Now here’s a good story, and one worth the telling: a success story that begins with our ex-student Abbas losing over $1,000,000 of his mother’s savings on his first entrepreneurial venture. Apparently he has paid back her belief in him: materially in the form of valuable stock in his current business OyaNow, emotionally by being – finally – successful. Generously returning to Hurtwood to share his entrepreneurial journey with our current students, Abbas brings good spirits, humility and lots of wisdom. It’s been a roller coaster ride, but Abbas is clearly a charismatic young man in a hurry, with some of the sharpest business acumen and most useful self-analysis to offer those thinking of creating their own business. He is also an unashamed fan of the Hurtwood education system, with plenty of happy memories, so without more ado, let’s share the love.
2005 was the year that Abbas left us, after two years of sustained hard work and having made some of his strongest and most enduring friendships. He encountered great support from the teachers here, he tells me, achieving academic results in his three A Levels, Economics, Business and French, that he would not have believed possible. Having been let down by the French and American educational systems that he had previously encountered, which contrived, he observes, to make ‘me look like a problem’, he loved the freedoms that he found at Hurtwood, as well as the responsibilities. He recognised the ‘unique’ nature of the school providing a ‘great stepping stone to adulthood’ that ‘prepare you for real life’ and the working world. Clearly proud to be a ‘third generation student’ at Hurtwood (which has now educated four family members), he acknowledges the ‘fair and balanced’ core values that he still finds truly impressive. ‘I really cherish (the school’s) approach to teenagers and adulthood’. He also asserts that Hurtwood ‘makes it impossible to fail’ in the sense that students like himself are cajoled into such effective hard work. Moving on to graduate study at business school, he confesses that the most useful element of this period was the chance to network, making connections that would serve him well into the business future. ‘Network is net worth’ he quips, the first of many pithy and memorable little business aphorisms that he offers as advice to students: more will follow.
Formal education box ticked, Abbas ‘naturally’ joined the family business, but left one unsatisfactory year later, frustrated and hungry to put his own business ideas into practice. Lucky enough to have financial support from his family, initially things went well. Luck soon ran out; his failure was profound: as we have seen, he lost the investment money from his mother. With admirable maturity, Abbas clearly identifies the value of this humbling experience, as part of the process of learning and ultimate success. Onwards: bloodied but unbowed, he moved to China, exploring other ventures, making some gains and broadening and absorbing experience and knowledge. Finally, he headed back after a year to Nigeria, this time with more real-world business acumen and a clearer idea: to provide a one-stop solution for deliveries and professional services of all kinds. This was 2016, so the concept was not exactly revolutionary. He knew that there was a call for these things, a need even, but this was not a culture used to apps or services of these kinds. Ironically, as a student in pre-Deliveroo Britain, Abbas recalls thinking that there was a gap in the market here: having grown up, like several generations of his family in Lebanon, he had felt the value of a broad network of delivery services (often by moped) that widely underpinned a variety of business provision. His interest was not met with any encouragement and was soon shelved. In retrospect, he advises the students, sometimes perhaps it does pay to trust one’s instincts more fully.
Meanwhile, how to make this idea work in Nigeria? His two years working in China had given him a clearer understanding of complex trading relationships, particularly cross-cultural ones, and he had wrestled with the challenge of building up an organisation from within. He felt that he was accruing ‘battle experience’. He could see that there was a need for quality service, reliability and convenience. He also sensed that this worked on both the personal level of individual convenience and lifestyle in terms of household supplies, as well as in a broader sense, on a business level. ‘Getting stuff moved about in Nigeria was not easy,’ he knew. The need – the ‘problem’, as he refers to it – was definitely there. He emphasises that finding this opportunity is the starting point of all entrepreneurial success. How to fill this gap, provide transport systems, sell them and make them work? It was hard. Luckily, Abbas still had people who believed in him and his ideas, and he was able to raise more business capital. Initially there was the need to change attitudes and structure at basic levels: to train drivers to use GPS guidance systems, to persuade businesses to outsource product movement, to show ordinary people how to use an app, how to use technology to improve lifestyle.
Convinced that this time his venture was finally in the right place, he needed to summon all his persistence (both key markers in his philosphy of business success) and self-belief to build slowly but surely from the ground up. ‘It started with one bike on the side of the road,’ he states. In terms of staff, he was likewise building on the potentially rich human resources available in Nigeria, but similarly he was up against all kinds of barriers and resistance. He was learning fast. He had swiftly developed an employment policy of ‘carrot rather than stick’ to encourage and train staff, acknowledging that ‘Nigeria just has so much talent’. He enlarges on what he has found to be so successful in terms of employing the right staff: ‘Give an individual a road of growth, and they will give you so much more,’ adding that they will also be on your side and less likely to ‘stab you in the back’. Having seen this affirmation work so well with Hurtwood students generally, I am of course in total agreement. So now in the right place, practice was making this incipient little business ready for what was about to change the world for everyone. Welcome to 2020. Here comes Covid.
Terrible, unavoidable, disastrous for so many, it changed human needs almost overnight. Practice, Place and Persistence meant that Abbas’ big idea had put him in the right place at the right time. Turnover skyrocketed overnight. Growth in demand for delivery services increased by 10,000%. It was a small silver-lining to the horrible pandemic cloud to be able to facilitate in so many ways. None of this was easy, Abbas makes clear. Overwhelmed at times, there was little time for self nurture. Indeed, at times it sounds like he was kinder to his staff than to himself. Like a fellow alumni Antonia, Abbas shares his learned wisdom that success is unquestionably built on exhausting total commitment. It takes its toll, but ultimately you have to find time for self-nurture and time off.
Has Abbas followed his own advice? Well, today he is clearly a happy and wise young man, heading through his thirties. Has he taken care of himself, I ask? I think he is working on it, and sharing his time and advice with us is hopefully mutually beneficial. He has certainly taken care of his business future, creating a niche for himself as a kind of business guru: an anchor man for many businesses between Africa and the rest of the world. Involved with a whole portfolio of very varied concerns, from Fintech to biotech – in the form of hemp fibre – he has not lost either his enthusiasm or his sense of purpose on the way. Nor has he lost his belief in the active encouragement of meritocracy in the workplace, encouraging an affirmative culture within his businesses, incorporating flexibility as well as financial reward and shareholding equity options along the way. It is a real joy to hear that female staff are very well represented in all his companies, particularly at the top. This includes all his many CEOs. At this point in time, he reckons, ‘women seem particularly suited to nurturing company growth,’ he tells me, adding, ‘they are also good at decision-making.’ His mum must be proud of her investment, proud on many fronts — good to hear from a Hurtwood point of view also, this end.
So, Abbas, keep looking after yourself. We all need more of these values in our working world. Your advice is a tonic: rejecting toxic negativity and optimistically sure that the world is moving towards a wholly new and exciting era, full of potential for our current and future students. Abbas is exactly what the world needs now. Just a little reminder from the Surrey Hills. How about some personal investment and production? Some little Abbas chips off the the old block maybe? Who knows? He does, however, assure me that if life brings him that blessing, they will certainly come to Hurtwood. Bring it on, I say. We’re ready.