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World Mag > WM Winter 2016 edition > Interview with Ghassan Awdi

Interview with Ghassan Awdi

AISB Alumnus / Attended between 1999-2009
Ghassan Awdi
Ghassan Awdi

WM: Ghassan, tell us a little bit about yourself.

GA: My name is Ghassan Awdi. I am 22 years old, and I own a business-class lounge at Basra International Airport in Iraq. I grew up in Romania for 16 years and left here when I was nishing 10th grade in the summer of 2009. I have a very international background, originally my family is from Lebanon, although my father grew up in the US and is an American citizen. My mother, on the other hand, grew up in Brazil born to Lebanese immigrants who migrated there in the 1950s. When I was 16, my family was forced to move back to Lebanon, and there
I completed my IB Diploma at the American Community School in Beirut. I then moved to the Uk to pursue a BSc in engineering and Business Studies where I graduated with a 1st Class Honors at Warwick University. Currently, I travel between Romania, Lebanon and Iraq trying to expand my business career. 

WM: How would you describe your time at AISB?

GA: Out of the two schools that I studied at in Beirut and Bucharest, AISB was my favorite. I had amazing friends at this school, and I used to meet people from a lot of di erent backgrounds and cultures. It was truly an international school. Compared to my years at Beirut, AISB really makes you think about your future. For example, from my time at AISB, I had already been determined to go study at the University of Warwick since 6th grade, although eventually I was accepted to 11 other universities.

AISB was a big part of my childhood, and my earliest memories at this great school date back to the time when it was located in two di erent campuses in the city and not in Pipera. I was an AISB student since kindergarten.

WM: What is your most memorable time at AISB? 

GA: Many years at AISB make it di cult to select a single memorable time there. However, there are three great memories I have of that school that I would like to mention. One of them was the celebratory event we had on the current AISB land when the rst shovel was dug into the earth to mark the beginning of AISB’s Pipera campus opening. The second was the yearly Terry Fox Run that took place at AISB. I used to enjoy raising money, the BBq, and participating for a good cause with my teachers and friends. Probably the events that
were most fun at AISB were the school trips that each grade used to take to speci c rural parts in Romania. I
can recall Predeal and other mountainous regions that we visited as a class. It was a great outdoor experience to sleep in tents and cook our own food.

WM: Are you still in touch with any of your colleagues from AISB? 

GA: I realized how truly small this world is because in almost every country I travel to, I always seem to nd a way to catch up with some old AISB friends. In Uganda, I caught up with Niccolo Ficarrelli, in Romania with Nikos kougionas, and in england with Sever Savanciuc and Laura Heitman. I also sometimes communicate with some old professors on LinkedIn such as Mrs. Heidi Brenner who was my 1st grade teacher at AISB. I am happy that the AISB Alumni Association is so active because I would like to attend the reunions and enjoyed the only one I went to in London almost two years ago. It is great to see how successful many of my old school mates from AISB have become.

WM: What class from AISB helped you the most and why?

GA: I recall physics with Mr. O’Brien as being really helpful. I used a lot of the material I studied with Mr.  O’Brien during Physics IB HL in the school I attended in Lebanon. even some of the thermodynamics material I learned with Mr. O’Brien in 10th grade was helpful in my studies at University.

WM: How would you describe your experience at Warwick in the undergraduate program you did? Are you planning on doing a Master’s Degree?

GA: University was mostly entertaining. I found Warwick easier than high school, and this was a disappointment because it was not much of a challenge. Currently, two of my sisters are studying in Chicago, and I was really impressed with the education system there. Universities in the US o er students more; the classes are harder, they prepare you for life after University better, and I noticed that there are more rewarding career opportunities if you studied from a US university compared to a european one. At Warwick, I graduated with the highest overall mark in the engineering and Business Studies program. This degree o ered at Warwick is similar to industrial engineering o ered in the US. However, I think that university degrees are not that relevant to people who want to start their own business. even many people who work at large nancial institutions hardly use any of the material that they studied at university. I nd that the real learning experience occurs during your rst years working, after graduating from college.

WM: How did you decide to open a business lounge in Iraq?

GA: An uncle of mine is married to an Iraqi woman and through the help of her family, I gathered the chance to participate in a tender at Basra International Airport. We were successful in our tender because there was not much competition. Prior to my arrival, the area that I rented out from the airport was used as an Iraqi market style restaurant. These previous small start-ups failed because the owners failed to understand what foreigners, and speci cally oil executives, were looking for.

Since the airport only has about 12 ights a day, I had to reach out to every type of traveler. Thus, I created two sections: one for high level oil executives who want to enjoy privacy, free internet and snacks, and another section as a café where there is no entrance fee, targeting budget passengers.

WM: What is it like to do business in a country that is so negatively portrayed in the media?

GA: I often think of Iraq as Mars, but my family has been in Romania since 1989, and they continue to tell me that Romania was worse than present Iraq. I honestly don’t think I can believe that statement. I live and work in a city called Basra; it is located in the south of Iraq and two hours away from kuwait City. It is a city of 3 million people and contributes to 90 percent of Iraq’s GDP. Iraq’s largest oil reserves are located in Basra, however, none of the money from oil revenues is being spent to improve Basra and it remains the most impoverished city in Iraq. Working in such a turbulent country is risky, but it is mostly in these underdeveloped countries that high returns can be achieved.

WM: What are some of the misconceptions of Iraq that you can refute?

GA: The thing that most foreigners believe about Iraq is that if you go there you will die or be kidnapped. Not all of Iraq is ghting ISIS and there are many cities such as Basra, Najaf, and karbala that are far from all the violence. The main problem is poor governance. There are areas in the US and Brazil that I have travelled to that are more dangerous than the city I am living in. Furthermore, a lot of people think that no business opportunities exist in Iraq, but the city that I currently live in has hardly anything. For example, there are no cinemas or fast-food chains in Basra. My lounge, Sky Lounge at Basra International Airport, was the rst place in the entire city to offer an espresso or have the capability to take debit/credit card payments. There are a lot of business opportunities to be made in Iraq and consequently, average income in Iraq is higher than in Romania. One thing that I found surprising and interesting when I moved to Iraq is that the country had not improved after the Iraq war. The majority of the people I met in Iraq, including Christians, Shias, and Sunnis, all wish that the days under Saddam Hussein's regime would return.

WM: How did your family in uence your business decisions?

GA: I have a highly entrepreneurial family that enjoys taking risks and truly have money-making business ideas. I am proud to say that many members of my family have become extremely successful starting from humble beginnings in Paraguay, Romania, Lebanon, Brazil, and the USA. For example, one cousin has successfully launched his own shisha and tobacco brand with the help of e-Commerce throughout the US and Europe. They are very supportive of my career and point out business opportunities that I should seek, and at the same time they always expect better results from me in order to challenge me. After graduating from Warwick, my father was not happy about my decision to pursue a career at professional service rms where I had job o ers from places such as ernst & Young and Audi Investment Bank. My father, Hassan Awdi, admittedly told me that it would be an easier career path to work for one of these rms. He acknowledged that in the beginning, I would be making more money working at a rm instead of opening a small business that could or could not be pro table. However, he kept telling me that after hard work, patience, and lots of optimism I would be making more money by being my own boss. I realized this was true, and thankfully it did not take more than a year for this to happen. I was successful in returning my investment in Iraq after 9 months. The smartest business man I know is my father who amassed a business empire in Romania that was involved in the hotel industry, press distribution, real estate, and media. Political persecution against my father in Romania was the cause of our departure from Romania in 2009. Unfortunately, the judicial system in Romania is unfair and for this reason, the work of my father in Romania slowly started to dissipate. However,
to prove his innocence and be compensated for the nationalization of his businesses in Romania, my father brought his case to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes at the World Bank and won a multi-million dollar settlement against Romania.

WM: What are your plans for the future?

GA: I am currently looking forward to starting a new project and expanding my career. I cannot honestly tell you what my next step will be. I discovered that in business you can think of 10 good ideas, but usually only one actually becomes realized or possible to do. After traveling to Romania in November 2015, I am considering restarting some old businesses in Romania and hopefully come here on a monthly basis. I also hope that after a few successful years, I can reward myself and nance my Master’s program at an Ivy League school in the US. 


Read the entire WORLD Magazine Winter 2016 edition here.


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