Alum Fadi Chehadé Talks Tech and Social Responsiblity to Tandon Students
March 6 proved to be a busy day for Fadi Chehadé, the chairman and CEO of an eponymous company, a senior advisor to the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, a fellow at both Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Oxford's Blavatnik School of Government, and a former president and CEO of ICANN, the global authority managing the Internet's logical infrastructure.
Chehadé’s schedule commenced with a meeting at the U.N., where he proposed a “Digital Corps,” an initiative modeled in some ways after the Peace Corps, aimed at training young people from the developing world in 21st-century skills so that they could carry those lessons back to their native countries.
The United Nations building may be an iconic setting, but it’s one that holds no ability to overwhelm or confound Chehadé, who is accustomed to interacting regularly with such influential heads of state as Dilma Rousseff. (It’s possible to confidently confront power, he advises, if you have knowledge, truth, and humility on your side.)
After finishing there, he traveled to Brooklyn to revisit a locale that, while not home to the world’s diplomats and power brokers, played an enormous role in his life: the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Chehadé earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from the school in 1985, met his future wife, Sue, (then a fellow student) here, and recalls essentially “living” in Rogers Hall, where he spent 16 hours a day while earning his degree.
“Poly, as it was known back then, took care of me, providing me with a full scholarship and a job to cover my other expenses,” he explained to the student attendees at that day’s Dean’s Roundtable event. “I would not be here talking to you today if the school had not shown that faith in me.” In particular, he recalled one late professor, George Schillinger, the founder of the international journal Technology in Society. Schillinger taught a graduate-level course in the management of technology — a field whose very name excited Chehadé. “Here I was, not only a mere undergraduate, but an undergraduate whose English was far from proficient,” Chehadé — who was born in Lebanon to Egyptian parents who had fled religious persecution in their native country — says. “But I persisted in asking him if I could join the class until he finally agreed to let me try, warning me that I would be dropped immediately if I couldn’t keep up.”
That ultimately successful gamble set Chehadé, who worked as a dishwasher during his early years here, upon an impressive career path. He went on to found several successful companies, including information-technology firms Connectica, Viacore and RosettaNet, a non-profit organization-management concern, before embarking on his current pursuits. He believes, as he stressed to the students, that no project should be undertaken with mere expediency or efficiency in mind. “There must be another dimension beyond that,” he asserts. “When you earn your Tandon degrees and are creating technology, you must keep in mind moral and ethical concerns, a sense of responsibility, and the good of the community. What you build can make a real difference in the world, so do it with care.”
While at MetroTech Center, Chehadé also generously took the time to address Professor David Lefer’s Innovation and Technology Forum, a course offering that all incoming Tandon freshman are required to complete, in order to immerse themselves in the school’s flagship value of placing technology in service to society. There he discussed in depth his role at the helm of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which runs the world’s 13 root servers and coordinates Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions — key technical services critical to the continued operations of the Internet's underlying address book, the Domain Name System (DNS).
The system makes possible the existence of one global Internet, which Chehadé considers a vital democratizing force for humanity. No one person, company, organization, or government controls the digital space, he reminded his audience, and he encouraged them to consider applying to the ICANN Fellowship Program, which aims to create a broader, more diverse, more knowledgeable Internet community.
Such a community is a necessity, he says, given that there are now almost 22 billion devices connected to the Internet right now, and that number is expected to rise to an astonishing 100 trillion by the end of 2030. Engineers with Tandon educations are well positioned to make major contributions to that transformation. “If your goals are ambitious, you might accomplish 10 percent of what you set out to do, and that’s if you’re lucky,” he muses. “Yet that 10 percent can make an enormous positive impact on the world.”