Fadi Chehade: 'Deep, clear visibility'
'The Egypt I was born 6,000 years too late to see'
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- "It was my ancestors who built the Great Pyramids and who built that fascinating and enduring civilization which has beautiful, beautiful things to contribute to the world."
Look at the shape of the Nile-blue logo for Fadi Chehade's Viacore Inc.
"And I'm a great believer that access to information is very critical for people to move forward. Visibility -- having deep, clear visibility as to what's around you in information is very important."
Note the round, open, clear space in the logo? You can almost see through it.
"The old Egyptians loved life, their art, their philosophy, their learning. I was taught by my father as he was taught by his father that each individual has enormous contributions to make."
Fadi Chehade is unashamed to say that as an Egyptian, an American and a Coptic Christian, a career to him is a journey of self-expression. It may be -- as it is to so many -- a means to an end. But that end is more spiritual than material. Chehade is something either hard to find among contemporary CEOs, or something many don't care to confess to being: a philosopher-businessman.
"My upbringing in the Middle East was quite frustrating," he says. "I was looking to achieve the personal and communal goals that measure up to what I believe is where I came from," the greatness of his native ancient-Egyptian heritage. "But unfortunately we didn't have a pedestal, a place to stand on."
He's speaking of the Copts, members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Egypt's Christian community. It's said to have been founded by the gospel-writing St. Mark in the middle of the first century A.D. But as Islam gathered strength from the 10th century forward, the Copts became an increasingly oppressed minority.
As recently as last year, around the time of Pope John Paul II's visit to Egypt, the United States' controversial Country Reports on Human Rights Practices included a notation that, "There are no Christians serving (in Egypt) as governors, university presidents and deans," despite the fact that Copts represent some 10 percent of the Egyptian population.
"What keeps the Coptic orthodox minority people going in Egypt," Chehade says, "is the fact that they're the true descendents of the ancient Egyptians we all are so interested in learning about. That heritage makes us believe in getting things to happen in ways that are different from those around us."
Chehade is no stranger to different ways of doing things. He's not only Viacore's chief but also the founder of RosettaNet, a consortium of more than 400 major IT companies that share information with each other to increase their profitability. It's a different way of doing things, indeed.
And a far cry from when, as an immigrant with little English and less money, he peeled onions for a living in the back of a pizza joint.
'A passionate person'
His name is pronounced "FAH-dee sheh-HAH-dee." And his parents, looking to evade anti-Copt discrimination in Egypt, had moved to Ethiopia before he was born. "My dad worked closely with Haile Selassie in the late 1940s and '50s. But there was trouble in Ethiopia, of course" -- Selassie being overthrown in 1974.
"So the family moved to Beirut. At the time" -- the 1960s, Chehade was born in 1962 -- "Beirut was a city of great renaissance in the Middle East. It was a gifted city. The Lebanese people have so many traits of the old Mediterranean cultures, things we still see in Italy and Spain. They love to live well.
"Up to the time I was 14 or 15, Lebanon was a country of no religious discrimination. It was important what religion you came from, but my friends were Muslim and Maronite and Catholic and Christian -- you never thought of this. For that environment to turn into a hotbed of religious violence is unconscionable.
"April 13, 1975, was the first night that Beirut plunged into war." Chehade recalls doing homework that Sunday night and thinking, "Maybe we'll have school off tomorrow because there's been some sort of skirmish in town."
What Chehade couldn't know was that Beirut was entering a 15-year war between religious factions. There would be a Syrian intervention in 1976; an incursion of Israeli troops into southern Lebanon in 1982; and army revolts in 1989 and 1990.
Chehade's father was concerned that his son might be "involved in ways that were contrary to our beliefs and the way we are" -- meaning that young Fadi could be conscripted into militia service. "My dad whisked me out of the country a year into the war when we all realized it wasn't going to turn around."
In fact, what triggered Fadi Chehade's flight from Lebanon was that "one night at 2 a.m., some Christian militiamen knocked at our door and surrounded me in my bed and told me that I had to immediately leave with them."
His father got Chehade out of the militia's camp and into Syria -- because Beirut's airport was closed -- and packed him off to his grandparents in Cairo. Chehade remembers crying from homesickness daily. "But we had grown up with the belief that we can't solve problems by carrying arms in a civil war. I wasn't about to kill people on the other side of the Green Line because they were Muslims. It's just not what we were brought up to do." Neither Chehade, his two brothers nor his family ever carried arms.
Chehade returned to Lebanon for his last two years of high school. "I was admitted to the American University in Beirut. I had a few months before I'd start my classes. I'd decided I wanted to go to America to learn to speak English."
The United States consulate officer reviewing Chehade's application for a visa said to the teen, "Why do you want to go to America? You barely speak English. "I told her, 'I want to find out what makes America so great -- why do we hear so many things about what you let people do there?'
"She looked me in the eye and said, 'You're the first 17-year-old who's ever said this to me. Here's your visa.'"
The onion peeler
"I came along with $430, all my dad had left after the war," says Chehade of his arrival in the United States. "To do my best -- it's all I was looking for."
Today, Chehade describes his two best-known endeavors as "the word" and the "printing machine."
By "the word," he refers to RosettaNet, with its intelligence-sharing linkages of more than 400 companies. The Rosetta Stone, of course, is a tablet discovered in Egypt by one of Napoleon's soldiers in 1799. Its message in three languages gave scholars their first fighting chance to decode ancient hieroglyphics. And RosettaNet uses a series of "boards" -- a "supply chain board," a "solution provider board," an "executive board" -- to link major multinational companies in a standards-implementation effort.
RosettaNet came first. It was founded in February 1998. Some 14 months later, Chehade founded co-founded his "printing machine." That's a phrase by which he describes an enabling role for Viacore. As the major companies of RosettaNet began to try to share information, virtually tapping into parts of each other's operations to see availabilities and common interests, Viacore developed software, methodologies and staffing to create and manage what amount to private trading exchanges -- markets in cyberspace.
As an example of how this all works, Chehade cites a case in which a manufacturer had been promised delivery of a component from Taiwan in four weeks. But because the manufacturer is a RosettaNet company, it could use Viacore's systems to find that the supplier was actually eight weeks from delivery -- the "four weeks" notation had been a mistake. The manufacturer avoided a costly delay in delivery because it had "visibility" -- Chehade's favorite word is back -- into the workings of the Taiwan supplier's system.
Chehade calls what Viacore provides "ProcessTone." Like a caller tapping into a dial tone, a company, he says, can tap into the ProcessTone of Viacore's network. In June, the privately held company pulled in a C-funding round of $43 million from companies including Cisco Systems, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Intel.
This is the same guy who put himself through Stanford, taking a master's degree in engineering management, and a bachelor's degree in computer science from Polytechnic University in New York.
In fact, he met Sue, his wife -- a Lebanese engineer in her own right -- while in college in Brooklyn. They live in Los Angeles and have two sons, 13-year-old Mark and 11-year-old Philip.
"When I raised my hand to become a citizen here in the United States, the term used for me was a 'naturalized' citizen," Chehade says. "You come here, you have to be brought to this nation like a tree. When first transplanted, it loses its leaves. Some trees don't make it, true. But sometimes I wish my children would have a chance to have to give up everything, as I did."
Some day, Chehade says, he'd like to make a more formal study of ancient Egyptian culture and its contributions to modern thought. And he doesn't blush when it's pointed out that he's as much philosopher as businessman.
"There's our physical nature and our logical nature," he says. "But there's a third dimension that makes us understand things in a philosophical and even spiritual way. I'm focused in everything to make the most of my venture capitalists' trust in me. But it's also important to me to look for that third dimension."
Fadi Chehade says he finds his inspiration today in "this soil," his adopted nation and home.
"This is a place of greatness. I love it more every day. Civilizations to come will say, 'How did those people come across the pond and do this?'
"This is the Egypt I was born 6,000 years too late to see."
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