Dubai businessman campaigns to feed thousands around the world during Ramadan
Ramadan is an occasion for empathy – one of the goals of abstaining from food and drink is to understand the situation of the less fortunate. But for Com Mirza, the chief executive of Mirza Holdings and Mirza Events, who has pledged to feed thousands around the world every year during the holy month, that compassion originates from a childhood memory.
“There was a Ramadan where we didn’t have much food on the table,” says the Canadian.
“Someone had given us some food at the time and I still remember it to this day. This initiative stems from myself coming from poverty. I know how it feels, and also realise it takes just a handful of people to make a difference.”
This is the fifth year the Dubai-based entrepreneur has helped feed the poor in Pakistan, India, the United States, Canada and the UAE through volunteers in those countries.
Until last year, the businessman was pumping his own resources into the cause, catering for 25,000 underprivileged people in 2011. That number skyrocketed to about 102,000 people last year. Mirza hopes to eventually feed one million every year.
Last year, Mirza said he donated money to Adopt-a-Camp in Dubai to support the Ramadan meals programme.
This year, Mirza has enlisted the support of the public through a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe.com to raise US$50,000 (Dh183,600) – in addition to the $70,000 that he has donated – to put food on the table for 150,000 people. The campaign has raised more than $20,000 in 15 days.
“I was in Dubai during Ramadan in 2011 and I remember Sheikh Mohammed had started a water initiative to give back during Ramadan. That really inspired me – to see that he was doing all this – and he became a role model for me,” says Mirza, who is also a business coach and runs Million Dollar Mastermind and Billion Dollar Mastermind to help mentor entrepreneurs.
“I knew I couldn’t do it at that level, but I could do something in my own small way and ultimately it can grow to that level.”
Donors who pledge $50 towards his campaign will receive a thank- you note or a specially recorded video from Mirza. Those donating between $4,000 and $5,000 will receive mentoring sessions to help them grow their business. The top prize, which will go to a philanthropist who sets aside $25,000 for charity, will be an all-expense-paid trip to Dubai to spend a day with Mirza and receive business coaching to jump-start their venture.
Mirza’s rags-to-riches story forms the crux of his speeches, making him a popular speaker on entrepreneurship. His parents moved from Pakistan to the US and then Canada, where he grew up living hand to mouth. As a child, he took on odd jobs, selling lemonade and distributing the newspaper.
“Once I wanted a Nintendo really bad, but my mother said that if we bought one my brothers would go hungry. I said: ‘Let them go hungry’, but she explained that wasn’t the right way,” says Mirza, with a laugh. “I set up a lemonade stand to make that money and then got a bunch of neighbourhood kids to sell it with me. I managed to set up a small franchise.”
Mirza chose to drop out of school and go into business. He set up seven businesses, all of which failed, putting him in further debt. It was only after his ninth attempt at creating a software company in 2003 that the fruits of his labour paid off.
“I started over 40 different companies. A lot of them continued to fail, but there were always six to seven that would flourish at any given time.”
It was in 2011, by which time Mirza was a successful businessman, on a trip to Pakistan to give talks at universities that he came up with the idea for the charity food drive.
“I was speaking at a lot of colleges and already had a large following on social media. So I told the youth that I’d supply the food stuff and they could get it cooked by parents and relatives and distribute it to those in need. And every year that network of volunteers has grown.”
In the first 10 days of this Ramadan, Mirza’s effort has fed more than 45,000 people in the Pakistani cities of Islamabad, Lahore, Sialkot and Sindh.
“I had prepared a lot more in advance this year. We purchased rice, flour and dates in bulk before Ramadan,” says Mirza.
“Our infrastructure is better this year, too. We have many more volunteers, about 160, who cook and drop off the food in religious places, shelters and different communities.”
Mirza plans to set up a registered charity in October for all future campaigns and fundraising. Currently, to reach different communities, he works with youth organisations and charities on the ground – however, he is not affiliated to any of them.
• To support the cause, donate on www.gofundme.com/comsfeed150kpeople