x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Let’s be clear, you can’t be a part-time entrepreneur

UAE entrepreneurs who also hold down government jobs ought to focus their energy in one direction and give it their all.

The topic of entrepreneurship comes up in most conversations regarding the UAE’s economy, as well as the important role it has to play in lowering unemployment.

During last month’s Government Summit, the head of Dubai Municipality was quoted as saying “Emiratis need to stop relying on Government employment and look at entrepreneurship as a stable future”. Although what he said was true, the fact that the message was delivered by a well-respected government employee will not have been lost on some young Emiratis.

There is a fundamental cultural issue that is impeding the growth of entrepreneurship in the UAE.

That is how we as a society view professional success, which has more to do with status than it does with the impact of the work we do; more to do with your job title than how you choose to use your talents, and more to do with what government entity you are affiliated with than the entity you are trying to create.

Given the emphasis on and drive towards entrepreneurship by the government – with interest-free loans from the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and policies that require government-affiliated entities to dedicate five per cent of their contracts to small- and medium-sized enterprises – there is so much value to be captured by budding entrepreneurs who have a little appetite for risk. However, that hunger is so low that it has led to the rise of people I have termed the “part-time entrepreneurs”.

A part-time entrepreneur has a dream for what they want to do in their life, will put in time to make that dream a reality, will love every moment of the work they do on their personal business while still holding down a full-time government job.

Unfortunately, in the UAE at least, being an entrepreneur or a small- or medium-sized business owner isn’t a socially credible source of employment. Whatever it is you try to do as an entrepreneur arrives with greater hurdles, whether that is getting a loan from the bank or, in some more extreme cases, trying to get married.

So what do many entrepreneurs do to get that credibility into their lives?

They maintain full-time government employment and spend whatever free time they have during the day and at the weekend building their start-up or trying to manage their business.

They hire a full-time general manager to manage all the day-to-day operations that come with the business, and get called upon when that manager needs support with legal documentation or licensing.

To me this is a problem, because with “part-time entrepreneurs” their efforts are divided. Either their day job suffers or their personal business suffers, or both suffer.

There is no way a person can dedicate themselves to a full-time job, while in parallel effectively managing and growing a full-time business. But, due to social expectations, they find a way to be good enough at both, but might never fully taste the fruits of greatness in either field.

It is important to note that when I talk about part-time entrepreneurs it is not just the young I am talking about.

There are plenty of examples within the UAE community of people who own multimillion dirham businesses and conglomerates but still choose to maintain their government employment.

Now I am not saying whether this is right or wrong, but it sets the standard for youth to live up to.

When you have women and men with multimillion dollar businesses who choose to take a stable income within the government sector, the “stop seeking government employment and become entrepreneurs” message will fall on deaf ears.

The solution could be as simple as the Khalifa Fund demanding full time dedication from its applicants, with salaries incorporated into their business plan, or partnering with their current employers to give them a leave of absence while they build their businesses. Or it could be pretty much anything that gives the entrepreneur an incentive to dedicate all their professional time and energy to building a product or service they love to take it to market.

When my partners and I started our business before I left the UAE to join Stanford Graduate School of Business, the only thing I regretted was not fully dedicating myself to the business. It cost us a lot in terms of time, energy and growth of the company.

However, being in the heart of Silicon Valley for almost two years now, I am inspired by how much respect is given to entrepreneurs, and that respect is earned by their dedication to their craft, the vision for their business, and how they choose to spend the precious time to have during their working lives. They put their hearts and souls into building a business they can be proud of and they do it full-time.

Khalid Al Ameri is an MBA candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri