Find Your Larry

Find Your Larry

In loving memory of Jehu Lawrence “Larry” Blades

Growing up as a Middle Eastern immigrant in the US in a family of eight children, I was often unable to imagine a future to strive towards. I also came of age in a broken household where divorce lingered for over a decade, and where the kids were pawns in legal jockeying. 

It took me a while to become cognizant of the impact my upbringing had had on my life; of how it had affected me, as an individual, and also had affected my relationship with others.

Now, when I am asked “how have the hardships you faced contributed to who you are today”, I easily answer, “It’s made me grateful and altruistic”.  This journey, however, has been hard and long.  I would not be who I am today without someone who was very near and dear to me, Lawrence “Larry” Blades, who passed away earlier this year.

Setup

Growing up as an Egyptian American in a small US town during the 80’s and 90’s was not easy. Clearly different from others in appearance, mannerisms, and culture, I was a target for frequent mental, emotional, and physical bullying in school from 1st grade throughout high school. With my parents more preoccupied with fighting each other than with anything else, I was left to fend for myself pushing me to fight off bullies whenever attacked. I’d regularly come home with torn clothes and formal write-up or suspension from school only to catch another “whooping” from my parents for what they perceived to be a boy who’s acting up.

Years of this manifested a deeply rooted protective mechanism of self-survival: “Kareem, do whatever it takes to fend for yourself”.  As you can imagine, this had major negative consequences on my behavior as a teenager and I entered adulthood.

In an attempt at self-preservation, then justified in my own eyes, I would sometimes make poor decisions.

For instance, during the winter of 1999 while in high school, I drove with an expired car registration and owed speeding fines (which got me a few run-ins with Johnny Law) because I was living in my car and had to make a choice: use the little money earned to pay for these items to get to school, buy food to eat, or heat my car so I don’t freeze. I even put together a schedule at school to bum $.25 from 5 different people, getting me the $1.25 needed to buy lunch a couple days a week filling in the days I couldn’t afford it on my own.

This behavior, purely out of self-preservation, permeated into other elements of my life driving self-centered behavior when interacting with friends, sadly resulting in the loss of what would have been amazing lifetime relationships.

It wasn’t until 2001, at the age of 17, when I joined the U.S. Marine Corps that their concept of brotherhood and the co-dependency on your fellow Marines for, literally, your life did I begin to break out of this selfish world-view. It started here but I still had a long way to go…

Pivot

Getting out of the Marines after three years of service was a huge challenge.  I felt alone, with no anchor and nothing to go back to, and I struggled to find my path.  Thankfully, by then, I was a different person, already grateful for all that I had learned with my fellow Marines.  I navigated my post-military life with my new moral compass to the best I could.  It was hard: I lived in a homeless shelter for five months while washing dishes at a restaurant trying to build a new life. 

And then… I met Larry in 2006 when working at Lime Rock Park, an automotive racetrack in Northwest CT, through his wife Georgia who was the CEO. An avid car and racing enthusiast, Larry frequented the track where we began to chat and he learned about my background.

Fascinated with it (till this day I’m still unsure why) he began supporting me in my endeavors as I enrolled in community college while founding my first start-up. Sharing my two-pronged approach to Larry where one was a fallback in case I didn’t succeed at the other, he simply said,

you’ll be great, they’re going to love you.

In 2008, after finishing my 2 years at community college, it was time to transfer to a 4-year university. I planned to attend the local 4-year college but Larry had other ideas… “You should apply to all the Ivy League schools,” he said. The look on my face when he said that, although I couldn’t see myself, I’m sure was comical.

He explained to me that, despite all my trials and tribulations, I had to aim high emphasizing all the good AND the bad that I had done before were the necessary ingredients for an incredible story. The admissions committees at the Ivy’s would see my background and experience as proof of resilience, and ability to overcome and advance against all odds.

Although pessimistic, I agreed and applied to Columbia University with his help. Before my admission committee interview, I told him again and again that I’d never get accepted and he said, “you’ll be great, they’re going to love you”. To my utmost shocking surprise (and not to Larry’s at all) I got accepted and enrolled at Columbia for the 2009 fall semester.

A few weeks into the semester I had met people from all over the world and with various backgrounds. However, in my mind they all shared one thing: they were incredibly smart! A few weeks later while catching up with Larry, he asked me how it was going. I told him, “Larry, I’m not cut out for this and don’t belong here… Everyone here is literally an Einstein and I’m not – Columbia is way above me and I’ll never make it.” He simply responded, “you’ll be great, they’re going to love you”. I ended up adapting shortly after that finishing the semester with a surprising 4.0 GPA.

It is also Larry who ensured that I completed my studies at Columbia…

During the winter break while having dinner with Larry & Georgia they asked what courses I had selected for the following semester. I timidly said I had to resolve a minor issue with my account to register for spring courses. It passed easily in conversation but unbeknownst to me, they took notice.

The next day I got a call from Larry & Georgia while they were driving and Larry said, “money should never be a prohibitor of your education. We’ve left you a check on the kitchen counter at our house. Please take it and fill in whatever you need to get through the year.”

Shocked, I told him although it was such an amazing gesture I couldn’t accept. He said, “you’re special Kareem and one day you’ll be in a position to help others and I know you will – this is the way the world works. And don’t worry. You’ll be great, they’re going to love you.”

These words caused an instrumental shift in my life perspective and what I wanted to achieve with it, adopting a commitment to support others and being as positively impactful as possible. With that, I made a promise to repay his support by endeavoring to help others through my career and life journey.

Scale

Finishing my degrees 2012, grateful for the stars aligning in my life, and now wanting to give back, I set to out help those whose challenges I knew from my own experiences: military veterans.

With this goal, I co-founded a SaaS company that supported veterans’ transition to civilian life. In our early days and like any other startup, times were tough but Larry always said, “don’t worry. You’ll be great, they’re going to love you.” This company today helps more than just veterans, having expanded into a nationwide platform that supports individuals and families throughout the U.S. get access to the support services they need.

More challenging experiences – followed by Larry’s words of support – continued when I brought Modus to the MENA region in 2019.

After setting up our first office in Cairo, I invited Larry and Georgia to Egypt for vacation as a minimal gesture for their years of continued support. During their visit, I went on and on about how I was confident our venture building model was the right type of support founders and the ecosystem needed but felt it was falling on deaf ears. Larry looked at me and said, “give it time, they’ll get it soon enough. And don’t worry you’ll be great, they’re going to love you.”

Shortly after that trip I was back in New York and when on my way to visit Larry and Georgia,  Georgia asked me to swing by the racetrack beforehand. We sat in her car and chatted for a bit and she asked me if I had noticed anything different about Larry during their visit and as I thought about it, I did notice something was a bit off.

That’s when she told me Larry had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My heart dropped… I asked what I could do to help, if anything, and she simply said to always remember him for the amazing person he was during all the years I’ve known him.

Retrospective

I visited Larry & Georgia at their home every time I was back in the US. Each time seeing him was harder than the last as his condition deteriorated, and it wasn’t long before he wasn’t able to recognize who I was; it was absolutely heartbreaking.  

This past May he was admitted to a specialized care facility a week before I was scheduled to fly back to New York for a few days. Visiting him at the facility while in town, he didn’t recognize me (as expected) and the support staff said he was having a very bad day. I spent time walking and chatting with him, trying to comfort him the best I could by sharing stories about the fun experiences at Lime Rock and our trip in Egypt. A couple hours into the visit we were sitting, looking out a window into the courtyard, when he turned to me, smiled and said over and over, “you’ll be great, they’re going to love you.”

In that moment I knew he was lucid; he knew who I was for the first time in years. Although he couldn’t remember my name or articulate that he knew me otherwise, the absolute minimal connectivity of his memory receptors brought out those words again and again. Although lasting only seconds, it was overwhelmingly emotional and I was so happy to share that moment, having a connection with him again. For the rest of my days, I will never forget that moment and the beautiful glow of his face when he realized it was me.

Later that evening I got on my 14 hour flight back to Dubai and thought a lot about what I had just experienced with Larry. Strangely, through the flight I felt an uneasy emotional rollercoaster in my gut – you know, like when you feel something is up but have no idea what it is?

When we landed, I turned on my phone to the expected onslaught of message notification “dings” after 14 hours without cell service. As I scrolled through my notifications, one message preview stood out like the sun… a text message from Georgia saying “Kareem, a Larry update: after you saw Larry…”. I’m not sure why but I couldn’t bring myself to open the message… it’s as if I knew reading the rest of it would reaffirm that uneasy feeling I had throughout the flight.

I made my way home, hugged and kissed my wife who I had missed dearly, then sat in my office setting my phone down on the desk staring at it for several minutes. Finally, I built up the courage to open the message:

“Kareem, a Larry update: after you saw Larry he had an accident, falling and hitting his head. It’s with great sadness that I must tell you that Larry passed away in the early hours of this morning. Love, Georgia”

Although I was devastated, I was lucky and grateful to have seen him the day before, having that final pure and reminiscent connected experience with him.

In the following weeks as I reflected on my time with Larry and managing my emotions to the best I could, I realized that final experience I had with him was profound.

Larry taught me to believe in myself and to never give up. He showed me what it is to help others, and that even what is a nominal effort from one person can have a life-changing effect on another. I would not be who I am today had it not been for Larry and for our friendship. I am grateful and lucky to have met him and to count him as a friend. 

His memory drives me to keep pushing hard on my mission, doing what I do striving to help others, pay it forward, and never stop – never give up. If not for myself and those I’m driven to support, then for the promise I made Larry to always help others and be great as he always said I would be.

Find your Larry.  Believe in yourself.  Always be grateful. 

Summary

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