After the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing first Gulf War, Musaddeq Khan (MK) and his family were displaced, relocating from the Middle East to the United States. He entered college at age 19 as an electrical engineering major at the University of South Alabama. After a year of straight As and two appearances on the President’s List, MK did what many college students do: over-flexed his social muscle.
“My GPA took a dive to 1.75 or something unheard of,” he said. “I was the person people would point to and say, ‘Stay away from that guy because he’s going nowhere.’”
Fast forward three decades. MK has founded four companies and is a heavily sought-after business advisor and mentor. He succeeded because another school gave him a chance: Georgia State University. In 2000, MK completed his B.B.A. in computer information systems from Georgia State’s Robinson College of Business. Now, as the entrepreneur-in-residence at Robinson’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute (ENI), he lives and breathes the college’s promise to embrace potential leaders, no matter their background—in this case, aspiring entrepreneurs who are often overlooked or underrepresented.
MK joined ENI in 2019 as the leader of its Main Street Entrepreneurs Seed Fund (MSESF), a six-month program that provides training, coaching, and funding to diverse founders: diverse in terms of not only their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion but also the idea behind their product or service. In other words, an applicant doesn’t have to pitch a concept incorporating stereotypically sexy technologies to be considered. For example, one graduate from MSESF’s inaugural class launched a fashion academy that removes the steep price tag typically attached to fashion design school. And a member of MSESF’s latest cohort honed her plan to expand a cafe where patrons can not only drink locally roasted coffee but also enjoy the company of cats available for adoption.
“Main Street is my happy place because I see the founders benefiting every day,” MK said. “My goal is to make sure every founder leaves the program with their eyes wide open. I’m pretty hard on them, but they know it’s because I love them and want them to succeed in a big way.”
MK reiterates three points to every MSESF cohort. One, customer discovery: Focus on the problem and invalidating instead of validating an idea; knowing what won’t work will uncover what will work. Two: Founders, especially women and of people of color, should drop any self-doubt and think big. Three: Focus on storytelling.
“People don’t care how you do it. They care about why you do it,” he said. “If you have a compelling personal story, people will want to invest in you and be a part of your journey.”
The narrative behind MK’s career consists of many riveting twists and turns. His family uprooted three times: from Bangladesh to Iraq during the 1974 economic depression, from Iraq to Kuwait during the Iraq-Iran War, and finally to the United States after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He’s been robbed as a pizza delivery driver and restaurant manager, and shot at while selling meat from a truck. And after selling expensive Kirby vacuum cleaners ($5,000 in today’s currency) door-to-door in Mobile, Alabama, he developed an understanding of product/market fit. Perhaps his exposure to real stress and danger explains why he took a major risk when funding his first business, a healthcare collections and revenue management platform.
“I cashed out my 401K and took out a second mortgage,” he said. “I could have lost everything and almost did.”
If founders really believe in their mission, MK thinks putting everything on the line is worth considering. But the highest priority is taking care of oneself and one’s family first.
“If you have a backup plan, you’re more likely to take the easy way out. I don’t make a plan B,” MK said. “I put everything on the line, and if I lose it, I don’t look back. At least I’ll never lament not trying.”