International Student,  Success

Tarek Al Khatib: From Refugee Beginnings to Entrepreneurial Ventures in the U.S.

Some people are just born with the DNA of an entrepreneur.

Just ask Tarek, an up-and-coming entrepreneur of Palestinian roots born in Los Angeles and raised in Qatar. 

Tarek’s journey from the deserts of the middle east to the misty airs of the San Francisco Bay Area was not an easy one, especially for his family. “My parents were raised in a family of refugees who learned how to live certain stages of their life in a mode of survival,” he said. “This meant that whatever was handed to us had to get done – the how came later.”

After his grandparents walked out of Palestine and into Lebanon in 1948, his parents made their way to the gulf region and worked hard to provide a good life for Tarek and his siblings. By the age of 10, he learned about a strangely intense interest he had for business.

Tarek drinking tea with the people of Kashmir
Tarek (right) drinking tea with the people of Kashmir

Like many entrepreneurs today, he found ways to learn the trade – selling packs of gum in school, selling second hand products (sometimes cars) for commission, and building a marketplace website by the age of 13. “That escalated to something a little more legit when I started importing high-end phone accessories from China at 15,” he said. “It was never about the money, just the weird excitement of doing it was fueling me.” 

By the time it came to applying for college, he was left with two choices: to stay in Qatar in the comforts of his childhood home; or to go to California on a new adventure without family. There was a problem though. He had only applied to Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q), one of the top business schools in the world – and his classmates mocked him for applying with a subpar GPA.

“It was more of a blessing because it fueled me to reach out to the dean of CMU-Q and ask him for one request: an interview,” he described. He said he advertised himself like there was no tomorrow, and sure enough, was accepted. “Just the thought of this still ignites me to this day.” 

Tarek holding his diploma on stage at the International School of Choueifat in Qatar
Tarek (right) graduating from the International School of Choueifat in Qatar

Despite getting into Carnegie Mellon, Tarek wanted to take a major risk. He decided to attend San Diego State University (SDSU), 8,000 miles away from home. “I wanted to set myself apart from the pack by making unpleasant decisions and doing something stupidly scary,” he recounted.

“It was one of those decisions that scared me, which meant taking the scarier route had the potential to truly shape me.” 

He arrived in the United States with one goal, to complete his university studies so he could focus entirely on his true passion – business. As a Business Finance student, he was active on campus and joined the entrepreneur society. There, he met some of his role models in business, like James Sinegal (co-founder of Costco), Ralph Rubio (founder of Rubio’s), and Linda Lang (former Chairman & CEO of Jack in the Box).

“One thing they all had in common? They were SDSU alumni, and I learned that it was possible,” he said.

Tarek walking on the stage to receive his diploma during graduation at San Diego State University
Graduating from San Diego State University in May 2019

When asked what three pieces of advice he would give to aspiring entrepreneurs, Tarek recounted some of the lessons he learned when he founded henseii, an online apparel store that has shipped over 540 orders worldwide. “Number one, for a business, the best way I’ve learned is to simply try, then fail, then try again. Two, success has nothing to do with not failing, it is basically how we start to handle our failures,” he said. “Three, listen to everyone and everything. You can choose to take their words with a grain of salt, but make sure you listen.” 

Tarek walking around Pacific Park in Santa Monica, California
In Santa Monica, California

Since earning his degree and moving to the San Francisco Bay Area for work, Tarek continues to challenge himself with a variety of business projects. After experimenting with online apparel and drop-shipping, one of his goals this year is to conduct logistics research behind a product from Qatar to the United States.

“Simply put, the product is convenience served to international students on a silver platter,” he said. It is all part of his philosophy to try something new and learn along the way, just as he had done as a young student in school. 

Don’t be surprised if you find Tarek making headlines anytime soon. Since declining his offer from Carnegie Mellon and moving thousands of miles away from family, there has been no turning back for him. 

And he’d rather keep it that way. 


Marjon is the Creator of Third-Culture Thoughts. A political nerd and basketball enthusiast at heart, he writes about everything related to culture and the international experience.