There are men who succeed and men who inspire, Ibrahim AlHusseini does both. Embodying the American dream, AlHusseini is the kind of success story we all love to learn about. The Palestinian-born entrepreneur is a visionary using his success and influence to create a better world. Focused on sustainability, this trailblazer has spent more than 20 years investing in clean technology and financing projects that actively counter global warming. He does this through his growth equity fund, FullCycle, focusing on accelerating the deployment of climate critical technology worldwide, and his family’s Husseini Group, which guides ventures embracing social enhancement and ecological sustainability. eniGma’s Founder & CEO Yasmine Shihata caught up with the successful LA-based pioneer to explore his amazing journey, his vision, and his plans for a brighter future. So if you want to make alot of money while improving the world, read on for this exclusive interview….
You are a Palestinian who grew up in Saudi Arabia and went on to university in the U.S. You must have gone through quite a transition at that time. Tell us about it…
As Palestinians, we were very fortunate that the Saudi government invited my family to come as refugees. They very generously gave my grandfather and father passports, so I was born a Saudi citizen. Unlike other Palestinians who ended up in refugee camps, we were able to start a new life in Saudi Arabia. We got to live in Jeddah, which was a very internationally diverse city where life was not as strict as it was elsewhere in the country. We mixed with Swedes, Americans, Germans, French, South Africans to name a few, and this gave me a more international upbringing.
Located on the Red Sea, the lovely city of Jeddah affected my life trajectory. On weekends we’d spend time either swimming, fishing or scuba diving. That was very important for me, because growing up in a desert, there wasn’t a lot of nature around us. Under the water, there was an extremely lush and vibrant environment with so much life, colour and texture that you sadly rarely find on earth anymore.
What ignited your decision to move to the U.S.?
The U.S. had some of the best universities in the world and my parents wanted to invest in our education I really wanted to go to Washington D.C. because I had friends there; so I applied for universities in Washington. But I didn’t know there was a Washington state and a Washington D.C., so I ended up in Seattle, Washington instead of D.C.! That experience ultimately changed my life.
How easy was it for you to adapt once you made it to the US?
Seattle was where the grunge scene started. Music like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, all started during my time there. It was a very up-and-coming city and people didn’t realise its significance then. Today, big companies like Starbucks, Microsoft and Amazon are all based there. So all of that was starting to bubble up when I was in college and I got caught up in the music and technology scene. I was full of curiosity and awe for this massive change happening around me.
You started a multi-million dollar business from your dorm room, how did that come about?
My college girlfriend was ahead of her time. She used to give me vitamins every day, which back then were very big and difficult to swallow. She understood that in the U.S. and most of the developed world, they were using industrial farming practices with chemical fertilisers which deplete the soil. In fact, the U.N. says the Earth has only 60 harvest cycles left, since all our soil is dying because we are not nourishing or re-generating it. So she exposed me to these vitamins, and I felt better taking them, but not swallowing them. So I got the idea to start a small vitamin company that would make small vitamin pills. It wasn’t a monumental innovation, but supply and demand – and secular trends were in my favour; and they propelled my business forward and allowed me to really succeed. Four and a half years later, I sold the brand, which made me an extremely young multi-millionaire. Yet I learned very quickly that money doesn’t buy you happiness.
Making that much money taught me that there is just so much dopamine our bodies can release, no matter how much we spend to have better and higher experiences. It was a big eye-opener for a young man to realise there must be something else out there beyond the perpetual pursuit of wealth. I was ready to retire at 24 and I didn’t know what was next.
What was your ambition at the time?
I wanted to get an MBA, but that was interrupted because of the success of my business early on. So I ended up getting an ‘MBA through experience’ instead. I like to say I’m in good company, with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Richard Branson. they also didn’t finish college and we all started our businesses early.
So you sell this great business and you almost retire; what made you continue?
A fluke happened. One of my ex-employees came to visit me and told me he was selling ATM machines since he learnt that the government deregulated the ATM business which now could be placed anywhere. He made money through a service fee, where if anyone withdraws money, they have to pay an extra charge. No one really knew about this business and it was a virgin market, so we brought our teams together again and started to sell ATMs everywhere. We were able to put 1200 ATMs all over Los Angeles and Texas alone.
I then sold the ATM Company when I turned 30. That was a vastly bigger exit than my vitamin company. Then when the internet was first initiated, I was invited to a baby shower, with an online registry list for the gifts, which guests had to print out and take to the store to buy. I realised this process could be simplified by creating a website, where guests could see the registry online, pick what they wanted and have gifts shipped to recipients. So I started an online gift registry business, which did well, but then the dot-com crash happened in 2001, and my investors didn’t want to continue. Since it wasn’t my passion, I didn’t want to invest more myself. I had just been curious to try.
So, what did you do next?
I decided to focus on investing in technology. I made the most effective investment bets in fiber optics and fiber optics switches, after the dot-com crash. That’s when I started becoming a professional investor and started a family office called the Husseini Group. One of my largest goals to this day, is to buy a skyscraper in Manhattan and put our family name on it. Not for ego purposes, but because America is becoming a mosaic of cultures and religions, and the more names we have out there in the mix, the more people will realise that.
Imagine if you take over Trump tower; that would be quite something to see it with a Muslim name!
I would definitely make a bid for that if it’s in a fire sale. That would be poetic justice, given that Trump’s first order of business was stopping people from Islamic regions from coming to the US. One of the saddest ironies is that the couple who devised the Pfizer Covid vaccine are two Muslims.
The story of immigration is part of the fabric of this country. So this ‘anti-immigration’ rhetoric is just hurting America. The next son of an immigrant, could be the next American success story. Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant. The CEO of Microsoft and the CEO of Google are both immigrants. So when people start feeling afraid to come to America because the government is anti-immigration, they’re going to start their next colossally successful businesses elsewhere. At that point, America will be losing. We stay competitive as a nation because of immigration, and we’re starting to lose that now because of the new narrative many politicians are using to scare people, who don’t know better, into voting for unqualified people to run this nation.
After you started your family office, what was next?
I had a couple of sizable windfalls from investments in fiber optics, so I continued to focus more on investing, because I had made enough as an entrepreneur. Because of my own experience, I was well-suited to choose entrepreneurs to invest in;because it takes much more than just a good idea to make a good investment. You need a good idea, with a good team behind it, which also makes sense financially; because not all good ideas are good investments.
So what makes a good investment?
An idea that’s ahead of its time, because if an idea is needed now, then it’s already too late. You have to anticipate where the market is going and meet it. It takes time to execute an idea, and you need to be able to build enough of a reputation, so that when the world is looking for your product or service, they already know you exist. The key to remember is to meet the world where it’s headed, and that takes a specific execution by the entrepreneur and their management team. Then they have to create investor terms that make it interesting for investors to back them. Some companies are too overvalued or they don’t have attractive enough terms, so they need to make sure to meet investors where they are.
What do you enjoy most about investing?
I’m a very pro-founder investor. I believe in founders; I want to support them and stand by them. I’m not there to create adverse terms to take advantage of them; that would be disingenuous, because I made my money as an entrepreneur, and I know what that road is like. But I don’t want to be taken advantage of either. So I reward entrepreneurs for their work and never take advantage of them, and I think my reputation as an investor is congruent with that stance. When people know you’re an investor, you are presented with plenty of opportunities. It’s just a matter of selecting the right ones, building the right team, and formalising the process.
What ignited your passion to fight climate change and invest in businesses that do so?
Since I moved to the US, I would go back to visit my parents in Jeddah all the time, and I’d go scuba diving, because that was my favourite growing up. I started to notice that the lush corals and marine life I knew as I grew up, were quickly disappearing. Many people don’t realise that almost 50% of all coral reefs are now dead and there’s a giant tub of plastic in the Pacific that is the size of Texas and growing. It’s predicted there is going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050!
Seeing this deterioration firsthand, made me realise I needed to take action.So I spent the rest of 2003 inviting every PhD to educate me about climate change, the Earth’s biosphere, the chemical balance on the planet and biodiversity. I learnt that when you cut down trees, those trees are no longer alive to draw down carbon. Civilisation cut down most of the earth’s forests, and then oil and coal were discovered. People then started to dig up old carbon. We don’t have as many life forms to draw down carbon, and we have a civilisation that’s burning old stored carbon. This causes nature’s annual balance of a hundred gigatons of carbon to be off by 8% a year, times 200 years! And from 1970 onwards, this escalated dramatically because we were very good at burning oil, coal and gas, and we had cut down so many of our trees. So now we’re now in this warming cycle, which is what climate change is.
After studying this, I initially thought I was too late. But then I realised that as an entrepreneur investor, I can at least invest in the future I want! A future where the carbon cycle actually reconciles every year and there isn’t a deficit that some future generation will have to pay for. So I started to invest in Cleantech. And I was lucky that I invested early in Tesla and in a company called Bloom Energy, which is now a public company.
Thankfully I was able to anticipate where the world was going, and my vision materialised. Usually, things take longer than you think to take hold, but once they do, they transform faster than you imagine. In early 2020, Tesla stock was worth around $300 a share, and it dramatically increased by four and a half times that in 2020. Because now the world knows that this is a real, cool business. Today, you have several electric car and hydrogen car companies, and the electrification of transportation is inevitable.
When do you predict we’ll get to the stage where all cars are electric?
In places like California, you’re not allowed to sell combustion-engine cars after 2035, and other states and countries will do the same. Eventually the combustion engine will come to an end and will no longer be produced. The price will force it to be removed from the market because it will actually be cheaper to buy an electric car.
So after investing in Cleantech like Tesla, what came next?
I continued looking at these new models and investing in them. I learned that investing in the equity of companies assists them in getting their foot in the door, but it does not accelerate their natural arch for penetrating the market. This is important if the problem you’re trying to solve is climate change. With climate change, we’re already 30 years late in addressing the problem, and the largest proof of that is Tesla! Tesla is now 17 years old, and it only makes up about 0.4% of all cars on the road. And even by 2030, in the best case scenario, it’s predicted Tesla will represent 4% of cars on the road, and that may be for all electric vehicles combined.
So that’s why I created FullCycle. I wanted to develop a model that accelerated the deployment of climate critical technologies for several reasons. One of them is, it’s going to be the biggest investment opportunity in human history, because absolutely everything has to change at some point. The cost of individuals getting sick from pollution is going to be higher than just changing ‘everything’ to be clean. Especially for countries that subsidise their hospitals. The human body is not designed to breathe nitric oxide, which is completely toxic. One quarter of all children in New Delhi are growing up with intense respiratory issues due to the severity of nitric oxide, which comes from cars and industries. So all that has to change.
The underpinnings of modern civilisation’s waste systems, water systems, energy and transportation systems, all have to be upgraded and transitioned from a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy. This means that trillions of dollars a year will have to be invested to do so. This is not charity, this is an investment. It makes market, or above-market, returns without any subsidies. This is because the technology is now ready to replace the fossil-fuel past which lifted billions out of poverty and built the modern world we live in. But it’s now time to start closing that chapter and introduce a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable future.
What will happen if we continue down this destructive path?
Our current rate of depleting the planet’s resources is unsustainable; there just aren’t enough resources for everyone in the world to consume the way everyone wants to consume. So the market will have to adjust and we’re going to have to learn to live within the bounds of a sustainable world. We are creatures with massive imaginations, but we live on a planet with finite resources. I believe our infinite imagination, coupled with finite resources, will lead us to a solution. Technology will be one of the defining factors in our transition, so we don’t need to use resources that we have, like trees for example. And instead of cutting down trees, maybe we’ll use carbon-nanotubes, because we have plenty of carbon.
It’s a large adjustment but people are going to look back at this time and say, “Can you believe people used to dig holes in the ground to take out old fossil fuel-deposits and set them on fire, and people used to actually breathe that air and get cancer from it?” The same way we used to look back and pride ourselves on how far we’ve come from slavery, empires and torture etc.
So I invest primarily in systemic-level tech and industrial-scale tech. For example, a lot of people say they won’t use plastic straws, and that’s admirable, but that level of investment is not going to change the trajectory of where the earth is headed. We need systemic change; we need municipal-scale technology. We need to change the power grid. Those are where most of the issues lie.
Today, European and Canadian technology in Cleantech is actually much more advanced than in the United States. Most American minds are busy building algorithms to make people click on trivial matters. The world’s genius is not trying to address the most critical problems, but rather is focused on ensuring we buy more crap we don’t need. So if any genius out there is reading this, please use your genius to fix problems that need to be fixed, not ones that contribute to making the world worse.
Do you feel your personal investments have made a big difference so far?
Yes. My investments have also built a fund-model. So other people can invest in a low-carbon future that primarily accelerates the deployment of these climate-critical, low-carbon technologies around the world. This is super important because even Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos aren’t wealthy enough to fix these problems by themselves. We need to aggregate our capital and deploy it in these solutions on a mass-scale. That’s what my business, FullCycle, is. It’s a growth-equity firm with a very nuanced model, that addresses climate change in a risk-adjusted return profile that actually creates asymmetrical returns for investors. Investors get an infrastructure-type risk profile with a growth-equity type PE profile. The results are therefore very advantageous for investors, as they get the highest carbon return on investment of any fund out there, with the metric we use. We even refined this metric further, by developing “CROI-20,” where the effects of the investment will make a difference within the next 20 years. Because the world is in an accelerated warming cycle, our investments need to keep up with that.
Has this ‘CROI-20’ model been used by other companies yet or are you still pioneering it?
Great question. This model is definitely a pioneering model for the private sector, as it is very nuanced. We focus on even getting the right molecules. We don’t address CO2, even though CO2 is actually a greenhouse gas which accumulates in the atmosphere for a very long time and makes up 76% of all atmospheric greenhouse gases. We address the other 24%, like nitric oxide, methane, refrigerants and coolant gases, as each one of these molecules are hundreds, sometimes thousands of times more heat-trapping than CO2. Even though they make up 24% of all atmospheric greenhouse gases, they’re responsible for close to 50% of the warming. So if you just focus on those, you get a much higher climate-bang for the buck, than focusing just on CO2.
Do you think your success will inspire more individuals to invest in environmental causes?
Yes. Wealth accumulation is a big motivator, and investors and asset allocators want to make sure that their returns are as big as possible. So the success of funds like FullCycle show that, over time, these are very investible, very secure, very additive, very significant investments. And that is leading more and more people to invest in clean tech.
What challenges did you face achieving such pride-worthy achievements?
Arbitrary prejudice is a real thing. Women only get 2% of all venture-capital money, and black men in America get a very small percentage of venture-capital, or any sort of investment for that matter. Someone with the name of Ibrahim AlHusseini, is definitely subject to prejudice. I’ve literally had people ask my female co-workers what it was like to work with a misogynist, because of my background, and my partners were shocked. But we all live within these unfortunate stereotypes, and people can sometimes be too ignorant (or worse), to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So I’m sure I’ve lost business because of my name or because people assume things about me based on my upbringing or religion.
Did being Palestinian ever pose as a particular challenge for you?
Yes, because the world, and especially Israel, has painted Palestinians as aggressors instead of victims. The reality is most Palestinians live in refugee camps or under Israeli occupation and have had a very difficult time all over the world. But the propaganda around them is that they’re aggressors. I believe in non-violent protests and I do not, under any circumstances, believe in violence. Any sort of violent protests the Palestinians have enacted have done them a disservice over time. India was not freed because Gandhi fought a war, but because they carried out non-violent resistance, which is ultimately the most effective. But Palestinians create head-winds and Muslims create head-winds.
In all fairness though, a lot of the progressive American Jewish community has embraced me and supported me. They are very sensitive to the plight of the Palestinians, they understand the nuance of the situation and they don’t take headlines at face value. They’ve invested with me, they’ve even raised money for Palestinian causes and peace causes. They have been very supportive and very just and fair in their treatment of me and my ventures. I’m sure there must have been others who turned the other way and never participated, but they never explicitly stated that to me.
Growing up as a young man in America, especially post-9/11, did you have more of those kinds of experiences?
The prejudice post-9/11 was more of a national prejudice for anyone who signed up for it. I’ll tell you a story that illustrates this perfectly. I had just reached United Airlines top-tier frequent flyer program, and it was my first flight at that tier. It was one of the first flights after 9/11, and I was flying first-class. A flight attendant called my name; and when I approached her, she was holding my boarding pass, shaking. It was clear from her face that this was not going to be good, then she said, “I’m sorry, but the captain is uncomfortable with you sitting so close to the cockpit, so if you want to fly, this is the only seat that we’ll make available to you.” I was in shock, and she kept apologising and letting me know the Captain had the right to do this. So they literally sat me in the last seat on the airplane, even though I had a first class ticket. I never even got reimbursed or compensated in any way for that experience.
In an attempt to educate the Captain on what a different version of somebody called Ibrahim AlHusseini might look like, as I exited the plane I greeted him and said “Hi, I’m the guy you sent to the back of the plane, I just wanted to make sure you knew who you sent to the back.” His response was, “You’re lucky I let you fly at all.”
So I have definitely been through my fair share of racial profiling and discrimination. There is a subset of Americans who are extremely prejudiced, narrow-minded, and un-exposed. So, when the world wonders why over 70 million people voted for Donald Trump, these are those people.
At times these experiences were very hurtful and confusing and America didn’t feel like home for a while. I didn’t even know what home was for quite a while.
Did you ever consider leaving the States?
Leave and go where? My parents now live in Jordan, but Jordan isn’t our home either. America and Europe was great for people like me, whose country ceased to exist. America is supposed to be the place that takes us in and gives us a new home. It wasn’t supposed to be the place that sent us to the back of the plane, or send Rosa Parks to the back of the bus. We thought that ended. Of course, it got better and better, then unfortunately, prejudice was revived again with Donald Trump.
Do you now feel fully settled in America?
I feel a lot better now that Donald Trump is out of office and we now have the most diverse cabinet in US history. America had a choice to make in terms of its future, and it chose a future of inclusion, equality and climate justice, as opposed to one of division and more fossil-fuel and more environmental deregulation. We made our voice clear for the future of the country we want. Moving forward, it does feel like home again.
What is your vision for the future, professionally and personally?
Professionally, I feel like I’m just getting started because solving a problem as big as climate change, will not be solved during my lifetime. It’s one of those issues I’ll be working on until the day I die. And I look forward to that, because it’s purposeful work that I’m proud of. 99% of all living things on the planet, including 99% of humans, did not contribute to the issue. The issue is primarily a rich-country issue caused by North America and Europe during most of the 20th century. China and the rest of the world are trying to catch up, but that’s precisely why we need to transition faster to cleaner energy sources. Because if the whole world needs to rebuild and modernise themselves, they can’t do it the same way America and Europe did, or else we’re all going to die.
What’s your advice to young Arabs who want to succeed the way you have?
Don’t worry about copying the West; invent things to export to the West. Think outside of the box. When you don’t look at the West as though they are ahead and we are merely lagging behind, a whole window of opportunities opens up. If you’re not operating from that deficit, you’ll come up with ideas to export to the rest of the world, as opposed to just copy pasting, and trying to catch up to them. We can come up with ideas, enterprises, technologies, even ways of living that the West copies us for.
Everything comes from how we think, so adjust your mindset. Look at failure as a learning opportunity of what not to do. One of the reasons why America is great is because if investors invest in you and you lose their money, it’s not the end of your life. They understand. But in the Middle East, they’ll take you to jail! Most entrepreneurs fail many times before they build their companies. If you look at history, that occurs time and time again.