This story originally appeared on News at Northeastern and was written by Ian Thomsen.
“My father left home when I was 11,” Amin Khoury says.
He sits at the edge of a plush chair in the Mediterranean-styled beachside home that he designed and built two decades ago. The faint crashings of the ocean are as soothing as one’s own breath. The walls are the color of the late-afternoon sun.
“My mom sat me down,” Khoury says quietly. “It was a couple of days after my father left, and she said, ‘All right, you are going to be the man of the house, and the two of us are going to raise these kids.’
“I said, ‘Mom, I’m only 11,’” Khoury goes on. “She said, ‘Forget about being 11. You’re going to be the man of the house.’ And I said, ‘all right. I’ve got it.’”
The 11-year-old would grow up to become a global entrepreneur who built his career by anticipating trends and making transformative decisions. Khoury recently endowed Northeastern, his alma mater, with $50 million to support all aspects of the university’s focus on the new digital economy and lifelong learning. Northeastern honored him by naming its fastest-growing college the Khoury College of Computer Sciences.
As the elder son of four children in a small rowhouse in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, Khoury had no choice but to fill the void left by his father. In the early mornings Khoury would deliver The Philadelphia Inquirer; on Friday nights he would work past dawn at the local supermarket, restocking the grocery shelves (and eating whatever he pleased). He was a draftsman drawing maps of Delaware County. He was a trash collector tossing heavy barrels up onto the truck, where a colleague would sort out the metals and other items they could sell to junk dealers. The income from these and other endeavors went back to his mother.
From these experiences he would be inspired to develop his own stable of companies. Khoury, an accomplished entrepreneur who earned his MBA at Northeastern, has launched and scaled companies in a variety of fields, employing as many as 12,000 people. Each of these ventures would be exceedingly personal for Khoury, who has saved every personal letter and email from his workers about the houses they were able to buy, the kids they put through college, their retirements on the way.
Above all else, his childhood would teach Khoury how to channel uncertainty and fear into constructive responses, planned to meticulous detail.
“I wouldn’t trade the experiences that I’ve had,” Khoury says. “The challenges and the adversity, I think, have helped me to develop important skills.”
He amends himself.
“Important problem-solving skills,” he adds.
An organic relationship with Northeastern
Khoury’s signature business achievement came in aerospace. It was a fragmented industry, with a number of small players who supplied airlines with various cabin interior components. In 1987, he founded BE Aerospace, which consolidated these airline products under one roof to become the leading global manufacturer of aircraft cabin interiors on behalf of virtually every airline around the world.
In the early years of the new millennium, his business was threatened by a confluence of world events far beyond his control: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; the conflicts in the Middle East; and an outbreak in Asia of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). How many nights would he lie awake in bed, thinking through perils that were too complex for the daylight? For as long as he could remember, Khoury had taken on challenges with a prevailing sense of optimism.
“We successfully integrated the businesses, developing a single IT platform, a single unified reporting structure, and common metrics to measure performance, all of which resulted in a much lower cost structure,” Khoury says. “We invested in R&D [research and development], at a time when competitors in the industry did not have the financial resources to follow suit. And when the cycle turned and those issues were in the rearview mirror, and the world was starting to travel again, we were prepared. We had thought through what to do, and how we should be positioned.
“And that’s when we really took off,” he said.
Khoury’s lifelong theme of envisioning a better future and then enacting a plan, step by step, to make the dream come true has been repeated with his $50 million endowment of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences. It comes at a time when Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun is calling on educational leaders to join him in adapting to the newly digitized world.
In December, at a private event on the Boston campus, Aoun introduced Khoury to the students and faculty of the college in which he is investing.
“This person believes that what you’re doing is going to transform the world. It’s a vote of confidence in each one of you,” Aoun said. “Amin is a self-made man, he is an entrepreneur who has launched many companies, and he is always looking to the future and what is next. What he is telling us is that you are next.”
The Khoury College of Computer Sciences offers a comprehensive computer science curriculum with particular leadership in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cybersecurity in an increasingly digitally connected world. Over the past decade, computer science enrollment at Northeastern has skyrocketed, and now stands at 3,474 students. Simultaneously, the academic quality of computer science applicants—already at a high level—continues to rise each year.
In 2017, Khoury was honored with Northeastern’s inaugural Distinguished Entrepreneur Award. In 2003, he and his wife established the Amin J. and Julie E. Khoury Endowed Scholarship Fund for undergraduate students pursuing technological entrepreneurial studies, which has granted scholarships to 22 students.
“It’s really about helping the university prepare learners to be able to address the challenges of their time—machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, cybersecurity, and so forth,” he says of his investment in the Khoury College. “The college already has an excellent faculty, and these resources will help them further separate themselves from their competitors in terms of preparing learners to become leaders. We’re going to help thousands of kids, some of whom will become wildly successful entrepreneurs.”
His belief in a future driven by visionary Northeastern students is drawn from his own experiences. By his late 20s, Khoury had risen quickly to become general manager of a New York manufacturer of automatic analysis equipment. In a move that seemed impulsive to others but to him was utterly consistent, he walked away from that dream job to start a new business in Boston.
“Everybody in the family was saying, ‘Are you insane?’” he recalls with a smile. “‘You’re running this business at a young age and making a lot of money. You’re going to quit to go and start a business that might fail?’”
It was as though he were addicted to learning, and in a neverending hurry to find out where the next pursuit would lead him. In this particular case, young Khoury was launching a medical products and services company in Boston financed by Greylock partner Dan Gregory. With this move he was building upon his unique undergraduate personal development program at The Wyeth Institute for Medical Research.
A benefit of lifelong learning
Amin and Julie Khoury met at Northeastern while pursuing their MBAs. In the spring, they plan to be together on Northeastern’s Boston campus for the first commencement of the Khoury College.
“I’m looking forward to some day in May, when Julie and I go up there, and a bunch of kids have their caps and gowns on and they get a diploma which says Khoury College of Computer Sciences,” Khoury says. “And then watching the careers of some of these students, because some of them will become very, very successful. There is no other computer sciences college that has the experiential learning program that Northeastern has, and at the same time has the regional network of campuses in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto … This is truly amazing.”
His gift is an investment in education, and much more than that. The Khourys have an affinity for the university that brought them together. And then, just as strong, is the alignment of ideals between the entrepreneur and Northeastern.
In May, as Julie and Amin Khoury experience the procession of the first of many generations of students to benefit from his investment in them, there will be much to celebrate indeed.