Homaira Akbari: On Constant Self Re-invention

10/24/2017 10:12 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2017

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavor. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Homaira Akbari.

Homaira Akbari is the President and CEO of AKnowledge Partners, LLC, a global strategic advisory firm providing services and solutions to private equity funds and corporations in the sectors of Internet of Things (“IoT”), Cyber Security, and Big Data. She has an international track-record including nine years of professional experience working in Paris, London, Beijing and Cape-Town. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of four domestic and international Fortune 500 companies collectively having an aggregate market capitalization of $120+ billion: Banco Santander S.A. (NYSE: SAN) headquartered in Spain, Landstar System, Inc. (NASDAQ: LSTR) headquartered in the United States, Gemalto N.V. (Euronext: GTO) headquartered in the Netherlands, and Veolia (Euronext: VIE) headquartered in France.

Prior to founding AKnowledge Partners, she served as the President and CEO of SkyBitz, Inc., a leading provider of remote asset tracking and security solutions. Under her leadership, the company had record performance. She sold the company in 2012 to Telular Corporation (NASDAQ: WRLS). Prior to SkyBitz, she held senior management roles in companies including: Microsoft, Thales, and Liberty Media subsidiary, Trueposition. Early in her career, Homaira was a senior scientist at CERN – European Center for Nuclear Research – based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Homaira holds a Ph.D. with honors in particle physics from Tufts University and an MBA with distinction from Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. Throughout her life, Homaira has been active in and a contributor to many non-profit organizations. She currently serves as the Chair of Johns Hopkins University Physics and Astronomy Advisory Council. Together with her husband, they have established the Akbari-Mack Postdoctoral Research Fellowship endowment in Physics and Astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University.

Where did you grow up and go to school? What and who were your most formative influences when you were growing up?

I was born in and spent my childhood and middle school years in Tehran, Iran. My parents and my interaction with my five siblings and my friends during these years left a lasting effect on my life. I came to the US in my late teens and did all of my higher education in the US. I have lived twice for spans of five years each in France and Switzerland. My professional life has taken me to lead and be part of international teams in many countries around the world including South Africa, China, Russia, the Middle East, Europe and the US.

Over the years, I have received precious gifts of wisdom from my family and friends, my teachers and professors, and my professional colleagues. For example, when it comes to work ethic, I adopted my father’s values. He was an immigrant to America and exemplified all-American values such as “honesty, integrity, working hard and never giving up”. When it comes to facing challenges, I try to apply critical thinking that I learned throughout my higher education in the US. And when it comes to having an enriching family life, I follow the colorful Iranian-French joie de la vie lifestyle.

What has been your personal key to success? What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

My professional life is defined by constant self-reinvention. I started my career by studying physics and earning a Ph.D. in experimental particle physics from Tufts University. After several years as a post-doctoral research fellow at CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research), I realized that physics was not where I wanted to spend the rest of my career. Not knowing what I really liked, I decided that I needed to educate myself in a new field and went on to earn an MBA from the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business.

Post MBA, I have pivoted my career as a businesswoman several times from being a management consultant in strategy to managing large and diverse teams of operations, marketing and sales, and R&D (research and development) to owning profit and loss statements for large businesses to becoming chief executive officer.

In my last self-reinvention, I am dividing my time between being an independent board member of four Fortune 500 companies across four countries and four industry segments, and being the CEO of AKnowledge Partners, a global strategy advisory firm providing services to private equity funds and enterprises in the sectors of Internet of Things (“IoT”), Cyber Security, and Big Data.

One of the keys to this “success” is that I believe what Bob Dylan has said: “…there is nothing so stable as change.” Another is that I believe while it is very important to have dreams and not to be afraid, it is equally important to understand constraints and limitations that life imposes on us. I believe it is through a continuous and iterative optimization of this multi-constraint, multi-dimensional model, we can surmount our challenges, break our own records, cross chasms, and always find a new and happy equilibrium both professionally and personally.

What were the one or two things you did early that, looking back, really laid the foundation for success for you?

Education, education, education. Education is not just about attending schools, colleges and other higher education institutions. It is about being open to learning.

I discovered the power of education and knowledge at an early age. As Nelson Mandela said: “…Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” It is my belief that education and learning are our path to freedom.

Whenever I’ve had sad, difficult or dark moments in my life, personal or professional, I took refuge in faith, love, family but above all, I took refuge in my own desire for learning.

What’s been the toughest challenges at AKnowledge Partners, LLC and SkyBitz, Inc.?

The toughest challenge that I have encountered at both AKnowledge and SkyBitz is seeing that the vision that we set in the board room gets translated to an actionable and implementable strategy. Understanding customers’ needs, defining the value proposition, having the right product and solution offerings, setting the most efficient go-to-market approach, and many other strategic and operational decisions are what makes or breaks your business.

Once we got the model right and the engine of growth for our company was humming, we were then faced with the threat of disruptive technologies and new business models. So, we had to repeat the exercise again and again in order to maintain our competitive edge. The speed that technology is changing leaves very few companies invulnerable.

Where do you see the Internet of Things and its technologies creating the most impact? How should organizations approach IoT security?

I have been focused on the IoT sector since early 2000, and am among those people who believes that IoT, when deployed on a vast scale, will result in the fourth industrial revolution. While every consumer business (from wearable watches to thermostats in our homes to how we operate our cars in the future) is impacted by IoT, the biggest revenue impact will be in B2B (business to business) segments due to sheer volume.

Over the next decade or two, we will have driver-less cars, powered with sophisticated sensors, networks and software, driving us around. We will have advanced detection systems that predict when our water pipes are about to burst and leak. These systems will automatically schedule a service visit ahead of the leakage. We will have factories which automatically take account of their work flow, production schedules and will order the necessary inventories without any human intervention.

Businesses can use and or deploy IoT in three major areas:

1. providing higher customer service through efficient and real-time operations and processes

2. creating a disruptive customer interaction through connected relationships which will impact product line management and the way companies do research and development

3. changing their own business models to take advantage of the “IoT shifts”, and in efforts to monetize these “value shifts.” The “IoT value shifts” are numerous but some of the common ones are from hardware to software, from product to service, from on-the-premise to on-the-cloud, from data to actionable workflows, from descriptive to predictive to prescriptive.

Today, there is little to no cyber security measures when it comes to consumer IoT. We saw how a massive “distributed denial of service” (DDoS) attacks were launched against many websites and hosting providers in September 2016 when hackers took over thousands of surveillance cameras, routers, DVRs, and other IoT connected devices. Interestingly, the “Botnet of Things” attack had a relatively low programming sophistication. As for B2B IoT, the vast majority of systems also do not have any specific security measures; their defense is that they are closed systems and therefore, by definition, they are more difficult to hack but they are not breach-safe.

The industry has become aware of the lack of cyber security measures for IoT but just like IT, there is a lot of discussion but not yet a concerted industry-wide effort to address this concern, and most certainly not enough investment from IoT vendors nor from end-customers in protecting their IoT assets and operations.

What are the trends you see driving IoT adoption?

IoT is still very immature but the terminology is highly hyped, making it difficult for the majority of people to discern reality from myth. We will ultimately see IoT 2.0 just like we saw with Web 2.0.

While this is an innovative revolution, we are at the early stages of IoT adoption in B2B. As a result, the challenges in massive IoT adoption and deployment are several folds.

First, we lack having horizontal platforms which can address all B2B end-uses. B2B end-uses are highly fragmented with thousands of niches, each with their own specific use cases. That is why, IoT players who focus on specific vertical end-uses have been on average more successful than IoT players that focus on horizontal platforms.

Secondly, across many verticals which are prone to use IoT, we have a huge installed base of equipment that are neither connected nor easy to connect to. It will take years before we are able to retrofit these equipment and devices.

Thirdly, because of the lack of standards and horizontal platforms, there is a wait and see among many large corporations who would normally be early adopters. For example, I know of a number of fortune 500 companies who want to deploy IoT in large scales but are postponing their deployments until LTE CAT-M, NB-IoT and LPWA protocols and networks are launched and rolled-out.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the issue of privacy and cyber security which we already talked about are hindrances to mass adoption. One last point being that while we do not yet have regulations around IoT, I expect that will be coming in the near future, which will further complicate IoT roll-outs and adoption.

What are you currently working on or are most excited about?

At any time, I am working on a number of different projects and initiatives that I am very excited about. One of those is around assisting a multibillion dollar company in the automotive sector to re-invent itself and its business models in light of disruptions that are rolling through these sectors from autonomous and electric vehicles to ride-sharing and demographic shifts to a multitude of startups in connected car, auto insurance, parking,….

Can you share details of your philanthropic giving?

I learned the joy of philanthropic giving while I was student at Tufts University. I made my first charitable donation to Amnesty International and still to this day continue to contribute to this world-class not-for-profit organization. Later, I started to give my time to not-for-profit organizations because I realized it was not just our financial contribution which makes a difference, but also our personal engagement and support which are just as important.

As a result, today, outside of my financial contributions to many not-for-profit organizations, I am currently the Chair of the Johns Hopkins University Advisory Council for the Physics and Astronomy Department, an organization that I joined in 2009. Our mission is to guide, promote, and support the department in its efforts to increase funding, establish external partnerships, and conduct professional outreach.

Since I became the Chairman, we have established a formal structure, by-laws, and guidelines for how the Council operates. My vision from the outset was to create a world-class organization where every member is highly engaged, has a sense of ownership, and is productive in making a change. Since 2013, we have changed the organizational model of the Council twice with the latest one inspired by technology companies such as Google and Microsoft. Our new and more agile approach leverages the concept of Tiger Teams comprised of 5 to 8 Council members. Each Tiger Team has well-defined short-term objectives so that they can self-steer and deliver against their goals.

For me it is all about results and in the past three years, our council membership has increased from 11 to 25 people, and our council members have made gifts totaling nearly $2.6 million, supporting a Chair’s Fund for postdoctoral fellows, a junior professorship, and two fellowships, among other priorities. Additionally, my husband and I have recently established the Akbari-Mack Postdoctoral Research Fellowship endowment in Physics and Astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University. Prior to this endowment and for the last three years, we have been supporting the first Akbari-Mack Fellow whose research focuses on distant galaxies and the supermassive black holes active within them. You can learn more about this Here.

What advice would you give to a new CEO?

Being a CEO is a tough job as you have to master a lot of skills, both personally and professionally, however, frequently the power of people within an organization is under-appreciated despite the fact it is always talked about.

As a result, my advice to a new CEO is to spend time and get to know your team, the people, and the culture of the company. Too often, I have seen great strategies fail because the organization is not aligned. The chances that a CEO has to transform its human capital organization once or even multiple times during their tenure is very high. So, understanding the organization and surrounding oneself with great advisors is important at the outset.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does it mean to be an Iranian-American to you?

As both an immigrant and a French-American citizenship with an Iranian heritage, my identity is defined by being a global citizen. I feel that I represent three continents and three distinctly different cultures and people, and I have tried to fuse all three, which is a testament to how we are one and the same.

Iran is one of the most ancient civilizations and has one of the richest cultures in the world. Today, Iran as a country and Iranian people and culture, in general, are among the most misunderstood people and cultures in the world because of the political and economic changes that the people of Iran have had to endure over the last thirty-seven years since the revolution in 1979. Those individuals who know Iran and have taken the time to experience Iranian culture or have Iranian friends know that we are the most hospitable people in the world and have huge respect for America and the American people.

Just now, for instance, it is a challenging time for the identity of Iranian-Americans but in every crisis, there is an opportunity. Iranians as a people are extremely resilient. They are inclusive and their community in the US is well integrated into American society and culture. As a result of the recent political climate in the US, I am seeing the Iranian community mobilize to preserve its heritage and culture and to put forth the positive aspects of its identity versus the images of Iranians which are often misrepresented in the press or by politicians for political gain. Additionally, Iranians are also making more of an effort to connect with other communities across the US, and to support the civil rights and liberties of not only Iranians in the US but also other under-represented demographic groups in this great nation we call America.

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