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French Version

Ex-Google honcho 'comes home' to Lebanon

Internet veteran wants to help entrepreneurship in land of his roots

Lebanese are famous for taking credit for many notable achievements, from the invention of the alphabet to the international success of pop diva Shakira.

But even the most boastful patriot would be surprised to learn they had a hand in the creation of Gmail, one of the biggest e-mail providers on the Internet.

"Once I didn't check my Hotmail for 30 days and they deleted my account, and I thought, 'we have to start Gmail, or I'll never be able to keep my e-mail and go to Lebanon in the summer,'" quipped Georges Harik, former director of Googlettes, a subdivision of the multi-billion dollar corporation, Google.

"There are real opportunities in Lebanon to create big Internet businesses. It may not seem realistic, but I worked for a company that grew from a few people to nearly 7,000 employees," Harik told potential online businesspeople during a lecture at the American University of Beirut (AUB) on Monday.

A true Cinderella story, Google was created as a humble search engine in 1996 by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, two PhD students from Stanford University in California. Today, it's the largest Internet search company in the world and has even entered the popular vernacular as a new verb, "to google."

In addition to Gmail, Harik, an American of Lebanese origin, oversaw the development of many Google initiatives, including Google Talk, Google Video, Picasa, Orkut, Google Groups and Google Mobile. Harik said he left Google several years ago to pursue other projects, including starting Internet companies in Lebanon and encouraging Lebanese to start their own.

"All you need is three people who know what they're doing," he added, pointing out that most online businesses were started by people between the ages of 23 and 29. "In Lebanon we don't have oil, or any natural resources to speak of, but the easiest thing to ship is information. Skype was started in Estonia, which has a population of a little more than a million, and it was just sold for $4 billion."

Google recently announced the creation of an Arabic search engine, evidence of both increasing Internet penetration in the Arab world and the growing consumer power of the region.

One of the advantages of Internet business, said Harik, is the possibility of reaching millions of people with relatively little startup capital and few staff, although he stressed that technological knowledge was more important than business savvy.

"Most of the effort in Google went to keeping the company technical - we almost didn't hire any businesspeople," he said.

Samer Faraj, associate professor of business at the University of Maryland and Fulbright scholar at AUB, did not agree with Harik's dismissal of administrative expertise.

"I think he is a technical person, and his viewpoint reflected that," Faraj said. "But Google is not the typical Silicon Valley company because they've managed to keep the engineering culture alive."

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to jumpstarting Lebanon's information technology sector is low Internet penetration due to lack of international bandwidth, an issue that was brought up several times during Harik's lecture. The Telecoms Ministry has been promising to increase bandwidth since it signed an understanding with Internet Service Providers to bring DSL to Lebanon back in November, but no launch date has been set.

"The ministry is not buying enough international bandwidth and also not allowing competition in the deployment of DSL, but the problem with penetration is really sort of a chicken and egg dilemma," Harik said. "Cell phones are expensive, but people see a need for cell phones because they want to talk to their friends. People have to want to start businesses in Lebanon."

Beirut,06 27 2006
Meris Lutz
The Daily Star
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