Charles Ota Heller’s career has consisted of six phases: student athlete, engineer, educator, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and writer. He is the author of five memoirs: award-winning Prague: My Long Journey Home; Dlouha cesta domu (in Czech); Name-Droppings: Close Encounters with the Famous and Near-Famous; Ready, Fire, Aim! An Immigrant’s Tales of Entrepreneurial Terror; and Cowboy from Prague: An Immigrant’s Pursuit of the American Dream.
Charlie was born in 1936 in Prague, three years before the Nazis invaded his native country. Raised a Catholic, he was unaware of the fact that the Germans classified him a Jew, due to the fact that he had three Jewish grandparents. One by one, his relatives disappeared, taken away by transports to extermination camps. His Jewish father escaped and joined the Czechoslovak Brigade of the British army. Soon only he, his mother, and his great grandfather were left. When the Nazis took over the family’s factory and threw them out of their home, they were taken in by a farmer couple. A year later, Charlie’s great grandfather was taken away, too. His heroic mother survived questioning, racial trials, and torture while protecting her only son. Eventually, she was taken away to a slave labor camp for Christian wives of Jewish men. Prior to leaving, she hid Charlie with her farmer friends. He remained in hiding until the end of the war. When the Germans were finally defeated and were escaping the country, nine-year-old Charlie came out of hiding and shot a Nazi with a pistol he found in a ditch. He was elated and proud of the fact that he had helped his father win the war. His dad, Rudolph, came home a war hero. His mother, Ilona, escaped from the camp and reunited with her family. Sadly, they were the only survivors of the war and the Holocaust; 25 members of the family perished.
Freedom for the Hellers lasted less then three years because in February 1948, Soviet-led Communists took over the government and declared Charlie’s parents “enemies of the state.” Following a harrowing escape over the border into the US Zone of Germany, the family spent 15 months in refugee camps while waiting for a visa to enter the United States. They arrived on board a Liberty ship in New York harbor in May 1949 and settled in New Jersey.
Charlie became “Americanized” quickly and spoke English without an accent within a year. Despite the fact that he had had less than three years of formal schooling in Europe, he did well in high school and entered Oklahoma State University as an engineering student. At OSU, he earned a basketball scholarship, and graduated with BS and MS degrees. Early in his career, he was an engineer at Douglas Aircraft Company and Bell Telephone Laboratories. He lectured at UCLA and later became the youngest tenured faculty member in the history of the US Naval Academy. He earned a PhD in engineering from The Catholic University of America and, soon thereafter, was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. He co-founded CADCOM, Inc., a pioneer CAD/CAM software company; he was its President and CEO. When CADCOM was acquired by ManTech International Corporation, Charlie became Vice President for Corporate Development of the parent firm. In 1983, he led a management buy-out of a segment of ManTech’s business which became InterCAD Corporation. He was President and CEO of InterCAD until he sold his interest in the company. He returned to academia as Director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, where he built one of the nation’s top-ranked entrepreneurship centers. He left academia to become a partner in Gabriel Venture Partners, an early-stage, bi-coastal, venture capital fund. Later, he became Director and Investment Chair of Athlone Global Security, an international venture capital firm investing in early-stage companies in the homeland security sector.
Dr. Heller is an internationally recognized lecturer on entrepreneurship, venture capital and corporate venturing, and he was a freelance writer and columnist for more than 20 years. He was named Maryland “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Ernst & Young/INC. magazine/Merrill Lynch, and was named by digitalsouth magazine one of “The 50 Most Influential People in Southern Technology.” In 1999, the University of Maryland named him the first-ever Professor of Practice in the University’s history. In 2000, he was awarded the Lohmann Medal by Oklahoma State University and in 2015, he was elected to the school’s Hall of Fame. In 2002, he received the Alumni Achievement Award from The Catholic University of America. In 1998, he was named one of “Computer Graphics Pioneers.” Today, he serves on the boards of Walden University (chair of finance committee) and the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (co-chair of strategic planning & mission delivery committee). He is a dual citizen of the United States and the Czech Republic, his native country, and is fluent in Czech.