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Thunderbird Master’s Program

 

Thinking grandiose as I always had done, I thought I’d take a shot applying for the number one ranked, yet little known, international business graduate school in the world, Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management, located in Phoenix, Arizona. It ranked higher than Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Wharton.  I thought, “I have to get in there if I’m going to be a global leader.”

 

I arrived at Thunderbird in the summer of 1998. I was still hypomanic from my recent trip to Cuba, but under control. We had what was called Orientation Week, where we did all sorts of fun group activities. The teams were mixed with students from over 120 different countries. It was like micro version of the United Nations. I remember we were doing keg stands at one point like we did in high school. It was a blast.

Then we had to come up with a comedy skit to present to the entire group. I was the leader of my team and had a great idea. The school held a flag ceremony at the welcome ceremony where a representative of their respective country would carry the flag of the country and make a small speech at the podium about their country. I thought, “Why don’t we do that, but mix it up? We’ll get the Indian guy to impersonate a British guy. The Norwegian representative impersonated an Iranian and so forth.” I wrapped my head with a towel and carried the Indian flag and put on my best Indian accent.                                                                                        It was a smash. There were bellows of laughter from the audience. My Indian friend, Biswajit, got the biggest laughs for his Jamaican impression.

My year there was the best year of my life. My attitude at school was work hard, play harder. I was fortunate enough to be able to focus on my coursework apart from all of the late-night shenanigans.

 

I wanted to get involved right away with the student life so I founded the Ultimate Frisbee Club. We had a great group of folks from everywhere come out every week. It was fun teaching the foreigners how to play.  It definitely required a lot of athleticism.

Classes started in September. I carried a full load as I usually did. The professors were incredible, and the material was extremely intriguing.  On September 15th  I went to the famous Thunderbird Pub on campus. I saw this attractive Mexican girl celebrating her birthday at the end of the bar. I had to meet her. I approached her and started to chit chat. Her name was Mariam. I told her I knew Spanish and I danced salsa. We danced a bit, then sat down and got to know each other. She was totally my type; nice, polite, funny, and charming. We exchanged phone numbers that night and hooked up later in the week. Long story short we fell madly in love immediately and became the model couple on campus; a Thundercouple. Life was grand. I was a little manic at first due to all of the activities and studies I was balancing, but I kept it together for my whole stay there.

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The coursework was aimed at making international leaders with a global mindset, which is defined as a combination of an openness to and awareness of diversity across cultures and markets with a propensity and ability to see common patterns across countries and markets.  

I studied Global Leadership, which was intensely enriching for me. I couldn’t digest the course material fast enough.  It seemed like a tough course to teach because I thought that people either had the ability to

 

be a global leader or not. It was innate. The course tried to bring out the best in everybody and to take leadership in whatever aspect of life they endeavor.

International Political Economy was also a huge eye opener. I learned about government structures all around the world from a current and historical perspective going back to the Greeks and Romans. It was great to learn about China and the Middle East as I did not have much exposure to those regions in my past.  After the most rigorous exam I’ve ever taken, I had the feeling that I knew more about than George

W. Bush, who was President at the time.

 

One of my favorite classes was Competitive Intelligence. It was taught by a CIA veteran that had been stationed all around the world. He worked in the professional intelligence field for over thirty years in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa and Latin America. His stories from Panama and Colombia are rich. He had previously been reporting directly to George Herbert Walker Bush. I was assigned to of four outstanding team members for our final project. We chose to work with the Miami office of Hewlett Packard to study the Central American laser printer market to provide strategic recommendations to gain market share in the region.

 

 

Another favorite course of mine was Diplomacy, Negotiation & Bargaining. We learned how to negotiate across cultures using tactics we read about in our course material.  There was a group exercise were five of us were given a business case to build Disneyland in France, or so I remember. We were each given a role to play. From that role you had to negotiate for yourself a certain position. Some people were given stronger roles than others. I had the weakest character. The stopwatch started and we had ten minutes to negotiate. I remember having a Japanese guy in the group that had the strongest position. We had a show down and in the end, I won the negotiation. I was the first person in the professor’s tenure at the school that my character was able to win.  I felt special.

 

 

For the final paper, we had to chose a global issue and put together a mock negotiation. I chose the Colombian drug war.  I researched tirelessly to find the key issues. The situation was so complicated

 

because you had three major groups fighting each other; the FARC which controlled a region the size of Switzerland and trafficked the majority of the cocaine. Then you had the paramilitaries in the northwest and then the official government forces. I went to my Competitive Intelligence professor for advice because he had firsthand experience with three of the Colombian presidents. He said, “The goal is not to resolve the issue in your paper. It really is how you manage it. The drug was will not go away.” I changed my approach to the paper and aced it.

 

 

Every student at the school had to study at least one other language unless they were already bi-lingual or multi-lingual. It wasn’t uncommon to find students that spoke five languages fluently. I had fulfilled my language requirement because I already knew Spanish and German.  I wanted to visit and live in Brazil, so I decided to take a fast track course, which was Portuguese for Spanish speakers. It’s a lot easier to learn if you already speak Spanish due to the commonalities.

 

 

Other courses included International Finance & Trade, International Marketing Management, Export/Import Management, and several other finance and accounting courses. It was obvious to me that the curriculum was ideal for an aspirant of the US Presidency; however, I kept my head down at Thunderbird and made it through without getting crazy.

 

When I met Mariam, she had already graduated, but was job searching on campus. To accommodate her so we could both start traveling the world, I took full course loads and was able to finish in three semesters. Graduation day was really something special. My parents flew out from Milwaukee to join in the fun. The graduation party was off the hook and let’s just say there were some extracurricular substances consumed in quantity.  No school works and plays as hard better than Thunderbird.

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My friend Jason, one of my favorite people in the whole wide world, was a professor on campus and taught cross cultural studies. He and I put together a business plan for the Thunderbird school to offer a Semester at Sea program as had been done for undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh. We chose Southeast Asia, Europe and Latin America as our three regional programs. We identified a ship in Costa Rica that would have served us well.  We pitched it to the Chief Marketing Officer, Ken Lambert.

The project was going to be enormous if the pitch had gone well. Jason and I would have been Program Directors in charge of putting the whole undertaking together, shopping for a vessel, insurance issues, staffing, admissions, destination excursions, and a whole lot more. In retrospect, I would have gone batshit crazy trying to pull off the unicycle juggling act and without getting paid the big bucks. Luckily, the school was not in sound financial shape at the time, so they decided to shelve the idea for the time being.  Lesson learned was “be careful of what you ask for.”

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Neutron and JFK Jr.

 

In 1990, my family flew to New York City for the wedding of my first cousin Robbie, who was best friends with John F. Kennedy Jr. Robbie, JFK Jr. and their closest friends had just partied their balls off at the bachelor party at Jacqueline Onassis’ home in Martha’s Vineyard. JFK Jr. gave the toast at the wedding and was as charming as could be.  Everybody was in awe of his presence including myself.

 

I had the chance to meet him briefly and exchange a few words. He said he had heard about me from my cousin that I liked the Grateful Dead. He told a story when he had taken my cousin to a show at Radio City Music Hall in the early ‘80s and were backstage partying with the band. He said Bob Weir, the rhythm guitarist, was so out of it while telling a story that his eyes suddenly rolled to the back of his head and he fell out of his chair. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world that they had such a funny encounter. Apart from the anecdote, I really felt like I was in the presence of greatness. This was truly a great contact that I thought might be useful for me later in life. My cousin told me that JFK Jr. had thought about running for President someday, most likely in his forties as his father had done.

 

On July 16, 1999 JFK Jr. lost his life in a plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean. It was a very sad day for the world and especially for my cousin, Robbie. I was in Hermosillo, Mexico with my girlfriend, Mariam. I shed a lot of tears that day. I thought he was going to be a great President. Unfortunately, he took a big risk and lost on that fateful day. I was greatly saddened and even as far as to say depressed for a prolonged amount of time.  I remember having to increase my medication as a result of the whole deal.

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In the fall of 1999, Mariam and I had moved into an apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona with our Thunderbird friend, Nancy. I was feeling really down and inadequate because I couldn’t find a dignified job after three months of intensive searching. Our other roommate, Russ, was a manager at a high-end night club and had access to any drug in the book. Being impulsive and insatiable as many bipolar are, I couldn’t resist temptation. I got into cocaine on a regular basis, which made me manic and scatterbrained instead of allowing me to focus. I sat around the house all day coked out and studied comedy sketches from Saturday Night Live and other programs on Comedy Central.  If Mariam would be washing dishes or making some kind of noise, I’d always say, “Honey, come on now. You know I take my comedy seriously.” She had no idea I was snorting the devil dust, well, at least certainly not during the day.

 

Mariam had a student visa that was going about to expire in December. So, we consulted an immigration attorney in Milwaukee to find the best way for her to stay in the States. He told us that unless we got married in the courts, she would have to return to her native Mexico. She and I decided to get married in a small chapel someplace and not tell anybody, so that we could have the larger, Catholic wedding later.

 

One day an idea hit me. Seeing that all of our Thunderbird friends were going to Vegas that weekend for Halloween, I thought it would be ideal for us to get married on the trip.  While surfing Google at a friend’s house, I typed “Las Vegas Wedding Chapels” and then clicked on the button that says “I’m feeling lucky”.  That will pop up the number one hit on the list.  I thought, “If it’s Vegas, I’ll take a chance and see what pops up.” Sure enough, up pops “Las Vegas Helicopter Weddings”.  I said to myself, “There’s no frickin’ way we’re not doing this?” It must be another sign from God. Then I thought, this is too good not to tell anybody. I don’t even remember if I asked Mariam if she were interested in doing it. Probably not.  But it was a done deal.  I booked it and invited everybody I could on short notice.  Our little secret wedding plans went down the drain.  We were going big time!

 

So there we were getting married in a helicopter on the eve of Halloween, 1999. Mariam, my brother and my friends trekked from Phoenix to Las Vegas to stay at the Paris hotel. Mariam and I immediately went to shop for a tux and wedding gown to rent.  The rest of our friends went to the stores to find costumes.

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Back at the hotel room, we partied like rock stars - Keith Richard’s style. The limo came to pick us up and took us to the heliport.  To add to the charm, our friend Judd was dressed up as Elvis.  Sean was the

 

videographer and my brother Bullets was dressed up with his night club garb. The five of us were greeted by the fine folks of the Shalamar Chapel right on Las Vegas Boulevard. We crammed into the helicopter and took off.  It was a perfect fall night with not a cloud in the sky.  The strip never looked so fantastic.

As soon as we started flying over the Luxor, the Iranian pastor started the ceremony. We had to talk through headsets, so we could hear the vows over the noise of the rotor blades.

 

Per the pastor’s instructions, she placed the wedding ring on my finger and said. “I do.” Note that she did not have a ring for me, so we made one out of a coat hanger a few minutes beforehand. We had totally forgotten. We were staring in each other’s eyes for like three minutes now. We were missing the view. I said,” I do” and we gave each other a super quick kiss then immediately looked out the window at the strip below to take advantage of the view. The whole experience was surreal. We were officially married after a quick stop to the county court clerk to sign the required paperwork.

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Dashed Hopes of Becoming a Mega-Millionaire

 

Right after the wedding, an old high school friend, Sebastian, called me to ask for some help expanding his technology company.  He was a foreign exchange student from Cordoba, Argentina.  He was one of my mom’s favorite friends of mine, so that tells you a lot about his character and integrity. Together with the Chairman of the Computer Sciences Department at University of Idaho, who I’ll call Munson, they invented a new technology that was way ahead of their time to prevent cyber terrorism. What it did was stop any cyber attack that was launched against a computer in the world. At the time, there were cyber- attacks that took down huge websites like Yahoo.com for days at a time.

Cylant develops software and technologies to ensure the security and reliability of critical network systems and servers. The company holds a number of pending patents and its technologies are used in NASA's space shuttle program and Jet Propulsion Labs, as well as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

 

Munson gained much of his experience working on software technology at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories for NASA’s Space Shuttle program. I thought, “Wow. Neat stuff. But is this task way over my pay grade?” I didn’t know jack shit about technology, but I knew a lot from text books about Marketing. After talking with friends that boosted my ego and self-confidence, the three of us agreed that he would pay me to do a three-month marketing consulting project to help launch his company.

 

I had already graduated from Thunderbird, but still had access to all of the school’s resources such as their global business library, campus professors, and the Career Management Center. At that point I had quite a few classmates that went into the technology sector and had access to the entire alumni database. T-birds typically found the best careers and launched the most innovative companies throughout over 200 countries that help run the world due to our global orientation and mindset. I thought I was finally in a position to make a significant contribution to the world.

 

Without getting bogged down in too much technological detail, what one does is install a complex software program onto a computer or server.  It’s kind of like an anti-virus software on super steroids. The server would be turned on and would start operating under a controlled environment or network, in other words; it was not connected to the World Wide Web. So the data that ran through the server was monitored and calculated as “normal” operations.  Then one would plug the server into the Internet and let the server run. If somebody from the outside tried to get into the server to do something outside of the parameters of “normal”, the operation would be detected and stopped every time. If it doesn’t stop it, a cyber terrorist could take over control of the computer or infect it with a virus that will shut it down. This was definitely the most revolutionary, cutting edge technology out there. The algorithms and math used were only understood by the few individuals who created it within Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

 

To test the software, they hired some of the best hackers in the world to try to hack a server with the program installed. They couldn’t do it. The implications of this were so large it was almost unfathomable. That meant almost every computer open to attack would need this Cylant software program. That means every computer in the government; every computer in the private marketplace as well as computers in the rest of world needed this. That list also included the Enemies of State such as individual saboteurs, corporate spies, and hostile countries like North Korea, Russia, Iran and the list grew every day.

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The Chairman of the company, Munson, knew Bill Gates personally and was in the first meeting they had with IBM when Bill Gates convinced IBM that his new company Microsoft should own the operating system. I thought. “Wow, I was once removed from the richest guy on the planet.”  Being on the IBM side, Munson lost out on the deal and was bitter and vindictive at Bill Gates for the rest of his life. He thought that Cylant would be his chance to show him up and potentially become one of the richest men in the world. His logic was that SOME computers ran on Microsoft, but ALL computers would need to run with Cylant technology installed.  He seemed megalomaniacal to a certain degree when he talked about the possibilities of global domination.  I was ready for the ride.

 

Now Munson had a puzzle to solve. In the past, a student of his created an encryption technology in the same school incubator we were using that was released to the public without first being scrutinized by the Department of Defense. The problem is that if you give encryption technology to everybody, your enemies of war can use it against you.  The student was thrown in jail for this.  Munson narrowly escaped

 

persecution. The technology is still being used today called PGP Encryption, which stands for Pretty Good Privacy.  The nerds reading this will get it.

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CIA, NSA, and the Department of Defense

 

Learning his lesson from the PGP incident, Munson discovered that it would NOT be illegal if he simultaneously released his new technology in the CIA, NSA and/or the Department of Defense as well as in the private sector. That’s where I came in. I was to create a marketing strategy during the consulting project that outlined how to sell the software product to large software companies and to the government at the same time.

 

He impressed upon me the highly secretive nature of the project and had me sign a slew of confidentiality agreements. I was not to tell ANYONE, not even my family or closest friends. He also said that they would ‘gun him down’ literally over his idea, but I had a feeling that he was overly paranoid.

Nevertheless, his paranoia was contagious and I became extremely discrete while talking about it with my friends and family.

 

I went diligently to work on it and researching databases, interviewing professors and calling on live contacts in the hardware and software industry. I synthesized my report and delivered it on time. Munson was so impressed that he wanted to hire me into the company on the spot. It was Christmas time, so we decided to talk about a formal offer after the holidays. He promised me 5% of the founder’s shares which he guaranteed me would be worth Billions of dollars if everything was executed properly. That meant I would have been in the top 1% richest people in the world. I just imagined the power and responsibility that came with!

 

So now I’m dizzy in the head with excitement. I can barely see straight or concentrate on anything other than big dollar signs in my eyes. I would have unlimited power to do anything I wanted for the rest of my life. I could travel everywhere, every day in my private jet staying at five star hotels. I quickly started to get very manic again. This was a major trigger. I even started thinking that I could self-fund my own Presidential campaign in the future.

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