale and sell them retail. That difference can be the money for the funds that we’re trying to do. Somebody gets something for their money because now, they got a t-shirt out of it.” They said, “That’s great. Can you do that?”
“I can run a grocery store. I’m sure I could sell t-shirts.”
The truth is I learned about wholesale retail from the grocery store. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s what I was doing. I was getting wholesale and I was retailing. It’s that’s simple.
It’s not that complicated. How did that t-shirt saying unfold into an entrepreneurial journey?
The same. I started asking people around me like, “Where do we get t-shirts from? Who do I call?” I was lucky. Another person in the place said, “I can help you. Why don’t you come by in my office tomorrow? I’ll show you.” I said, “I can’t come to your office because I don’t have a way to come around.” He was like, “I’ll pick you up.” He said, “Where do you want me to pick you up?” I didn’t tell him that I was homeless that I even knew that term. I said, “You could pick me up from here. I’ll be here in the morning.” He said, “Okay.”
He came to pick me up. I went to his office. I’ll never forget it. It was above the Circle K. There was an office. I was surprised to see that Circle K like a 7-Eleven or a gas station, but one had an office above it. We went up there and he goes, “This is where I buy my t-shirts from. Here’s the phone number. Call them. If you need a code, give them my code. You get it for the wholesale price that I get it from.”
I call them. They shipped the t-shirts. I run into another challenge because I did not know that they have to pay for shipping. I had the exact money order for COD, Cash On Delivery. When the guy came in with the UPS, I said, “Here’s the money.” He’s like, “There’s missing money.” I said, “What is it missing?” He said, “It’s missing $6.” I don’t even have $6 on me to give him. I had to ask him to deliver it the next day. These are the things that leave imprints in your mind like those awkward spots.
Anyway, I got the t-shirts and he introduced me to 2 or 3 of his vendors that he used for screen printing. I started talking to them and I picked up one. I picked up an artist that could do the logo and the design. I did what most people would’ve done. I ask for some down payment, so I could get some of the stuff in. Initially, I got enough money to bring the first shipment and to make some samples. Once I got the samples, I asked for more money to get my real shipments to get some more done. Once I got the next batch of delivery I said, “I need the rest of the money.” I went back and order the rest of it.
Were you thinking of that as a one-and-done? I’m going to help these folks do a fundraiser and that’s going to be it and I’m going to go on my quest to figure out how to get to school.
You got it. That’s the only thing that was on my mind. I’m going to help them out with this process. I know I’m going to be back in my apartment pretty soon, back to Kuwait or Canada or back to my school here or something. Not knowing that it becomes my career for two years. I started knocking on more doors and getting some of the nicest hotels in Arizona to buy from me.
To buy what from you?
T-shirts. I got a big nice resort called La Paloma in Ventana Canyon. These are at the time $300 a night hotels. I got them to buy t-shirts from me for their employees. I got them to buy t-shirts for their gift shops to sell at their stores. I know $400 a month is not a lot of money for a lot of people, but at the time, it meant I could have a place. I could eat a couple of meals a day and I could hang around and stay to go to school. That’s what it’s meant to me.
If I’m understanding you correctly, you did this fundraising thing with t-shirts. You then realized, “I could sell t-shirts to feed myself and to support myself as a job,” because you can’t get a job at the library, McDonald’s or all the other places. You were forced back into the entrepreneurial domain in order to survive.
At the time, at least when you started, you were sleeping in the guest room at the local mosque and you had to go sleep on friend’s couches. If they had a guest coming to the mosque, they had to temporarily kick you out. You were essentially homeless and then you started selling t-shirts as a way to make a living. How did that play out then? Where did you go from there? By now, you’re 19 or 20 years old?
This is still 1991. I turned nineteen. I came volunteering at the mosque to volunteer stuff. Organizing the library, bookstore, tapes and cassettes about recitals. Organizing it, creating a system in place where you could borrow things and bring them back and documenting it. I created some systems in place to keep it going. I was a volunteer since I was there already. More things kept coming up. People wanting to raise money for this thing and for other things. The next thing is the church is wanting to raise money and different causes.
I started venturing into this nonprofit world at the time, not knowing that such a thing even exists. Helping them raise funds for their causes by creating products or services that support the causes, and having them keep the difference from wholesale to retail into their pockets. Occasionally, someone will say, “Have you tried selling it to a hotel?” I’m like, “No.” They’re like, “Why don’t you call some? You look them up in the Yellow Pages.” I called these places up. Initially, I used to show up to many of them and I realized that when I show up, they don’t like it because I didn’t look like a professional guy. I’m a nineteen-old kid. I’m dressed nicely. They don’t take it the wrong way.
I groom myself pretty well, but I’m still a nineteen-year-old kid. I started calling and on the phone, I sounded like a mature old man. I started calling people up and say, “We could make t-shirts for you, and I could send you a sample.” They’re like, “Sure.” I go and drop off the sample but I never introduced myself. I say, “I’m here to drop in the sample.” They’re like, “Okay,” then I left. They’ll call back and say, “We like your sample. Why don’t you make us some t-shirts?” Once they got one of them, I stopped saying who I am. I said, “I make t-shirts for this other company. Here’s what I’ve done for them. What would you like?”
You learned how to sell, basically.
Leverage. If they’re buying it from me, they must be good. They gave me a chance and I delivered. If I would have failed in any of these things, I would have never had the chance again. I did fulfill my work.
One of the common themes I’ve heard a number of times in these interviews is young people. Even teenagers, 14 and 15-year-olds figuring out a solution to a problem that people need. I don’t want to say lie about their age, but they have to obfuscate. I’ve forgotten who it was but I remember interviewing somebody that said he was 14 or 15 years old and figured out a software bug and how to fix it. He would only communicate via email because if I got on the phone, they’re going to realize I’m a little kid.
You’re absolutely right.
I interviewed a guy up in Canada once, Carey Mobius. He took over his family’s glass business like a mom-and-pop glass shop. He started to expand it and got it to selling glass to skyscrapers. He was nineteen years old and one day, he was meeting with the lead architect in his high-rise project. One of the superintendents walked by and knew him because he was friends with his son. The lead architect looked at him and goes, “How do you know that guy?” He was like, “Never mind.” He didn’t want to have to explain like, “How old are you?” It’s an interesting aspect of the story.
The question I also wanted to ask you is, you’re separated from your family. Your refugee status is uncertain. You can’t find a job and you’re homeless. I’ve got to imagine there were some dark moments. What’s the story you tell yourself? Are you aware of that? Do you have any memory of how you kept yourself going emotionally through that?
I’m very mindful of the dark moments that I stood there thinking about what did I do to be here and why is it still going? Looking back again, it’s not necessarily that I thought about it then, but at the time when you don’t think about the moment and think about the future, it allowed me to escape the reality that I was living in. By living the future and performing work that kept me busy. I’m calling the people, keeping my mind off and be thinking about, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I doing this or why am I here?”
To deviate that, I kept busy. I volunteered and I did whatever. To me, it felt like the more I could give out of what I know, the more I felt fulfilled. So what if I have a place to sleep in tonight? I did all this awesome stuff. I organize the books beautifully. You could now check out a book, write your name and bring it back, so someone else could benefit from it. I create a newsletter. I write newsletters on a monthly basis. I had to come up with a story with content to keep it going every month. These are the things that allowed me to move forward without thinking too hard about the moment.
You’re staying busy to occupy your mind with other things in the present. What’s interesting to me is that you said you’re thinking about the future. Tell me about that. Were you thinking about the future is frightening or a positive thing. It’s going to be better in the future?
It’s both. There is a reason to celebrate the moment. Applying for refugee status or political asylum put me in this weird spot that I don’t even know what’s going to happen. It’s no longer like, “At least I had a status for one year,” before it’s six months. I’m like in this limbo that God only knows what’s going to happen next month or the next day. I want to elaborate on something. At the time I did not know it. I will say that much. Reflecting back, it made it clear. Being busy doing something that was rewarding for me and for the people around me allowed me to feel fulfilled about the life that I was living despite what it was.
That’s super powerful. That’s part of my observation and analysis of interviewing entrepreneurs. There’s an idea and it comes from Aristotle. It’s like these three lives. There’s the pleasurable life where we seek pleasure and we need pleasure, but some of us get stuck there. I certainly did in my youth with drugs and alcohol, but then there’s the good life. That’s where you figure out how to use your strength to enrich yourself and your family. The meaningful life and the most engagement comes when we figure out how to use our strengths to contribute to something greater than ourselves. That’s where we find the deepest fulfillment. That’s where we also become optimally engaged.
You’ve done this so many times. You’re blessed to see and observe what are the threads with people and what makes them or not. For me, at the time, I didn’t know any better. Second, reflecting back, thinking of exactly what went through my mind, knowing what went through my mind and analyzing, knowing what I know now. These are the things that comes to my mind that I was able to fulfill the life of people around me by doing these smaller tasks and sometimes bigger tasks like taking on the library to organize it, but then creating a smaller system that people could check. It allowed me to be part of this awesome community that made them thankful for the work that I’m doing.
No one’s paying me but it doesn’t matter. It’s giving me an amazing and safe place to stay. I could have been in the streets. Looking back, I’m very fortunate. All these things now start coming together to say, “You could do that if you take your mind off and think about the future. It was frightening because I didn’t know. Now, I have to wait six months, because in my head was 6 to 12 months before I could apply again to Canada.
I’m buying some time in the US with this political asylum that maybe potentially could help me solve my problem or maybe not. Maybe by then, Kuwait would be resolved or maybe Gaza or Palestine would allow me to do something, but we don’t know. All these things were bubbling in my head because my parents were ordered deportation in the Kuwait riots. The place is still in limbo.
It’s all these things going through, but knowing that I could do something fulfilling for the people that I’m with allowed me to feel fulfilled, appreciated and thankful. It allowed me to think about the future in a more positive way than negative. It was frightening because you don’t know which one of these windows will open and what that could look like. Especially, for a kid that up until I was eighteen, did everything by the rules. I lived with my parents all my life. I knew nothing of doing something on my own because I always had somewhat of a village around me to support me.
That’s the interesting thing. Most of us don’t realize how we’ve learned how to function within known systems and our brains adapt to that. When we’re thrust into unknown systems, we have to adapt. The mindset has to shift. It’s like adapt or die.
Do you think we all have that in us or it’s something we learn? I’m curious because you’ve done these hundreds of times with lots of people and you have a lot of insights. It’d be nice for everyone to learn from it. What do you think that is? Is it certain types of personalities, people or environments? Is it the way we tell the stories in our heads? What do you think? Maybe it’s something that I didn’t even mention.
There are a couple of ways to answer that. It’s a good question. Jared Diamond, he’s a biologist. He’s best known for his books called Guns, Germs, and Steel, but he also wrote a fantastic book called Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed. One of the points that he made in this book is interesting and he said, “The values that we cling to most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are the values that were previously the source of our greatest triumph.”
That’s a fancy way of saying maladaptive. The human condition is such that we develop a mindset. We develop mental strategies, scripts, schemas, mental models, deeply held beliefs, tasks and assumptions that once enabled us to succeed in one situation. We often struggle to adapt when the environment changes and we cling to those beliefs and we’re unable to adapt. I’m being a bit long-winded, but if you look up the term maladaptive, that’s what it essentially is. You’re clinging to a strategy that was once successful and failing to recognize the changes in the environment. Charles Darwin said it differently. He said, “It’s not the strong that survive or the most intelligent, it’s the ones who are able to adapt that survive.”
I want to come back to this point from a different perspective, from some of the ideas of positive psychology. What we know is that people who learn to optimistically interpret adversity become stronger, happier and healthier than people who have never suffered adversity in the first place. The common denominator here according to Martin Seligman is optimism. I was listening to your story. I can’t help but think of this clinical definition of hope, which is the belief that the future will be better than the present, coupled with the belief that I have the power to make it so. I think that’s the belief that keeps us going in the face of all this adversity, challenge and setback.
That’s very powerful. I’m getting goosebumps from your conversation. I am writing some of this stuff down for me to go back, research and learn more about it.
It’s called default helplessness and it works like this. Seligman back in the ’60s and he was very apologetic for this because he would never do this with where we are, but he put a group of dogs in a cage and administered a shock. Moderately painful, not lethal shock, but there was some apparatus inside the cage. The dog learned that it could move as a lever and it would ameliorate the shock.
This group of dogs perceived the adversity as controllable or escapable. They take another group of dogs. They put them in the same cage, the same apparatus and the same shock, only the lever doesn’t do anything to stop the shock. The second group of dogs perceive adversity as inescapable. They then have a third group of dogs which is the controlled group. There’s no shock at all.
I think they wait 24 hours. They put these dogs in a large cage with a little dividing wall in the middle of it. They put the dog on the right side of the cage and they administer a shock to see if they’ll jump over the wall to escape the shock. The first group of dogs that were in escapable shock jumped right over. The dogs that had no shock jumped right over, but the dogs that had perceived it as inescapable, when they received the shock just lie down.
It’s very interesting and your story is reminiscent of this because what Seligman is saying is that, “This helpless response lands in our brain in such a way that we perceive a situation as uncontrollable and then we get ourselves into another situation that is controllable yet we perceive it not to be controllable.
Do you think sometimes people feel that way and that’s what drives them? Those kinds of thoughts or ideas never even crossed my mind. I didn’t even think twice that this is it.
Yes, and the opposite is true. For people who are suffering from learned helplessness, it never crosses their minds that they could escape it. In the same way that it never crosses your mind that you could not escape it. One of the things that Seligman taught me is that one of the insidious aspects of this helpless response is the inability to recognize a solution when it’s unambiguously presented. You just don’t realize it, “I see it working for you but for whatever reason, it won’t work for me.”
It’s such an interesting part of your story. I can’t imagine facing those kinds of challenges on a day-to-day basis. I’m happy to have this conversation with you because it’s insightful about the mechanism by which you kept yourself going. You were thinking about a positive future and you were keeping yourself busy in a way that was helping you feel connected in some way that you were contributing somehow, which is also bolstering your immune system or your immunity to the helplessness, which is what optimism is according to Seligman. Optimism is the immunity to helplessness.
To me, it was all about being busy and doing something productive. I’m giving back to the community that’s given me something, whether directly or indirectly, and feeling fulfilled by the work that I’m doing without being compensated, knowing that it’s making an impact. I’m a simple guy.
It is simple stuff. It’s not that complicated. When we’re able to use our strengths to contribute to the greater good, we tap into a deeper level of motivation. It’s different from when you’re going to a job and doing something that somebody else told you to do in exchange for a paycheck.
This is how I looked at it. Someone gave me something and I give back, but I don’t think that I got more out of it than anyone else did.
More out of giving?
Yeah. More out of giving that I’ve given. At the time I probably thought, “I’m giving all I have because all I got is my time and my knowledge.” Looking back, someone introduced me to t-shirts, manufacturers and all this stuff. Even when in Kuwait with the grocery store, I gave back risking my life but I got a ton of experience from that. The daily change probably allowed me to have more of an entrepreneur mindset to say, “Things will change. I got to adapt. I got to move on and do all this stuff.” I gained so much insight from being able to work with suppliers and cops. No one wants to leave their house, there’s the checkpoint and all these things.
You don’t know who’s trying to kill you versus who’s your friend.
No. You don’t. They look the same, they sound the same, and they’re from the same spot.
One day, he’s your friend and the next day, he wants to kill you maybe. You don’t know.
I gave back for sure but I feel like I’ve received so much more from giving back. Even when I volunteered for the t-shirts. I gave the idea and contribute to some things, but I feel like I gained so much more out of it. At the time, I didn’t think about it. When you say it this way, it makes me reflect back and say, “I thought I give back but looking back, I received more than what I got.”
At the time, maybe it didn’t seem like it because I still was homeless. I was still trying to figure it out. Looking back with my insights now for the work that I do, I feel like a lot of it came from all the work that I did throughout the years. A lot of it came from the times when I was volunteering and watching others being awesome at doing what they do.
You never thought of yourself as an entrepreneur, did you?
No. Are you kidding me? Absolutely not.
We’ve been talking for an hour and a half already. I want to get to how this unfolded. I know you now as having this thriving international consulting company. You’re doing great things to support small businesses all over the world. You’ve got a beautiful wife and two kids. You live in Detroit. How do the homeless situation, selling t-shirts, and sleeping in the mosque get to where you are now?
You’re very kind. I’m very thankful and humbled. One of my friends told me, “When I think of entrepreneurs, I think of you, Faris.” I’m thinking, “The irony in that is I would never think of myself as an entrepreneur or anything like that.” People do come to me for entrepreneurship education. The underserved community, women, immigrants and small business support services come to me for that. I’m always humbled because I never thought of myself that way. I have become the statue or the spokesman for them. I’ve been able to speak so many times in environments that no one else wanted to speak about. What we need to do is we need to support them.
Because of my depth of experience personally, but also in all the thousands of people that I worked with internationally and nationally, it allowed me to be able to feel that I could say something and I know is true. It’s the reality of what they’re facing versus what we think they might be facing or not. It’s so important because a lot of times I would have been boxed or never been given a chance to do anything.
If I kept in that trajectory, I probably would have been dead because I couldn’t get a job. I probably couldn’t stay in the mosque forever and I could have not been able to go back to any of these countries that I came from, and I got denied at the end for political asylum. I could have been in any other place but here. Because of my ability to adapt and also my perspective, having amazing people around me that gave me the chance and the support, whether it’s mental or emotional allowed me to explore this entrepreneurship journey.
At the time, I didn’t even think of it that way. I thought, “I need to eat. I need to make $350 to $400 a month because this is what it costs so I could pay my $100 rent, and then they’ll give me about two meals a day and that’s good.” That’s all I thought about. Now, I’m lucky to have my beautiful wife and three kids. I’m very blessed to be able to live in a nice home, have a nice environment, and be able to talk to you.
Did you go to college to become an Electrical Engineer?
I kept going to college. That’s one thing I kept going and I finished Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2014. I ended up getting an interesting degree. Some people might think it’s weird but I feel it’s interesting. With the help of the Counselor at the University of Michigan, I was able to create a degree for my background. That’s the Global Culture, Leadership Communication, Organization and Business. It’s a general study with three focus areas. I was going full-time to school while working at least two full-time jobs.
It’s easy to finish top of your class when there was no one else in the class.
That’s correct. I let loose of some of those things. There was a letter that I wrote to my teacher when I first came. I got a B in her class and I wrote her a letter saying, “What can I do to get the A because B is such a bad grade?” She wrote me a letter back saying, “B is a good grade. You can’t do anything about it. Move on.”
Do you think that maybe helped you get away from the perfection mindset?
The perfection is so there. I challenge it every day because I always want to do the best that I can in anything that I do. I choose carefully what I do and how I do it. I have learned that I’ll never be perfect but I will always be on a journey for perfection. I’ll do something to make sure that it’s really good and then move on, finish it and then continue to improving it once it’s out. Otherwise, no one would have gotten my t-shirts, perfumes or my other businesses. Anything like that would have been stopped because there were always glitches and we always had some damage control to worry about.
Is it safe to say that you turned that challenging experience into your life’s work? Isn’t that the work you’re doing now? It’s to help other people that are trying to figure their way out in life, how to become entrepreneurs, and how to contribute.
You’re so kind to me and I thank you so much for such a compliment. I would like to think that I am. I may have been inspired by what happened to me personally. I want to make sure that no one else has to go through it though. I believe in giving someone a chance that maybe when everyone else is telling you no chance that maybe I could be the person that’s saying, “Maybe there is a chance. I don’t know what chance it is but maybe we can expose you to some of these ideas that could hopefully open a chance for you or you could open it yourself.”
I firmly believe in that because who am I to judge anyone’s opinion or idea about what they wanted or need to do or what they have to do. I had no choice. Some people have the luxury to say, “I want to start a business,” and they have the money and the power to do that. I didn’t have that. I had nothing else to do but to do that. That was my only choice, my only path.
If you were to ask me years ago, “Are you an entrepreneur?” I will go like, “What are you talking about? I’m still trying to figure it out.” It’s become clear to me now, looking back and having wonderful people like you in my life. Being educated about the topic and become an educator in this topic have allowed me to reflect back and say, “I want to make sure that no one has the same challenges that I face being someone like me, whether it’s a straight-A student, stateless, homeless or a kid.” I didn’t say that we could make them, but I’m saying if we could expose them to some of these ideas and concepts, maybe they’ll figure out the way that they could do it that works for them. It might not work for me but it works for them.
I’m going to throw something at you. It might turn you inside out for a minute. I read a number of books from a guy named Nassim Taleb. One of his books is called Antifragile. The basic concept is that in nature, systems benefit from shock. I think there’s something to that. What Taleb is saying is that a wine glass is fragile. If you knock it off the table, it’s going to fall to the ground and it’s going to shatter. If you wrap it in bubble wrap, it can knock to the ground but it won’t shatter, but it didn’t benefit from that shock.”
In nature, systems get stronger from the shock if they are optimistically interpreted. I came across a study where someone had looked at 400 people from the 20th Century that had made a significant enough contribution in some field that there were at least two biographies written about that person. They did something significant. What they found in a sample size of 400 was that 75% of them reported coming from sustained childhood adversity, 10% reported episodic childhood adversity, and only 15% had no real childhood adversity.
In some weird way, adversity becomes an advantage. The work that you’re doing is more about helping people leverage the adversity rather than removing the adversity. We don’t want to put unnecessary challenges or obstacles in someone’s way. The bottom line to your story is to take that adversity and make it to your advantage and turn it inside out. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
I think reflecting back and the way you’re framing it, it’s clear to me that that’s what I’m doing. I never thought about it about me. I thought about it from the perspective that I know that I was lucky to have people giving me a chance. I’m lucky enough now to be able to provide the information that could allow someone to know that there’s a chance. I want to make sure that chance is there. It comes with consequences and challenges. I can’t say that my life is beautiful and all the doors are open. I hear noise all the time. I get kicked in the butt every day but for the most part, life is much better than what I’ve ever imagined, having gone through the pathway that I would have taken.
That’s a beautiful story. We’re winding down here. I want to carve out a couple of minutes so you can talk a little bit more about the work you’re doing to encourage entrepreneurship and support small business owners in Detroit and around the world. I also want to ask you. You kept saying something throughout this conversation that you were lucky enough to have people around you and you keep framing that like it happened accidentally. Was it accidentally? How did you create the social circle? How did you put yourself in circumstances where there were people there to help you?
I’m learning. The more I do, the more I learn. At the time, I gave back. I showed up to volunteer somewhere. I showed up and provided something not only for me that I would benefit from, but the community in large would benefit beyond my time being there. Whether I stay there for a week or a month, once the system is in place and I’m gone, no one’s going to know that I set it up. I did it for fulfillment for myself to say, “I’m doing something rewarding that will allow me to keep moving forward,” as we said earlier.
I feel those things that I did, thinking of the community first allowed me to be in rooms with people who are much smarter and more connected. We’re trying to do something for their communities in a much bigger way. That allowed me to be able to power the train that’s taking off. They’re going to do something for the community and I happened to show up as a volunteer and doing these things. They were willing to support me in doing the work that I’m doing. I wasn’t doing it because Faris wanted to do it. It’s what the community demand or ask.
That’s such a powerful point that I want to draw to your story. It’s the simple secret that’s nested in every entrepreneur’s journey. It’s the simple secret in the story of Uncle Cleve. It’s the idea that you get what you want by helping other people get what they want. We blind ourselves to opportunities because we’re only thinking of our own needs. The moment we shift that perspective to looking around and saying, “What do other people need? How can I make this better for others?” We become empowered. That’s the entrepreneurial mindset shift that occurs.
In our normal jobs and work, we’re not encouraged to think that way, “Do your job and do what I’ve told you to do. We’ll pay you every two weeks and stick to your knitting, stay in your lane.” We’ve learned not to think that way. Your story is a great story that embodies that idea of empathy, which is the central theme of an entrepreneurial mindset. The definition of entrepreneurship is someone that seeks a profit in exchange for risk. It’s grossly misleading. That’s an antiquated idea of entrepreneurship. Empathy is such an important part of your story. I want to wind down and I want to respect your time. Tell us a little bit about the work you’re doing and how can people connect with you.
I’m thankful for having met you and beamed through your journey, as well as seeing you unfold the whole ELI Mindset. I feel that your message is so powerful and important to be taught in colleges and everywhere else. I’m thankful that I get to learn from you so much and all these other amazing entrepreneurs that you meet and talk to. You’re coming up with simplifying stories that people like me can understand. I appreciate it, Gary.
I appreciate the whole notion of empathy and this whole terminology of social entrepreneurship. I’ve always said that I’ve never met an entrepreneur that is not socially cautious or doing some work for themselves or for the community. People confuse entrepreneurship with business and this is where the misconceptions come from. In business, you got to make money and pay the bills but in entrepreneurship some days, I don’t get paid. Sometimes I’m struggling to pay my own bills.
That’s not why you do the work that you’re doing and that’s not why I do it. At a high level, I am lucky to be able to support entrepreneurs and small business development, whether establishing an incubator, accelerator or supporting the people that work there or supporting a small business development center to support the entrepreneurs or small businesses in their communities.
It has been a blessing that I’m able to do that with our training, providing mentorship programs, creating funding programs, creating training programs or facilitation programs. All these things, I’m very lucky to be able to do. I’m lucky to say that we’ve touched almost 60-some countries around the world doing the work. It’s not because I’m good. I feel it’s because people have given me the opportunity and I show up. I do my work and I perform it well. They keep coming back and saying, “Can you do more? Can you help this other community? Can you support this other community?” That’s been my blessing.
I’m grateful to get your story and dig in deeper. It’s a pleasure to know you, Faris. Thanks so much for doing this episode.
I want to say thank you so much for your support. Thank you so much for being part of my journey. Thank you so much for all the insights and wonderful things that you do with ELI. The whole entrepreneurship mindset for me is key. Looking back, I never would have known what you’re talking about before. With your framework and frame reference, it will allow a lot of other people to see the misconceptions and busts them up. I can’t say that everybody’s going to be an entrepreneur, but at least the mindset or the thought process of it can hopefully, allow them to live a more fulfilling life for themselves and for the communities that they live in. Thank you for taking the time and thank you for inviting me.
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About Faris Alami
As ISM Founder, Faris works with international leaders and entrepreneurs on strategies and implementations to create an empowering environment for startups and businesses to prosper and grow. In his work facilitating economic and workforce development programs that include entrepreneurship, small/medium enterprise development, mentorship, and funding, Faris works with high-ranking officials — presidents of countries, ministries, universities, incubators/accelerators, economic development groups. The ISM team has been particularly successful in helping entrepreneurs in underserved communities find success.
His insights, strategy, and facilitation in launching entrepreneurship activities have been sought out by more than 61 leaders of nations and organizations. ISMs programs include training entrepreneurs, trainers, and management teams in supporting entrepreneurs and in technology, retail, workforce development, leadership, and culture-related programs.
In 2020, Faris founded Connecting Dots Globally—a non-profit STEMprenuerer program where high school and university students learn to launch a global technology company.