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2006 Horatio Alger Award Winner

Nido R. Qubein

President

High Point University

“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you go; they merely determine where you start. Your choices make all the difference.”

Nido Qubein, born in 1948, is the son of a Lebanese mother and a Jordanian father and is the youngest of five children in his family. His father became ill shortly after his birth, and died when Qubein was only six.

His mother had little education, but he says she had the “wisdom of the ages.” A talented seamstress, she told her children that poverty was a temporary condition. “You may be poor in your pocket,” she often said, “but you can always be wealthy in your heart.” Growing up in the Middle East, where they lived in a modest apartment, Qubein listened to and adopted his mother’s wise advice and principles. “My mother married when she was 15, and she died when she was 93,” he says. “She gave me precious lessons of life and a very loving home.”

The son of Christians, Qubein grew up involved in his church. As a young teenager, he worked in a tourism office and managed and promoted a band. “I was fully engaged and involved in my school and community,” he says. “I didn’t think much about my future, but I also never dwelled on my past. I like to say that the past is a lovely place to visit, but a lousy place to live. I think one must be always forward-thinking.”

Even though Qubein’s mother never went beyond the fourth grade, she insisted her children be educated; her great desire was that her youngest son would study in America. “As Christians, I guess it was normal for us to look to the West as a place where we would want to seek our education,” he says. “I enrolled in Mount Olive College in Mount Olive, North Carolina, because the name reminded me of the Mount of Olives in the Holy Land.”

Qubein arrived in the United States in 1966 when he was 17 and with only $50 in his pocket. To support himself, he became a public relations director for the YMCA and participated in a campus work-study program. Money in those days was a constant worry, and he often lived on Swanson frozen dinners because he could buy three meals for $1.

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When he finished his two-year degree, the school’s president told Qubein that a local doctor had paid for part of his tuition. “I was completely unaware that there was a gap between my partial scholarship and work-study program and the actual tuition,” he says. “I asked the president to give me my donor’s name so that I could thank him personally, but he told me that the man wanted to remain anonymous. I made a commitment that day that when I started my career, I would find a way to help other students in need get an education. By the time I was 25, I was able to act on that vow.”

For the next two years, Qubein attended High Point University in North Carolina. He worked his way through as a church youth director. Under his leadership, the youth program grew from 15 members to 150. Throughout his two years with that program, the lack of materials available to supplement his activities often frustrated him.

Qubein graduated with a degree in business, and while in graduate school at the University of North Carolina, he started a newsletter called Adventures with Youth. Qubein worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week to launch his newsletter and his business. He went to the phone company and borrowed the Yellow Pages of major cities, writing down the names and addresses of churches, schools, and camps across America. At night, he typed mailing labels and stuffed direct-mail material advertising his newsletter.

Within one year, he had 1,000 subscribers. That gave him enough capital to begin hiring teachers, ministers, and professors to write materials, which included workbooks, art packets, game books, and cassettes about leadership. At its height, his newsletter had 68,000 subscribers in 32 countries.

From that enterprise grew a natural progression to public speaking. Qubein finished his MBA and in 1973 began addressing business audiences. By 1977, he had 200 annual engagements across the country.

In 1980, he launched Creative Services, Inc., a consulting business that created and published resources for employee development programs. From that experience, Qubein received book contracts. He has written 15 leadership and communication books, including Stairway to Success: The Complete Blueprint for Personal and Professional Achievement, Get the Best from Yourself, and How to Be a Great Communicator.

Qubein became chairman of Great Harvest Bread Company in 2001. In January 2005, he became the seventh president of his alma mater, High Point University. Under Qubein’s direction, the university has undergone substantial growth.

“It is not about what we can’t do, it’s about what we can do. I believe the difference between a winner and a loser is one word. The loser says, ‘Can I do it?’ while the winner says, ‘How can I do it?’ That attitude gives us a tremendous sense of energy and momentum.”

When Qubein immigrated to America as a young man, he did not know he would stay. “I came here for my education, but I love this country,” he says. “For me, the American dream is the fulfillment of our wishes and aspirations, and I believe that is more possible today than ever before. I carry a card with me that says ‘Life is God’s gift to me—what I do with it is my gift back unto him.’ I have tried to live by that every day of my life.”

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