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Rob Haddad: Homeless to Entrepreneur

--Audrey Lin, on Jul 18, 2012

A loaf of bread, jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jam.

That’s what he took with him. At fourteen, Rob Haddad walked out of his home and into the streets. With no plan or life skills—just a few days worth of PB&Js—he found himself homeless, panhandling, and addicted to drug and alcohol.

At 15, he was suicidal.

By 18, he was in jail.

When you hear about an adolescent experience like that, a sense of heaviness might hit your heart. Yet when you hear him speak, heaviness isn’t what comes to mind.

In last week’s Forest Call moderated by Pavi and Bela, Rob spun story after story of enormous grace, humility, and insights plucked from moments at rock bottom. In listening to him share, I was struck by a sense of open-hearted honesty about him. A kind tenderness that comes from facing life’s deepest vulnerabilities—that tells you he’s walked quite a humbling path, and there’s something greater that drives his life now. After ending the call, I couldn’t help but think how lucky we were to bear witness to his remarkable journey.

The Hacienda

We met him by accident.

While searching for spaces to hold a sizeable group for the recent Laddership retreat, Pavi stumbled across a posting for the Hacienda, an enchanting property tucked away in a hidden corner of Phoenix, Arizona. Having searched all over, it was proving difficult to find a property that could hold everyone in one place. So after landing on the Hacienda, she dialed the number listed and Rob picked up.

Though the rent was beyond what had been budgeted, Rob’s keen desire for his property to be a space where good things grow welcomed us in.

“At this stage in my life, I am aspiring to live a life of service,” he had told Pavi. Not only was he open to making it work, after learning more about ServiceSpace, he was so moved that he sent an invoice reading: “$0, Karma Kitchen style!”

The thing about Rob is that he didn’t even give it a second thought. In reflecting on the retreat, he said, “My prayer for this property when I first got it was let it be used for things like that.”

For years now, he’s lived his life in a constant, daily surrender to what moves his heart. It’s that kind of faith—that shining inner conviction—that has led him from drugs to detox, from spending his days panhandling on the streets to becoming a successful entrepreneur, talented painter, and caring father.

Lesson at Rock Bottom

The turning point came just before he turned twenty-eight.

At that point, “My whole method of trying to survive—which was mainly to stay completely numbed out from alcohol—no longer worked, hadn’t worked in a long time,” he recalled.

Desperate to change his life, and willing to try anything but what he had been doing, Rob showed up at a detox center. After a short time there, he decided to leave because the nurse wouldn’t give him his medication. He had tried to manipulate her: give me what I want, or I’m leaving. And the nurse didn’t buy it. She simply left the room and said, “It’s too bad. Goodbye.”

Through the nurse’s unwavering response, Rob realized that the ball was in his court. And he asked himself: Where are you going? The answer that came up was: Nowhere. He knew if he went back to the life he’d been living, he’d be dead. No question.

“And I surrendered again,” he described. “That was the turning point, because that was the final surrender to starting a new life.”

From there, he began to rebuild. Through a 12-step recovery program—“Life Skills 101,” he joked—Rob was introduced to the idea of living for something greater than himself. He elaborated, “Instead of walking around powerless, this deep sense of powerlessness and unmanageability, I was taught to discover a ‘god’ of my own understanding—whatever faith (I’m not religious)—a forgiving power greater than myself. Then I made a decision to turn my whole being into the loving care of that ‘god’ as I understood him. When I started applying that principle in my life, miracles happened every day.”

The Best Manager

One memorable instance occurred as he was starting his first retail store. Sober for two years, and starting a shop with one employee, he admitted, “I still didn’t really know how to live.” So Rob phoned up his mentor:

“Frank, I have a lot of fear,” he began. “I’ve opened this store. I don’t know how to run a store. I don’t know how to run my own life still. I don’t know how to be a boss, an employer. How am I supposed to do that?”

“Yeah, Robert, you’d better not. You’re right. You better not run it,”
was Frank’s reply.

A bit taken aback, Rob asked, “What do you mean? Who’s going to run it?”

“Well, do you trust the god of your understanding to help you stay sober and learn how to live?”


“Well, why don’t you let him run your company? And why don’t you be the assistant manager?”

Totally blown away by the idea, Rob was also totally on board. His mentor went on:

“Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to be very successful. Because now you have the best manager you could possibly have. Divinity. And people are going to ask you, ‘How did you do it?’ And you’re going to need to tell them you didn’t do it. You had help. And this is the kind of help you had.”
Chuckling, he tells us that after years of letting the ‘god of his own understanding’ drive his business, he’s noticed an enormous shift in perspective and results: “So that principle of becoming divinely-powered, rather than self-willed and self-centered… How I would know when I was not allowing the ‘god’ of my own understanding to run the show is I would get stressed out and fearful. Well that’s where self-will leads me… I don’t try to run things.”

And it’s true. He doesn’t run things. When Bela asked about his business model, he replied that every employee is equal in the company. Rob asks each individual to choose what part of the company they would like to be responsible for, and what they would like to do.

“We have accountability, we take on ownership, each one of us knows what we’re supposed to do, and we help each other out as well. So there’s no big bad wolf in the company. And I stay out of it as much as I can.”

In typical retail stores, turnover for a store manager is two years. Every other year, a new manager comes in with different expectations and different ways of running things, which disrupts the dynamic of the work environment, and makes for a fragmented company culture. Over the past year of practicing this unorthodox management model, Rob’s noticed that nobody leaves and the employees are happy and proud: “No one’s been asked to do anything outside of their own awareness or willingness to be part of that. And the store’s doing incredibly well, much better than it’s ever done. There’s respect.”

Just the Caretaker

He lives in surrender, ending up in jail was a gift, and the ‘god’ of his own understanding drives his business. In story after story, Rob really lives his life as a series of miracles. How the Hacienda fell into his hands is no exception.

As a resident of Vancouver, he was looking for a place to spend the cold Canada winters. Initially, during his search, nothing was working out. Every property he looked into had some problem or fell through. Instead of giving up, he let go, with the notion that “sometimes a roadblock is a good indication that it’s not the next right thing.”

Finally, one day, he tried a new online search and came across the Hacienda. It was way out of his price range, but something about it struck him and he pursued it anyway. Not long after, he found himself sitting in the living room with the owners, resonating with their vision of the property, and having all the financial and logistical aspects work out so he could purchase it.

“I just showed up, and I just kept doing the next step. I feel like the caretaker of it for however long I’m here.”

On the final day when the original owners, Bob and Ann, were handing over the master keys to the whole property, there was a look in Ann’s eyes of sadness. Without hesitation, Rob—who already had a set of keys at this point—just looked at her softly and said, “Ann, why don’t you keep those keys? You know where everything is. Stay here, anytime.”

The Role of Kindness

In opening up his home to others, dreaming up an organization to feed the hungry, or sitting with himself through dark nights of the soul, Rob has arrived at one conclusion: “I know that giving leads to happiness. That’s all I know.”

With such tender honesty and raw sincerity, Rob gave us the gift of himself, a timeless reminder of the resilience of the human spirit.

As Suzanne shared in her beautiful reflection:

It is not every day that we have the opportunity to be in the presence of someone that is embodying their highest reflection or even someone that truly knows what that reflection is. It takes great courage to choose this path…Rob is the embodiment of humility, nobility, serendipity, and LOVE. His willingness to surrender to each phase of his life seems to provide him with a greater sense of how he can continue to serve and be in this world.

Robert Haddad runs—or is the “Assistant Manager” :) of—I Found Gallery and True Value Vintage. He also co-founded Zachary's Smiles, a NYC-based clothing boutique, and recently restored the Hacienda, a 10-bedroom retreat property in Phoenix, Arizona.