Ben Saleh always knew that he wanted to be a success and to make a difference in the world. Growing up in the Middle East, Ben had dreams of one day leaving the war-torn area and finding a place where his ideas could flourish. Today, heading up his own company, US21, Inc., Ben can do just that.
Founded in 1998, US21, Inc., now a global, woman-owned, multi-division, supply, services and procurement corporation, had a long and windy road in the company’s evolution to this point. Started as an Information Technology (IT) hardware sales and services business, US21, Inc. began small and grew steadily. Unfortunately, in 2001, as major computer companies like Dell and Hewlett Packard began to offer direct sales online, the business was hit hard.
Ben recalls the difficult decision he and his wife had to make… whether or not to close the business.
“My wife was pressuring me to get a job but I couldn’t envision myself working for someone else again. I knew I needed to come up with a really good concept; to somehow get out from under the financial difficulties of the business. I said, ‘Just give me one more chance to find something to build the business back up again,’ and she reluctantly agreed.”
Ben didn’t know how they were going to turn the business around until late one night while watching television when inspiration struck him. Ben noticed that some consumer markets were being underserved due to their inability to obtain typical financing options for purchasing IT hardware like computers and laptops. Ben realized that the gap in the market wasn’t being filled by anyone at the time and he capitalized on it.
“I was thinking about those customers who don’t really have a lot of credit and they can’t go to the big stores and get a computer. So I decided that I would target that group and begin to provide my own financing options. I put an ad on the television and in the first 2 minutes after it ran we got about 30 calls.”
In that first day, Ben sold five computers and within the month they had sold 65. Each computer cost the company $500 to purchase and he sold them for $1,000 with the financing.
“The customer would put down $450 and then pay $100 each month for the remainder of the balance. By six months, we had about 700 clients and I had a residual income of about $25,000-$30,000 per month.”
Soon after turning the company around, he was approached to partner with another IT firm whose major focus was on purchasing used computer parts and re-selling them for a profit. Though the partnership didn’t work out, Ben learned the benefits of offering refurbished equipment to his clients and he began to incorporate them into his own business.
Ben started purchasing HP servers from companies that were closing and re-selling them on eBay. With the combined new and used hardware sales and financing, US21, Inc. was expanded rapidly.
“I remember the largest one I did was about 700 servers from a company in Fresno, California. While we were loading the servers onto the truck, I was on the phone with a company in Annapolis, Maryland that wanted to purchase all of them. Before we even had the truck fully-loaded at the site, they had wired the money for the servers into my account. I told the truck driver that instead of coming to Virginia that he would be delivering to Annapolis!”
By 2004, Ben had a network of loyal clients who utilized US21, Inc. for all of their IT hardware needs. Then, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grew, some of Ben’s clients began to approach him about obtaining items other than IT equipment. Many of his government clients were requesting assistance with procuring military tactical equipment (such as helmets, vests, boots, etc.).
“I really never had any experience with obtaining tactical equipment so I contacted a colleague who was ex-military to come onboard and provide some sales training. Later that year we started getting random requests for communications equipment. Many of our customers were traveling to deserted or hostile territories with very limited network infrastructure; they were looking for reliable means of communication and we were given the task to provide a solution. Soon enough, we partnered with a Dubai based satellite company that provided a full range of communication products and services. We became one of the largest U.S. service providers (in the first year) and started offering a full range of satellite products to the U.S. Army and federal contractors all over the world.”
The company continued to provide products and services in IT, Satcom and tactical arenas for the next few years. Ben decided to look at the company strategically and when they analyzed the business’ areas of focus, it was clear that the tactical equipment division was becoming lucrative and the market was not as saturated as IT had become. At this point US21 decided to take the tactical division to the next level by manufacturing its own tactical line.
“In 2010, we decided to branch out into five divisions: IT, Satellite Communications, Tactical Equipment, Safety and Medical Supplies, and Global Services which handles logistics and specialized product lines.”
In 2011, US21 continued to expand by securing a number of awarded large contracts with federal agencies, large primes, and commercial clients worldwide.
“We know the culture of the Middle East and Africa and we have a lot of partnerships with companies in Dubai, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Senegal, Nigeria, Tunisia and Libya. We have established many solid relationships based on mutual trust. We are proud of our reputation. We emphasize customer satisfaction and quality service; a winning combination.”
Last year the company brought in revenue of almost $16 million and this year Ben is anticipating they will reach $20 million. With a new satellite location in Dubai and another location planned in Saudi Arabia, US21, Inc. has found its mark and the future looks bright.
It wasn’t just important to Ben to succeed for riches alone; his desire for success was motivated by a specific purpose—to make a difference.
“I wanted to make a lot of money to help my parents, to help my people, to help my relatives. I wanted to be something one day because I wanted to help and make an impact. I wanted to be able, if someone calls me up to ask for money and needs it, to just write them a check.”
Growing up in the Middle East wasn’t easy for Ben and he planned to leave as soon as he could, but his parents insisted that he stay until he completed high school. Ben finished high school and when he graduated, his cousin, who was attending the University of Tennessee at Martin, sent Ben an application and he was accepted. Ben attended University of Tennessee for almost a year but the small town of Martin, Tennessee was not exciting enough for him.
“I was like, ‘this is not New York, this is not Los Angeles – where’s the life?’”
Ben’s cousin agreed and they both left school, his cousin moving to Chicago and Ben staying with family in Philadelphia. After a few months, Ben decided that Philadelphia wasn’t a place where he could build a future and he visited a friend in the Washington, DC area. This is where Ben found his new home, but living in the DC area while working his way through school wasn’t easy.
“I did not come from a wealthy family and school was expensive, life was expensive and nobody gave me anything. I did everything by myself. I worked full-time while I went to school and things were really hard. It took me a long time to finish and I worked very hard to get my degree. I had a lot of insecurity around this time and I was able to overcome all these issues and finally finished my school.”
During these hard times, Ben relied heavily on his best friend and cherished confidante, his mother.
“My best, best friend, the person that I could pick up the phone and tell anything to and not be judged, the person who always believed in me, was my mother. I got all my strength from my mother; she was the drive for me. When she passed away five years ago, it was like someone ripped something out of my heart. She really had that much of an impact on my life. She never meddled, she would just listen and pray and give me unconditional support.”
During college and shortly after he graduated, Ben worked as a waiter and a personal driver. One day while driving, he met a man who owned a computer company who told Ben to stop by his store to talk about Ben’s career and possibly working for him. Ben went to the store and, after answering some questions and expressing his willingness to learn, was offered a part-time position repairing computers.
“He started me off at the bottom, learning all the different components of a computer and how to assemble and fix them. But I realized that I did not want to be working with the actual computers, I wanted to be working with people and selling the computers.”
The owner was hesitant but Ben won him over and was soon working as a sales rep.
Ben was doing well in sales and then one day he picked up the owner’s phone line by accident. It was a government buyer looking to purchase computers. Ben sold them $1.5 million worth of equipment and when the owner found out, he offered to purchase Ben a trip to wherever he wanted to go as a reward.
“I remember saying, ‘I don’t want you to send me on a trip to London or Italy. I want you to pay me a bonus for the big money that I brought in for you. I need to secure my future,’ and he gave me a $15,000 bonus; which at that time was really a lot of money.”
Ben became the sales manager with nine sales reps reporting to him, but he still wanted to make a difference for his future. He decided that if he could make million dollar sales for someone else, that he could do it for himself.
“I felt like it was the right time to take chances, because once I was married, I wouldn’t be able to take the same chances. I would be responsible for my family.”
Ben stepped away from that position and started US21, Inc. and the rest is history.
Now that his company is a global success, Ben can spend more time with his family and on making the impact that has been so important to him.
“I love my wife so much. She tells me all the time that she is proud of me and appreciates how hard I work. She is such a great help to me. She never makes things hard on me. When I have to travel and am away from her and the kids she manages everything. My wife enables me to finish my mission in life. I am so passionate about business mentoring and talent.”
In addition to his immediate family, Ben also extends a helping hand to his family back home.
“I’ve seen a lot and I’ve been through a lot and I don’t want that to happen to anyone else. I have ten of my little cousins that I pay for them to go to school in Jordan. They are all in Jordan universities and I told them that I don’t want any of the money back; I just want them to help somebody else. Two of them have already graduated and they called me up and said that they had finished their promise and that they would honor me at their graduation. That is why I do what I do. That is what I’ve always wanted.”
From driving cars and waiting tables to becoming a highly influential executive of a multi-million dollar conglomerate in the global marketplace, Ben Saleh reflects the reward of hard work and dedication. On a mission from the start, and with the conviction to always strive to reach it, there should never have been a doubt that Ben would get there. Whether it’s providing support and services to his government and military clients or helping his close and extended family, Ben Saleh truly knows how to make a difference… and he does.