Between war and poverty, there was very little that Mark Haidar had power over while growing up in a refugee area in Lebanon.
But the one thing he could control — an IBM computer, donated to his school by the United Nations — helped him feel empowered as a child and started a successful journey in technology that brought him to the United States.
“If I told the computer what to do, the computer would do it. I felt very empowered by technology and saw the potential it could have on my life,” Haidar said. “I put every moment I had into learning more about programming, computers, all of that stuff.”
More than two decades after his introduction to computers, Haidar, who now lives in Texas, is making waves in the tech industry with the companies he has founded.
The first company he started in the U.S., a technology product firm called Dialexa, was acquired by IBM last fall. Vinli, a connected car platform that Haidar leads as chief executive officer, was backed by $6.5 million in funding from Samsung and other corporations.
Haidar credits his success to the education he received at University of Detroit Mercy where he earned a master of Electrical Engineering from the College of Engineering & Science.
“I tell everyone the same thing, ‘You get what you put in,’ and I really poured myself into education here and learning everything that I could,” he said. “UDM had so many great resources around it. Obviously, the education I had around vehicles, automotive technology and wireless technology shaped my career, and helped get projects and start companies in that space.”
That impact is why Haidar did not hesitate to give back to the University. His gift will help renovate the third-floor hallway of the Engineering Building, which is home to the Electrical Engineering program.
“UDM was one of the top 3-5 inflection points in my life,” he said. “I felt it was a no-brainer to give back. I don’t view it as giving back, I view it as UDM gave me an opportunity to learn. I feel like the least I could do is give back to those who have given you a lot.”
Coming to the U.S. was something Haidar dreamed of and in 2006, he arrived in Detroit to study at UDM. His cousin, who also attended UDM, spoke highly of the University and Haidar knew of the quality of a Jesuit education, as Lebanon is home to St. Joseph University of Beirut.
It didn’t take long for Haidar to feel comfortable in his new bearings, as he dove right into graduate courses while working a night shift at a local gas station.
“I didn’t feel like I was coming to a university, it felt like a new family to me,” he said. “Everyone was just so welcoming and caring, and really wanted to make sure I’m taken care of and adjusting.”
Haidar had no experience with vehicles when he came to the U.S., but that quickly changed at UDM. He worked on a College of Engineering & Science grant project with the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), which involved putting sensors on military vehicles. The sensors enabled vehicle-to-vehicle communication and connectivity, something Haidar said was unheard of in 2006.
His work on the TARDEC project was critical to the conception of Vinli, as he hoped to bring that kind of vehicular data to consumers.
“The experience enabled me to really hone in on how to build the technology and start the company,” Haidar said. “I don’t think I would’ve been able to come up with the idea of Vinili, or work on it, if it wasn’t for the experience I had at UDM. I wouldn’t have been exposed to automotive technology.”
The experience Haidar gained in the classroom, particularly in Image Processing and Embedded Systems courses with Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Mark Paulik, paid dividends when starting both Dialexa and Vinli.
Dialexa’s first project involved taking images of teeth and generating 3D models. Embedded Systems helped Haidar design hardware products for his connected car device.
“I knew nothing about teeth or dentistry, but I knew a lot about image processing because of what I learned in that class with Dr. Paulik,” Haidar said.
Haidar wanted to return the favor to those who impacted him with his gift, choosing to renovate a floor where Electrical Engineering faculty and students are located.
“I feel like there’s some of the smartest and hardest working people I know who work on that floor, and amazing students go in. I felt that the finish of that floor did not match the capabilities of the people walking in it.
“I spent two years of my life on that floor and in the hallways. I was literally sitting there building robots. I have so many memories from it.”
His substantial gift was calculated in a unique way.
“I did the math in my mind, my tuition for those two years, the cost of that, and if the school had put that into investments over the last 20 years, what would the return be? And I came up with that number,” Haidar said.
From learning on an IBM computer to selling his company to the tech giant, Haidar says his journey from Lebanon to the U.S. has happened “in a blink of an eye.” But he considers himself blessed to have shared the experience with great company.
“In two years, I’ll have lived in the U.S. longer than I lived in Lebanon. Time goes very fast and I feel very lucky that I got to spend it with incredible people. That’s the thing that matters. I feel very fortunate; I grew up in unfortunate circumstances, but I’m lucky to have lived and collaborated with amazing people.”