January 19, 2021
Invested in a Better World
Alumnus Namek Zu’bi lends a global and diverse perspective to help technology companies succeed around the world
By Amanda S.F. Hartle
Growing up in Jordan, Carnegie Mellon University alumnus Namek Zu’bi watched his parents run their own companies — interior design for his mother and irrigation in agriculture for his father.
“In Jordan, we don’t have oil, so we are forced to innovate and make a living in other ways,” Namek says. “Because of this culture and my family, I’ve always been in interested in and involved with the entrepreneurship environment.”
As the co-founder of the global venture capital firm Silicon Badia, he still finds himself surrounded by entrepreneurs — and helping more than 70 technology companies in 15 industries succeed through his firm’s early-stage funding, sage advice and diverse perspective.
“I consider VC investing to be inherently impact orientated,” says Namek, a 2008 Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences graduate with a degree in information systems. “When you invest in small companies solving problems, eventually, some become big companies that affect the world in positive and far-reaching ways.”
“At Silicon Badia, we don’t focus on sexy, high-flying consumer apps, fashion tech or media companies. We look for people solving real problems in really offline industries like agriculture, health, education, capital markets, property and waste management.”
“We didn’t have computer science courses, so I’d never coded or programmed. I didn’t know what Java was or any of that. But I made a list of the hardest schools to apply to in the engineering tech landscape, and I chose Carnegie Mellon and threw myself into the challenge of it.”
Conquering the Challenge
Namek never considered a technology career until his uncle Fawaz Zu’bi, who served as Jordan’s information and communications technology minister, suggested it.
“We didn’t have computer science courses, so I’d never coded or programmed. I didn’t know what Java was or any of that,” Namek says. “But I made a list of the hardest schools to apply to in the engineering tech landscape, and I chose Carnegie Mellon and threw myself into the challenge of it.”
In addition to his information systems classes within Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, he enrolled in Entrepreneurship Practicum: Apprentice, a course taught by Robert F. Culbertson, then an adjunct assistant professor at Tepper School of Business.
The book-free course focused on hands-on experiences and pitted teams of classmates against each other to build winning business ideas. Namek’s team exchanged advertising for food from local restaurants to stage all-you-could-eat food-a-thons. They won the course’s competition, and the victory set Namek on new entrepreneurial-focused path — with a tech spin.
After graduation, he joined Deutsche Bank in New York City where he focused on building technology platforms for equities markets. But nearly two years in, an honest conversation with a supervisor opened his eyes to options beyond finance. At Culbertson’s recommendation, he met with a contact and helped launch Clove Hitch Partners, a VC firm that would invest in tech startups and their founders.
At the same time, halfway around the globe, his uncle, who had launched a mostly PE focused fund, began pursuing earlier stage VC tech deals in the overlooked Middle East North Africa (MENA) market.
“We’d catch up at holidays, and we’d talk about the deals we were making on opposite sides of the world,” Namek says. “One day, I told him I was thinking of starting something myself, and what if we did it together?’”
“I had grown up learning to prioritize memorization in the Jordanian education system, but at Carnegie Mellon, it was no longer, let me find the shortest path to resistance and get a good grade. It was let me think about this, why it matters, why it’s important and different ways I can tackle this problem.”
A decade ago, venture capital in New York City was a different scene. The industry outside of Silicon Valley was just starting to grow, and all Namek’s friends working in banking, law and consulting thought going into the technology sector was unwise, Namek recalls.
“I knew I wanted to take advantage of this rise in tech outside and within Silicon Valley and the untapped market in the Middle East with a large youth population, which until recently had been a very offline region,” Namek says.
With his uncle and others partners, Emile Cubeisy and Tareq Faddah, Silicon Badia became one of the first institutional VC firms in the MENA region and the first VC firm with MENA roots to set up and target the United States technology market. The name of the firm, which has offices in New York City and Jordan, came from his mother.
“Badia refers to the desert in Jordan, but in some deserts if you look close enough under the surface, you’ll find a lot of minerals and resources,” Namek explains.
Through self-described hustle and hard work in an extremely intimidating industry, he’s now assessed more than 1,000 companies in the last 10 years in nations around the world.
He’s found a few gems like Kansas City’s BackLotCars, which recently sold for $425 million and makes the process of selling cars easier by moving physical auctions online; ClassTag, a parent-teacher communication platform that translates vital information into more than 60 languages; and HumanAPI, which uses AI to standardize health records.
In both leadership and investments, Silicon Badia reflects the trends toward equity, inclusion and global connectedness that he’s experienced personally, Namek says.
“I’m an immigrant from Jordan, a small country in the Middle East, who had zero connection with the United States professionally, and I’ve been able to become a decent player in this space,” Namek says. “I’m from a different culture, a different background, and I bring a different perspective to our companies that they won’t get from just any person in Silicon Valley.”
“Diversity matters because if you just keep coming at highly complex problems from the same way, you’re going to hit your head against the wall and not figure out a solution.”
Through all his long days and nights, a globetrotting schedule and what he describes as daily and constant on-the-job learning, he pulls from lessons and experiences he had at CMU where he was pushed out of his comfort zone.
“I had grown up learning to prioritize memorization in the Jordanian education system, but at Carnegie Mellon, it was no longer, let me find the shortest path to resistance and get a good grade,” Namek says. “It was let me think about this, why it matters, why it’s important and different ways I can tackle this problem.”
“The shift to the technical, the analytical and the creative — it happened to me at CMU.”