Interviewed by Iman Ben Chaibah
What do you do?
I raise awareness about the Emirati culture through programs and tours. I get appointed by universities and colleges to educate young nationals, to motivate and inspire them into entrepreneurship.
I am the CEO of Maestro Commercial Enterprises, the holding company of all my brands: Ask Ali, Embrace Arabia; a cultural consultancy establishment, and OneTVO; an online television company; which I jointly own with Mr. Reg Athwal.
How did you start before this?
My life till today is pretty much influenced by my father. He passed away last year, March 2009. He believed that if you do not do something with your own hands, you will not be an expert in it, appreciate it, and will never understand the significance of its value.
I went to the United States to study Hospitality and Tourism Management. When I graduated, my father thought I should start my career as a doorman in Beach Rotana Hotel. So I started as a doorman, then became a concierge, and then moved up to a receptionist. As the days passed I was getting qualified for the next push. However, I had to leave my work due to my father’s sickness, and accompany him for his therapy travels.
When my father recovered, I went to Canada to pursue an MBA in Branding. That is where I started my cross cultural lecturing, where I was assigned by a dear professor to conduct lectures on raising awareness about the Middle East culture.
Why did you decide to pursue cultural awareness?
I was working in Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, in the business tourism division. My role was to conduct tours for the VIPs visiting the country. However, I felt something was missing. It seemed contradictory to say we have our culture and heritage, when no one was there to deliver it. We say we have great buildings which people can come and see them, but they cannot see the cultural side of the country, when no one is showing them.
That is when I thought of starting Ask Ali website. I booked the domain name of www.ask-ali.com, and I started working on the website from design and content. The content included what may be needed by tourists, business travelers, or residents. I was aware that there are already plenty of websites that may talk about the same, but not all of them were correct, and none were wrote by us, we ought to be putting the words about us.
When did you decide to commit to the idea?
I decided to commit to this and take the responsibility for it when I attended “Unleash Your DNA” seminar by “Reg Athwal”, towards the end of year 2006. The seminar inspired my epiphany moment. I knew then what I was meant to do, and that I should start it. During the seminar I drew a sketch that had the milestones I wanted to achieve, it had: website, column at a newspaper, TV show, CD, and a book. When I look now at it, I feel grateful, because within three years, all that was achieved.
What did u do about it?
I launched the website with some assistance from my IT friends. I quit my job with only AED 16,000 in my account, and pursued what I wanted. Launching Ask-Ali was my real start. I had to obtain a trade license, however, to get that, I needed to have an office, and for that I needed money for the rent. So that was a dilemma. Right about then, I heard of a company that was in the process of rebranding, so I pitched with a branding plan concept as a consultant, and I got the contract for AED 30,000. That went directly as a down payment for an office, and then I registered the trade license.
I started cultural guiding, people already knew me, so I just had to announce that I am taking requests. I started charging AED 350 for half a day. That was very cheap. Within two months, it became 3500 AED for half a day. People started to understand the significance of what I do. Now the rate of my basic package of half a day is around AED 5000.
What were the reaction of peers, family, and society when you first started?
My father asked me why I could not work and do what I wanted both at the same time. I told him that he always taught me to be focused and committed, and I believe this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. That is when I got his blessings immediately.
My mother did not approve and stopped talking to me for three years. My sisters thought I was wasting my time. They did not understand the value of what I am doing as a whole. My mother endorsed me only in March this year, during the launch of my first book at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. I was so relieved at her reaction when she saw all the people around my booth, the interviews I had and so on, only then she understood the value of what I was doing.
My friends and colleagues tried to talk me out of it. They believed that with my graduate degree I ought to be having an actual job. Now they do have higher respect of what I do, and they understand.
What did u learn from your experience?
When you build a business of your own, it requires 3 to 5 years to stabilize it. It is not an easy ride like some would like to say, but it is definitely a worthy one. I had days when the bank account, literally, had no balance in it. The key to become an entrepreneur, in my opinion, is to adjust yourself to accept less, without having a problem with that. Once you believe in that, you will prosper, because you will know, that a better day will come.
You will always have obstacles, but they are there to reveal your strength in overcoming them, and letting you know how much you really want what is behind those walls.
If you had the chance to go back in time, what would you have done different?
I would have spared the moment to be by my father’s side when he passed away. Aside of that, I would not change a thing. I am a big believer in fate. Because whatever have happened to me is what got me to where I am now, and I could not be any happier.
What do you advise the readers?
When I was starting up, I got this valuable advice: expect less appreciation from family and friends. When you are mentally prepared for this, you can endure the journey. The problem is, while you are starting, you need to spend a long time on what you do. With that, a gap starts to grow between yourself, family and friends. You would miss them, but you are occupied with what you do. Eventually, they start to think you became arrogant and proud. You need to acknowledge that this may happen, so always stay humble, and try to keep in touch with your loved ones.
All it takes is one firm moment with yourself, deciding to commit is your first step. I had nothing to put me where I am. I had worked hard for this, struggled, sacrificed, suffered, and lost a lot. All that had led me to gain this much now.
Leave with a smile. Believe in yourself as the messenger of your own field. Be a pioneer or disappear.
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