Growing up in Uzbekistan, everything Bek Abdullayev knew about the United States he'd learned from pop culture and Hollywood movies.
"A lot of high rises, beautiful people," was what he imagined. "Michael Jordan, Madonna, whatever you see in the movies. You know, 'Home Alone,' so a big family home in a nice neighborhood."
As a teenager, Abdullayev got to experience the U.S. first-hand after he earned a spot in a competitive program called the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), funded by the U.S. Department of State.
The program launched in 1993, just a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. High school students from about 20 countries, mostly former Soviet republics, spend an academic year in the U.S.
Abdullayev was placed in a small town in Iowa, so at first, he didn't see any high rises.
"It was quite a bit of a culture shock because I come from a very densely populated urban city," he said. "And then being in a small town of fewer than 200 people was quite shocking."
The FLEX program aimed to introduce students to American values, such as an open society, free speech, and democracy.
Returning home turned out to be difficult: "Sixteen-, seventeen-, eighteen-year-olds with big ideas to change an entire society and the political system," he said, "aren’t necessarily welcome in that country."
A future in trucking
A few years later, Abdullayev was back in the United States to check out college campuses. After traveling around the country for about six months, he found the right fit in Missouri.
"On my way to Weston, Missouri, through Kansas City, I happened to drive through Park University. It looked neat on the outside, so I went in. By the end of my visit, I had an invitation to attend school there."
In college, he dabbled in entrepreneurship, opening a series of businesses, including a pizza shop. Then, around 2011, he turned his focus to the trucking industry. He researched logistics, spent time at truck stops and rode along with drivers.
Inside company offices, he found outdated equipment and stacks of paper.
"You could see these handwritten stacks of paperwork not only cover the tables and desks, but also the floors," he said, "and printers and faxes and, like, metal envelope folding machines and things like that."
He had all of this in mind a few years later, when he attended a weekend competition at the Kauffman Foundation and pitched his ideas to eliminate paperwork and streamline billing. His team created a mock website, and within 12 hours, more than $3,000 in purchases rolled in for a product that didn't yet exist.
"And I had to call these people and apologize and say, 'Hey, this was an experiment,'" he said.
That was the catalyst for dropping everything else he had going on and fully commit to building his company, called Super Dispatch.
On the road again
Super Dispatch officially launched in 2013, and the company released an app and web platform a year later. At first, Abdullayev just dreamed of reaching milestones.
"When we started in this space two years ago, they gave us four desks," he said recently as he walked around the Sprint Accelerator in the Crossroads Arts District. "Now we’ve taken over the entire first floor, which is probably over 20 desks. I don’t think they expected us to grow that fast."
Super Dispatch now has more than 30 employees and customers in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, Abdullayev said, adding that the company will soon need to relocate. But he said he plans to stay in what he described as the heart of the city — the Crossroads, downtown, River Market area — and to keep listening to his customers.
"As this company has been growing and scaling, we’ve been very deliberate about baking this into our DNA, into the DNA of the culture," he said, "because the moment we lose sight of staying close to the customer, I think it would be easy for us to deviate from doing the right things."
Which means he'll still spend plenty of time hanging out at truck stops.
This story is part of KCUR's series “Taking a Risk,” where we explore the stories of immigrant entrepreneurs in Kansas City and the challenges of starting something new.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.