Entrepreneur Azeem Ibrahim on Rewriting Pakistan’s Economy Recovery from Scratch

At one point in his life, Azeem Ibrahim was living in government-subsidized housing in Scotland with his mother and six siblings. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing his bold ambitions in business and education. Learning the ropes of investing by dipping into the daily business sections of the newspapers for sale at his father’s newsstand, Ibrahim made his first £1 million (US$1.6 million) by the age of 27. Today, Ibrahim is a self-made multimillionaire, and one of the wealthiest young entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom. Ibrahim made much of that wealth through entrepreneurship — the 34 year old has already launched eight businesses, including an online bank for commodity traders and a macro hedge fund in London.

Ibrahim received a master’s degree in economics, an MBA and a PhD in geopolitical strategy at Cambridge University. He is currently a research scholar at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and has been named an "emerging global leader" by Yale University’s World Fellows Program and an "ideas scholar" at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival. He also was a paratrooper in the British Army and speaks four languages — English, Arabic, Punjabi and Urdu.

Ibrahim has met with a number of world leaders and provided investment advice to governments and military leaders to combat global terrorism. Recently, he’s been asked by Pakistan’s government to help map out a national economic strategy aimed at stabilizing a country that has been split over America’s presence in Afghanistan, while struggling to recover from the recent devastating floods. Ibrahim explains in this interview with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton why embracing a combination of education and programs designed for developing entrepreneurs could provide a winning solution.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What did Pakistan’s government ask you to do in terms of economic strategy?

Azeem Ibrahim: My friend, Dr. Nadeem-Ul-Haq, who was a key economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), asked me to help him out. We were talking about setting up the first think tank in Pakistan, specifically to concentrate on economic development. We had a number of discussions about it before he left for Pakistan. A few days later, he called me [in May] and said, "Listen, I’ve just been appointed head of the Planning Commission and I’d like you to be a key adviser." We had a couple more discussions about it, and we thought the focus should be to encourage a more entrepreneurial and innovative environment in Pakistan. I thought I would give him some advice and that would be it, but what he had in mind was a little more ambitious. He said, "We have to write a whole new national economic strategy from a blank slate."

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How do you envision the role of entrepreneurs in helping Pakistan’s economic recovery?

Ibrahim: Entrepreneurship and innovation are the engines of any economy. Most businesses in Pakistan are inherited. There’s very little entrepreneurship. Encouraging economic growth involves thinking outside the box and putting infrastructure in place for entrepreneurs to contribute to society…. All new businesses at first are going to be small. They won’t be on a grand, industrial scale. Usually, I’ve found small, family-run businesses are key to getting an economy moving, especially because of the culture of entrepreneurship and initiative they create.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned in other interviews six main points you envision for Pakistan’s economic recovery, including identifying people with business acumen. Can you expand on that point and tell me about the other points?

Ibrahim: I believe entrepreneurs are people who have the imagination to recognize a new product, process or service, and possess the ability to make their ideas happen. Entrepreneurs, and the new businesses they create, are the engines of economic growth and job creation, which in turn underpin political stability and the growth of a civil society.

To that end, we can identify experienced and potential entrepreneurs through schools, colleges, science and technology institutes, and civic organizations. We would seek entrepreneurs from "no-tech" and "low-tech" businesses, like agriculture, handicrafts and tourism, as well as high-tech businesses. We would work closely with development agencies, which have access to many "feeder" organizations to identify entrepreneurs.

The second point is to train and encourage entrepreneurs through domestic and international programs, varying from two-week boot camps to multi-month immersion programs. Third, we want to help develop networking, mentoring, incubation and acceleration programs. One example would be to establish an entrepreneur-in-residence program, which would include entrepreneurs from the diaspora who are familiar with Pakistani language, culture and business. Also, we’d like to establish a web-based backbone, with mentor-mentee matching as well as a contacts list for services, similar to Craigslist.

Funding, of course, is important, and that is my fourth point. We want to engage private sources of finance to provide funding for start-up ventures, including the creation of angel investor networks. We want to find the best possible partners to mentor young entrepreneurs and help them develop funding strategies and learn how to make the best possible presentations to potential funders or investors.

My fifth point is to combine diplomatic advocacy and foreign assistance to reform financial, legal, policy and regulatory impediments to private-sector development, and help entrepreneurs get access to early-stage capital.

Lastly, we want to promote the accomplishments of local entrepreneurs, who can be role models. Role-model stories would be publicized through all means available, including speaking tours, web profiles and documentaries. It will be important to note honest failures of entrepreneurs as well as their successes. We’ve found that this gives a realistic sense of the usually bumpy road entrepreneurs must travel to be a success eventually.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What are some specific economic challenges Pakistan faces in light of the recent devastating floods?

Ibrahim: Pakistan is, in my estimation, a huge challenge. I had a meeting with a friend from the State Department [who said] the flood’s impact will cost the country an estimated US$50 billion. That’s an astronomical amount of money for a country like Pakistan. It’s very difficult for a country to recover. The biggest challenge is international confidence. Pakistan needs to figure out a way to encourage international development and foster confidence in international investment.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Will Pakistan have to make major changes in the way it does business to speed up recovery from the disaster?

Ibrahim: I don’t know that until I get there. I like to concentrate on very small, practical cost-effective programs. Those are the kind of initiatives I’m looking at, instead of broad programs, which may be difficult to get off the ground.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How is Muslim extremism in Pakistan a factor in its economic recovery?

Ibrahim: It acts as deterrent in obtaining international aid. If Pakistan’s image in the world is based on such security and terrorist threats, it’s not good for international confidence.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You were on Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s special task force on social mobility, a study into how educational opportunities are spread across the U.K.’s student population. Will any of the findings help with Pakistan’s economic recovery?

Ibrahim: The most important finding was that if you want to bring about social change, the best way to do it is through education. The panel looked at the quality and level of education needed, and I was appointed as sub-team leader looking at internships. Education is key to moving any society forward.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How will Pakistan’s economic recovery differ from that of the U.S. and the U.K.?

Ibrahim: The country is starting from scratch. Obviously, a blank slate gives us a lot of room to maneuver. We can make a lot of positive recommendations.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Do you have a guiding ethos or philosophy when you advise governments?

Ibrahim: I try to look at things in a very pragmatic fashion, and point out the most obvious things they are missing or could do. With small, practical programs, I can be more certain that they’re going to be implemented. Making minor changes can make a huge difference.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: I read that when you were young, you worked in your dad’s small store in Glasgow. How old were you and what was that like?

Ibrahim: I was around 13 or 14 years old when I was working at my dad’s shop. We used to help out about an hour or two every couple of weekdays and sometimes on the weekend…. It instilled in me a work philosophy from a very young age. You realize the value of money when you work for it. You realize that money doesn’t come that easily, and that you have to work hard to get by, and perhaps more crucially, you don’t always have to get things right the first time.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: When will you go to Pakistan for the initial study of the country’s economics and how will you go about doing so?

Ibrahim: I will go in November. I’ll do an appreciation study and from that, I’ll be able to deduce what I can actually contribute. I will be there for about two weeks. Dr. Haq has said he will arrange meetings with anybody my team and I want to meet. It’s better to be looking at stuff from the ground. I’d like to look at the current situation, infrastructure and government, and meet with the economics minister to see what he has in mind.

From there, I’ll come back to the U.S. and work on suggestions. I have a few policy ideas in mind but I wouldn’t like to say what they are until I get to Pakistan and see what’s happening. Many times, solutions are simple but they can make a huge impact. They can be very cheap to implement and have a significant impact on the economy.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What projects are you currently working on?

Ibrahim: I’m focusing on policy initiatives. My most recent initiative is Ibrahim Associates. I have quite a number of people working for us and we serve as advisers to several countries, including Turkey and Malaysia. Our work in Pakistan will be through Ibrahim Associates. It’s a high-level strategic consultancy firm, and it’s not for profit. I hope my work in Pakistan will be the first of many bigger challenges.

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