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Palestinian-American Developer Remakes DC Cityscape

His father was a Palestinian immigrant to the United States who scraped together enough money to send his son to college. When he graduated in 1982 with a degree in sociology and not a penny to his name, job prospects in America's recession-stressed economy were bleak. Despite the long odds, Jim Abdo managed to launch himself into a successful career as a real estate developer in Washington, D.C., where today he heads a company with urban development projects worth more than one billion dollars.

When Jim Abdo finished college in Ohio in 1982 he knew he wasn't likely to find steady work in the area as a sociologist any time soon. So he and his girlfriend hopped in her car and drove 400 kilometers to visit her family in South Carolina. There, spurred by a desire for financial security and his knack for enterprise, Abdo started his own small business. But the experience, he says was not an easy one.

"I went through a lot of hard knocks to get to what I am today, I graduated from college with almost no money whatsoever. I managed to take out a small loan to start my very first business, which was a little tiny pizza restaurant that I built." says Abdo. "I was so destitute the time that I lived in the pizza restaurant for almost six months that I used to get up in the morning and shower on the beach because I did not have a shower to use otherwise."

As his first little pizza shop grew to become a chain of pizza restaurants, Jim Abdo discovered that what he enjoyed the most was designing and building the restaurants in historic locations in Charleston and Colombia, South Carolina. He developed a passion for a type of architectural preservation he calls "adapt for reuse." That sparked his move to another, totally different type of enterprise - urban development. In 1991, he sold his pizza business and headed to Washington, D.C.

"There is a saying: you have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run, and I believe that in business you need to sort of follow that as well. I started out with very small projects, projects that I could get my hands around and my mind around, and that would allow me a learning curve to understand all phases of construction, all phases of engineering in a smaller model." Says Abdo." And as my confidence emerged and grew and my experience has taught me more and more lessons I continued to grow my company into larger projects and bring on very seasoned and very highly qualified individuals."

Abdo says he had a specific purpose in mind as he grew his business: he wanted to change the conventional notion that most people work in Washington but live in the suburbs. Abdo says he wanted people to start thinking of the inner city as their home - and he undertook a series of award-winning urban development projects to show what urban residential design can look like.

"We finished a project up on Capitol hill that was a vacant and abandoned school that dated back about a hundred years that we won the Mayor's award for historic preservation for, which I am very, very proud of it. It is a spectacular building." Says Abdo." Today we are embarking on probably one of the greatest "adapt-for-reuse" projects for housing in the city's history with our reacquisition of the former Capital Children's Museum. It is a spectacular, 140-year-old building. We will be transforming that into some of the most spectacular loft-style residences that the city has ever seen."

Abdo's other projects in Washington have centered on the city's run-down neighborhoods, where he has purchased several stately but dilapidated buildings and restored them for residential use. Abdo believes that people will move back to the city if they can find attractive, secure living places with reliable public transportation.

Abdo's success as a Washington developer has had much to do with his appealing visions for urban design. But he also attributes his success to the way his parents raised him.

"My father was a very strong influence, he was a very devoted individual, he was very disciplined, has a tremendous work ethic and I think that this was something that served me very well throughout my business career." Says Abdo." My mother was a wonderful parent, very loving, very kind, very intellectual, wonderful in terms of exposing us to arts and I am just very grateful that I had two uniquely different parents but very good influential parents."

Abdo says he is always on the lookout for young people striving to succeed in business.. When he addresses small groups around the country, he urges would-be entrepreneurs to take their time and not rush into risky ventures

"Start slowly, start small. If you going to make mistakes, let it be on a small project, not on a big project. That can be extremely costly and potentially ends an otherwise great entrepreneur career! It is okay to make mistakes -- it really is -- you are going to learn from them, you are going to do better as a result of them. But do that with a manageable project, with a manageable small business."

Abdo believes another essential rule for success in business is to love what you do, to be ready to work hard and listen to people with more knowledge and experience than you -- and to follow their advice.