Most people want you to succeed: From my teachers, friends, or random people I have met in my travels, I have seen nothing but open arms and support. There are detractors, of course, especially if you’re talking about immigration, but in my experience, support from those who cheer me on greatly outweighs the other side.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Abe Kasbo. Abe is Founder and CEO of Verasoni Worldwide, a marketing advisory, consultancy and agency located in Fairfield, NJ. The firm delivers integrated marketing communications strategies across channels to Fortune 500, middle-market and startup clients in the US and around the world. Abe serves as an advisor to C-Suite executives on communications, branding, and public relations strategies.
Mr. Kasbo has been featured in The New York Times, Institutional Investor, PBS, Bankrate.com, The American Marketing Association, The National, The Record, The Star-Ledger, FOX, WOR, WCBS, New Jersey Monthly, AM970 The Answer, NJBiz, Journal of Hospital Contracting, Becker’s Hospital Review, ROI-NJ, as well as international media outlets in Europe and the Middle East.
He is the Founder of Zeitoun FilmWorks, and the producer and director of the groundbreaking PBS distributed documentary, “The Arab Americans,” which tells a uniquely American story spanning 150 years of those who immigrated from the Levant, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula, their experience and impact on the American Fabric.
Kasbo was inducted into the Seton Hall University Entrepreneur Hall of Fame in September 2018. He founded OnlyOneToothBrush.com — a philanthropic effort aimed to bring 200,000 toothbrushes to support the oral health of Syrian refugees in Germany, Canada, and the United States.
Abe is a member of the Advisory Board of The Entrepreneurship Center at Seton Hall University and Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity International Foundation.
He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration with a concentration in Healthcare Policy and Management, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations from Seton Hall University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Aleppo, Syria and immigrated with my family to Paterson, New Jersey in 1980 at the age of 10. I grew up in an Armenian Catholic family and attended private school in Aleppo. My dad was a tailor and my mom stayed at home. That changed when we immigrated. Both my parents went to work which changed our family’s dynamics at the time, and we went to public school. We suddenly went from a comfortable upper middle class life to more of an economically challenged situation. My father was an incredibly talented tailor but not a very good businessman. He was taken advantage of in a couple of business ventures and that set us back a bit financially, but my parents continued to push forward regardless of the circumstances.
It took a good 5–6 years to become acclimated to our new found home here in the States. We moved many times as a result. I learned English fairly quickly thanks to Happy Days and Lavern and Shirley, and Little House on the Prairie.
For me, I wanted to learn as much as possible about my new home and yet found many things odds here in the States. For example, I quickly came to realize that ring around the collar was a national epidemic at the time. Seemed like every other TV commercial in 1980 was about ring around the collar. Another odd thing for me here was the fact that retailers used images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to sell refrigerators, rugs and underwear on President’s Day. That certainly would have never happened in Syria.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
Our immigration story is similar to most, my parents wanted to provide me and my sisters with opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t have back in Syria. Almost 40 years later, I am thankful for their courage, for leaving everything and everyone they knew behind to start a new life, learn a new language and acclimate to a new culture. I also think that some of the unrest in the Middle East at the time made my dad particularly nervous because at one point our family was at the mercy of winds of terrible historical events. His parents — my grandparents — were survivors of the Armenian Holocaust and witnessed their parents’ murder. I think that was something that was always in the back of his mind. I sensed growing up there was a lingering feeling of wanting to protect our family, and I believe my dad wanted to change that to ensure his peace of mind and provide us with a more certain and prosperous future, as well as all the opportunities afforded in the United States.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
We landed at JFK airport on September 3, 1980 and I remember thinking how strange it was for the airport guards not to have guns because that’s what I was used to in Syria.
I can’t remember a day growing up in Syria that I did not hear or read something about America. I actually grew up reading the Hardy Boys, Batman and Superman comics, in Arabic of course, but that exposed me to American culture and ideals very early in life. I also loved watching Little House on The Prairie and the Virginian, which was a Cowboy Western half-hour show. I loved to play Cowboy and Indians on the streets of Aleppo with my friends as a result.
The way I would describe the initial feeling of immigrating to American would be akin to being traded to the New York Yankees from a last place team. I also didn’t realize that while I knew a lot about America from what I learned in school and media exposure, most people that we met in America didn’t know much of anything about Syria. I remember thinking how can such an advanced society that has so much not know about other places around the world? That thought still stands today, unfortunately. Certainly the first year was tough for me, I got into a lot of fights (I wouldn’t call them fights, I would call them getting beat up by 3 or 4 kids at the same time). I was angry at my parents for bringing us here, leaving a comfortable life, and I could tell these events were especially painful for my parents. The “fights” went on for about a year, but I recognized that I needed to adjust quickly. So I learned English in 3 months, and in the next 6 or 8 months I decided to become really good at sports, particularly Basketball and Baseball. That’s how I got those kids to stop pounding on me. In fact, they soon wanted me on their team during gym or if we played after school. Sports was my social currency to make friends and helped tremendously with my transition at the time.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
There was a combination of people whose friendship and generosity helped make our transition to America a bit easier. My dad came to the States in 1964 and made a bunch of friends and those friends helped us find housing, get a car, helped my parents with finding work, and I am immensely thankful to all of them. I am also thankful to my teachers at Public School №9 in Paterson, New Jersey who were amazing from the moment I entered school there in fourth grade to the time I graduated in eighth grade. They were supportive, expected a lot, held high standards and treated me like any other kid from day one. My eighth grade basketball coaches, Mike Trommelen and John Fierro, also had an extraordinary impact on me because they reinforced and fostered the kind of mental toughness and resilience within me that went beyond the basketball court.
So how are things going today?
I am blessed with an amazing partner and wife, Anna, and children Nicolas and Sofia. My firm is fortunate enough to work with terrific clients from various industries and many of those relationships go beyond business, and I am thankful for that. My talented team at Verasoni Worldwide is exceedingly special because they help foster an environment of creativity and challenge the status quo that our clients truly appreciate. And, the fact that they all put up with my shtick is not lost on me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As a young kid in Aleppo, I saw my grandfather give more of himself than he had, so I try to follow that example. I produced the first PBS distributed documentary on Arab Americans as a way to build bridges and combat misconceptions. We have raised funds for the families of fallen hero fighters in Arizona, The Hot Shots. We have also put together an effort that sent about 250,000 toothbrushes to Syrian Refugees in Germany, Canada and here in the US to support their oral health. I’ve been fortunate enough to mentor college students through my affiliation with Seton Hall University’s Entrepreneur Center. I have been lucky in so many ways, it’s important for me to give back and get involved in causes that make a positive difference in people’s lives.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
Every immigrant I know, and I know a lot…Every. Single. One…has had a positive impact on his/her community either economically or socially. Because I’ve lived and experienced life as an immigrant, I would make immigration system more open to possibilities of accepting people to continue to build the American mosaic well into the future. Steve Job’s father was an immigrant, Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani’s CEO and Founder is an immigrant, Irving Berlin is an immigrant and I can go on.
Way before we became American Citizens, my parents paid taxes, went to church, and put their kids through school. This is the promise of America. The American Dream may have been born here, but it inspires and belongs to the entire world, even today.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Get involved: Be open to making new experiences and getting involved to make a difference in your community as soon and as often as possible.
2. Be resilient: There were times after we immigrated where I watched my mom cry because she missed her family and her old life. My dad didn’t get a raise for years in the mid eighties, making about 280 dollars a week. But their resilience and sacrifices made it possible for my sisters and I to have the lives we do today.
3. Opportunities abound: I was lucky enough to build a business because I recognized a shift in marketing communications just as the internet was becoming dominant. What’s great about America is that you have the freedom to succeed, fall on your face and get back up again. But you have to be willing to get back up again.
4. Most people want you to succeed: From my teachers, friends, or random people I have met in my travels, I have seen nothing but open arms and support. There are detractors, of course, especially if you’re talking about immigration, but in my experience, support from those who cheer me on greatly outweighs the other side.
5. Never forget where you come from: There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my life in Aleppo, it’s in my DNA. There’s no daylight between the values I grew with in Aleppo and the values I live by today.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
1. The involvement of young people in civic engagement and government makes me optimistic.
2. People are kind (mostly). Most Americans are open, welcoming and kind.
3. Resiliency of the Republic, its laws and ideals.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
George Lucas because of his profound influence on our culture as well as his philanthropic efforts.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!