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You haven't been where Mike Mahmoodi has. Not that your story and his are all that different

Amaydeeka feefty? Amaydeeka feefty?

Nobody knew what Hadi Mahmoodi was talking about. He was with the homeless people in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, a clean-shaven kid in blue jeans -- two suitcases, no clue. It was past dark on a late-summer evening in 1974. He had come directly to the park from the airport in a taxi -- had flown to Washington from New York, to New York from Rome, to Rome from Tehran. What he remembers most about the day he left Iran was the crowd at the airport, clusters of family members gathered around all the boys who were going to America. "You are going! You the man!" they said. All the boys except Mahmoodi. I had nobody as a visitor. That was a depressing situation. I was right there with two suitcases and nobody.

Mahmoodi wished more than anything that his father had been there. His father was an important man, a self-made man -- a mechanic who became a taxi driver and later head of the taxi driver's union in Shiraz, the city in southwestern Iran where Mahmoodi grew up. Mahmoodi's father had a high school diploma but not a college degree. For his children, he wanted more. It was high priority that you had to be educated. It was the #1 thing. If you were making it to college, you were really a top-notch person. Your family would be proud of you. Whenever Mahmoodi asked his father for money to go to the movies, the answer was no. One time, though, Mahmoodi asked his father for a desk. A desk was truly extravagant. No one Mahmoodi knew had a personal desk, not even his teacher at school. But Mahmoodi was clever; he knew how to frame the question. I was sitting next to my dad one day. I said, "You know, if I had a desk like this picture, I would study better." The next day I had the desk.

After he got his education, Mahmoodi would be going to America. That was his dream and also his father's dream. It was practically everybody's dream in Shiraz. " Oh, my son or my daughter is in America. He's doing wonderful, she's doing wonderful." In America one could own a hotel or a restaurant. One could be an engineer or a physician or a mathematician. If you were making it in America, that was a totally different story. It was a dream for parents to send their children to America. They dreamed it for their children, and they dreamed it for themselves.

When Mahmoodi was 13, his father was in a car accident and died. It was a very difficult time from then on. It was a large family. The man was gone, and we had to take care of things ourselves.

A little more than a year after the death, his mother remarried. Eventually, Mahmoodi would forgive her -- she was still a young woman, with seven children to care for (an eighth, Mahmoodi's sister, was already married) -- but there was no room in young Mahmoodi's heart for a new father. If you get married, as soon as the guy comes in, I leave. She did, and Mahmoodi left. From then on, he was on his own, an outcast. For the next two years, while he finished high school, Mahmoodi lived with the families of friends and classmates, moving from house to house. He worked in his father's old garage, tearing engines apart to earn his keep. At times he regretted having broken with his family, but regret was pointless -- the break was complete. I saw my brother in the streets, and I said hello to him. He said, "You are a shame for our family. You have no right to tell me hello. You are not my brother."

Mahmoodi graduated when he was 16 and enlisted in the Shah's army; with no money and no scholarship, he had no other choice. But he didn't forget about America. As soon as his two years were up, he found a counselor, who, for a few hundred dollars, helped him obtain an acceptance letter from George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. I called my brother, and I said, "I know you don't want to talk to me, but I want to just tell you one thing." He said, "I don't want to know." I said, "I'm leaving the country, and I'm going to the United States." He said, "Good."

And so it was that Hadi "Mike" Mahmoodi came to America. He was not yet 19. His English was useless. He thinks now that he probably inadvertently insulted the cab driver who picked him up from the airport, and the driver put him out at Lafayette Park from spite. I was trying to tell this cab driver that I'm really a nice guy, don't worry about it, because I was afraid he was going to, like, kill me. Mahmoodi sat on the bench in the park, clutching his suitcases. I did not close my eyes that night. It occurred to him that maybe he had gotten on the wrong plane and landed in the wrong country. He sure didn't see any engineers or physicians or mathematicians. Is this America? he wondered. America with 50 states?

Amaydeeka feefty?

We already know where this story is going.

Hadi Mahmoodi, starting from zero, will lift himself up. He'll learn English, perform menial labor for long hours at low pay, suffer insult, injury, and humiliation, and disappear into the crowd, only to start his own business, succeed wildly, regain the love and respect of his family, and ultimately rise above the crowd. It's a classic tale, told many times in America with countless variations, and not just by entrepreneurs. Its appeal to the listener is a function of the distance traveled -- the journey from being nobody to being somebody, from despair through hope to redemption.

If we're jaded, it's because so many people tell their hard-luck tales for manipulative reasons -- to win capital, accolades, or votes. Those tales also satisfy a genuine human need -- a hankering in successful people to somehow account for their own success.

But Mahmoodi doesn't tell his story the way we expect to hear it. He has plenty of great material but no grasp of the obvious plot. Unlike, say, Horatio Alger (or Bill Clinton), he is not the least bit proud of how far he has come. He would rather not dwell on the past. The past is depressing. If it were up to him, we would see him only as he is now, in the summer of his 40th year: one of Arizona's 1995 Entrepreneurs of the Year and CEO of NIE International Inc., a $40-million (in projected 1996 sales) distributor of computer systems and parts making its second appearance on the Inc. 500 list, at #423. (It was #32 in 1995.) He would be driving a snow-white $70,000 Mercedes-Benz, and he would be living happily with his wife and two sons in a half-million-dollar pink stucco miniature palace, in a gated neighborhood in the desert foothills east of Phoenix.

Mahmoodi is still sorting things out. His success, after all, is a relatively recent event. He is feeling secure enough in his career, finally, to begin revisiting the past. Given just a little more time, he may yet work up a heroic saga, appropriately clichéd. For the moment, though, Mahmoodi's past remains a messy jumble -- painful, embarrassing, at times (in his eyes) shameful. The story that emerges has a nervousness about it that will be familiar to most entrepreneurs, but it also has a kind of euphoria. What's missing is the certainty (unknowable except in retrospect) that things will work out. What's present, still, is the possibility of other endings.

As much as they might want to, few Inc. 500 CEOs can say they began the way Mahmoodi did, with hardly any money, just the rudiments of English, and no place to sleep. Mahmoodi is an extreme example. Yet many will detect in his story echoes of their own beginnings. Fear, loneliness, vulnerability, a sense of what it means to be an outcast -- these are all points on a classic arc, common aspects of the entrepreneurial experience. What every entrepreneur feels, Hadi Mahmoodi has felt. Only more so.

Mahmoodi slept in the park for three months. He did not shave or brush his teeth or change his clothes. Wherever he went, he carried his suitcases. He never opened them for fear somebody would steal his money. (He had about $200.) He didn't talk to people so much as smile and nod and say yes, yes, no matter what the other person was saying, until the other person became upset. Then he switched to no. He ate from dumpsters -- Pizza Hut, Spaghetti Factory, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Especially at Kentucky Fried, they used to throw the food, whatever it was they couldn't sell, in the garbage can. It was a rule among the people who lived in Lafayette Park that any food you found, you shared. Otherwise, it was every man for himself. For example, a blanket that was in the garbage, you don't share it with anybody. Whoever finds that thing, it's his.

Mahmoodi was sure he had made a terrible mistake. He probably would have given up and gone home, except that he didn't have enough money for a return ticket. And he had no reason to expect any better in Iran. At least in Washington, whatever I was doing no one knew about it. But if I was doing the same thing back home, it was a shame.

One fall day three men passing through the park came upon the homeless people and made some unkind remarks. Nothing unusual about that, except that the men were Iranian and were speaking Farsi. Mahmoodi was elated. I said, "Thank God, I understand the language," so I ran up to them. First of all they said, "Stay away. I mean, you are stinking." It was really "stand back." I told them the story, what happened, and they took me to their home, which was an apartment, one little apartment, five people living in there. They were all cab drivers, all those guys.

Mahmoodi took a shower. He shaved his beard. He opened his suitcases and put on clean clothes and threw the old clothes in the garbage. Finally, those clothes were gone. So then I decided that I have to go on with the life that I promised myself, right there. I would never step in that place anymore. That Lafayette Park. The men let Mahmoodi sleep in their apartment only one night. The next day they drove him to the university. Someone there sent him to a rooming house on Wisconsin Avenue. This lady, she had a house, and she said that she had one room and there is already someone in it. She can rent the other half to me. I said that was fine. And it was $22.50 a week for the rent.

Before he could enroll in the university, Mahmoodi had to learn how to speak English. All his money went to pay for lessons. So then I got two jobs. School and two jobs. Every afternoon, after his English lesson, he parked cars at the Holiday Inn. I always had the book, and I studied. Every evening, he headed for the seafood restaurant where he washed dishes and cleaned bathrooms until the early-morning hours. Once, as he was walking home after work, some muggers jumped him on the sidewalk. When they found out his pockets were empty, they broke his nose and cracked two of his ribs.

Mahmoodi was getting nowhere. He believed he would never make enough money to afford tuition at George Washington University. The only friends he had in America were the five Iranian cab drivers. They were full of advice he didn't want. Those guys, they were saying, "Why do you want to go to school? Why do you want to waste your money? You're not going to make it here --take those dreams out of your head. We can get you a cab, and you can be a cab driver. You'll be fine. Get on with your life." And I was saying, "I'm not going to be like you guys. This is not what I'm supposed to do. This is not why I came to this country."

Mahmoodi was coming to realize something: those very men, those cab drivers, were the "success stories" he had heard about all his life. These are the Ph.D. guys, the restaurant owners. These are the guys who were making all those nonsense statements when they were coming back to visit their families. Now I found out the real story. I said, "I've got to get out of here."

Mahmoodi had read in a catalog at the public library about the University of South Alabama, in Mobile, which offered a program in computer science and where tuition for state residents was only $200 a quarter. I said, "This is where I'm going." Those guys said, "Do you know where Alabama is? Nobody goes to Alabama." I said, "It doesn't matter, I am going." They said, "Do you know anybody?" I said, "It doesn't matter. I didn't know anybody here. It cannot be worse than what it was here."

Alabama is a desert, they told him. It's windy all the time, nothing but rocks and dust. Mahmoodi half-believed them, but he went anyway. He arrived on an Eastern Airlines red-eye in the middle of the night. "Welcome to Mobile Airport," the sign said. I see a lot of trees, and it's raining. The total opposite of what they said. That tells you how much people really know what they're talking about.

This was Mahmoodi's plan: to finish college, return to Iran, and make a showy success of himself. Go back there, be that big guy that everybody wants to be. Show the family. My family didn't want to talk to me anymore because I was the so-called bad boy. But I wanted to go back there and say, "See, I made it without your help." By the winter of 1979 Mahmoodi had two things to be proud of: a degree in computer science from an American university and a skinny, blond, six-foot-tall American wife, recently converted to Islam and willing to follow him to Iran. After nine years in exile -- first from his family and then from his country -- he looked forward to a dramatic return. Dreamed it, the whole thing.

That dream died on November 4, 1979, the day Iranian militants captured the American Embassy in Tehran. There could be no thought of a homecoming now. So what happened was, I said, "I've got to get a job." But that would not be easy, either. Ted Koppel was introducing Nightline every night with "Day 44 of the hostage crisis...," "Day 45...," "Day 46..." No one cared what Mahmoodi might think of the Ayatollah. It was enough that he was from Iran.

Mahmoodi visited Houston in the spring of 1980, hoping for a breakthrough. At first it was more of the same. I think I went for, like, eight interviews, all rejects. Even though I was qualified, I was rejected from all the jobs and everything. I was just asking them, "Why am I not qualified? Is it something I have done? Or you don't like my face? Is it that I'm dressing bad? My degree is the wrong degree?" Finally, someone at an employment agency suggested he pick a new nationality. I said, "Which one do you guys like?" They said, "Anything." Which is how Hadi Mahmoodi from Iran became Mike Mahmoodi from Egypt . I walked into the place for the first interview: "I'm an Egyptian." I got the job. Case closed.

The Egyptian ruse nearly backfired. On Mahmoodi's first day at Compass Information Systems, his boss introduced him to two Jordanian colleagues. They start talking Arabic to me, and I just sat there and stared. But by the time Mahmoodi confessed to his boss, three months later, he was doing so well that nothing else mattered. That was the beginning of a productive, hopeful period in Mahmoodi's life. Over the next several years he earned a master's degree at the University of Houston, became a U.S. citizen, left Compass for a better job at NASA, saw his income steadily rise, bought a house, and became a father. So now I'm rolling. I was on the fast track, and life goes on.

But there were problems at home. His marriage, a flimsy proposition from the start, couldn't keep pace with the changes in the couple's lives. In 1984 Lee and Mike Mahmoodi divorced, agreeing it was best but at bitter odds over custody of their infant son, Ramin. The divorce wasn't a good divorce. It was fights. When the courts turned Ramin over to his mother, Mahmoodi was back where he started -- estranged from his family, utterly alone. It was almost the same feeling as when I lost my father. Dark days of your life. When you have a family, you open the door and you get your children and your wife -- and everybody comes to you. And now from that home that you created, you walk into a one-bedroom apartment, and you have one chair and one TV in it and nothing else. I was in that apartment eight months. I never opened the refrigerator door. I never turned the oven on to cook or do anything. I just had weekends with Ramin. All we were doing was just staying home. I was just looking at him. Just playing with him at home.

On Friday, January 10, 1986, while driving to work on a Houston freeway, Mahmoodi decided to quit his job. He had been with NASA for seven years and was making a salary of $87,000. His boss offered him a raise if he would stay. But Mahmoodi's mind was made up. Partly it was a bad case of the career jitters. That was also the day Mahmoodi turned 30. He knew that without a Ph.D., he had probably reached his limit at the space agency. Partly, too, he was tired of the long hours his job demanded. Within months of the divorce, Mahmoodi's ex-wife had voluntarily relinquished custody of Ramin. That meant that many nights, after Mahmoodi collected Ramin at the day-care center and fed him dinner, father and son wound up back at the office. Problem was, sometimes, not sometimes, a lot of times, he would run a fever and have diarrhea and all kinds of things, and I had him on my lap because he couldn't go to sleep, and working on the computer -- it wasn't a very exciting time. It's past. But it wasn't that easy. It was very difficult. A lot of times when people say "single parents," I really know what they mean. I really do know.

There was a third factor, perhaps the determining one. Mahmoodi had a new wife, Parisa. She was Iranian, a student at Arizona State University, the niece of a friend who lived in Phoenix. On the night they met, Mahmoodi abandoned his resolve never to marry again. I remember she had a white dress on. He courted her for six months, mostly over the phone. And as we were talking and talking, I was getting attached to her more and more and more. She was 19, recently arrived in the United States, with plans that hadn't included getting married so soon. He was more than 10 years her senior and divorced, and brought a child into the bargain. When she agreed to marry him and to help raise his son, Mahmoodi made a vow: I promise I'll make you the luckiest person. Just trust me.

For the failure of his first marriage Mahmoodi blamed himself; or rather, he blamed the rigid, logical mind-set his work had engendered. If you work for 14, 15 hours, doing coding and designing, you become that computer. You become a logical thing, and everything in your life becomes logic. So now, as we know, not everything in life is logic. Reality is different. Just five weeks into his second marriage, Mahmoodi sensed destructive pressures building again. He was afraid. If I continue thinking like a computer, probably I'm going to destroy this marriage. So I'm tired of computers. I just want to get out of computers. I want to just get out and go do something for myself. The time is now.

That night, he came home and gave Parisa the news.

The first two weeks they were in Phoenix, Mike, Parisa, and Ramin lived with Parisa's aunt and uncle. The men were full of plans. Parisa's uncle owned a local chain of family restaurants. He was looking to expand into pizza. Mahmoodi -- illogically, perhaps, but that was the new Mahmoodi -- became his partner.

Mahmoodi was a pizza neophyte. The interesting part of it was that I had no experience with pizza. I mean, I hated pizza. At NASA he had played a part in the conquest of space; now he was negotiating with pepperoni suppliers. Mahmoodi was willing to work, though, and he had a flair for promotions. To compete with the national chains, he came up with the idea of offering two pizzas with one topping for a fixed price. The first night his two-for promotion aired on local television, he ran out of dough and had to unplug the phones. One pizza joint became two, and two became half a dozen.

Parisa and Ramin were sucked into the cyclone of growth. Nights, Parisa helped deliver pizzas, while Ramin slept in the backseat of the car. Ramin soon learned that if he stuck his head out the window at the appropriate time and called for his mother, Parisa often got a better tip. So that became part of the routine. And by the time Ramin was 5, he could make dinner for himself at his father's restaurant: his own topping on his own little pizza.

It was Parisa who began the family discussion that would end, shortly, with Mike's recognizing that the pendulum of his career had swung too far in the opposite direction. She saw plainly that he was out of his element. Mahmoodi let himself be persuaded. I realized I had so many experiences, so many years of computers, this pizza place was not for me. Ten months after moving to Phoenix, he answered a newspaper ad that led to a job at MicroAge Inc., developing an electronic order-filing system that would unite the giant distributor's far-flung affiliates.

Things would get worse before they got better. Mahmoodi was working two jobs now: days as a programmer at MicroAge (for less than half the salary he had given up at NASA) and nights tending to his pizza business, pending its sale. On Mike's 31st birthday, Parisa planned a surprise. She and Ramin baked a cake together and waited up for him to come home. It was after midnight when he walked through the door. Parisa greeted him and went into the kitchen to light the candles on the cake. By the time she returned, he had fallen asleep at the dining-room table.

In time, though, the move seemed to be paying off. Mahmoodi sold the pizza business at a small profit. He was promoted to MIS director at MicroAge. His salary climbed back toward six figures. Parisa, meanwhile, reenrolled at Arizona State and resumed work on her own degree in computer science. By August 1989 Parisa was feeling secure enough to set aside $1,000 from her summer-job earnings and plan a small vacation. They flew to Mobile, joined friends Mike had not seen since college, and drove all the way to Miami. Parisa enjoyed herself that week. Life was settling into a stable, comfortable, happy routine, and she was grateful for that. So she was not really prepared when, two months later, Mike quit his job at MicroAge.

Why now? Mahmoodi was comfortable, but comfort wasn't enough. Comfort couldn't compensate for all he'd been through. Go back to my Dad. He said, "Be someone, be somebody, do something that should be recognized everywhere." Here it was, more than two decades since his father had died, and still Mahmoodi was not recognized, not even by his mother. In Iran it was as if he did not exist. No one cares, no one likes you, no one loves you, you are a big mistake, you have done wrong. In America, he was a foreigner, forever on the margin. You know how many times I've tried to talk the American way? I cannot.

The danger at MicroAge was that Mahmoodi might never rise above the crowd, no matter how much he accomplished. That was his main fear, and it was still his motivation. If I want to be someone who people know, I've gotta start something. What other options do I have? Do you hear "successful programmer"? Not very often. But you hear "successful businessman." You hear "entrepreneur."

The idea that would become NIE International (the acronym stands for National Inventory Exchange) had been in the back of Mahmoodi's mind for the past couple of years. He knew from his experience at MicroAge that demand for computer parts was quirky, regional, and impossible to predict. Local parts suppliers and service companies couldn't win. What you had on hand, you couldn't sell; what you could sell, you didn't have on hand. Mahmoodi saw an opportunity for a matchmaker. For a fee, NIE would bring buyers and sellers together and then step aside and let them cut a deal. Mahmoodi would develop the software to track inventory at multiple sites; NIE's cofounder, Jack Rhodes, a former colleague at MicroAge, would handle sales and marketing.

But the idea was flawed. Once the sellers learned there was a market for their parts, they were less anxious to sell, especially to competitors. The exchange never got rolling. The only way to save NIE, Mahmoodi realized, was to buy and sell the parts himself. That meant NIE was no longer a broker, it was a distributor. The setup was more complicated and more costly.

Within a year Mahmoodi had exhausted his personal assets, roughly $10,000. He kept his old Toyota but sold the Chevy Spectrum he had given to Parisa as a wedding gift. With cash trickling in through the company's front door and gushing out the back, he made a strategic decision to move his family out of its rented house and into a smaller one owned by another of Parisa's uncles; he thought the family connection might be useful in a crunch.

The day arrived when the cash was all but gone, the credit cards were exhausted, and the rent on his house was two weeks late. A package arrived at the office, a long-awaited Compaq motherboard, a very hot item, with $564 in cash due on delivery. Mahmoodi had to choose. He could pay for the motherboard or he could pay the rent, but he could not do both. So I said, "He's not gonna kick me out of the house, he's not gonna do that." But my calculation was wrong. He did kick me out.

The Mahmoodi family lived for two weeks in Mike's office. Eight-year-old Ramin slept on the couch ("Pretty neat and kind of exciting" is how he remembers the experience); Mike and Parisa shared a blanket on the floor. They took showers at the Motel 6 down the road. But before the week was over, Mahmoodi had sold the motherboard for $4,000. That was the breakthrough for me. Never again would NIE, or Mahmoodi, teeter so close to the brink.

July in Phoenix. 109 degrees in the shade. The breeze only makes matters worse; outdoors it feels like the inside of a convection oven. NIE's headquarters -- five stops removed from its old location in 1990, in the back room of a consignment shop -- is a smoked-glass and concrete slab on the south side of town. It's big, certainly, but not big enough; Mahmoodi recently surrendered his office to make way for a new executive recruit. Mahmoodi, pleased to accommodate growth, has made himself comfortable with a telephone and a computer in what used to be the boardroom.

Today happens to be Mahmoodi's first day back in town after a two-week visit to Iran. He makes the trip fairly often these days, ever since, at Parisa's urging, he reconciled with his family. That first trip home, compared with his anonymous departure so many years before, had felt almost surreal, as if it couldn't be happening.

By then word of Mahmoodi's success in America had spread throughout the extended family. His mother, along with more than 300 siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and assorted others, turned out to greet him. Most of them might as well have been strangers. When I walked into the airport, I had no idea who I'm gonna see, what's gonna happen. Especially because I haven't seen my mom. Now all these people, they are grown up, married, have children. My mom got really old. It was emotional, people crying. I was hugging the wrong people. I thought they were my sisters, but they were somebody else. From the airport the group drove in a caravan to Mahmoodi's mother's house. The celebration continued for days. From early in the morning until late at night, a mass of well-wishers streamed into and out of the house. Every meal was a banquet.

It was Mahmoodi's homecoming dream come to life. Here were the same family members who once tried to pretend he did not exist, claiming now to be his creators. "I made you" is the phrase he kept hearing. The whole episode was bizarre. It was, how would I say it? Not the things I was expecting. That was three years ago.

Later in this Phoenix afternoon, Mahmoodi leaves the office and joins the crowded highway heading east, away from the setting sun. He drives until the shopping centers and industrial parks give way to fertile stands of brand-new condominiums; then over a rise to where one can see, suddenly, a vast dense expanse of tile-roofed homes (one of them Mahmoodi's), laid down on the desert like a new kitchen floor; and then beyond, to a hill at the edge of settled Phoenix, where Mahmoodi has recently bought, for $450,000, four acres with a full-circle view of the valley and the mountains. Here, one day soon, he and Parisa (the couple now have another son, Neema) mean to build their next home.

Mike Mahmoodi is easy to like. In his presence it's impossible not to share his frank pleasure in his accomplishments -- his pride in his home and his cars and the stir he creates when he walks into the Iranian restaurant in town. It is impossible not to be drawn to the hopeful, forward-looking quality that dominates him, or to his willingness to express pain so plainly, so without design. It is impossible not to believe what he tells you.

But for all his ability to recount his life's events, for all the days he has now spent describing them to a stranger, he still doesn't see what his story adds up to -- doesn't feel its nobody-to-somebody completeness the same way his listener does. Some things have worked out, yes. But you sense that for Mahmoodi, nothing's settled yet -- his life could still go either way. The present and the future are what matter. The past is irrelevant.

I want to forget it because it wasn't such an exciting thing. What is exciting about it? Let's face it, what's exciting? Being 12 years old, working in a mechanic's shop, sweeping the floor, that's exciting? Being a waiter and busboy and cleaning the bathroom, that's exciting? Obviously not. Getting beat up is exciting? No. Everybody saying you're a dumb foreigner is exciting? No. What is there to be proud of?

Two things, perhaps. You weren't crushed, and your past only made you stronger. So strong you don't need it anymore.