Growth November 8, 2013 Last updated September 19th, 2018 3,325 Reads share

The Amazing Life Of Dr. Emad Rahim: Genocide Survivor To Entrepreneur – #TYBspotlight

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For an introduction to Do you think your earlier life struggles propelled you to the success you have now?

I did not fully appreciate that perspective until I read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outlier” five years ago. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I started crying uncontrollably after finishing up the book and reflecting on my life, my family struggles, abuse and the loved ones I have lost to violence and drugs.

But I was not crying out of sadness or anger, but out of gratitude for that which I endured, for the sacrifices that were made. Gladwell taught me to appreciate how I was able to overcome my adversities instead of playing the victim. It was not just my own sacrifice that paved my way, but my family and friends.

If I don’t take advantage of every opportunity, fight to achieve my goals and reach my full potential, then everyone’s sacrifice to get me here was in vain. I no longer live in the past, but use my life experience to inspire my journey forward.

What do you see as the turning point in your academic life?

I was struggling at the local community college and was ready to give up. I shared my frustration with my sociology professor on the difficulties I was having trying to balance my work and family obligations with school. I also shared with him my learning disability, which he responded “it sounds like you are dyslexic.” He recommended that I look into SUNY Empire State College (ESC), which is a State university for adult students. He also recommended that I get tested at ESC with one of their mentors.

I applied to ESC, got accepted, got diagnosed with mild-dyslexia, and received guided mentorship and support, and three years later graduated with an Associate and Bachelor degree in Science.

While this might not seem uncommon to some of your readers, understand that I barely graduated from high school and was on academic probation at the community college. I found higher education intimidating and my coursework discouraging. I was told in high school that I had a learning disability but never received any further assistance or explanation to what it really meant. If anything it crippled my self-esteem and labelled me with a “disability”.

At SUNY Empire State College I realized that I was not “disable” but was fully capable given the right learning environment, support and guidance from the faculty. I started to excel in my studies because I now understood my learning style, which was more kinaesthetic. Once I understood this and saw tangible results, sky’s the limit. I became passionate about learning. I eventually went on to earn my doctorate with honours at Colorado Technical University and completed my post-doctoral studies at Tulane University and University of Maryland University College.

You sometimes took the non-traditional approach of learning online – do you think this is better?

My academic success actually supports another perspective that Gladwell explained in the “Outlier” because I graduated high school just at the right time. When I graduated, the online education revolution was just taking off. If I had graduated high school a few years earlier, I mostly likely would have given up at the community college. Remember, I finished in the 90s before traditional universities offered adult extension programs or online education options.

It was a perfect storm of elements that came together;

  • graduated in 97,
  • attended a course with a professor that knew about ESC and embraced non-traditional education,
  • discovered I was dyslexic in a school that was suitable to serving my needs,
  • and earned my undergraduate degree at a time when online education became more accessible and acceptable.

I’ve gone on to publish over 40 articles, 5 books, written dozens of columns for magazines and now an avid blogger. I have taught for some wonderful universities and served as a University Dean and Visiting Scholar for some top tier institutions. Not bad for a dyslexic refugee from Brooklyn that barely graduated from High School.


You have a huge belief in mentorship – why is that?

Because I did not have a father to mentor me, I was fortunate to have met Mr. Willie Dowdell in High School. Willie was a school administrator and he became my father figure. He knocked on my door when I skipped school, scolded me when I acted up in school, was my soundboard when I needed to vent, helped push me to graduate high school and assisted me in completing my college application. 16 years later he is still in my life as my mentor and the closest thing I have to a father.

I was fortunate to have some amazing people guide me in my career and academic journey. These people were unselfish, kind and honest. They offered me their time, plenty of advice and linked me to resources and other people. We are only as good as the people in our network.

You have a long list of achievements – which is your proudest to date?

My proudest achievement is not listed in my CV or resume, but I think should be. I am most proud of being a father to two amazing daughters. I grew up without a father. My father was killed in a concentration camp in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Up until I was 14 years old I was raised by an abusive step-father.

I made it my life mission to be the best husband to my wife and father for my children. Being their father is the most rewarding job I could ever have. When they grow up to be two outstanding women – that will be my proudest moment in life.

Professionally, I was recently recognized for my entrepreneurship achievements at the United Nations headquarters in NYC for the Empact Showcase Honouree. Last year I was personally invited to attend the Empact Summit at the White House and the US Chambers of Commerce in Washington DC. I had the honour of meeting some amazing people and hear some powerful entrepreneurship stories. I got to meet my heroes Steve Mariotti founder of NFTE and entrepreneurship legend Dr Karl Vesper. I also ran into Henry Louis Gants, Jr. and shared a lengthily conversation on politics. That was an amazing experience.

Dr Emad Rahim and Henry Louis Gants Jr

Dr Emad Rahim and Henry Louis Gants Jr

If you ever felt like giving up what did you do to turn that thought around?

I think about my family and their sacrifices. How my mother escaped the concentration camp and being forced to leave my father behind. How she often had to work three jobs, barely getting any sleep and coming home to an abusive second husband.

Prior to the birth of my daughters I was the last remaining blood line to my father’s side of the family. My father and his entire family were massacred by the Khmer Rouge army. I recognised his legacy ends ‘and’ begins with me. I had no excuse to give up considering what my mother went through to get me here. My strength to move forward is guided by that reality.

Can you give 5 bullet points of advice to a small business just starting up?

  • Surround yourself with good mentors
  • Don’t lose yourself in the business
  • Don’t forgot why you started the business (purpose)
  • Be open-minded to do things differently, hear different opinions and share ideas
  • Always look for opportunities to build your network

What is next for Dr Emad Rahim?

I was recently appointed as the Endowed Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Oklahoma State University. This will provide me with an opportunity to make a difference in young people’s lives. I look forward to the opportunity to work with social entrepreneurs in high school, mentor college students on their business ideas and support the local entrepreneurial ecosystem in Tulsa and Stillwater, Oklahoma.

There are also plans to do some entrepreneurship projects in Cambodia, South Africa and India. I am very excited about all of these transformational possibilities.


I have to admit that out of all the interviews I have done this was the one I wanted to get to the heart of as I found Emad’s story so moving and inspirational because it starts from not one tragic background but a few.  I have come out of this really wanting to meet the man himself. I hope you found this as interesting too and I’m sure Emad will be happy to answer any questions if you leave a comment below.

Related: Don’t Get Stuck Without It: Innovation Culture – #TYBspotlight with Andrew Marshall


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Sian Phillips

Sian Phillips

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