Fri, April 12, 2024

‘For any entrepreneur the first challenge is always money’

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Rakesh Wahi

Chairman, CMA Investment Holdings, Dubai

Rakesh Wahi, Chairman of CMA Investment Holdings, Dubai was in Nepal recently, taking time out from his full schedule of work in several countries where he operates businesses, to write a book. He has previously authored a book titled ‘Be a Lion: Dare to Dream and Live Fearlessly’ in which he has spoken about his life journey from a career in the army to becoming an established entrepreneur and investor. Wahi says writing a book gives him a deeper sense of purpose as he wants to be able to impact people, especially the future generations, through life lessons from his personal experiences and insights. Wahi served in the Indian Army for eight years, to embark on an entrepreneurial journey that took him to various countries across the world. Today he owns CNBC Africa and the franchise of Forbes in Africa besides operating Curtin University in Dubai and Lancaster University in Ghana. He is Chairman of CMA Investment Holdings that incubates startups in media, technology and education across 22 countries. He is also present in Nepal with Techoneglobal. Wahi works with core principals of humility, equality and giving back and strongly believes that you can only call yourself successful when you have made a positive impact in someone’s life. In this edition of Business 360, we spoke to Wahi about his life journey and some of the things that define him. Excerpts:

Could you tell us about your early entrepreneurial years and the transition to business from a military career?

We are a family-owned investment holding which is based out of Dubai and have been in business for the last 34 years. Initially, in 1980, I had joined the Indian Army and was commissioned with the Corps of Engineers but left the army in 1988. During my tenure there, I also went to Antarctica to build India’s second base in 1987. It was after I returned from that assignment I decided to quit and though it was a difficult decision I felt there is more to life and moved to Dubai. Coming from a military background it was difficult to adjust to a business climate in the beginning but it is always a question of looking for opportunities. When I moved to Dubai all the action was taking place there. The Gulf War in 1990 generated a lot of interest in the Middle East and a lot of American and European companies were eyeing the market in the region. However, I was more interested in Russia as perestroika had just ended and CIS countries were opening up. So, I went to Russia with some friends looking for opportunities. Back then, Russia was opening up and it was like a place where the blind were leading the blind. From 1991 to 1996, I was mostly travelling within the CIS nations and was involved in trading. We made a lot of money and started looking at longer term investments but things got difficult in Russia around 1994-95 from the regulatory standpoint. There were ownership restrictions for foreigners but the biggest barrier for us was language because only a few people at the senior level spoke English. Besides these barriers it was also difficult for me as I came from the army and didn’t know about business structures. I realised I would not be able to achieve the goals I had set for myself by running the business as a one-person team. You always need an organisation to back you which I didn’t have at that time. It was all a learning journey and I always tell people life is always about the people who come into your lives. When you meet people, I always feel it is not a coincidence, we meet them for a reason. And then it is a question of seeing the opportunities around those people. So, in Russia it was with the school friends that I had gone with who opened the doors for me. Later, I met an interesting US investment banker in Dubai and set up an investment banking business in the Middle East and India. We specialised in telecom, media and technology sectors. It was an area that was totally foreign to me because I am a civil engineer and I really didn’t understand the media and telecom sector at that time. That was a growing area and convergence was taking place but initially when my partners spoke it was a language I never understood. The advantage of working with US companies is they were almost 15 to 20 years ahead of our markets. For instance, cable TV had already been consolidated in the US and they were talking about subscription television but it still had not been launched in India or the Middle East. We worked a lot together and we were also the pioneers in Islamic finance. We set up the Middle East’s first private equity fund in 1999 which we managed till 2002 and this was largely focused on investing into technology companies in the Middle East and Africa. In 2001, the internet bubble burst and many companies collapsed and there was a correction in the market. So, I went back to the drawing board again and we were looking at what we could do in the next phase. By then I had been through the entrepreneurial journey in Russia and we had had a lot of transactions in the Middle East and Africa. Working with the US investment institution taught me a lot about structures and how people were doing business. In 2002, we started building businesses bottom up and that has been the phase which has been the most rewarding of all. We first delved into technology by setting up an IT business. We got the opportunity to partner with Microsoft in Sri Lanka and started the distribution business. From Sri Lanka, we expanded to other Asian nations especially in South East Asia. That business employs about 800 people and we are perhaps the most awarded Microsoft partner in Asia on the IT side. The second area of interest for us was media and I got interested in the CNBC model because when I was with the US investment bank, its chairman had made an investment into CNBC India and when they exited, they made a lot of money, so CNBC attracted me as a television brand. That is when I met my partner and we started talking about building a franchise with CNBC. So, he went on to partner with CNBC for the Middle East and together we went to Africa. In 2004, I went to South Africa and did a feasibility study for CNBC. Around that time everybody was talking about Africa as a continent of doom, gloom and despotic leaderships and the only news you ever got was bad news. There was nothing positive coming out of Africa and people were talking about scams and dictators. However, we found that people were running quality businesses there. Banks in South Africa were very well structured, and in fact, internet banking started in South Africa long before than in other parts of the world. Their credit card business was far more advanced than what I had seen in other emerging markets and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is the fourth largest in the world. Looking at these imperatives we felt that setting up a business news channel would make sense. Hence, we took the franchise from CNBC for the whole of sub-Sahara and launched the business in 2007. Our headquarters for East Africa is in Kigali, Rwanda and for West Africa it is in Lagos, Nigeria. We then also took the franchise of Forbes in 2011. That was the year my son finished university and I gave this to him as a project. So, with CNBC and Forbes we are the most influential business media house in sub-Sahara. We reach roughly about 26 million homes through CNBC Africa. There is no competition as such because very few TV channels are focused specifically on Africa. Whether it is BBC, CNN or Bloomberg they just do a few hours of programme from Africa where as we are a dedicated channel for Africa, which is widely watched across the continent. The third sector we are involved is in education and we got into it largely because of skill shortages in emerging markets. Technology has been growing but there is a problem with hiring the right people in different parts of the world. We too faced this issue. The idea was to initially start a school of journalism but when we started doing a feasibility study, we realised you cannot start a narrow project for education. We thus started looking around for a good partner and eventually partnered with Curtin University of Australia in Dubai and with Lancaster University of the UK in Ghana. We are now looking at opportunities in Africa to open other universities and this is largely because the size of the African economy and the way it is growing from the demographic point of view is amazing. The top 10 countries in terms of growth in population are all African countries in the world today and we expect the population to grow to two billion in the next 20 years. With that kind of growth, a back of the envelope calculation tells us that you can set up 1,000 universities in Africa today and you will still not be able to cater to the demand which is coming. The question now is which type of education do we focus on. We have had a lot of learnings from Covid and other areas. Do we set up the old kind of universities that are in existence or do we look at more modern kind of colleges that will cater to the modern generation because there is a lot of unemployment in Africa today. This unemployment is basically due to the mismatch between the jobs that are available and the skills that are coming out of the universities. So, you may have an excess of account professionals but you don’t have jobs for them. You got to find that right mix and match and I think there is a big push towards STEM subjects, AI, data sciences, so those are the areas we are currently looking at which will really form the core of what we are trying to do. Some of the base areas will not change like energy is an important area, or for that matter engineering or health sciences. Hospitality is growing with a lot of hotels coming up in Africa. So, you got to cater to all these demands and we will be deciding accordingly.

Could you tell us about the core focus areas of engagement of CMA Investment Holdings?

CMA has basically three areas which are IT, education and media. We are looking at other sectors at the moment. One of the areas we are looking at as an investment for the future is energy-efficient vehicles like electric vehicles. That is something we are currently looking at but outside of that we intend to stay with our three core businesses. What were some of your early entrepreneurial challenges and how have they defined your journey? For any entrepreneur the first challenge is always money. Over a period of your lifetime, people start backing you up but you got to build that credibility and building credibility is a journey. Building trust is also always a journey. Trust is not a word; it is a lifetime of consistent behaviour. Then you have all the other market related issues but most of the things you can always manage. I think the main thing is about getting the right ideas and implementing them and having the resources to do it. So, money for us was the biggest limitation when we started out and then over a period of time things got better.

With about four decades in business, how do you view the changing landscape of how business is done? More specifically what are some things you admire about the young generation’s workstyle, and the things they could do better?

It is a question we often look at. Things always change with each passing generation. For instance, my grandmother used to go to school in a horse carriage when she was in Dehradun and that too because her family could afford it. She then gradually witnessed the car, railways and electricity. People in that time saw a lot of developments taking place and that was a revolution at their age. Now if you look at the last couple of decades it has been the internet that has taken everything by storm. For my grandmother, it started with the bullock cart and ended with the internet. At the end of her life, she saw something called the internet but she never understood it. But now the internet I would say is the bullock cart of this generation. The grandchildren of people from my generation were at the start of the internet and they are now looking at cryptocurrency and blockchain. This is the bullock cart of the future and if you try and scale this for the next 100 years, I don’t think you can even imagine what is going to be the future. If you look at what happened between the 1920s and 2000 it was not so drastic. The change which is taking place now, or rather the change that is going to take place between 2000 and 3000 is going to be dramatic because the obsolescence factor is changing rapidly. This is largely because the young generation is sitting down every day and looking for ways to disrupt somebody else’s work. They are trying to do things more efficiently and they are far more progressive and knowledgeable. There is a generation that is coming which is a lot smarter than what we were and it is mainly because they have more access to information and technology. They are living in a different world so the consumer market that these children are going to be part of is going to be very different. So how do you cater to that? It is a very evolving change that is taking place and Covid has brought another angle to this whole discussion. The whole world can come to a standstill because of a pandemic and there was only one other time in history when such a thing had happened and it was when the Spanish flu broke out nearly a hundred years ago. There have been a lot of changes in our working practices and what you will notice today is a lot of people do not want to go to office. They feel they are as productive at home. Businesses have to find ways to manage such issues, manage people so that they are as productive as you want them to be. A lot of things are changing and it is a very wide subject that we as business leaders are dealing with today but within our businesses, we have to stay focused as to where our businesses are going to be in the future. To that end integrating structures with younger generation is very important so that you understand the consumption habits of the younger generation and you focus your business towards it. I can only talk about what we do. From an education standpoint, it is one area that is getting impacted by technology to a large extent. During Covid, a lot of people started studying from home but there were a lot of gaps associated with this. Internet fatigue set in and children didn’t want to sit in front of a computer screen the whole day. It was also difficult to manage the noise in the house because not everybody can afford to provide a single room for their children to study quietly. There are a lot of things that Covid taught us and I think this model where we all thought that everybody will eventually be studying in front of a computer is not going to happen. We have now come to the realisation it will be a hybrid but even within the hybrid for the first university degree everybody will want to go to a university. When children are out of school, they want a certain degree of freedom; they want to go on a date, sit with peer groups and play pranks, where they can actually have fun in the class. Now you can’t do all these things on the internet. The social side of development is not going to happen through technology, it can only happen through human interface. So, I think there are some very positive types of learnings that have come out. You will realise this even further if you look at the performance of online education businesses in India, which have all failed. They have sucked in large amounts of money and are still not successful. They are not getting the results they assumed they would be getting. There are a lot of concepts we are working on like distributive learning where a single teacher can teach students in many countries and collaborative learning whereby children sit in a beehive structure. They are facing each other rather than the teacher. Teacher training is also becoming very important. There are different things being experimented right now but I think it is all progressive towards a better outcome for the students.
Now if you look at the last couple of decades it has been the internet that has taken everything by storm. For my grandmother, it started with the bullock cart and ended with the internet. At the end of her life, she saw something called the internet but she never understood it. But now the internet I would say is the bullock cart of this generation.
It is the same with other areas too. If we go back to 2000 when we were talking to Microsoft, we used to have licences in floppy discs and you had to keep inserting them into the computer to load the software. Then it came on CDs and now it is on the cloud. The entire mechanism has changed and now there is no physical exchange for a licence. At present, they give you a key for the client and the client pays for the key and they download the licence. To provide services is not just about going and putting hardware to some computer. It is now about services around that software, helping them to integrate the working environment in their office. So, there are a lot of changes taking place in the sectors that we are operating in and you have to continuously evolve so that you understand the needs of the clients and stay one step ahead of that. For the younger generation I have only one advice and that is they need to be a bit more patient. Youngsters today want all the benefits of success before they have actually achieved it. You will notice they are oftentimes putting the cart before the horse. The moment they have a new idea they think they are successful. They have not got used to working hard. When they make a bit of money the first thing, they want to do is buy a fancy car or a phone. They are looking at the material side of life. I think that is not where the value comes from. It comes from building long-term assets and wealth creation; by building strong foundations. They need to understand how to build organisations. In every structure you need a combination of experience and the knowledge and dynamism that the youth bring. The youth are hungry, want to run, so you need people who can hold them back, help them consolidate at each step and grow sensibly. One doesn’t go without the other and in today’s world it is becoming more important that even us as elders get the younger generation into structures a lot earlier. For instance, even though I am in the technology business I feel I am a dinosaur because I don’t understand half the things they speak. When they start speaking, they use these acronyms and you don’t understand half their conversation. Your children tell you certain things and you have to ask them to explain those things. We have to understand that we have limitations of our own and you have to bring the younger generation close to you and understand their ideas as to what they are trying to do, where they see the future. Because they are the future consumers, they are the ones who are going to drive the economy of the future. So, it is a two-way street that you have to work with.

You have been championing DEI in your businesses and especially fostering women leadership. What are some qualities that you appreciate in women’s leadership? And what are some things that you feel hold women back?

In general, we have been proponents of diversity and inclusivity right from the beginning. I have never looked at any position or responsibility in relation to gender. I feel that you have to be gender neutral in your decision making. You bring the best skills into a position and if that is your philosophy then you will push towards that goal. Women are no different to men in the sense that it is just their gender that is different. Women too are human beings like men with the same aspirations and goals. It is just that their lifecycle is a bit different because they also have the responsibility of bearing children; I am not saying bringing up children. During that period, they typically tend to go into a kind of a slack in their career and it is solely because of their gender. It is not because they wanted it. It is God’s will and so I think that should not be held against them. Just because they have had a gap in their careers because of their responsibility towards their family it should not be viewed as a negative. I think it is a positive. These days I think more and more young men are getting into bringing up families and I can personally see that in my own children and in their families. The participation of the younger generation of boys within the family environment is a lot more than what it was in our generation. So, I think it is the acceptance of each other’s values that matters. Respect is a very important component of this gender discussion. You must inherently have a similar amount of respect for women that you have for men in the workplace. I think you can make out an organisation that believes in this and organisations that are doing things superficially. In our media business, the managing editor of Forbes is a woman and CEO of CNBC Africa is a woman too. We have a lot of women in other senior positions in the media business as well as in the education business. Even in our business in Nepal, 80% to 85% of our staff in projects are women. Women bring a lot to the table and in today’s day and age since it is an uphill climb for them, they are fighting even harder to get that recognition, I think we should give them that opportunity to make sure they shine in what they set out to do.

Your thoughts on the post pandemic business environment, especially for small and medium enterprises.

It is a big challenge for the SMEs. Sadly, one of the biggest challenges in our society today are banks. I like to call them a necessary evil. If I had my way, I would nationalise all the banks. I don’t think banks should be there to make profits. That is my fundamental belief. The banks in 2019 collectively in the world made $1.36 trillion in net profit. This is more than the GDP of most of the countries in the world. Now this kind of resource that is sitting there is going to a handful of people. There is no reason for it and this is creating the divide. I think the fundamental change that our world requires right now is a change in the banking system. If you look at SMEs, they employ 90% of the workforce in any country. That is where you need to be spending the money and that is the area that doesn’t get the money. Look at the agricultural economy; farmers don’t get loans. What is the revenue that a farmer gets? A cocoa farmer in Africa today makes six cents to the dollar. Every dollar earned for a finished product, the farmer gets only six cents. The remaining 94 cents are being made by the value chain and almost 30 cents are going to traders in New York who don’t even know what a cocoa bean looks like. There is a complete mismatch in what is going on in the world and this is where we have to find ways of correcting our system. Post pandemic we have all been talking about what needs to change and one of the biggest changes required is in our perception of purpose. So, purpose has become a big conversation. Everybody is talking about revising our purpose in life. What is purpose? It is why are we doing what we are doing. Unfortunately, we have not been able to focus on and be true to ourselves in what our real purpose in life should be. The purpose should be about removing inequality. If there is one mission that any business, entrepreneur or government should have is how do they genuinely reduce inequality in the world. Why is it that some people are born poor and stay poor? Why is it that some continue to be exceedingly wealthy? And how do you create an environment to reduce this disparity? So, I think it can only happen through policy change. And governments have to put stringent policies on banks. If I were to give one diktat in this world, if I was given the authority to make a change, I would actually enforce that the banks are forced to fund the SMEs because that is a critical part of economic development in the world and it is not happening at the pace at which we need it. That is the sad part. So funding is one issue. The second I think is the need for involvement of the broader sectors including education, which means providing mentorship, entrepreneurship development. Universities should be talking more to find out what are the jobs that these entrepreneurs and SMEs require and cater to their needs. So, the model of education and skill development has to be more integrated to the future skills that are required to where we are going. I think there is a lot of work yet to be done on this.

Three traits you think enable good leadership.

Leadership is quite a complex subject. When you look at a true leader, they are not hungry for success. Anybody who has clarity of the vision and takes the necessary steps to achieve those goals is a good leader. And while doing so they are able to motivate all their people to achieve their tasks. We only talk about successful leaders and success typically comes when you have achieved something. You can take that as a given. I talked earlier about building trust. Trust, I think, is an important aspect and trust is with all your stakeholders. So a good leader will build trust with their staff, external vendors, shareholders, everybody. You will have your touchpoints and everybody should know this is a person of their word. If they say something, they mean it; that is the feeling everybody else should have about the leader. And that comes from consistent actions. You can’t go around telling people to trust you. When people say that you actually start wondering why they are saying that. So, trust is a very important aspect. We have an important value which we call LIACC in our organisation and we live by it. It is also something that I have talked about extensively in my first book, ‘Be a Lion: Dare to Dream and Live Fearlessly’. The first we believe in is loyalty across the board. Loyalty is not a one-way stream. If people are loyal to you then you too have to be loyal to them. Then it is integrity. Then it is attitude. Attitude to my mind is one of the most important aspects for a positive frame of mind at all times. Then competence because you cannot have an incompetent leader at any time. And then commitment. These are the five qualities I feel are integral to making a good leader or a human being. And anything we have learnt from Covid which is a quality that I admire most in people is humility. Somebody asked me at a conference recently about the one thing I had learnt from Covid and I said it is humility. You got to understand that there is something above you. You are not an answer in yourself. And you have to remain humble in everything. You’ve got to accept God’s grace in everything you do. If you think you have gone beyond that then that is when you have gone completely wrong. There are certain things that are beyond even our creator.
It is a big challenge for the SMEs. Sadly, one of the biggest challenges in our society today are banks. I like to call them a necessary evil. If I had my way, I would nationalise all the banks. I don’t think banks should be there to make profits. That is my fundamental belief. The banks in 2019 collectively in the world made $1.36 trillion in net profit. This is more than the GDP of most of the countries in the world.
Another aspect that is important is reverse mentorship. What I started doing from almost 10 years back was getting young people in the middle management to come in and tell us what we were doing wrong in the business. It is about listening to the young people and trying to understand them. You may not be able to change everything they want, but at least you are taking their ideas into your decision making. I have always been open to criticism from the younger generation. We actually were taught by the younger generation to improve our communication strategy. A lot of times within an organisation you don’t communicate because you assume people have already understood. Communication is one of the hallmarks of a good leader. You have to be able to reach out and make sure that every person in the organisation understands what you are doing. We have even set up a parallel shadow board. So, my son has his own peer group and they talk about what is happening and since he sits on the actual board the young people give him ideas. There is this cross pollination of ideas between the older and younger generation for the decisions that we are making.

What does success mean to you?

Success could mean anything. Success is actually the culmination of any activity and not related to money at all. You could be a good mother, that’s success. You could be a good human being. When I met the Dalai Lama a few years ago I asked him where we were going wrong. He said, “I think the world has lost its spirituality.” For me, success is the revival of spirituality. I think if you become a good human being you will be successful. Don’t hurt people, don’t do wrong things. This is what will make you successful. It is not about money. Money is the last thing you should benchmark success with. I think it is the shallowest of all measurables, but sadly that’s how we measure success today. What car you drive, what house you live in, what holidays you have been on, that is not success. That is just an outcome of money you have made. It has nothing to do with success. Success is about what type of human being you are. How have you impacted the lives of people? We have two foundations and we look after two orphanages, one in South Africa and the other in Ghana. We send young children to universities. When my driver came to me the other day and said his daughter has now become a mining engineer that to me was a success because we paid for her education. We actually touched the life of a girl who would have never got the opportunity in her life to study. My wife runs the foundations and she has been closely involved in mentoring these children and that is her success in the sense that it is her passion in life. If you can make a difference in the lives of one or two people during your lifetime that is what I would call success.

What inspires you to write? Could you tell us about your upcoming book and why it is important to you?

It is about taking time out and doing what is important. I have not missed a single day of work while I have been in Gokarna and I have been here for more than a month. The reason why I choose places like these is because there is peace. All that I have done here is sit down and put my thoughts together. If I am in my house in Dubai then the phone is continuously ringing, there is constant noise. There is something or the other going on all the time. And you can’t really think in that environment and particularly when you are trying to put together something you want to leave as a lesson for the future. You have to learn to take time out for yourself and it is a balance. I have not missed a single day of work and I am in touch with all my offices. We have Zoom these days so I can make a call to anybody and after I have made my office calls then I have the time for myself to put thoughts together for my new book. My first book talked about my journey and some of the things we have talked about today in terms of the lessons, challenges we faced in emerging markets. I haven’t thought of a title yet for my new book but the reflection is “If I knew then what I know today”. There is so much of change taking place with the development of technology, so the reflection is would anything have been done differently at that time. The other main lesson for the younger generation is are there any other flags you should see and when you see those how do you react to them because sometimes, we ignore them. We say it doesn’t matter; we will get past it but you know some of these decisions if taken on time could have led to better decisions. There is a saying, “a stitch in time saves nine”, so it is a question of now passing that message to the next generation. Yet, they will make those mistakes. I don’t think anyone can learn from your mistakes. But this is about sitting down and getting those thoughts together and pencilling down some ideas and seeing if this is useful. If nothing else, I will be happy reading it myself.

What would you like your legacy to be?

I talked about it in my first book. Legacy is not something you can plan. Nobody can plan a legacy. When I started out as a one-person business with my wife backing me up, we never thought about legacy. We never had a vision of this. People can sit down and say my vision is this or that but you really don’t start life like that. The first vision in life is to put food on your table, make sure survival is your first priority. The first emphasis in life is physiological. We first look at our physiological needs and how we evolve. Then it goes back to spirituality in the end. I think touching people’s lives is where we see ourselves focusing our attention as we go forward. You want to be remembered as somebody who was fair, somebody who was a good human being, and who was interested in the welfare of others. And that is what I think is a good legacy is. READ ALSO: 
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MARCH 2024

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