The Entrepreneur’s Entrepreneur: Rakesh Wahi

PUBLISHED: Fri, 04 Nov 2016 12:45:36 GMT

From the deserts of Rajasthan to the dunes of Dubai and the corporate dens of Africa, Rakesh Wahi has weathered the vagaries of life and business. When only 23, while serving in the Indian Armed Forces, he was electrified and almost died. The experience taught him to chase his dreams – and fulfill them, no matter what.

Wahi, co-founder of the Johannesburg-based ABN Group including CNBC Africa and FORBES AFRICA, has been a leader in media, IT, telecoms and education. Based in Dubai as Chairman of CMA Investment Holdings, prior to moving to the UAE, Wahi served in the Indian army for about nine years. During this stint, he was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal by the President of India (in 1985) for distinguished services to the country in peacetime.  

Wahi has built companies in 22 countries, employing a little over a 1,000 people. “Extremely passionate about education”, it is his vision to set up educational centers of excellence across Africa. The first university was launched in Ghana in 2013.

He is also the co-founder of Trans National Education, Global Institute Middle East, Murdoch University Dubai and Tech One Global.

Here, Wahi tell us about his debut book, Be A Lion, which will be unveiled at the finale of the 2016 CNBC Africa All Africa Business Leaders Awards in Johannesburg on November 11.

What is Be A Lion about?

It’s about people and the impact they have had on me. I think this entire journey I have made is about how people have influenced me. First, on your way up, it’s your parents who are your greatest influencers as that’s where you get your identity from; and then, over a period of your lifetime, it’s the people who come into your life and make an impact, some positively, some otherwise. And that is the greatest experience you can talk about.  

Why the fascination for the lion?    

Every human being is inspired by animals, be it rhinos, elephants or gorillas. For me, the fascination has always been the lion. It’s something that’s inherent and perhaps speaks about my character in many ways. A lot of the conversations in the book are extrapolated towards the king of the jungle, the human jungle.

Do you often find that business can draw lessons from the military?

Absolutely! You will find that a number of army officers have made great business leaders; the reason is that the core of any business is people, and the one thing the military teaches you is to look after these assets. And right from the day I joined the forces to when I left, the only thing ingrained in me was how to motivate people towards a common objective. Military officers know it’s important to look after their people, starting with basic things, such as making sure they got hot food, they wrote home, they went to pray… These are the softer things of life that businesses sometimes tend to forget. The army teaches you these core values. And that’s the inherent need in business. If somebody is working, even if it’s one person on the job, you have to be there with him.

While in the army, you once almost stared death in the face. What was that experience?

It was a defining moment in my life. I was about 23. We were on a specialized task force in India’s western front. I was [almost] electrocuted and they couldn’t revive me quickly; I was clinically dead. And then my second-in-command saw my fingers move. I came to in 24 hours, and although they asked me to go home to rest, I came back to my troops in 72 hours.

But I realised at that age that life is not something you take for-granted, therefore, whatever you want in this world, you have to set out to achieve it. At the end of the day, you are either there or not there; if you are not there, and if there are unfulfilled dreams, they will always be unfulfilled. You must always set out to do what comes to your heart.

You own multiple businesses; what are the new innovative industries you are possibly looking at?

When it comes to innovation, the key is to try and focus on how the world is changing and how things are going to impact our existing businesses. You have to be constantly thinking about how your consumers are reacting to your products and services and constantly change and that’s what innovation is all about, it’s about reaching your customers in a more efficient manner.

With regard to the education sector, it is changing rapidly and the way children consume education is very different from our time. A classic example is when I used to walk into my daughter’s room when she was in school and she would have her headphones on, she would have the TV on, she would be listening to music and talking to her friends on her handheld, and she would say, ‘dad, I am studying’. There was something wrong with this picture, but when your children are getting straight As, it means they are doing something right.

The traditional classroom environment is changing. The old universities still have their own ways of conducting education, because they are still in their own little ivory towers, they have got the brands, therefore, the students come there; but the other universities not in the Ivy League are all going to get disrupted if they don’t change their models of education.

Some of these younger universities have changed the seating patterns in classrooms, with children sitting in clusters, and provided screens and teaching aids very different from traditional; it’s actually adapting to the needs as the social requirements are very different today, they talk to each other, learn from each other. Now, is learning going to be classroom-based? Are you going to have a teacher? Are holograms going to be the future of education? Can you superimpose a teacher sitting in New York into all their classrooms across different core campuses across the world, and have concurrent teaching taking place? What is going to be the means of engagement with these teachers? A lot of things are changing. The online is a very important aspect of where education is going, but I don’t believe that is the answer to it; I think the hybrid kind of education is what is eventually going to come around. The facetime with teachers is critical. The social engagement with peers is critical, so therefore a lot of things are going to remain constant with education, and the rest of it will evolve in terms of where technology and innovation can be used to make it more efficient.

What are your continuing goals for education in Africa?

We are setting up centers of excellence. In West Africa, with Lancaster University, we are going to be setting up an engineering college with a strong laboratory-based learning. In East Africa, our focus is energy and a vast part of it will require simulators and modern training equipment, and we will be partnering with industry to make sure we get the best of breed.

We will roll out energy programs in the rest of Africa, and encourage students from across Africa, Asia and emerging markets to come to Rwanda for instance, where we are partnering with the University of Aberdeen, a 550-year-old university, for our energy programs. In southern Africa, we are looking to partner with one of the Scottish universities to set up a center of excellence for health sciences, including medical and nursing colleges.

In Africa, we don’t want to bring in technology from the yesteryears just because it is cheaper, or because we think Africa is still an emerging market, we want to actually leapfrog and bring in the latest technical innovations into these centers we are setting up.

You also operate CNBC Africa, which is turning 10 next year; what are the innovations in the media business?

The entire way in which people are going to view television is changing, the distribution channels are changing. What remains consistent is there will always be demand for high-quality content. Our focus on creating quality content, which stays with the values of CNBC globally, is going to be one of our core competencies, but how you distribute it is going to actually evolve in the next 10-15 years, particularly in Africa. To that end, we are now available online, is a live feed, and over time, as people start paying for these services, you will find more distribution companies are going to be established across the continent. And you will be able to make sure people are streaming your content on their handheld devices.

The viewing habits of consumers are changing rapidly, they are no longer watching channels; they are watching programs, and actually able to customize their own grids. What is relevant is you will be able to watch what you want, at what time you want, in a scheduled manner, and your handheld device will be able to pull it.

On the one side, we have to make sure we create the best and compelling content; on the other side, we partner with distribution platforms able to cater to the needs of the consumers at an affordable price.

Your advice to entrepreneurs in emerging markets…?

If there is one lesson you will learn in emerging markets, it’s patience. Always remember to look at business for the long-term, make sure you have ticked all the right boxes, do your homework – don’t take short-cuts. When you go into these difficult regulated industries, people will tell ‘we can fix this and that’. I have never ever gone to Mr Fix-Its. There is no quick-fix solution for setting up sustainable businesses and the reason for that is there are a lot of variables and if you haven’t set your foundations strong, you open yourself up to retroactive actions that result in many issues including corruption. And people talk a lot about corruption in emerging markets. But the businesses that we have been in, for the last 26 years, we have never once had to pay anybody to do anything for us, and the reason is that we have taken our time setting up our businesses and making sure our foundations are strong.

How welcoming is the African economy today of new business and innovation?

At conferences and workshops, people talk about innovation, but I am not very sure that they are actually geared up for it. The practical elements of bringing innovation into your workplace, whether it is in government or large corporates requires more than having the ability to talk about it. It’s a change in mindset, when you have to change processes and change the way you look at things. It’s about driving change and also, the commitment of leadership.

You do find there are some leaders in Africa who are bringing about that change, and the one that I would single out is President Paul Kagame, which is why Rwanda is making strides the way they are. He has the ability to visualize the future. They also have restrictions in terms of the size of the economy, but when you are hungry, you are able to adapt much faster.

Kagame has brought a culture of change in his country, and it is very visible in the way you do business in Rwanda. You can set up a company in six to 24 hours if you have your documents in order. Rwanda gives you the opportunity to adapt quickly.     

How many people have your mentored in your leadership journey?

Within a group, you always learn from each other. Mentorship is not a one-way journey, you learn every day from your peers, subordinates, seniors. You also learn from fools; you will find some fools in your life, and you find you learn from them the things you should not do. If you are a student, you will remain a student all your life. You must be like a sponge, no matter your age.

You talk about ego in your book…

For every human being, ego is your greatest enemy. When you look at it in all aspects, a parent when protecting a child has no ego. Similarly, you can take thousands of examples where your ego comes to dust, and therefore I feel, every human being at some stage, goes through this reality check, where either circumstances or events force them to understand that it is not all about themselves, there is a greater power beyond yourself in this world, and while some people say it’s God, but you don’t have to necessarily have to look at that as a means. It’s a code of conduct. I always say your behaviour patterns must follow a code of conduct and that becomes your religion, it doesn’t matter what God you believe in.

Over the years, how have you managed to balance profit and philanthropy?

I think these are very closely related. You can contribute your time, as there have been great leaders like Mother Teresa who have devoted their time towards a cause. And Mother Teresa has touched the lives of our family, she was very close to my mother, and has been to our home. But you have a lot of examples like that but eventually even to enable what she was doing, it required money. Eventually, that is what pays the bills.

Over time, our own CSR and philanthropy as a family changed. When Saloni [Wahi’s wife] and I were just starting out in our life, we did little things that touched the lives of people; anybody who needed help. As a family, we always added value to somebody’s life right through that process. Even when we didn’t have a lot, we were always engaged in either trying to help or at least making a contribution towards certain causes.

Over the years, we found that we needed to have a cause of our own, and after we set up the ABN Education Trust, we rationalized what made sense to us as a family. We focused on financial journalism, and also, on helping destitute women and the girl child, a cause Saloni is very passionate about. These children had no chance in life. We felt that if somebody didn’t come to their rescue, they would die: a lot of them had HIV, and some of them bitten by rats and thrown in dumps by parents. We were able to structure our CSR activities but it was linked to our ability to aggregate resources, so money became a critical component to it, partly from our own resources but also through the influence we have. And Saloni has been able to harness her own peer group in Dubai and India. As your own circle of influence grows, you are able to link your causes to the sources of money a lot more efficiently. And which is what we are able to do today. Both aspects are important, money is an important contribution but you also need to have the ability to devote your time. We work as a team. Since I am focused on the work side, I create an enabling environment for Saloni to be able to spend her time, and she devotes a lot of time to charitable causes. I think the heart sits with her, while I become the machinery for generating the income.  

Talent is one of the greatest challenges on our continent today. We took financial journalism as a value within our CSR. The children get bursaries from us; we also give them internships and give them jobs when they leave. We are able to provide a life to anybody who is coming in and this is the kind of career path that needs to be created to harness young talent on the continent. It’s the right intervention at the right time, be it bursaries, parents or mentors.

Do you have more books in the offing?

Be A Lionhas taken me four years to write. If it has to be meaningful, it is time-consuming. And during the year, I can’t sit down to write and I don’t want someone else to write for me. The only window is between 15 December and 15 January. Next year, I want to write a business book, about bulding your own brands versus franchising, and taking global brands to emerging markets.

How do you interpret failure and success?

Every entrepreneur knows failure before he knows success. If I look at the 10 businesses we may have invested in, three of them may have gone bust and that’s basically the school fees you pay. Everybody has to pay school fees in some shape or form, and the most important part when you graduate from the school of learning is to be able to understand people better.

Your most prized possession is…?

Family. I am not a material person. If I were to pack my life, I could pack it all into one suitcase.

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