Interview of Radi Awartani Transcript

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Interview of Radi Awartani Transcript
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Radi Awartani interview
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Revealing Florida’s Arab Immigrants Phase II: The Arab Business Community
Barbara Jardee
Radi Awartani
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Jardee Transcription

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Dr. Radi Awartani August 23, 2012 Pugh Hall, University of Florida Esam Alhadi, Interviewer and Translator for University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries Also present, Richard Saltzburg Edited by Jardee Transcription Alhadi: Thank you Dr. Radi Awartani. I am very happy to have you with us today. My name is Esam Alhadi. I am a lecturer here at the Department of Arabic Language of the University of Florida. Today is Tuesday August 23, 2012. It is now 11:30 AM. Thanks again, Dr. Radi for being with us. Awartani: Thanks to you, Dr. Esam and Mr. Richar d, for inviting me for this interview. I am now ready for your questions. Alhadi: Thanks again. We usually begin by as king our interviewees to give a brief personal history about the earlier stages of their life such as thei r childhood, place of birth, and education before coming to America. Awartani: I was born in the city of Amman in Jordan in 1955. I had my elementary education in Amman. I went to the science branch of Al-Hussein College for my high school education. I joined the Jordanian Univers ity in 1974, after obta ining my high school certificate. I joined the Chemistry Depart ment and graduated in 1978. After graduation, I got a job with a German company in the UAE [United Arab Emirates] for one year. After that, I joined the University of East Anglia in Britain to do my Ph.D. in organic chemistry. Luckily, one year into my progr am of study, one of my professors got an employment opportunity with the University of Florida. I managed to join him here. This happened in 1981. I finished my Ph.D study in 1983. I did a post-doctorate study at the University of Pennsylvania for one year After that, I went to Amman to get a job

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there. Unfortunately, I couldn’ t find the job I was hoping to get. I came back to the USA and started working as a lecturer for the Chem istry Department at this university from 1985-1988. After that, I left my work with university and joined a chemical company here in Gainesville. I worked with this comp any for nearly ten years. After that, I started planning to establish my own company whic h is now called Petra Research Company. Alhadi: We will get back to your experience with your company. I want to go back to your period in Jordan. I want to know the reason th at motivated you to specialize in chemistry instead of any other field of science. Awartani: I was influenced by one of my eighthgrade teachers who made me truly fascinated with this field. He used to bring some of th e halogen elements to class and we used to do very simple experiments on them. I felt that such scientific experiments are more logical and make more sense to me than other subjects in humanities. That was the time when I determined for myself to go into this field. I always say to myself I hope to be able to find that teacher to thank him for who I am now. Alhadi: What is his name? Awartani: His name is Abdel Ilah Abu-Toaq and he used to live in Amman. I am not sure if he is still alive. I tried many times to reach hi m. I once left a message after calling a phone number that I suspected might be his, and aske d that person to call me. I told him that I just wanted to see him and thank him. Alhadi: Let us continue talking about the ea rlier period of your life. Do you remember the names of some of your colleagues from hi gh school, particularly those who had the opportunity to continue with their education and may have achieved a level of success in their life?

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Awartani: I don’t remember any names of my colleagues from high school. However, I know that a number of them went into the medical field. Others went into the engineering sector. I remember a number of colleagues from the university and I know that many of them are doing very well in their careers. Alhadi: You mentioned earlier that you had been in the UAE fo r one year. Did you have any other living or work experiences in other Ar ab countries other than Jordan and the UAE? Awartani: I did some work in Kuwait and Qatar. I also visited Syria and Lebanon for very short personal visits of no more than one or two days. Alhadi: I, myself, as a gradua te of the Arabic curriculum a nd school system, know that the study and teaching of sciences in that region are not up to the task, and that they receive less attention and care than what they deserve from the state or schools, or even from students. In your case, you picked a field that you liked and you ended up doing extremely well. What do you think the problem is regarding the study and teaching of sciences in the Arab countries? Awartani: This may not be specifically true in th e case of Jordan where there is a true attention given to the teaching and study of sciences unlik e in other Arab countri es. This could be attributed to the heavy Palestinian presence in Jordan. When Palestinian parents realized that their land and homes were lost, they reali zed that the best invest ment to make was in their children’s education. They motivate d their children to go into medical and engineering fields. This atte sts to the care and attention gi ven to the field of science. Students were also convinced that this was the only way out and the only way to secure a good and comfortable personal and fa mily life in the future. They also knew that being successful was not ju st a personal reward. It wa s also for the rest of your

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extended family and parents, especially when th ey get older and are in more need of your support and attention. It is well known to th em that the path to a good living standard and a comfortable and stable financial life passes through the study of sciences. There are many good private schools in Am man, Jordan, where students can get a very good science education. One of them is Al-Hussein College that I went to in Amman. It is a big school with around 1,200 gr aduates every year. It is a science high school. I remember it had eight fully fu rnished and equipped labs of physics and chemistry. Based on a personal experience of being a father of two girls who went to high school here, that school in Amman in the 1970s is no less than any high school here in the USA today. Also, based on my personal experience, I can say that I have seen students who study sciences in Jordanian Univer sities that are doing much better in the field compared to many students in the same fi eld here in American universities. They had many opportunities to excel. However, I am talking about a generation that may be different from today’s generation. I am ta lking about my generation of the 1970s and 1980s. You may be right in regards to the st atement that you made earlier about the present-day attention and care to the study of sciences. Today’s generation may be less ambitious than ours was. This could be becau se there are many things that are available to them that we lacked. That is what pushed us to work harder in order to get what we wanted. Alhadi: Your statement about the attention give n to medical and engineering fields is correct, but when I mentioned in my earlier statement that the study and teaching of sciences is

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not getting the care it deserves, I had in mind th at in a field such as chemistry, we still import most of the chemical materials, although we have the resources. It is clear that chemical industries are not at the level and standard that they should be. Awartani: This is true in the cas e of applied sciences. Back in the Arab countries, you may end up working as a testing lab technician or a teacher. Such jobs don’t give the financial incentive that would make a person’s life comf ortable and stable at a personal or family level. The idea of working in the manufact uring field in Arab regions is not well established and not strongly supported. When ever you think of doing such a thing, you will find many problems and obstacles to overcome. I have personally thought of transferri ng my company to the region because I thought that I would be better o ff financially than here because of the small tax that I would have to pay there compared to the high taxes here. I found it impossible for a small company such as my Petra Research Company to continue working and producing the same products that we manufacture here. One difficulty that exists is in getting raw materials. It is easier and it takes a short period of time to get your supplies here compar ed to in the Arab regions. There are also other problems in the Arab regions such as importing and exporting. Here in the USA we are always in close touch with other compan ies from China, Japan, Europe, or companies located in America. Business communicati ons such as these are lacking in Arab countries and are not as easy to set-up and maintain due to a lack of infrastructure. Although it is very likely that you can fi nd a good and skilled labor force there, other serious problems will persist. I tried to do this and talked to many people there, but found that many of the basics are lacking. Here, it is different. You may contact a

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company such as Sigma Aldrich and in tw enty-four hours you ge t the supplies you are requesting through FedEx. I don’t think you can e xpect something like this to happen in Amman. Alhadi: Since we started talking about your company, I want to move on to ask about your business experience in the USA. Would you pl ease tell us a little bit about your company and what it does? I also want to know w hy you decided to establish a company at the time that you had the status of a university professor in chemistry, and also why did you chose to establish it here? Awartani: It all started with a call for help fr om a friend of mine who was in the process of buying a chemical company from two professo rs from Ohio University. The company was working in the acetylene chemistry fi eld and he knew of my well-established knowledge and experience w ith the acetylenes as part of my interest in synthetic organic chemistry. He started his company and due to his bad luck, a big incident happened in his company and it got sold to another company. That was in 1996. After that incident, I had to search for a j ob to take care of my family and other financial obligations. I was fortunate to get a job with Sigma Aldrich. This is a big onebillion-dollar company. I was appointed as a consultant and later was promoted to a department manager. My work with this company lasted for one year. I was working from my home in Gainesville, except fo r a one-week monthly trip to the company headquarters in St. Louis. I began to think of utilizi ng the capabilities and skills th at led to my success with that company, to start my own business. I sa id to myself, Instead of helping others to make money from my hard work, why not work for myself? I knew from the very

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beginning that it wouldn’t be easy. I was fortunate that my wife’s good income from her work as a pharmacist helped us at that transi tional stage. I was in my forties, I had in mind that many people may miss a good opportun ity that comes to their door step because they feel they may fail. I didn’t want to have the same feeling when I am in my sixties or seventies. I decided to give it a try. I followed the scie ntific method one uses in any experiment. You do cost estimates, and then you get the materials, tools and equipment you need, and then make a plan to use them for the best work they can do. I also had the advantage of knowing many people in the chemical industry field. This was my work plan. I started to put things together. I didn’t wa nt to live with the feeling of regret in the future that might accompany not tryin g. It would be different to say that I tried but didn’t succeed. I had no doubt in my mind that my work would be successful based on the fact that I was succe ssful when I was doing business for others who were making a big fort une because of my work. At that point, I came to the decision to start my own business and to keep the profits for myself. I started by renting a sm all place which was a bit bigger than this office in Alachua and used it as a lab. Tha nks to the internet, my work took off very quickly. I consider the internet to be God’s re ward to all of us. In addition to being able to keep track of your accounts, it also made it possible to have very easy and effective communications with the entire world. You can stay in touch with your customers from the comfort of your office rather than travel ling around to meet them. The internet saves time and allows you to focus your energy on production. I began working without turning a profit in my first year. My second year was a bit better. In my third year, I was able to make the same money that I was making when I

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used to work for other companies. My ne w-found enterprise continued to go well. I realized that it was going to be difficult to continue working and advancing in a rented space, especially so in the chemical industry field. You need to be independent from other companies. People always have mi sconceptions about chemistry. It usually happens that when somebody comes into your lab and starts sniffing and making comments about how smelly the place is. It is natural that every place you go will have a different smell. The spices you use in your kitchen, for instance, will definitely make it smell different from Lebanese, Palestinian, or Indian kitchens. I am saying this but I am also mindful that it would be dangerous if I didn’t know what I was dealing with. I began to save some of my financial re turns in order to have the money I would need to buy land and to have my own lab. Th at plan worked out very well. In 2006, I began building my own lab which is 6,000 square feet. In addition to the money that I was saving, I had to borrow additional money from some banks to have my lab fully established. The work has been going very well ever since and now we have customers from all over the country. Alhadi: What chemicals does your company actually produce? Awartani: We do what we call “custom synthesis.” We do different things, but my main field is the acetylenes. The acetylenes can be combined with many other chemicals to produce different materials. It is like you go to a store such as Home Depot and buy bricks. These bricks can be used to build a foundati on for anything to come on top. Unlike other companies that work through catalogues, we wholesale. Companies such as SigmaAldrich and Alfa Aesar produce chemicals for universities and research labs. They buy some of their materials from us. When they r ealized that our materials are of high quality, they added them to their catalogues and becam e among our regular customers. Whenever

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we start marketing a new product and it becomes known with its high quality, the other big companies rush to buy it instead of impor ting the same material from countries such as China. All in all, the work has been going very well and I feel we are very lucky. Alhadi: What category does your company fall into? Do you see it as a lo cal, state, nationwide, or international company? Awartani: We are a small intern ational company. We have sales in China, Japan, Britain, Germany, and France. We do our sales through the internet. Those who work in the chemicals industries are familiar with a syst em called the “CAS Registry Numbers.” When you enter a CAS number of any of th e chemical materials we produce in any internet search engine, my company’s name will come up. For that we continue to receive demands for chemical products from peop le that we never dealt with before. I am also proud of the name recognition that I have achi eved at the global level in this field. If you put my name “Radi Awartani” in any search engine, you will get many links associated with my name. Alhadi: This is true. In fact, I searched your name in preparation for this interview and found many things associated with it. Awartani: Thanks to the intern et! It is making everything wa y easier. Without going into details about the financial issues, we are ach ieving remarkable progress in our business every year. Our sales are going up, our fi nancial returns are going up, and although we are now in our twelfth year of business, I have never posted a single commercial ad for my company and products. It is all through the internet whic h is doing the work for us. Alhadi: Do you have business co ntacts with any Arab country? Awartani: Unfortunately, I don’t.

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Alhadi: Taking into account many factors such as your Arab background, work experience in the Arab countries, your high academic qualifications, and remarkable experience in your field, do you think you would have succeeded if you had decided to build your company in an Arab country? Awartani: I don’t think it would have succeeded there! There are many problems and obstacles that thwart success. It is unlikely my business model would succeed. In the West, you are truly part of the industrial market and you can follow what goes on minute by minute. You are able to stay on top of all new scientific research fi ndings that take place in the West in your field. This may also be true in the case of other countries such as China. In spite of all the plagiarism that people are talking about that go es on there, they have very good and respectful companies. The industr ial system in the West is very well established and firmly founded, and it is built in a way that can help people to succeed. You may say that my company is still small, but when you consider the answer given to this same question by the well-known Egyptia n Professor Ahmed Zewail who is a Nobel Prize winner who also believes that if he ha d to go back to Egypt, it would have been impossible for him to achieve what he has done in the West. Another example of an Arab success in the West is that of the Apple company owner. It is true that his father was in the academic field and he raised him in this social environment, but it would have been impossibl e for him to excel and to reach that high level of success and achievement if it were not for the western mentality he has enjoyed. In our countries, it is all about jealousy and envy. I learne d this from my own personal experience. I was very successful in my hi gh school and college studies, and when I took the decision of going to the West to conti nue with my studies, many people objected.

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They tried to influence my father to stop me from going to the West. At some point, my father fell under the pressure of what the people around him were saying and he wanted to stop me. I never wavered and went on with my decision of going to the West. I knew from the very beginning that my trip to the West would shape my future. My intention wasn’t to stay here. My plan was to get th e qualifications that I needed to help with developing my home country and my fellow citizens back in Jordan. Unfortunately, because of the employment regulations in Jordan, I couldn’t get the job I was hoping to get there. That is when I decided to go back to the West to start my career here where you feel you are "in place" unlike being there where you feel “out of place” as Edward Said calls it. Alhadi: We are approaching the end of this inte rview. One last question I have is about your connections you have with Jordan and other Arab countries at th e social level. Awartani: I don’t have too many connections in the Arab countries. There are many Arab people that I got to know here either in Penns ylvania, University of Florida, or Emory University. I have only very few connections with people in Jordan. My father visited me when my company wasn’t that well known. Unfortunately, he is now suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s dise ase. I feel terr ible about his condition and sometimes I pray that he could wake up a nd see the success that I have ac hieved. I go to Amman two times every year to visit my brothers and sist ers there. I also ge t the chance when I am there to visit my professors who taught me at the Jordanian University in Amman. I am still in touch with most of them.

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Alhadi: You live in city of Gainesville where the University of Florida is located. You used to be a professor at the same university. Do you still have a relationshi p with the university in terms of joint research proj ects or things of the like? Awartani: Yes I do, but it is very limited because I am giving most of my time to my company. I work with some other professors on rese arch papers, and I sometimes substitute for some of them when they have to leave town for any reason. I will never forget the great influence that Professor Merle Battiste of the University of Florida had on me. Although he wasn’t directly my professor, nor my Ph.D. research supervisor, he was my mentor. I was a regular visitor in his office and we had so many long conversations. We used to stay in his office until very late into the night. Often we stayed until two or three [o’clock] in the morning, talking about everything such as history, politics, and ch emistry. His door was always open for me. He retired in 2002, and unfortunate ly suddenly died two years ago. What made my relationship with Prof. Ba ttiste extremely peculiar is that we both had very similar life experi ences. He was brought up by a peasant father in Mobile, Alabama, and I was brought up by a peasant fa ther in Amman, Jordan. He went to the University of Columbia in New York, and I we nt to the University of East Anglia in Britain. We always found many parallel things between the two of us In recognition of what he has done for me and for my company during its early years, I decided that my Petra Research Company would sponsor a gradua te assistantship award in his name in the synthetic organic chemistry field in the Un iversity of Florida Chemistry Department. Alhadi: This is truly good. The talk about your rela tions with Arab countries will take us to talk about the name “Petra” that you have given to your company.

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Awartani: The name of Petra comes from the city that was built by the ancient Arab Nabateans. It is a unique site that has amazing architect ure and it stands as a symbol of a great civilization. When I was in the process of picking a name for my company, my eldest daughter who was then ten years old at the tim e came up with the name “Petra.” Both of my daughters agreed on that name, and since that day it has continued to bear this name. Alhadi: Another question that ju st came to my mind is about your two daughters. Does either of them have an interest in the science field? Awartani: My eldest daughter, As hley, got a top honors degree from the Chemistry Department. She is planning on entering either into the medi cal or biochemistry fi eld. She is currently working for a biotechnology company in Alachua. Unlike the experience that my generation had when the families played the bigger factor in d eciding what we should study, I wanted her to choose for herself. She also has some thoughts of doing some medical studies or anything in the biochemist ry field relating to cancer disease. My youngest daughter, Sara, is majoring in hist ory. She decided to pick something nonscientific to study. Both of my daughters went to East Side High School. Alhadi: Isn’t that strange? I know that her mother is also in the field of science. She is a pharmacist. Awartani: That is what she [i.e., Sara] wanted, and it is absolutely fine with us. In fact, she got admitted into many big schools, but the level of our income disqualified her from getting any financial assistance. She wanted to join the Department of International Relations at William and Mary College, but with the $60,000 annual tuition fees there, we convinced her to do her studies here in Florida. Sh e is majoring in history with a minor in environmental studies.

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Alhadi: Do they speak Arabic? Awartani: Not at all. My wife understands Arab ic better than them. Whenever I am having a conversation through Skype with my family back in Amman, she is generally able to pick up on what I am talking about. Alhadi: We are happy for this great interview. Thank you. Awartani: I am also grateful for having this opportunity. I will be ready to help with whatever I can. You and your students are welcome to come for a visit to my house. Alhadi: Thank you very much. This concludes ou r interview. It is now 12:04 PM and this interview has taken place in my office at the University of Florida. Thank you one more time. Awartani: You are welcome. [END OF INTERVIEW]