Gabi Constantine, President, SchoolinSites; Co-owner, PC Mac; Chairman, University of Mobile Board of Trustees
Gabi Constantine is no stranger to tough times. Mistreated for his faith and ridiculed for being different, his life as a child in Lebanon was chaotic. “Those tough times shaped me,” he said.
Today, as president of SchoolinSites, a company ranked among the top five in the United States for school and district web hosting and design, Constantine is proof that determination and hard work lead to success.
“I’m living the American dream,” Constantine said.
Tough Times, Tough Choices
When Constantine was born, Lebanon was a nation with many freedoms – even more freedoms than in the U.S.
“But freedom without boundaries creates chaos,” he said, and the nation had its own unique rules that revolved around religion.
“Religion ruled everything. The president of the country had to be a Maronite Catholic. The prime minister had to be a Sunni Muslim. The Speaker of the House had to be a Shiite Muslim. There was always that tension between religions,” he said.
In that environment, when Constantine’s father responded to a call to ministry as a Southern Baptist – a call that was ignited through the work of Southern Baptist missionaries -- the effect was to turn his back on his Catholic family.
“There was persecution on both sides, from Catholics and Muslims. If you left your faith, you basically left your family and started over,” Constantine explained. His father, who was a partner in a laundry business with his brother, literally walked into the business one day and told him, “It is yours.”
His father went to a seminary supported by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, then moved to an area where he, his wife and two sons were the only believers. None of the merchants would trade with them, people crossed to the opposite side of the street to avoid them, and death threats were common. His father had opportunities to go to more hospitable areas, but wouldn’t hear of it.
Five years later, one man accepted Christ as his personal savior.
It was into this environment that Constantine was born and reared.
“I accepted that I was different,” he said. “Growing up in that environment shaped my character a great deal. For example, I knew every day at school I was going to be ridiculed. The world was looking at us to see if we were living our faith, exemplifying Christ. At that early age, I had to make a choice.
“I grew up not being very concerned about how people viewed me as long as I was holding tight to my values. It allowed me to be more of a thinker and really not be concerned with pleasing anybody. It made me more productive, not having to deal with the peer pressure,” he said.
It would get worse.
His oldest brother, John, left Lebanon to study in the United States. Through Southern Baptist connections he enrolled at Mobile College, graduating in 1973 with a bachelor of arts in psychology then returned to Lebanon to work in the government’s education department.
Pete Dunn, who along with wife Pat served as a Southern Baptist missionary in Lebanon and worked closely with Constantine’s father, said the first Lebanese student at Mobile College was Nitsa Hindeleh.
“She came back to Lebanon during her junior year and she talked about the Christian atmosphere and the scholarships,” said Dunn, who today is an adjunct instructor in the UMobile School of Christian Studies. He said the evangelical Christian community in Lebanon was closely knit, so word of the school spread to students like John.
A civil war began in 1975 when Constantine was 14 years old. A year later John returned to the U.S. to continue his studies, along with the rest of Constantine’s older brothers and sisters. Constantine and a younger sibling stayed behind with their parents.
“Automatically, I became the elder son,” Constantine said. “I started leading the worship in services at a very young age. I started driving the school bus. Suddenly you are the only one there and your parents start leaning on you.”
The instability of the region impacted daily life.
“Every single day everything could be different. Every day you woke up thinking, ‘My world is going to be upside down today.’ Imagine 9/11 every day,” he said.
In 1978 a church in Brooklyn, N.Y., needed a pastor to minister to the Arabic-speaking community and called Constantine’s father. The family decided to emigrate.
Constantine wouldn’t know this until later, but a major factor in the family’s decision to leave Lebanon was the expectation that a young man Constantine’s age would join one of the many militias that were fighting the bloody civil war. It was either join the fight or leave the country.
The Constantines left. But they didn’t get far.
For three months they waited in Jordan for the official paperwork that would allow them to emigrate. On Nov. 7, 1978, Constantine celebrated his 18th birthday in limbo, waiting.
“Mom looked at me and said, ‘Son, I can’t give you a birthday gift this year, but maybe going to America will be a good enough gift.’”
The American Dream
While the paperwork finally came through, the pastorate in Brooklyn didn’t. The church had dissolved. But Bethany Baptist Church in Prichard, Ala., where John had attended as a student, had a place for the family. The church, now Kushla-Bethany Baptist, had embraced several students and families from Arab nations, as a result of a friendship between pastor Alvin Sullivan and evangelist Anis Shorrosh, a Palestinian living in the Mobile area.
“Brother Sullivan and Mrs. (Dolores) Sullivan were there to help us get on our feet,” Constantine recalled. His father returned to Lebanon for nine months to finish some business, while Constantine, his mother, sister and brother lived in an apartment above the garage at the church pastorium.
The church played a huge role in the family’s assimilation into American culture – a rebirth that was both joyful and painful. “I wanted to come to America. It was a dead end for us in Lebanon,” Constantine said. Yet once he was faced with the move, it was nearly more than he could bear. For almost a year and a half he mourned the loss of his former life, wanting to go back, wondering if the move was worth it.
Sullivan, pastor of the now combined Kushla-Bethany Baptist Church, recalled visiting the local immigration office and signing an
affidavit that he would sponsor the Constantine family and be responsible for them. The Constantines were one of three families the church helped bring over from the Middle East during a period of several years.
“They were very fine people and very responsible, and we really appreciated getting to know them. I’m thankful we had a part in their lives,” Sullivan said. Constantine, he said, “had a very good personality. He meets people and they like him. He always seemed to want to learn and to achieve, and to improve himself and do what he was supposed to do. I think that helped him move forward.”
Brother Sullivan took Constantine from place to place looking for a job, and he landed a spot at the warehouse for Greer’s family-owned grocery chain. Constantine had never before seen a warehouse. With his schoolbook knowledge of English, upon hearing that a supervisor had been fired, “Literally I thought, these people will set someone on fire” for a bad job performance.
He would work all night, drive his younger brother to school the next morning, then take college classes. In a few years he married Kim Lewis and a year later they had David, the first of two children. In less than three years from the time he first saw the warehouse, he was running it. By age 27, he had gone as far as he could go in the family-owned business. He started looking for a position with another company that would have room to grow his career. Nothing seemed right, and several years passed.
In the meantime, John had started PC Mac, a technology company in Birmingham that sold computers and printers to the government. A minister at heart, John invited Gabi to become a partner in the business with the goal of allowing John to focus more on ministry as Gabi took on a lead role in the company. Their hope was that the business would provide enough income so John could be completely devoted to ministry, particularly his desire to minister to the Arabic-speaking community in the Birmingham area.
The business met a need, bridging the gap between PC and Mac support and showing companies how to enhance their networks. As the computer industry grew and changed, “by 1997 computing had advanced to where we were the equivalent of the Maytag repairman,” Constantine said. “We both decided that was not really how we wanted to live life.”
“We decided to be part of the internet revolution,” Constantine said. In 2000 they were one of the thriving dot-coms. In 2001 they were part of the dot-com bust.
They changed their business model and launched SchoolinSites (www. schoolinsites.com). The company’s proprietary software focuses on improving communication between schools, school districts, parents and the community. Today, SchoolinSites is used in more than 2,000 schools in over 300 school districts across 40 states.More than 60 percent of the school systems in Alabama use the software, which allows teachers to post classroom assignments, schools to send announcements and newsletters by email, and schools to maintain individual websites and online communities. PC Mac provides services such as web access and infrastructure for SchoolinSites. And other companies are being created, such as an IP video business that broadcasts over the internet.
The businesses have been so successful that profits enabled John to go into full-time ministry in 2006. Constantine is involved in a ministry as well – one that involves the University of Mobile.
A Different Place
Constantine’s daughter, Kristin, has a God-given talent – a beautiful voice and the desire to use it in ministry. When her voice teacher told Constantine that Kristin needed to go to the University of Mobile’s new Center for Performing Arts and learn from Dr. Roger Breland, he wasn’t so sure.
“I didn’t even know who Roger Breland was,” Constantine said. After all, he had been in Lebanon as a youth, then too focused on finding his way in his new country as a young adult to know about the groundbreaking contemporary Christian group TRUTH that Breland founded, and the awards, honors and changed lives that resulted.
But Kristin fell in love with the school, and Roger offered her the very first scholarship awarded for a student in the Center for Performing Arts. She enrolled and became part of the University of Mobile vocal ensemble Voices of Mobile.
As a father with a keen interest in his daughter’s life, Constantine wanted to meet the people whose leadership would impact Kristin’s world. He met Breland, then UMobile President Dr. Mark Foley. He was impressed with the two men, with the students the university was producing, and with the university’s vision. Most importantly, he was impressed with what he saw in his daughter’s life.
“This is a different place,” he said. “I could literally see Kristin growing with her talent, her knowledge, and most importantly her walk with the Lord. This university took as much interest in Kristin’s well-being as I did – not just her education, but also her
spiritual growth. “That was a huge reason I decided to get involved at a higher level,” he said. In 2010, Constantine became chairman of the University of Mobile Board of Trustees.
Today, his company employs many students and graduates of the university, most of whom have talents in computers, video and graphics as well as music, plus a desire for music ministry. They are helping him develop new businesses, such as the IP video company, that meet a need in the marketplace and can also be used in music ministry. He also gives them the freedom to pursue their musical goals, helping alumni ensemble groups such as Story, a trio comprised of Kristin Constantine Platt, Lydia Bru and Brandi Thielker. Story has recorded a debut album with the help of UMobile alumnus Steven V. Taylor, nine-time Dove Award winner and a Nashville producer, and has started touring.
Hope for the Nation
“I know if you work hard and you stay grounded, anything you want is possible,” Constantine said.
But that uniquely American dream – the one he is living out today – is one he fears is vanishing for the next
He thinks many young adults don’t truly believe that the American dream is possible, he said. “We are creating a nation that is giving everything to its citizens, rather than having them earn it.” Above all, the nation, he fears, is drifting away from God.
“When you are in an environment, you don’t always realize how you are drifting or how fast. I have been here since 1979, and today it is clearly a different nation. We are drifting away from God at a rate that is scary. It’s not too late, but if we don’t do anything it will be too late,” he said.
He said the University of Mobile’s 2020 Vision and the Twelve23 Movement have a different vision for the nation, one in which the next generation is prepared to lead in the transformation of a nation.
As chairman of the University of Mobile Board of Trustees, he is committed to helping the university reach that vision.
“It is a greater vision than the University of Mobile, but at the heart of it is the University of Mobile,” Constantine said. “I have become an evangelist of the importance of having your children at the University of Mobile. That’s our hope for this nation.”