x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Businessmen skipped over university to jump right into work

Successful professionals share their personal stories of forgoing higher education as ambitious young adults, which some experts believe can hold more value than pursuing a university degree.

Simon Dolan, the author of How to Make Millions Without a Degree, believes in the "university of life". Courtesy photo
Simon Dolan, the author of How to Make Millions Without a Degree, believes in the "university of life". Courtesy photo

After moving to the UK from his native Iran at the age of 13, Dariush Soudi gradually adjusted to learning in English at school.

But when the time came to sign up for university and follow in the footsteps of his father to become a chemical engineer, Mr Soudi had other ideas.

Much to his mother's disappointment, he turned his back on academic studies to instead set himself up as a door-to-door salesman selling vacuum cleaners and fax machines.

"I couldn't bear any more education," he says. "I felt people were just messing about by going to university and I knew I could go out there and earn money straightaway.

"And I didn't see many professors who were rich. I thought, 'If someone's going to teach me to be rich, I'd rather it was Richard Branson or Bill Gates', the kind of people who actually made it rather than someone with lots of education who's never been out there and done it."

Over the next few years, Mr Soudi, now 45 and a father of three children, ran several businesses including a spa chain and a company that sold 3D laser images of school pupils in class to their parents.

Then, after moving to the Emirates in 2009 so that he could be closer to his children from his first marriage following a heart attack, Mr Soudi set up Be Unique, a social media, PR and marketing consultancy based in Dubai that has gone from strength to strength.

So, 27 years after first deciding not to go to university, does Mr Soudi regret his decision?

"There were times when I had no money, when I was sleeping in the car because sales weren't good. I regretted it then because it would have been a safety barrier to fall back on. But there was no going back because I was committed to working."

Mr Soudi credits his success with getting out there and gaining experience at a young age - something Simon Dolan, a British entrepreneur, car racing enthusiast and author of How To Make Millions Without a Degree, certainly agrees with.

Mr Dolan believes "the university of life" is a sounder investment in the current economic climate.

"You don't have to get a degree to get a great job and you're most certainly not guaranteed a great job if you get a degree," says Mr Dolan, the 703rd richest person in the UK and Ireland according to The Sunday Times Rich List.

With two-in-five graduates in the UK currently unemployed, almost a third now languishing in posts that do not require a degree and many with debts of more than £60,000 (Dh350,000), Mr Dolan has a point.

Instead, he advocates youngsters to start their own businesses to try to ease the graduate job deficit. And he believes his theory applies to the Emirates as well.

With nearly 65 per cent of the Emirati population in Abu Dhabi aged under 25, according to Abu Dhabi's Economic Vision 2030, and unemployment in that age bracket forecast to reach almost 30 per cent by 2020, the value of going to university may soon be called into question.

"It seems ludicrous to me that you can employ someone on a piece of paper rather than whether or not they can do the job or not. You only start learning how to do a job when you start doing it," Mr Dolan says.

He uses his story as an example of how simple, hard graft can help you "make it big". Thrown out of school at 16 with virtually no qualifications, he started his working life in a market - something he says taught him the gift-of-the-gab, strong arithmetic skills and a commitment to hard work.

Capitalising on his penchant for numbers, he set up a business handling accounts and tax returns for small businesses with an initial start-up investment of £10 to place an ad in a newspaper. Seventeen years later, at the age of 41, he now spearheads a number of companies in the finance industry with a turnover over nearly £100 million a year.

"If you are an average Joe and don't know what you want to do, just go and get a job in any company and start at the bottom. Whether you stay for 30 years and work your way up or have loads of different jobs and finally find one that you have an aptitude for, either way you're winning because you're learning something."

Mr Dolan, who enjoys holidays twice a year at Dubai's Burj Al Arab with his family and has looked into setting up a branch of his business here, believes university only has worth if you are planning to study a purely academic subject or intend to become a scientist, doctor, lawyer or engineer - where having a degree is mandatory.

"Let's keep university for the people it's intended for and not just as a place for people to go and learn things they're vaguely interested in. In the 1950s, university was a place of academic learning for the brightest of the bright. It had real worth, but now everyone's got a degree in subjects like media studies or sports psychology and it has no value."

Dr Annie Crookes, the business and psychology course director at Dubai's Heriot-Watt University, says Mr Dolan's philosophy may work for some, but not for the majority.

"Even now the statistics still show that over a lifespan, a graduate will earn more money. We're talking up to $1 million (Dh3.67m) more over a lifetime.

"In terms of what university is actually giving you, it isn't about the subject; it's about having to complete assignments, researching, writing, learning how to do presentations, standing up for yourself and arguing your point of view in a shared house and about managing your own time - it's teaching you a transferable set of academic skills.

"If you only learn on the job, you get very good at doing the things in that particular job in that particular organisation - but you don't necessarily understand the underlying principles behind what you're doing and therefore be able to transfer them to another organisation or type of job. "

But Dr Crookes says the Emirates does offer a unique opportunity for some school-leavers because of the high number of family businesses.

"If someone has the opportunity to get work experience in a family business without needing a degree, that might put them in the same position over three years as a graduate, particularly if they make a lot of that first job."

For Ali Soudi, the 18-year-old son of Mr Soudi, the entrepreneur, going to university is not at the top of his priority list - unlike his schoolmates.

Instead, Ali, who already works for his father's company several hours a day managing the social media accounts of clients, would rather focus on gaining some work experience first.

"My extended family wanted me to go down the university route, but that's not what I want," he says. "My dad was always in sales, so I was brought up in a household of drive and motivation and slowly, slowly I got introduced to the business. Now I love what I do because every day is different."

Ali first started working at 14, sleeping on the factory floor to operate machinery overnight in his father's laser-engraving company. He then set up a business selling sweets on the school bus, taking orders from fellow pupils and buying in bulk to sell at a 10 per cent profit.

But, despite his entrepreneurial spirit, Ali says he is still considering attending university in a few years' time at graduate level.

"I don't want to go to university to get a job or to get a degree - I want to go for the learning aspect. I'm interested in archaeology, economics and business, so I solely want to go on to become a better person. But I'd rather turn up at university in my Ferrari than have to work in McDonald's to pay my way."

Making the decision to do his own thing might feel right now, but that may change as it did for John Martin St. Valery.

Unlike many entrepreneurs at his level, the chief executive and founding partner of the The Links Group, a formation specialist company, never went to university. Instead, at 15, the Briton left home and enrolled at the Metropolitan Police Cadet College in London.

"I had this drive to get out and prove myself and by going into the police force, I was not only going to finish my education, but also get paid for it," says Mr Martin St. Valery.

By the age of 20, the former police officer had become one of the youngest surveillance officers in the force. But despite his success, he was ready to move on. Four years later, he took a sales job selling office furniture in central London.

"It went well and I got a taste for dealing with people on a commercial level. And although I always say I'm not an academic, if I'm interested in something I'll learn fast.

"From then on, I started doing a lot of vocational training, gaining diplomas or certificates just to learn skills."

The career move led Mr Martin St. Valery into the financial services industry and eventually a move to Dubai in 1998 to become general manager of a branch office of Equitable Life in the UAE.

"Having the relevant qualifications to be a manager of a business was quite difficult, but it was possible if you could show vocational qualifications and a resume that backed up that experience. Those vocational qualifications became essential and I don't think, based on the experience alone, I would have secured that position."

After the business was sold in 2001, he set up The Links Group. Today, the company works with 300 companies, ranging from large multinationals to one-person consulting firms, that contribute $300 billion to the local economies of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.

"It's been a fun ride and while I don't regret not going to university - because I wouldn't be sitting here today if I had gone - on a personal level, I still need to prove to myself that I would have had the ability."

As a result, Mr Martin St. Valery, now 47, has spent a large portion of his later career gaining further vocational qualifications.

"Academic qualifications are important to build skills and to prove to future employers that you have some sort of vocational tick in your box or general education to make you a more rounded person.

"I'm currently studying to become a chartered director because I feel I've learnt the skills and would quite like to have the qualification to go with that."

And he says he and his wife encouraged their children, Chloé, 22, and Jack, 20, to further their education.

"They know my story and it's great, but they've seen some quite hard times as well. At the beginning of starting your own business, it's very difficult, so the kids couldn't always go on school trips and I had to see the head teachers and negotiate paying the school fees over a period of time."

As a result, the entrepreneur says despite watching his daughter struggle to find a suitable position since graduating last summer in the UK with a business and psychology degree, the value of that education is still there.

"I think it's essential she has that degree behind her. As an employer myself, during the first stage of an interview process if you have 20 applicants and someone isn't educated to a certain standard, they miss the first sift."

For this reason, Dr Crookes advises undergraduates to not only focus on their studies, but also on gaining work experience through relevant internships.

"By having a degree, yes, you are a mature person, but that's not necessarily going to make you a good employee. So it's the portfolio of the degree plus the work experience that you have that helps you get on the job circuit."