The Emergence of the Unlikely

Appeared in Pittsburgh Post Gazette on October 18, 2009.

Pittsburgh and me
My life story, and that of my adopted hometown, reflect a new world order in which answers to problems can come from anywhere and anyone, writes ABU NOAMAN

When I was 11 years old in Pakistan, I dreamed of coming to the United States. My chances were slim, as I was the youngest of 11 in a family without wealth or connections.

Our family lived near the hotbed of today’s Taliban insurgency. My parents left the village because they didn’t have good options to educate my sisters, which remains difficult there.

My Dad passed away when I was 6, leaving behind a household filled with love, a thirst for education, a passion for hard work and no income. A Catholic school gave me a chance where the fathers inspired me to dream big dreams — one of which was to come to America. My older brother and sister boot-strapped the family while hard work earned the rest of us a string of scholarships, including one for me to study computer science at Cornell University.

Cornell opened the door for a job in supercomputing at Carnegie Mellon University, where I earned my MBA. Guided by an internationally known entrepreneur, the late Jack Thorne, I founded an Internet marketing company that ultimately became Elliance Inc. The Elliance team has worked hard and recently was ranked among the “Top 10 Interactive Agencies” by Interactive Media Awards, sharing the spotlight with firms from London, Miami and New York.

I see my story as part of a healthy global pattern of democratization — of people, businesses, cities and countries. And when Pittsburgh was asked to host the G-20 summit, I realized there’s a common thread running through my adopted city and my life.

The unlikelihood of the choice made some people snicker. Just half a century ago, Pittsburgh was the steel capital of the world, thanks largely to its mineral resources, its hard-working people and its geography. Three rivers of commerce helped transform Pittsburgh into the corporate seat for many multinationals. Pittsburgh became a leader in industry, culture and philanthropy. Then it fell on hard times. The years wore it down. It became an ugly rust belt joke. But it never lost its grit.

The Internet economy, fueled by the transformative work of educational institutions like CMU, infrastructure companies like the former ForeSystems, online-applications developers like Ariba, digital communications agencies like Elliance and hundreds of small, innovative and hopeful start-ups, have brought the city new rivers of commerce by bringing global e-commerce to its doorstep. Today business is no longer in the hands of a few: The new economy has forced the democratization of corporate success.

And so it is with the G-20. Once composed of eight powerful nations that called all the shots, it now includes previously ignored countries such as Indonesia, South Africa and Brazil. Today, decisions about the world’s economy are no longer in the hands of the few; democratization has pushed the sharing of wisdom across a broader horizon.

So, my message to the leaders of the world today and those who will become leaders tomorrow is this: Exclusivity doesn’t work any more. The Internet and new social-networking technologies have made possible a new world order based on the empowerment of individual voices, the real-time sharing of ideas and the opportunity for true self-actualization.

Look no further for proof than to the person who confirmed Pittsburgh as the site of the G-20 summit: our first African-American president.

My story — and Pittsburgh’s — also shows that we’re on track to a world where the smug prejudices of the past are laid to rest and where innovation can come from any individual, any business, any city or any country that is willing to try.