We sit down with author, serial entrepreneur, mentor, and diplomat Omar Busaidy to talk millennial entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa and walking the corridors of power at 21.
It all started when a Tunisian man in the prime of his life set himself on fire, unleashing an avalanche of awareness of the untenably stifling realities of being a millennial in our part of the world. This is where the MENA’s fledgling startup movement found its beginning: the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. Evolving from a wave of political dissent to a surge of socioeconomic reform, the MENA’s startup movement may not be the movement we deserve, but it is the one we need right now.
One country that escaped the wrath of its millennials and emerged from the Arab Spring unscathed is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And it’s not the skyscrapers, the infinity pools, opulent hotel lobbies, indoor rainforests, gigantic shopping malls, or the country’s over-the-top opulence; it’s the economy, stupid! Arguably the region’s largest startup hub, the UAE’s ecosystem is equal parts guts and guile; it’s where conventional wisdom guides business innovation. It’s where 32-year-old Omar Busaidy is the paragon of Emirati business acumen.
An author, a serial entrepreneur and mentor, a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, a diplomat, and a government official, Busaidy’s meteoric rise to prominence came when his book on entrepreneurship, Just Read It, hit the shelves, instantly galvanizing an army of eager, entrepreneurial disciples. He emerged as one of the country’s most astute and celebrated business insiders, as the UAE turned to entrepreneurship to reinvigorate its economy.
I’m talking about how agile you have to be in order to deal or live in a world where A.I. will play a major role, in not only taking over jobs, but also creating new jobs. So I’m talking about the future of skills, the future of jobs, the future of industries
Busaidy has been walking the corridors of power since he was 21, when he was handpicked to serve as the British Embassy’s commercial attaché, a role he credits for his success. “They were looking for somebody who can connect and strengthen ties between British and UAE businesses, on a governmental level as well. So I was going around the UK, meeting with companies, not only from London, from all the way up to the Midlands and everywhere else to educate them on the culture in the Middle East. And encouraging them to do business here, and vice versa. It was just amazing sitting on meetings that were super high profile,” he humble brags.
Yet, Busaidy is a man of many talents and equal failures. “I was 19 when I started my first business - a marketing agency. That flopped after six months. And then I started another company selling women’s dresses and wedding gowns, I was 21 at the time. That also shut down because the location was horrible. And I launched another company, a consulting business supporting companies from overseas to do business here in the Middle East, and that failed too,” he says unabashedly.
Crying over spilt milk is a colossal waste of time when you’ve spent the past 5 years climbing the Abu Dhabi Tourism Department’s hierarchy – from Tourism Investment Promotion Manager to acting Head of Aviation Development. So Omar did the next best thing: he cofounded upscale men’s salon W Gents with business partner Wael Ziad Al Haj in Jumeira Lake Towers. “We saw that there was an opportunity to set up a gentlemen’s salon at a location that was underserved and we could do it. And it was a viable project, it was scalable, and it was also cost effective. So we found the location and it boomed from there,” he explains. “We didn’t have enough experience, but we learned over time, and within the first year, we managed to succeed.”
Sometimes it’s good, from a private sector perspective, that you align your objectives with the government’s
In most societies, mixing public service and private interest is grounds for judicial review, but most societies are not the UAE. In a country where commerce and pragmatism are not only a matter of policy, but of national identity, private interest is public service. “The public sector is involved in regulation and policymaking. So when you come in from the private sector, you don’t really understand why those rules are there, and sometimes you feel it’s a hindrance to your business,” he says. “Sometimes it’s good, from a private sector perspective, that you align your objectives with the government’s. […] if you were there to support them, you can go further much quicker, than you would by yourself."
In a fluid career, juggling public service and private ventures, Busaidy ceased to be defined by the parameters of his positions and business ventures. Somewhere along the line, he was the one doing the defining. “I think the one skill that I possess is my communication, and I realise, everywhere I go, whether it’s within my government job or in the private sector or anywhere I go, I’m able to simplify the content to make it easy to understand and make it sound cool. This is what I do,” he asserts. “All I do is I Omarise it, which is the same way I say it right now, I just make things easy for people to understand and that’s it.”
It was this extraordinary ability to Omarise that landed him a book deal. "One of things I used to always discuss in my lectures was the attitude of en entrepreneur. I’d touch on the social and emotional intelligence – the things we know, but don’t really practice. […] I was encouraged by one of the students to write a book,” he recounts. Just Read It, a day to day guide on self-development and emotional and social intelligence both professionally and otherwise, went on to become a smashing success.
I think the one skill that I possess is my communication, and I realise, everywhere I go, whether it’s within my government job or in the private sector or anywhere I go, I’m able to simplify the content to make it easy to understand and make it sound cool. This is what I do
Never one to sit idly by, Busaidy is already jumping ahead of the next curve, A.I., in his new book – because let’s face it, social intelligence is so 2015. “Everybody is talking about futurism and A.I. and robotics and machines taking over jobs by men – whether technology will complement or take over humanity,” he Omarises. “So I’m talking about how agile you have to be in order to deal or live in a world where A.I. will play a major role, in not only taking over jobs, but also creating new jobs. So I’m talking about the future of skills, the future of jobs, the future of industries.”
Busaidy’s upcoming entrepreneurial venture goes in almost the opposite direction of AI and entirely back to basics: brownies. But there is a far deeper intention and goal behind the seemingly innocuous brownie batter. Busaidy is attempting to even out the global playing field for MENA entrepreneurs in a world that is often distrustful of them, and because the fastest way to anybody’s heart and mind is through their stomach and taste buds, he will be trying to accomplish just that with his sugar and gluten free vegan brownies, bearing the Arabic word for ‘my darling’.
Habibi Brownies, slated for launch this year, is Busaidy’s idea of commercialising Arabic language in a fusion of taste and culture, to change the narratives associated with given people and their dialects. “We want to see [the brownies] everywhere, a household name. Our slogan is ‘peace, love, and chow’ because, of course, the Arab world and Islam don’t get the best PR around the world,” he says. “When you use the word ‘habibi’, just like, you know, everybody says ‘falafel’, and everybody loves falafel - in every corner of New York City, there’s an Egyptian guy selling falafel. So we want to propagate the word ‘habibi’ - because it means my dear, my love - to go round the world.”
Photos by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions
Photography and videography by Abanoub Ramsis
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