In this serialised feature, Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.
I'm not the only Emirati to have risen from the ranks to start their own business. The short history of my country has thousands of stories of entrepreneurs who made good without being propped up by their family money or name. The fact that, at 40 years young, our country has one of the fastest-growing economies in the Gulf should tell you something about the spirit of enterprise that we nurture.
But before I would start up my own business, there would be another chapter in my life and, like many other chapters, it involved travel. My trip to Germany for my father's surgery gave me pause for thought. I wasn't going to be the general manager at the Beach Rotana in Abu Dhabi, so what would I do? When I was studying in the US, my teachers told me to get my management degree as soon as I could. Once you get caught in the rat race, they said, you're not going to be able to take time off. I decided to move to Canada for my MBA.
I was fortunate enough to be accepted by Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario, and even more fortunate to have found a mentor in Dr Franklin Ramsoomair. He was my professor in a course called Cross-Cultural Management and Communications, and he inspired me to visualise how I could turn my passion into a successful enterprise. And to think it all started with a mocha from Starbucks.
Young Seon Oh, a Korean friend, spoke highly of Dr Ramsoomair and urged me to take his class. So we went across to meet him one day. He greeted me with a cheerful "Assalamu alaykum". I asked him what I needed to do to enroll in his class. "Get me a hot mocha every morning," he joked. So every Monday and Wednesday, he would find a hot steaming mug of mocha on his table. Thus a beautiful relationship started. I loved his classes because what he taught was also something that has excited me since my early travels: the similarities and differences among cultures.
Even when I was asked to give a presentation in my hospitality management class, I would link the topic to Middle East culture. For example, when we had to do a presentation on the Middle East kitchen, I gave them the whole Middle Eastern food experience. You see, Arabs give generously, whether it is to a friend, to a stranger or to classmates. While my classmates gave PowerPoint presentations, I gave them a live presentation with loads of machboos (an authentic rice-based dish from the UAE) and falafel, hummus and shawarma.
One day, Dr Ramsoomair asked me if I would speak to his undergraduate class on cross-cultural influences. I seized the opportunity. He introduced me to the class as a guest speaker then sat at the back. He made eye contact with me when required, but mostly he observed how the students reacted to me. Surprise, surprise! The class loved my presentation. Soon I was assisting the professor in his classes. "If nobody told you this before, you need to know that you are a natural-born speaker," he said to me once. "You have the smile, the warmth and the understanding of a student's mind to transform everything you know into something that is interesting and exciting to absorb. I recommend you do your PhD so you can become a powerful teacher. I already picture you as one. In fact, I'll hunt you down till you become one."
Dr Ramsoomair said this with such intensity and conviction that I instantly believed his words and never forgot them.
"By 35 I will have launched most of my initiatives," I told myself. "A book on bridging cultures, a TV channel and a corporate entity that's running on its own. I will also be teaching at a university with a 'Dr' in front of my name. At 40, I will retire from active business, maybe come in two or three times a week to mentor my team. My main mission at this point in my life will be to teach and inspire young people. After 40, having achieved my personal financial goals, I see myself engaged in taking my country forward." I really loved Canada, because it was a multi-cultural environment. There were students from China, India, Pakistan, South Korea, the Caribbean, South America and Africa. It was such a rich mix that the Caribbana festival in Toronto had multiculturalism as its theme one year - and it's already a festival for Caribbeans. I'll bet you didn't know that Waterloo is the home of the BlackBerry. Many people assume BlackBerry is American, but it's Canadian; this always makes a great conversation opener.
After completing my MBA, I visited Ottawa and returned home. I was happy to hear that the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority had been launched and was looking for people. I applied to the authority in August 2005. It was a new entity and, while I waited to hear back from them, I wondered if it would have been better to join one of the private companies that had already offered me employment. The suspense was lifted in December, when the authority told me I had a job. I would be entrusted to help set up and run the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions department.