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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Businessman hopes to inspire youth

Ashish Thakkar recounts the struggles he faced when he had to quit school at the age of 15 to set up his business in Dubai.
Ashish Thakkar, the founder of the Mara Group and the Mara Foundation. Ravindranath K / The National
Ashish Thakkar, the founder of the Mara Group and the Mara Foundation. Ravindranath K / The National

ABU DHABI // When he was just 15 years old, Ashish Thakkar dropped out of high school, borrowed Dh18,000 from his father and came to the UAE to set up his first business selling computer parts.

Today, he is the multimillionaire founder of the Mara Group and the Mara Foundation, which employ 11,000 people worldwide in various social and commercial business ventures.

Mr Thakkar was a guest speaker on Tuesday on the final day of the Emirates Foundation Youth Philanthropy Summit.

The 33-year-old business leader – who was described as “one of the most successful businessmen in Africa” by Clare Woodcraft-Scott, the foundation’s chief executive – delivered an inspiring speech calling on youths not to allow social or economic barriers to stop them from making a difference in the world.

“It’s our responsibility to make a difference no matter what age you are,” said Mr Thakkar.

“Being young is not a bad thing. It’s our responsibility to truly make a difference.”

Mr Thakkar’s move to Dubai at such a young age was compelled by dire necessity. His family, of Indian descent but had been living in Africa since the 1800s, was forced to flee Uganda during the rule of the dictator Idi Amin.

“My family got kicked out,” Mr Thakkar said of their expulsion from their home.

They found a safe haven in Britain where his parents worked in factories and saved enough for a home and a small business.

But after building up their savings, the family packed up and returned to Africa, this time to Rwanda.

“Nine months later, unfortunately, the genocide broke out in Rwanda,” said Mr Thakkar. “We luckily came out alive, but unfortunately everything that we built from 1972 to 1993, we lost in 1994.”

That was when Mr Thakkar quit school, borrowed money from his father and relatives and started a business buying information-technology components from vendors in the UAE and selling them to Africa.

As the need for inventory grew, Mr Thakkar opened a shop in Dubai where he could get financing to grow his business and began offering credit to other aspiring African business owners. His father was his bank guarantor.

“Eighteen years later … we have businesses in 22 countries in Africa now, we have over 11,000 employees and our business includes banking, real estate, e-commerce and social media and we’re into manufacturing,” said Mr Thakkar.

“Starting a business at the age of 15 with very little capital, no ability to network, I understand first-hand what it’s like going through the challenges that young entrepreneurs particularly go through.”

Addressing those challenges was the focus of the summit, making Mr Thakkar the ideal role model for aspiring young entrepreneurs and philanthropists in the UAE, said Mrs Woodcraft-Scott.

“He is somebody who embodies all the three things we’ve been talking about – youth, enterprise and effective philanthropy,” she said. “He’s the living model of that.”

The summit featured a number of panel discussions on getting youths involved in starting small businesses and giving back to the community by becoming more socially engaged.

It also afforded the youngsters an opportunity to network

with leaders in business and philanthropy.

“What we’re hearing today is how do we make sure young people know how to apply their academic skills and that enterprise is not about money,” said Mrs Woodcraft-Scott.

“It’s actually about long-term strategic innovative thinking. We want to get young children exposed to these kinds of ideas.”

rpennington@thenational.ae