What’s in a name? Plenty, when you’re an entrepreneur starting up a new business, says Tayeb Kamali, who recalls the struggle to convince others in the early days of Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in the 1980s that the United Arab Emirates’ new government-sponsored university needed a name that would be associated with leading-edge education in the Arab region. However, as HCT’s Abu Dhabi-based vice chancellor explains in an interview with Knowledge at Wharton, that particular challenge was short-lived given the rapid recognition — in academia and industry — of the growing importance that the Internet and other technologies have in developing future generations of business leaders.

Now fresh challenges await. Growth is imperative for the institution that started with just 239 students and four campuses and now has more than 16,500 students — both male and female — at 18 campuses across the country. Amid funding constraints and intensifying competition from new local private universities as well as international universities with well-known brand names, plans are under way to revamp various HCT programs and expand its model to other parts of the region and beyond.

Yet the original entrepreneurial spirit prevails. Appointed vice chancellor in 2005, Kamali is also president and CEO of the Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training (CERT), HCT’s private education arm which has been teaming up in strategic alliances with multinationals since its launch in the late 1990s. Here, he discusses the challenges of scaling up an institution like HCT and the lessons learned along the way.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: Tayeb, thank you so much for joining us today.

Tayeb Kamali: Thank you. It’s nice to have you with us here at the Higher Colleges of Technology in the United Arab Emirates.

Knowledge at Wharton: To begin, can you put the founding of the Higher Colleges of Technology in its historic context? What led to its founding, as you explain in your essay on the evolution of HCT?

Kamali: The whole idea began when the country looked at the needs of the workforce. At the time, what we were producing were graduates primarily in the traditional fields, and the experience that was needed for where the technology was going in society as a whole was evolving. We needed a new breed of graduates that would be proactive with the changes that were coming so fast. If you think back, this was in the late 1980s. If you think about when the Internet came and you think about all the tools that are now available to us, it was very little then. It was pre-Internet. We saw very clearly that we had to start on a journey that would give us a group that are hands-on and could become leaders of tomorrow.

We were very particular from the start that the programs we were going to offer would be based on exactly what the industry required, to a point that from as early as 1989, 1990 we established small committees for every discipline from industry and we asked them: “Tell us about the work environment. What is it that you need?” It was based on the strong foundation of input from different players that we were able to set up the Higher Colleges of Technology.

We started with four campuses and 200-plus students. When the name Higher Colleges of Technology was out, it was very natural that people thought this was a technical school for those who don’t make it to university: “They will go to Higher Colleges of Technology.” The name didn’t make sense to many people then. Of course, today it is a well-known name. Soon enough, Sheikh [Nahayan Mabarak Al] Nahayan, the founding chancellor of the Higher Colleges … I’m sure you know that it is the vision that he had for a concept that he strongly believed in. We were so successful at the very beginning. Not in terms of the number of students we had, but we were very successful from the level of the chancellor all the way down to the teacher, everybody was involved in every aspect of the [university’s] operation. That meant little things — which now are not little anymore — [such as] getting the admission cycle right. Little things like the ambience of learning, the classrooms, the books and the materials. Usually you have committees and subcommittees. In the early days, we were it.

In fact, one of the things that people still have a hard time believing when we reflect on it is that the chancellor himself would receive the admission lists and he would go through them. For every 100 names, 30 names would come back. People were puzzled. When I say “people” I mean those who worked for him in the Higher Colleges, including myself. They said, “We want more students.” His line was always that you don’t need more students. You need quality students, not more students. For a new entity that came in 1988, that was quite refreshing, yet it was very puzzling to the audience. So we have a lot to be proud of when we look on the concept itself.

Knowledge at Wharton: In some ways, you were like the typical entrepreneurial start-up. What were some of the key challenges you faced as you tried to scale up your operation, and how did you tackle those problems?

Kamali: The mission and the vision we had for Higher Colleges [was] to provide a learning ambience that is very much technology driven. In other words, we wanted to take full advantage of whatever technology was available to us. We found early on that we didn’t have the budget or resources to equip our laboratories or our classrooms with the material that was necessary. We realized that we had to be entrepreneurial in our way of doing things, and also innovative. So we started connecting with industry and setting up advisory committees. It was just the beginning of the entrepreneurial flavor of the road map we were going toward.

Through that contact, we started to establish links with major technology entities. Whether it was at Boeing when we were setting up the aircraft engineering technology [program], or United Technologies or Lucent Technologies. The closer we got to the industry and started to interact with them, we started to become much more up-to-date with what’s coming not today, but what’s coming tomorrow. To give you an example, in the mid-’90s — I remember because we had Lucent next door in the CERT Technology Park, and I’ll talk about Lucent in a minute — but the idea of wireless networking I’m sure in the mid-’90s, when it was first talked about, wasn’t really known that much. But you would find in the Higher Colleges of Technology a couple of buildings are networked wirelessly. It’s all because Lucent was [one of] the two founding members of the CERT Technology Park. So when we were looking at ways to engage with the industry, we said, “Let’s create an area for them.”

Little did we know what technology parks were. This was in the early 1990s. But we had Westinghouse and Lucent Technologies in the backyard of the Higher Colleges. And when visitors would come and they would see Lucent and Westinghouse and their team operating they would say, “What are they doing here?” They thought that they were invading our privacy. But that was the beginning of how we became very entrepreneurial, and through those skills, we were able to provide the skills to others. So we knew, for example, how we could train people on upgrading their skills in networking. And, sure enough, we would start generating revenue from that link we have with Lucent or Westinghouse and others to follow. And then we realized afterward that the concept itself cannot be just a technology park. We wanted to create corporate universities. That’s entrepreneurial by its own nature.

When we set up our master’s program, one of the things that we wanted to do was make sure the program was set in the highest quality, but then we wanted it to be taught with the best that’s out there. So we brought back individuals from universities like MIT, Stanford and Harvard. Soon we’ll have Wharton joining us on the faculty. But that’s the level we always worked at. As young of an institution as we are, we have always raised the bar. There was no sort of a slowing down in us. Just keep challenging our students to be stronger in their beliefs and their ideas and be confident. If you look at our learning outcome, of which there are eight components, in each course we expect that you pick up leadership qualities, technical qualities.

Even sustainable development was added last year when we had Nobel Laureate [R. K.] Pachauri address us. As soon as he addressed us August 31 last year, the next day the chancellor asked us to add the sustainable development aspect to our learning outcome. That’s how proactive we are. So there are a lot of challenges that we can think of back in the old days. One of the things that we were always very conscious of is that when you want a quality learning ambience it is expensive. Therefore, we counted on the support of industries beyond what the government budget is. CERT played a major role in filling the gap wherever we had resource issues or technical issues or know-how issues. CERT would come in and fill that gap. It didn’t have people in-house, however the partnership that we created through CERT allowed us to connect with everyone.

Knowledge at Wharton: Speaking of challenges, what is the biggest leadership challenge you have faced in developing HCT as well as CERT? How did you overcome that challenge and what did you learn from it?

Kamali: Every time you are doing something new you have very few people to support you. But if you are fortunate enough to have the leadership that is responsible for the entity believe in what you have to offer, then it will be done. Things will happen. I’ve always felt that we were ahead of our time. Some of our projects, for example, I tell you just to show you the things that CERT was trying to do. I spent three years, from 1996 to 1999, setting up CERT. Those three years were really tough years but very innovative in the way we were going at it. We would knock on every door to provide services. We would knock on every door to provide support for the Higher Colleges. We found that people didn’t understand this component that was connected to Higher Colleges. But the interesting part was that it wasn’t outside the Higher Colleges. It was the inside of the Higher Colleges didn’t understand what CERT was for the first few years. With the exception of course of Sheikh Nahayan … Higher Colleges was only five years old when Sheikh Nahayan said we needed something like CERT. If you reflect now you think that someone at his level saw the need 20 years ahead. So we are fortunate in that sense.

From the leadership that followed in terms of trying to get things done, it was just getting the message across that if you want to stay ahead and you want to be special in what you deliver, you have to embark on a way of learning that changes all the time, that you have to adapt to, and more important you have to be innovative. So for us these three concepts were always in our way.

Knowledge at Wharton: What’s your vision for where HCT and CERT will go, not just for Abu Dhabi and the UAE, but for the region as a whole?

Kamali: I may be seen as biased, but I always say that the Higher Colleges of Technology has a unique model for the world. The more you visit and you understand what it is we are offering, it is really a combination of what you’ll find in a traditional university, with rugged theory and a technical side that is based on the hands-on that is easy to adopt and learn. I feel that this model can be exported everywhere. In terms of where I’d like to see Higher Colleges go, the signs are coming now where we are finding that this unique model would serve other communities outside UAE. We are discussing with a group in India, [in] Bangalore, where they like the health science program. A few days ago we had a group from Egypt here and they wanted to see how we could have a campus of Higher Colleges in Egypt. Every few weeks we are hearing some good responses to how our model would be seen outside UAE. So we like to think we want to take the Higher Colleges to as many locations as possible, because those who were behind it worked very hard and continue to work very hard to make it something that can work in any society. The medium of instruction is in English, and you can see that in any community it can be delivered.

Now we are also looking from the CERT side. In order for us to be in these places, CERT has to be there because it allows an entrepreneurial side. You can’t just create campuses. If you send just academics to go and set up campuses they probably will not have all the financial things and entrepreneurial aspects there. And, hence, CERT is always necessary to be there. But one thing I would say on CERT’s side, since I’m very close to it, is that this year we are reviewing our structure, our goals, and our mission at CERT. There is a major consulting firm that is working with us. We want to … become a global company that can go anywhere and can sustain itself beyond our time so it doesn’t fade away when we are not in education or we retire or whatever. So what we are doing exactly now is to make sure that CERT becomes a company, whether it will go public or whether it will be a private place, all of that. It will continue in its goals and objectives.

Knowledge at Wharton: One last question. How do you define success?

Kamali: Everybody has a definition of success. I always say, how do I know whether I am successful in every hour of the day or every given day. I have a very small test. I don’t know whether I’m successful or not, but I know one thing for sure. Every day when I go home I know if we have had a productive day … and if I had a productive day and not all days are the same. As long as you have an inner feeling that you have made a difference during the course of the day in different areas, I think you can feel you are making success. It’s not just a definition of numbers and results, that I have generated this revenue or I have added this because, as you know, in education we are not about profits. We are about generations that will follow. So I have always said that if I go home every day that I know that I feel good about what things look like. I tell my friends and colleagues when you’re working in education or any field, not every day would be fun. Not every day will you be in the greatest mood. If you are in a job you may have a day where you feel like you’ve had it all and you want to quit, and the next day you have the same feeling. I always say that if in three days you have the same feeling, it’s time to move on to something else. So that’s also part of my success measurement. I’ve had a couple of two days in a row, not three days in a role. It’s been a close call sometimes.

Knowledge at Wharton: Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Kamali: Thank you for taking the time to be with us here.