“We live in a hyper-connected world and the impact and influence of any aspect of life to any other aspect of life is more present than ever before.” –Ramez Shehadi
Ramez Shehadi graduated from the School of Engineering with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1994. Today, he enjoys an international reputation as a transformational leader, industry and technology strategist, thought leader, venture capitalist, and community builder. As managing director of Facebook for the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, region, he leads the operational and commercial growth of the company’s expanding portfolio of apps, services, and platforms from Dubai. He has written extensively and advised public and private institutions on everything from digital strategy to next generation smart services and infrastructure. Seeking to deliver positive change on socio-economic issues such as the empowerment of women and environmental preservation, he has led and participated in social responsibility programs and community initiatives. He is a fellow and moderator of the Aspen Institute’s Middle East Leadership Initiative and the Aspen Global Leadership Network. In 2020, Forbes ranked him among the top 20 of its “Top 50 Regional Executives Heading International Companies” list. In April, as a speaker in the Rutgers Engineering Spotlight Series, he discussed “What COVID Has Done for the Digital World.”
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Lebanon, but my mother and I joined my father, who was working for Saudi Aramco in Saudi Arabia. My sister and brother were born there and we would visit Lebanon and travel the world throughout my youth.
After the ninth grade, my parents elected to send me to The Stony Brook School, a college preparatory boarding school, on Long Island, NY.
While my way to Rutgers was perhaps circumstantial and not intentional, my decision to stay absolutely was. I was on my way to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and, while I was waiting for my immigration paperwork to go to Canada to come through, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait took place. I never got my visa, which was due from the Canadian embassy in Kuwait City. My uncle was a philosophy professor at Rutgers and helped me apply. In short order, I made my way to Rutgers.
Why mechanical engineering?
My passion and dream had always been to study medicine, but in the final moments, I decided to switch gears towards Engineering. While mechanical engineering seemed the most diverse, I soon thought why not chemical engineering? And after a short while in chemical engineering, I thought civil engineering would surely be easier. And while it was, I soon decided that a return to mechanical would give me the most options on the road ahead.
The engineering curriculum was structured and rigid – what I missed massively, however, were the liberal arts. I was hungry and thirsty to read, write and think. I jumped at every chance to take electives in subjects like art history and philosophy.
What do you most value about your Rutgers education?
I met lots of people, as most people do at university. I met and made friends for life who I turned to not just with hours to kill, but with very many hours to live and to thrive. My experience countered the notion that I would only meet people from New Jersey at a state university. I met many wonderful people from all around the world through the engineering program, my tenure on the crew team, starting a fraternity, serving as an RA, joining professional societies, and of course dorm life on both Busch and Rutgers College campuses.
Did Rutgers influence your career choices and success?
It influenced my immediate career choices and played a role in my later choices. Having invested so thoroughly in engineering, I thought it would be remiss not to seek out to work in this domain. Boston-based engineering consultancy Stone & Webster hired me to work on the largest refinery upgrade project on the planet at the time, at the world’s largest oil refinery of its kind – Saudi Aramco’s Ras Tanura Refinery. Once again, I found myself near my parents, who were still living and working there.
After a year or so, I determined that refining oil was not really my cup of tea and that I desired more business and people exposure, which in fact had been triggered by mentors at work who urged me to invest every penny I made in mutual funds. So began my interest in and exposure to the financial and business planning world.
I made my way to the University of Toronto, where I was accepted into the graduate industrial engineering program – my hope for more “business exposure.” While there, I was invited to join a globally leading think tank, called the Center for Management of Technology & Entrepreneurship, where I focused on applying industrial engineering methodologies towards solving business challenges. From this experience, my master’s degree thesis established models for predicting the performance of mutual funds, using a non-parametric linear programming methodology known as Data Envelopment Analysis.
Rutgers University and the University of Toronto both equipped me with the foundation necessary to launch a diverse business career. This foundation was soundly grounded in the principles of the scientific method – observe, collect, think, assert, test, refine, assert – repeat.
What came next?
From grad school, I went into the realm of strategy consulting with A.T. Kearney, now known as Kearney. I started with them in Toronto, and worked in the US, EU and Middle East. Then I moved to San Francisco, co-started a B2B eSourcing company and helped build it into a $1b business which we tried to IPO – but couldn’t –then sell – but couldn’t – and decided to keep it running. I was approached by another leading global consultancy firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, that asked if I’d join them in the Middle East, which I did. We grew the team from 30 to 500 in the course of the following 7 years, then spun off the strategy-only portion of the portfolio globally, which we called Booz & Company and that is now known as Strategy&. I became a partner and head of the Digital Business & Technology Practice and then the global leader of Booz Digital. Six years later we sold it to PwC and I rejoined Booz Allen Hamilton as a senior partner leading international expansion. Amidst all of this, I married my girlfriend from San Francisco, who also moved to the Middle East to pursue her career in dentistry. Four revolutions, and the Arab Spring, four wars, four kids, four house moves later – and coming up on 20 years of marriage – we remain in the region!
How would you describe your role at Facebook?
Since 2018, I’ve been managing director of the MENA region of Facebook and all its portfolio platforms – including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger.
Our mission – and Facebook’s mantra – is to connect communities and bring people together. I’m focused on driving both commercial growth and social impact across the region and I’m quite intent on positioning the company, our services, and myself as being agents of positive change in a part of the world that deserves positive change and that can be source of great stories for generations to come. While the journey can be at times challenging and difficult, it has been and will invariably continue to be filled with achievement and growth, too.
Has the pandemic impacted your work life?
Who hasn’t been touched and what part of life hasn’t been impacted? The socio-economic changes have been incredible everywhere and for everyone in the region and beyond. Loved ones have fallen ill and many passed, businesses of all sizes have been shuttered, and unemployment hast risen in leaps, entire industries have come to a stand-still, fear has gripped many in lock-down and challenged the state of mental health for a long time to come. Conversely, science has risen to the occasion and brought new vaccines and treatments forward faster than ever before, new businesses and industries were born, and new jobs were created particularly online, and new ways to be ‘together apart’ while celebrating, working, and entertaining have emerged as the green shoots of hope start to bud.
At work in Facebook, the transition for many into online engagement has been less of a challenge given that we are a digital company and so much of our collaboration with others in the company in all parts of the world was already through video-conferencing and messaging. This, of course, has increased dramatically and as such, we’ve invested a lot in assisting with efficient work environments of employees at home, mental health needs, sustainable business cadence, and many other facilities to ensure that the steady state of one’s work remains sustainable, productive, and enjoyable.
What is your role as a fellow and moderator of the Aspen Institute’s Middle East Leadership Initiative and the Aspen Global Leadership Network?
The Aspen Institute’s Middle East Leadership Initiative, the Global Leadership Network and the more than 2800 fellows from all around the world who comprise this network, share a commitment to enlightened leadership and the resources available to them to tackle the foremost societal challenges of our times. For me as both a fellow and moderator of the programs, it has truly been a life-changing journey through the arc from success to significance. The arc is shaped by 4 key questions:
The first asks what it means to be an effective and enlightened leader. How does one modulate their engagement to maximize impact and change?
Next, how does an enlightened leader contribute to building a good society – and what is a good society?
Third, what does a good society really mean and what does it look like in the hyper-connected globalized world we live in today?
Fourth, as an enlightened leader working to build a good society in an age of globalization, how does one live a “good” life?
What did you do for fun when you were a student?
There are many stories that will go unsaid! But my first year I joined the crew team, fell in love, and started to explore the whole fraternity thing. When my father said it was time to move to Canada, I said I was staying and I did! Best decision! Fun for me was always about exploring new topics, places and people. Being close to NYC was an incredibly rich source of discovery.
What do you do for fun these days?
There are a few things I enjoy that I do don’t do nearly often enough. I’m an avid sailor – I tasted that at Stony Brook. I’ve participated in national and world championships. I adore it – sailing is physics, art, power, fitness, nature, and engineering all together… My kids are learning to be sailors too.
I also love hiking and forest-bathing in nature. A few years ago, I completed a 30-day, 500km hiking expedition on the Lebanon Mountain Trail, many parts of which date back thousands of years and along that timeline through so many dynasties and religious milestones and ancient monuments.
I love the classics, love the theater and opera, which all give me great joy. The greatest joy of all , though, is to be with my family. Getting to know my four children and the people they are becoming gives me all the energy I could ever wish for in life.
You’re a reader. What are you reading now?
I have it right here: Goliath’s Revenge by Todd Hewlin and Scott Snyder. It’s a dissertation on digital native companies who disrupted and changed the rules that are now being challenged by traditional businesses using their know-how to beat the new guys at their own game. When you start to believe you’ve figured it all out and nobody else matters, you’re looking at the cracks of your own demise – just as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias speaks to the fleeting nature of power at the steps of a once glorious but now crumbled kingdom.
If you could take a vacation tomorrow – pandemic travel restrictions aside – where would you go?
My heart is always in my beautiful Lebanon… but the South of France is just the perfect escape –always.