When Kenan Saleh started middle school in Fond du Lac, he told his parents wanted to be a successful CEO by the age of 21. His parents, both physicians, recommended he keep studying biology just in case that didn’t work out.

“Alhamdulillah, he did it,” his mother Dr. Maria Saleh proudly reported.

“Given his determination, intelligence and personality, I am not surprised that he is successful,” his father Dr. Haydar Saleh beamed. “But his success at this early age, to this extent, was for me a bit surprising.”

During his senior year at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, young Saleh co-founded Halo, an advertising business that installed smart monitors on Uber and Lyft vehicles to provide location-targeted ads. Their product created effective ads for companies and also helped drivers make more money.

On Nov. 4, 2019, two days before his 22nd birthday, just months after Halo’s inception, Saleh and his partners sold their business to the nationwide ride-share company Lyft, Inc., for an undisclosed amount.

“What I can say though,” Saleh said in a Zoom interview this week, “is we raised $500k in funding before that point from investors at a post-money valuation cap of $8 million. That’s all public information.”

Lyft bought the entire team and the product. “My team became what is called Lyft Media, with the roof-top advertising being our first product,” said Saleh, now 23, who is head of product for Lyft Media, an umbrella organization in Lyft for advertising. “I work with the same team but we scaled everything up. We grew our team, our advertising, and our revenue.”

Forbes tapped Saleh in its 2021 30 Under 30 class in marketing and advertising, “the founders, creatives, CMOs and other marketers shaping the future of major brands and industries and the technologies that power them.” Forbes praised Halo’s innovative “hyper-targeted ads on digital screens that more effectively target and engage customers.” The smart screens change advertising based on location, day of the week, time of day, and other factors.

“There are a lot of advantages just in targeting your advertisements and we were one of the first companies to do this,” Saleh said.  “It was a big innovation. That is the reason we were able to grow and be successful very quickly.”

In an interview, this week with the Wisconsin Muslim Journal, Saleh and his parents shared their thoughts on Saleh’s dash to success.

Kenan Saleh spoke at the Penn Wharton Startup Showcase

A laser-sharp focus

“When he focuses on something, he is laser-focused on what he wants to achieve,” said his mother, Dr. Maria Saleh. “And he perseveres.”

Saleh planned from early middle school to be an entrepreneur. Students prepared presentations on their dream jobs. Saleh decided then and there he would start his own company and be a successful CEO, he said.

Saleh said he saw people like Mark Zuckerberg, who was 23 when he became a billionaire, and Evan Spiegel, the CEO of Snap, who became a billionaire at the age of 25.

“I saw a lot of entrepreneurs in the generation above mine take an idea, build it themselves, turn it into a massive corporation and make it their life’s work. I was inspired by seeing people like that.”

In high school, Saleh had a business where he sold sunglasses that were branded with Fond du Lac High School emblems. “I’ve been doing stuff like this a long time,” he said.

Saleh went into college knowing he wanted to be an entrepreneur, he said. He studied business and computer science, taking a lot of entrepreneurial courses.

“I knew I wanted to start a company. That was something I was looking for since the beginning – where could we start a business, where were the opportunities?”

He pursued a lot of ideas before Halo but this idea immediately attracted Saleh and his friends. “We were having a conversation about how scarily accurate Facebook ads could be. You would talk about something and then you’d get an ad for it. You’d read stories online about people who didn’t know they were pregnant but were getting Facebook ads for pregnancy tests.

“But when we looked at outdoor advertising in Philadelphia, where I went to school, the billboards and taxi cab advertisements were really bad. While online ads got really good in the past 10 or 20 years, there wasn’t anything smart about outdoor advertising at all. We juxtaposed them to the online ads and saw the opportunity.

“Let’s take the technology that makes online ads really good and apply them to the outdoor ads to make them a lot better. No one was really doing that.”

Two innovations made the idea work, Saleh said. First, they installed screens on Uber and Lyft cars. Yellow Cabs in New York have had advertising for years, but only in New York. By putting them on Uber and Lyft, they engaged nationwide networks. The other innovation was “the very smart screen” that could change the image based on variables

Halo employee Ayyan Arshad, co-founder Ryanne Fadel and co-founder and CEO Kenan Saleh with a Chicago Uber driver who installed the Halo screen 

Gaining Confidence

Having a good idea is one thing; turning it into a successful company is another. How did he know he could do it?

“I have always had leadership and confidence,” said Saleh, who had been captain of the tennis team and a class president at Fond du Lac High School. “I knew I wanted to do it. I take myself seriously and when I do, other people do, too.”

Saleh also invested time into learning. He took every business course available in high school. Then he went to YouTube, Reddit and online forums to learn from the online community, a practice he continues.

“One thing that helped me a lot was Y Combinator, a legendary accelerator in San Francisco. They have a startup school that has a lot of famous founders come in and talk about how they get started.

“I listened to their podcasts my junior and senior years. I knew I wanted to start a company; it gave me a lot of the foundation for how I would do it. It gave instructions on how you start, the first thing you should do, the second thing. Watching the podcast presentations made me confident that I knew how to do it. I didn’t need someone to tell me. I just needed the right idea.”

Saleh also spent the summer before his senior year working at an angel investment network in Indonesia, an opportunity his university sponsored.

Saleh said, “I saw how it all worked. I saw how investors made decisions, how funding rounds came together. I saw how entrepreneurs would pitch their businesses, how they would operate their businesses.

“I learned a lot that summer. I saw other people doing it and I thought I can do that too. I thought I could do it better. That gave me a lot of confidence.”

His classwork also played a role. “As a student studying business and computer science, I met a lot of entrepreneurs in my classes. I saw they weren’t dissimilar to me. I learned how they had done it and I felt I could launch a business, too.”

In Saleh’s computer science classes, he was building apps for iPhone and web. “I knew I had the technical skills.”

The right personality

Another factor is personality. Saleh described his as “a very thoughtful, calculated, quiet but confident personality. I think I’m very ambitious, also risk-seeking. I don’t mind taking risks at all. I thrive in fast-moving, high-risk, high-reward environments, which is why I think I do very well in startups.”

His mother said, “Kenan has always been a very determined young person and always set goals for himself. I don’t ever recall him not accomplishing his goals.

“His life has always had a purpose,” she said. “He has always looked for something to give it meaning.”

Kenan Saleh (Halo co-founder and CEO) with co-founders Nabeel Farooqui and Ryanne Fadel

She called him “very persuasive. That’s because he does a lot of research. Whenever he argues a point, he has done the research. He has looked at the other side of the issue. He makes very informed decisions.

“And he has always been a problem solver,” she added. “I still have a cutout from the newspaper when he was interviewed at a very young age. They asked what his favorite subject was and Kenan said he enjoyed mathematics. He said he wanted to figure out how to make mathematics fun for everyone so everyone can start off with a mathematical background.”

Saleh’s father, Dr. Haydar Saleh, said, “Kenan has a very nice personality, very warm, flexible and easy to get along with. He is always well received by friends and other families in the community here.” (Although the Salehs lived in Fond du Lac, they participate in the mosque and Muslim community in Appleton. While Kenan was in Philadelphia, they moved to Neenah, where Kenan’s brother Khaled goes to high school.)

His father noted that he has always observed that Kenan was very mature.

“I believe our children somehow feel more pressure than we do, given their background and religion,” he said. “I hope this pressure gives them the energy and determination to prove themselves, to succeed and to be more resilient.

“I believe that kind of pressure played a positive role in Kenan’s life. Most of the children in our community have done very well.”

Kenan Saleh is recognized in Forbes’ 30 under 30 Class of 2021 for Marketing and Advertising.