Tech entrepreneur Habib Haddad's childhood lesson from war-ravaged Beirut

Lebanese 'start-up activist' reveals how he came to realise the importance of community and why he always aims to be part of something bigger

Memories of the community in the block where he grew up while military conflict reigned outside left an indelible mark on the young Habib Haddad's consciousness that was to inform his life's work. Photo: Habib Haddad
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Habib Haddad has memories of explosions playing like an unwanted soundtrack to his childhood as civil warfare shook the five-storey building north of Beirut where he grew up.

But it is less the sectarianism outside the tower block and more the cohesion inside that shaped his life – the chats over card games with family and neighbours while seeking refuge in the basement, and sharing plates of food in the quiet times between bombardments.

Nothing linked those in the various apartments, Haddad, 44, says, other than a seemingly mutual naivety about the extent of the danger they were in, and a common goal.

“The basement was where all the diesel fuel to heat the building was kept so was probably the least safe place to hide,” the technology entrepreneur tells The National with a rueful smile.

“That common goal was survival. It was a time of conflict and war. But to me, as a child, it was also a time of realisation of the importance of community, of people coming together.’’

The interactions as each individual engaged for the benefit of the whole left an indelible mark on the young boy.

Back then, amid the hostilities of the 1980s and 1990s, he had no idea what employment awaited after completing school, still less that he would become a global figure in something called deep tech.

He was nine by the time the British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, and the work Haddad would go on to do to great acclaim as a “start-up activist'' did not exist even then.

It fascinates him to ponder that, in true like-father-like-son fashion, rapidly advancing technology means his own boys, Jude, 5, and Nour, 2, may also end up in jobs beyond their imaginations.

These days, Haddad is managing partner of the E14 Fund which invests in projects at the intersection of technology, design, biology and engineering, many of which are connected to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Despite the word “fund” appearing in the firm’s name, Haddad is keen to point out that he is first and foremost a community builder.

“I continued to be interested and excited about that feeling I got when I was a kid, which is being part of something bigger,” he says.

“I always felt like a bit of a misfit. I was a geek and a troublemaker but there’s a certain wavelength where I work very well, which is like a comfortable chaos.

“So I have always been seeking that. I think I found it at some point in the act of creating ventures, creating companies, creating non-profits or whatever from scratch.

“There’s a time when you don't know exactly where you're going but you know the feeling you're aspiring for, that bigger thing you're trying to build.”

He has launched several tech companies, invested in more than 150 start-ups and created Yamli, a ground-breaking transliteration resource that enables users to type Arabic from non-Arabic computer keyboards. It now offers a vast library stretching to billions of words.

Rediscovering Arabic as an adult, I realised how poetic and rich a language it is, even mathematical

The latter achievement would have come as some surprise to those who knew him at the French Catholic high school where his younger self was “the worst Arabic student”. So much so that the teachers would tease Habib’s grandfather, who wrote the syllabus grammar books, about what an embarrassment his progeny was to him.

Having spent the first period of his life in France and then moving back to Lebanon, Haddad spoke a dialect with many influences that made mastering formal Arabic a challenge.

“I struggled. It wasn't of interest to me. That’s ironic because later on it became a big interest. Rediscovering Arabic as an adult, I realised how poetic and rich a language it is, even mathematical.”

Though his results in maths and science were outstanding, the tendency towards playing practical jokes, disrupting lessons and mixing with the wrong crowd was putting him in danger of expulsion.

“Call it a testing of boundaries, and sometimes behaving in ways that I might be embarrassed to share right now,” he concedes. “The saving grace for me was that I had really good grades.”

Looking back, he recalls the positive aspects of school being the rare teachers who encouraged his inventiveness and independent spirit instead of only being exasperated by his mischief-making.

Today, Haddad speaks English, French and Arabic fluently, and he and his wife, Hala, who is also Lebanese, converse in all three with their sons.

In a less troubled Lebanon, his early life would have been comfortable, perhaps even privileged. His father was an army officer and engineer, his mother a French teacher, and both take pride in the achievements of Haddad and his younger brother Nadim, a partner in the international management consultancy Oliver Wyman in Dubai.

Haddad went on to study at the American University of Beirut, leading to a bachelor’s degree in computer and communications engineering, and then moved to the US, where he obtained a master's in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Entry into the reality of business, however, was not an instant success. After befriending some MIT scientists, he joined them as a founding engineer in turning some “really cool” research ideas into a fledgling company.

The word entrepreneur meant little to him in those days but, as he recalls, “it was a fun time. I got to be part of this start-up where you control your destiny when you're building something, and you and the team are coming together and having these big dreams.

“Unfortunately, that company didn't end up thriving. But, going back to the idea of community, I built amazing connections that I continue to be quite active with even up until today.”

By his mid-20s, Haddad had left his next job, as a senior software engineer at another high-tech company, ATI, to branch out on his own.

Yamli is a prime example of the pains he takes in assembling the right team for each project. He wanted to launch it with the engineer and scientist Imad Jureidini, another Lebanese exile, whose schedule was so busy that Haddad had no alternative but to work out alongside him at the gym on an elliptical cross-trainer – “which I hate,” he says – to persuade him to join as co-founder.

I couldn’t find investors, I couldn’t find engineers passionate about start-ups. There was a social stigma with entrepreneurship

His limitless drive brought growing recognition and took him to the heart of the Arab world’s embryonic entrepreneurial ecosystem.

It was no easy mission. Thirteen years ago, in an interview with a business journal, he recalled the struggles: “I couldn’t find investors, I couldn’t find engineers passionate about start-ups. I couldn’t get press coverage. There was a social stigma with entrepreneurship.”

But he persevered in encouraging what he knew was a rich font of innovative human skills, confident in his ability to help others realise their ambitions.

Launching a non-profit venture, YallaStartup!, in 2009, he coined an irresistible phrase, “geeks on a bus”, to describe the tech enthusiasts who arrived with their sleeping bags en masse from Syria and Jordan for an idea generation weekend that Haddad organised at a university campus in the hills outside Beirut.

He chuckles at the memory of naming the initiative and is gratified that new businesses were created as a result of that gathering of unabashed nerds.

Yalla is an Arabic word meaning ‘get on with it’,” Haddad says, laughing.

On a similar theme, he was the founding chief executive of Wamda, a platform of programmes and networks that aims to accelerate entrepreneurship across the Middle East and North Africa region.

Such projects reflect Haddad’s deep belief in community instilled in childhood, which also inspired the first of his philanthropical initiatives, Relief Lebanon, during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Tapping into the remarkable resource of the diaspora, he persuaded the Red Cross to help create a bank account free of charge, quickly raising $2 million. “I mean, it was a small amount,” he says, “but that was $2 million from donations in a couple of months. So it was like, ‘This is amazing’. Again, the power of community, people coming together, driven by something bigger.”

When Haddad heard that bombs were falling near his parents’ house in Beirut, he went searching online for the most up-to-date news but became increasingly frustrated by the lack of an Arabic keyboard.

As so often in his work, he saw a problem and provided a solution. “I put a footnote in my mind that this is something to be solved, and, after the war quietened down, I thought there was an opportunity to build a product that would allow you to type Arabic in real time using English letters,” Haddad says of the birth of Yamli, the first Arabic AI product.

Good causes have been of great attraction to him; empathy, he says, always wins. In 2011, he co-created, an online project in which 1,000 volunteers translated voicemails from Egyptian protesters to post on Google and Twitter after the Cairo government shut down the internet.

In 2020, when Beirut was devastated by an explosion of ammonium nitrate that killed more than 200, he and his wife were prominent in a charitable response known as Beirut Box, with participating restaurants exploiting the “almost universal love of Lebanese cuisine” to raise money for those affected.

Given the nature of his work, Haddad might be expected to spend a lot of time on social media but it is a love-hate relationship, the obvious benefits clashing with sometimes toxic human instincts.

Those who had a chance to scroll through his X account before it was deleted would have spotted his penchant for doodling, which sometimes burgeons into cartoons that display wit and topicality as well as flair.

Throughout Haddad’s career, he says his Lebanese accent has become stronger with each success almost as a way to make sure that he – or maybe everybody else – never forgets where he came from.

The achievements have brought a string of accolades to which he has somewhat of an ambivalent attitude: winner of the Best Web Technology category in the 2008 Pan-Arab awards; a namecheck on the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Young Global Leader list; a “Top innovator under 35” in the 2011 MIT Technology Review; the Arab Creativity award from the Arab Thought Foundation in 2013; recognition as distinguished alumni and “History Maker” from the AUB; a place among 2015's “most powerful Arabs under 40” by Arabian Business; and, most recently, being one of the “Ten Important Humans Behind Boston’s AI Revolution”; among others.

“Every time I got an award, I didn't feel good about it. To me, an award means you're done, you've accomplished something and now you can relax and move on. Whereas, I want to keep going.

“I’d feel this knot in my stomach but then I joke that what awards are really good at is keeping your parents happy.”

In any case, Haddad points out, he wouldn’t be where he is without Hala, who is “brilliant in her own right” as executive director of Solve at MIT, an initiative that supports open innovation to address the most pressing global challenges.

“We are aligned in living life to the fullest and in not being afraid to take risks. It has been an immensely powerful partnership,’’ he says.

Outside of work, he has recently made time for a holiday with Hala and the boys to the Dominican Republic, exercises regularly to keep fit, and enjoys long walks with his Corgi, Stella.

He would like to have more family time in the years ahead and take longer breaks but that is not to say that his appetite for new business adventures is in any way diminished.

Approaching middle age, Haddad retains a youthful appearance – “It’s the haircut,” he deadpans – and gives the impression of being too much a bundle of insatiably creative energy to be able to take it easy.

“To me,” he admits, “being comfortable is an uncomfortable thought.”

Updated: April 25, 2024, 7:54 PM