For Gaby Abdelnour ’77, like Robert Frost, taking the road less travelled has made all of the difference.
As head of JPMorgan’s Asian Pacific business, Abdelnour is responsible for 30,000 employees across 15 countries with different regulatory frameworks and 15 different legal systems, not to mention a myriad of cultures, languages and ways of doing business.
Fortunately, adapting to different cultures and languages is something Abdelnour has been doing his whole life.
Born in Lebanon and French-educated, Abdelnour arrived in Bethlehem, Pa., at the age of 18 to begin his studies at Lehigh University, having never visited the school or lived in the United States.
From there, he embarked on a career that has taken him from New York to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and ultimately, in July 2006, to the JPMorgan post in Hong Kong.
“It’s a very rich, very demanding job,” Abdelnour says, “and that is the fun part. It’s a very culturally sensitive job. The business we are in is a people business. Whether we’re dealing with clients or with internal constituents, it’s about people. It’s about dealing with people with different cultures, habits, mentalities, what have you, and being able to be flexible while preserving a philosophy of how to do business while maintaining an ethical and moral compass.”
Getting out of your comfort zone
The world has changed tremendously since his days on South Mountain.
“You have to think about what the world was like when I graduated from Lehigh, compared to what it is now,” Abdelnour says. “That was five years after Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy with China, a staunchly communist country at the time.”
Abdelnour says that his time at Lehigh, both inside and outside of the classroom, equipped him with the tools and perspective to be successful in his professional life. In particular, he mentions the culture shock of being in America, the fraternity system at Lehigh, the challenge of being taught in English, and the rigors of the Lehigh classroom.
“All of these things ended up making for a very interesting mix,” Abdelnour recalls. “Let’s start with the simple one, the engineering education. The discipline, the mental rigor, the academic drive that Lehigh had at that time has had a huge impact in helping me to analyze a problem, to focus on the issues, and in helping me to wade through the noise and get to the heart of the matter.
“On the human side of things, which is far more important at the end of the day, being in a new environment and experiencing a new culture has made it a lot easier for me to be flexible, to adjust to different cultures, different environments, and to interact with people at all levels.
“It taught me to never judge others regardless of color, religion, or anything. It taught me to work a lot harder in getting to know people, to reach people. [At Lehigh,] I was at a disadvantage and I had to work twice as hard to keep up with the American students. It’s given me the discipline to continue working hard throughout my life,” Abdelnour says.
And, more than three decades later, Abdelnour tries to impart the lessons he learned at Lehigh and beyond on the younger employees in his charge at JPMorgan.
“I spend a lot of time talking to the young employees we have,” he says. “I tell them never be afraid of getting out of your zone of comfort, challenge yourself, never accept the status quo, never be afraid of trying new things, always speak your mind, do not be a yes-person—that is not the way you get ahead.
“Always speak with respect and having done your homework, but speak your mind, even if it is contrary to the prevailing wisdom. Train people and mentor people and always, whenever you see an opportunity, no matter how much it will dislocate you from your cushy zone, grab it and run with it. After all, life is nothing but a big adventure,” he says.
'International is 24/7'
Abdelnour would give similar advice to his alma mater as Lehigh works to produce graduates ready to perform well on the international stage and to strengthen its position in the international arena.
“I think getting people out of their comfort zone is important,” he says. Abdelnour suggests expanding international student exchange and internship programs to include more non-traditional, “far-flung” countries “where English is not the daily language.
“At the same time, Lehigh needs to do something to get the network of international students to think of attending Lehigh and to work with the university. This could be through an alumni organization or through an international council. There needs to be a way to raise the level of attention to Lehigh in the international arena.
“International is more than a hobby or an objective. International is 24/7. It is a mindset. This applies to Lehigh as well as many corporations,” he says. “International is about being on the road constantly.”