"Finding your identity -- fighting for it -- unleashes your creative power," says Karim Fadel.
He ought to know.
Fadel, 41, is founder of Unison Realty Partners in Boston. The six-employee company, which acquires commercial properties, revamps them, and resells them, is expecting $20 to $25 million in revenues this year, thanks to the sale of four properties. It's the company's best year since its inception in 2009.
And as it turns out, the six-year period of growth for Unison coincides with a formative period of personal growth for Fadel himself.
Leaving Lebanon behind.
Fadel practically grew up on real estate in his home country of Lebanon. His family's company, a large retail and commercial real-estate business in Beirut, owns eight malls and ABC Department Store, an 80-year-old institution of Beirut shopping.
The business was growing rapidly when Fadel began there at age 26. He led the development of a 1,000,000-square-foot mall in downtown Beirut. He gained valuable experience in hiring: ABC grew from 500 to 1,000 employees during his five years there. "There was a whole culture shift, from small business to institution," he says. In addition, he kept a close eye on costs, knowing the increased payroll and the acquisition of new properties could weaken the company's cash position.
It was a great job. But Fadel had to "push the frontier and see where it leads." He felt he needed to leave his homeland -- and his family's business -- and come to the U.S. in order to follow his heart. In Lebanon, he knew it would be difficult to find happiness and acceptance as a gay man.
All he needed was a plausible excuse to tell his family that he was leaving for faraway shores. An MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management provided it for him.
Starting over again.
Two weeks after arriving in Cambridge, Mass., to start his studies at MIT, Fadel knew he was "never coming back" to Lebanon.
Not that he was home-free from anti-gay attitudes. Life at MIT was one thing. But as Fadel began his career in the U.S. at age 32, he soon grasped that his identity wouldn't help him in the business of commercial real estate. "How do you make your mark in an industry that's male-dominated, with a feeling of an old boys' club -- and you obviously don't fit?" he asked himself.
So he came to a crossroads. Certainly, as a graduate of MIT Sloan, there were opportunities galore for him to work for startups or mature companies whose cultures would be gay-friendly. But Fadel wanted to do what he was good at. Leaving Lebanon was already a compromise.
"I decided, no more compromises -- I'm going to go 100 percent," he says. "I wanted to go into the field I felt most at ease with, in terms of skills."
The power of community.
Fadel rented office space at the Cambridge Innovation Center, then as now a hotbed of startup activity, especially for MIT Sloan grads. Surrounded by friends from business school, Fadel felt less isolated than he might have starting a company under less personal circumstances.
Starting his own company forced Fadel to clarify who he was as a businessperson, just as he was gaining the confidence to be openly gay.
Specifically, Fadel knew his strength was spotting reasonably priced commercial properties which, once revamped, would have the potential to double in value.
What he needed was a team who could connect him to Boston's insider opportunities -- and guide him through the more challenging straits of the old boys' club. He needed an accountant-controller and a well-connected property-acquisitions specialist with history in the region, and connections to under-the-radar property owners.
His experience of en masse hiring for ABC came in handy as he interviewed hundreds of candidates for the two positions. Even if he couldn't hire them, he could still form connections, pick their brains, and get introductions to lenders who'd be friendly to his cause.
Nonetheless, the old boys' club reared its head in subtle ways. "If you want to do business with people, they start being personal," says Fadel. "They ask, are you married, do you have kids, where did you spend your vacations?" Fadel would generally say he spent vacations on Cape Cod. "I wouldn't say I spent it in Provincetown," he says, referring to a New England town well known as a gay vacation spot. For Fadel, omitting details like this to protect his identity was easy. He did it all the time in Lebanon.
Where the heart is.
As Unison has grown, Fadel has added a few more employees: An asset manager who watches the company's portfolio of properties; another acquisitions person; and an investor relations employee, whose position is a sign of Unison's success: Instead of relying strictly on loans and cash flows to fund property acquisitions, Unison has grown enough of a reputation to court outside investors.
Fadel's coming out dovetails with the slow, steady growth of Unison. "You first start with people very close to you and then it propagates," he says. "It took a while." For Fadel, coming out meant honestly discussing his personal life, when the time was right, with business colleagues he trusted. It began in 2010. It continues to this day.
"Times have changed," he says. "It's become a bigger part of pop culture. The other aspect is, at one point you say, 'I am who I am.'" Today, Fadel is a U.S. citizen. He and his partner have a six-month old baby girl. As for his family in Lebanon, he says, "I'm out to them. They're accepting to a point. 'That's fine in America,' is the thinking."
As he leads Unison through its most lucrative year, these lessons stay with him and guide him. He often wonders about other real estate entrepreneurs in the closet, without a leader to look up to for encouragement. "There's no business leader in the real estate industry who's openly gay," he says.
There is now.