My journey from refugee to entrepreneur
When my family and I were told that we had to leave the country with nothing but the clothes on our backs, the news hit us like a brick wall. Never would we have thought this could have happened to us, of all people, but the reality was that regardless of whether you were high, mid or low-income earners, every Indian had to get out of Uganda quickly.
General Idi Amin forced us out – everyone of Asian origin in Uganda. Our mother country India laid the responsibility for the Ugandan Asians squarely with the UK government. The UK was the only place that would take us, but as every ex-Ugandan Asian will tell you, this was the best thing that could have ever happened to us. It was a blessing in disguise.
This was a tough time for my parents. My mother, brother and I could enter the UK, but my father had no UK rights so we were separated for a few years until he could get his British passport. During these years, it was all down to my mother to not only work three jobs but also spend time raising her children. I was only six years old when we came to the UK, so I don’t really recall how I felt arriving in the UK, but I vividly remember my mother struggled to put food on the table.
My family are Gujaratis, and coming from a lineage of India’s greatest merchants, we are born knowing how to sell well. My great grandfather sailed thousands of miles in search of prosperity eventually founding the Odeon Cinema chain in Uganda. Maybe it’s in our DNA or something else, but we seem to be naturally commercially minded and so, when we became refugees, we had to resort to commercialism just to survive. Arriving in a very harsh, unwelcoming and cold London in 1972, we quickly learned that we had to fend for ourselves, survive at all costs and continue marching forward regardless of the circumstances, which are all traits of successful entrepreneurs.
Focus on the positive, not the fear
My own entrepreneurial journey started while I was a student at the University of Hull. I used my student grant money to get to Gibraltar, took the ferry over to Morocco and started to buy leather goods that I would sell back to my university colleagues.
The hustle bug hit me at an early age. To me, hustling is a ‘make something out of nothing’ mindset. It often comes with a deep sense of urgency, daring to go where others don’t, and it is the stuff that fuels entrepreneurial and intrapreneurialdreams.
From an early age I learned to fend for myself, and with this, I have always felt comfortable with risk. FEAR (False Evidence Appearing Real) is what stops many people from doing something or taking a risk, but that is because they focus on the bad side of what may happen. Instead, you should reverse that thought pattern and focus more on the good side of what may happen, and how that will get you to where you want to be.
Strengthen your resilience through exploration
As the famous poet Kovie Biakolo says:
“Look around you and look inside you. How many people do you think are settling? I will tell you: a hell of a lot of people. People are settling every day into okay relationships and okay jobs and an okay life. And do you know why? Because okay is comfortable. Okay pays the bills and gives a warm bed at night and allows one to go out with co-workers on a Friday evening to enjoy happy hour. But do you know what okay is not? Okay isn’t thrilling, it isn’t passion, it isn’t the reason you get up every day; it isn’t life-changing or unforgettable. Okay is not the reason you go to bed late and wake up early. Okay is not the reason you risk absolutely everything you’ve got just for the smallest chance that something absolutely amazing could happen.”
I simply was not fine to be just OK. Things had been OK for my family in Uganda, and everything had been snatched away. My mum always said that “life can change in a blink of an eye, so never take anything for granted” and the same is true in business.
It is this attitude that led me to explore international markets. Over the past 30 years I have experienced business across four continents, and I am proud – not only of the good things, but the many failures too. Going through these experiences has strengthened my resilience and has made me realise that your greatest friend is you.
Entrepreneurship is not for the faint hearted. It’s like jumping off a cliff, trying to build a plane on the way down. Most people will crash and burn. I got knocked against the rocks many times but somehow, I did manage to build a plane and land intact.
Step outside your comfort zone
If starting a business is the life you want – with all the risk, thrill, adventure and unknown – then the biggest test you must pass is the ability to step outside of your comfort zone. You have to tell yourself that just being OK is not good enough.
Like the millions of refugees around the world today, entrepreneurs must rise to the challenge, deal with what life throws at them and try to stand out in a positive way. Eventually, it all comes down to how prepared we are to handle these tests. I am now… are you?