Navigating the digital battlefield with Massoud Abbasi

| New York
Contributed by Andrew Baulcomb, Advancement Officer

Massoud Abbasi (left) with Steven T. Francesco, CEO and Chairman of Cohere Communications and a former Wall Street financier. Abbasi, a three-time McMaster alumnus and well-known entrepreneur, is at the cutting edge of the global IT security industry. (PHOTO BY Diego Mora)

Massoud Abbasi is gazing south from his Midtown Manhattan office, situated high above the bustling intersection of 3rd Avenue and 51st Street. New York is in the final throes of a relatively mild winter, but the city is dusted with fresh, light snow following a late-season clipper that rolled in from the Midwest.

“I’m looking at the Chrysler Building right now,” says Abbasi, 33, US-Canada Sales and Strategy Executive at Cohere Communications. “I have to pause sometimes to think about where I came from, and where I am now.”

It’s well after 4 p.m., but his cross-border IT and cyber security firm is still buzzing. Abbasi asks for the occasional reprieve to chat with a colleague or look over a document that has landed on his desk. His own workday often doesn’t end until late in the evening. But he doesn’t seem to mind. The non-stop hum of the city is invigorating.

Born in Tehran, Iran in 1982, Abbasi grew up in a world that was far removed from the glistening corridors of fine art, food, fashion and finance he now calls home.

By the late-1980s, his family of eight was on the run from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime. Massoud’s father, writer Ali Abbasi, had already endured a year of torture in prison for his dissident views and political crusading. When the family finally settled in Hamilton in 1989, following two very difficult years living as refugees in Turkey, there was no going back.

That series of events made an indelible impact on his world view – so much so that he  published a novel inspired by his upbringing, Seeker of Horizons, following the death of his father in 2013. But Abbasi gently steers the conversation in a different direction when pressed about his roots. He has finally made peace with his past, and wants to move forward.

“I’m completely humbled and grateful for everything I have, and I feel very determined to keep pushing the envelope,” he explains. “There were a lot of people who had a similar childhood who never had a chance to get out of that environment.”

When our talk shifts to his career, Abbasi really comes alive. He has an innate desire to buckle down and work hard that drove him to complete three degrees at McMaster – Commerce (2006), Philosophy (2007) and MBA (2009) – and continues to take him in a new direction every few years.

After finishing his DeGroote MBA in Finance, Abbasi spent nearly five years on Bay Street – primarily as an Associate in Corporate & Investment Banking with RBC Capital Markets.

In 2012 he founded Omega Group, a Toronto-based consultancy and creative agency. Success came quickly. During his time at the helm, Omega Group worked with the likes of Warner Bros., The Weinstein Co., Twitter, Nokia, Fairmont, Moët & Chandon, Grey Goose, The Globe and Mail, Porter Airlines and philanthropic organizations such as Sick Kids, ORBIS and the United Nations.

The company offered a unique blend of experiential marketing, consulting, strategy and event management that ushered Abbasi and his colleagues into some of Toronto’s key social and business circles.

Three years in, his desire to try something new took hold. In the spring of 2015, he packed his bags and moved stateside to take a shot at the Big Apple. He’s been in New York for a year now, working with Cohere Communications as the company rapidly expands.

16843898322_ae186ef825_bCohere is known as a managed services provider, or “MSP.” It’s at the forefront of a massive shift toward centralized IT services that many small and mid-level companies are adopting. For example, shops that don’t have the internal resources to keep up with changing digital trends, complex network technology and cyber security concerns will often outsource their needs to Cohere. These days, only “tech giants” such as Google or Facebook are equipped to stay ahead of the curve on their own, Abbasi explains. Everyone else is scrambling.

Last year, Forbes published an expose highlighting some of the largest corporate security breaches in recent memory. Premera Blue Cross, Sony, Home Depot, JPMorgan, EBay and Target lost hundreds of millions of records in 2014 and 2015 alone – including email addresses, company correspondence, credit card numbers and social security numbers – in a series of widely-publicized security breaches. Last summer’s Ashley Madison hack resulted in more than 25 gigabytes of highly-sensitive company data being released to the public.

“World War III is happening, but it’s not taking place on a battlefield, it’s happening in cyberspace,” Abbasi says. “With massive security breaches and cyber-wars taking place, more and more companies are deciding to manage their IT systems externally. The risks are becoming so varied and numerous, it’s too difficult to manage them all inside.”

When DeGroote unveiled its new Executive MBA in Digital Transformation in October, Abbasi took note. The program is comprised of four residential modules in Ontario and California, and the first wave of incoming students will benefit from the tutelage of DeGroote faculty as well as corporate partners CIBC, IBM, SAS and theScore. The end game is to have grads emerge as leaders in today’s rapidly-evolving digital landscape. Abbasi feels the program is well-suited for anyone looking to remain progressive and well-informed in a fast-paced sector.

“To see DeGroote stay ahead of the curve and focus on digital transformation as it relates to governance, not just engineering and technology, that’s remarkable,” he says. “A lot of people are still missing that connection. These aren’t silos anymore.”

World War III is happening, but it’s not taking place on a battlefield, it’s happening in cyberspace…

What’s the next chapter in Abbasi’s life story? His firm’s CEO, Steven T. Francesco, is exploring additional acquisitions, including a “very prestigious cyber-security firm” with ties to the US government. Cohere is also eager to expand its Canadian division, based in Toronto, which is poised for significant growth within the financial services, healthcare and real estate industries.

“Developing our presence in Toronto and Canada is not only a company-wide goal, but a personal goal,” says Abbasi, who returns home every few weeks for business, to see family and friends and maintain his network in the city.

“Overall, I’m focused on this industry right now. The world is only going to become more technology based and driven,” he continues, “and I want to be at the forefront of this prevailing paradigm. The future is here. We’ve arrived.”

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