Meet the Boss is a How we made it in Africa interview series in which we pose the same 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
1. What was your first job?
My first job was an unpaid internship with Swiss Bank Corporation in London during my gap year between school and university. I learnt an enormous amount because it was the first time that I saw that [the intranet] would then become the internet. I also learnt what it means working in a professional organisation with people who manage to have fun and work hard at the same time. It was an amazing experience but it feels like a lifetime ago.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I believe that my parents’ strong ethical code and ability to handle the good times and the difficult times in equal measure has helped me. As I have become a little older, they have become my close friends and I have been very fortunate to enjoy the benefit of their insights. My father is a barrister-turned-businessman and, while he has never attempted to influence my career in any way, his own life story of expeditionary entrepreneurship has probably given me the confidence to create my own independent path.
A couple of others who influenced me, perhaps without realising it, are lawyers. One was Neville Eisenberg, whom I worked directly for when I first started my legal career at Berwin Leighton Paisner. Neville was younger than I am now when he became the managing partner: he won over a lot of sceptics, he changed the firm’s aspirations, he believed that the sky was the limit and he motivated those around him to work harder. The firm was soon voted consistently as the UK’s law firm of the year.
The other was Jonathan Paisner, with whom I shared an office in 1999. He was newly married but never said no to work and he did it better than anyone else, always punching above his weight. Of course, as his junior punching bag, this meant that I rarely left the office before midnight.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Entrepreneurship by its very nature keeps you awake at night; it is almost impossible to turn off. But a good night’s sleep is critical to success in the long term. That being said, our CityBlue Hotels company is a seven days a week, 24 hour business. Hotels never close, even on Christmas. It is very hard to ever turn off because one always has to be attuned to customer service, to know what is going on. Our hotels business is also young and as the brand represents a vision; it’s very hard to let go of that until we get to the point where hopefully one day it becomes institutionalised. It’s very hard to ever not be available and ever not be attuned to what’s happening. And this is even tougher given that we operate across four countries.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I would say that the quality of absolute persistence and loving every moment of my work is part of my DNA. Hopefully success will be an end product one day.
5. What are the best things about your country, England?
London is a political, commercial and cultural capital city. It is a hugely meritocratic environment and people with a good education, discipline and work ethic have a platform to become both successful and balanced unlike anywhere else. I loved growing up in England and I try to get back as often as possible.
6. And the worst?
7. Your future career plans?
I have huge plans but I have learnt the hard way to think one day at a time.
8. How do you relax?
Emirates Airlines. I have been living on an aircraft for years. That is the only time I get to relax.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring businesspeople and entrepreneurs?
I think the greatest issue that I have seen being faced by people in this region is the lack of employment opportunities for often well educated people, especially the young. Therefore, as somebody who studied law, practiced law and gave it up as a career – which may sound crazy to many people – my advice to those who have an ambition to be self-employed is to throw away the fear of failure, and to focus on business creation, to work extremely hard, to take no shortcuts but to take considered risks while they are still young.
In Africa, more than anywhere else, there is a need for patience to make the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place. And in Africa, more than anywhere else, there is unlimited opportunity in almost every sector. So I believe that the greatest reward for aspiring African businesspeople is to create real intrinsic value through businesses, firstly for themselves, but also for others, and I recommend that they take time to get it right.
The by-products are job creation, paying taxes and building your economy so everybody benefits if you do. Going into business is no easy matter, it may not succeed, but that should not put people off. Modern Africa needs risk takers and creativity.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
There is only one answer to that, and the answer is good governance.
Jameel Verjee is the founder and CEO of Diar Capital, a Dubai-based investment company focused on the creation of growth businesses. One of its investments is CityBlue Hotels, a chain of mid-market hotels operating in East Africa. CityBlue operates four hotels in Rwanda and Uganda. It plans to launch eight more in Kenya, Uganda and Burundi in the next two years.