Lessons from an entrepreneur: Ashish J. Thakkar
Ashish J. Thakkar runs The Mara Group, a pan-African business Services Company headquartered in Dubai, which operates in technology, financial services, manufacturing and plenty more. Thakkar has created a sprawling empire that, through its investments, operates in 25 countries across Africa and employs over 11,000 people. He’s also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders and the chairman of the UN Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurs Council. He has also authored a book, The Lion Awakes: Adventures in Africa’s Economic Miracle.
It's little wonder, then, that Thakkar was named Esquire's Middle East Man of the Year in 2016. Below, our editor-in-chief, Jeremy Lawrence, gives some further insight into why he was chosen for the award.
I bumped in to Ashish Thakkar recently at the Hyperloop launch in Dubai after not seeing him for a few months. He travels a lot for business, meeting billionaires, presidents and philanthropists, so catching up with journalists is some way down his list of priorities, though I do believe he is genuine with his pledge to have lunch together sometime.
Anyway, there he was at the press conference in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. It wasn’t far for him to come (his HQ is on the 146th floor), and I’m guessing he was as curious as everyone else as to whether the futuristic transport system is a pipedream or serious proposition. Except there was a difference between him and most of the audience. For the majority it was an abstract idea, with incomprehensible costs.
Thakkar, by contrast, had grabbed one of the Hyperloop architects and was grilling him with very specific questions. While I waited to say hello (and, I confess, eavesdropped the conversation) I could practically see him doing mental sums in his head.
We finally caught up properly at the Man at His Best Awards after party where, to give an idea of the company he keeps, one of his guests apologised for having to take Ashish aside for a phone call with the president of a large African nation. When I joked that he’d seemed unusually interested in the Hyperloop, he smiled coyly. “I was trying to figure out if it would work between Cape Town and Johannesburg,” he replied. “Just doing the sums quickly, it would total over $36 billion, which is just not feasible, but if someone does it in the UAE first, then the costs will lower and I could probably get it down to $8 billion, which is more do-able.” Then he smiled again and thanked me very graciously for the award.
I recount this anecdote to illustrate the fact that Ashish J. Thakkar is awfully modest for a guy who thinks about multi-billion-dollar deals that could revolutionise a continent and lift millions from poverty. Which is exactly why we he’s our Middle East Man of the Year. It’s not the first time we’ve had the pleasure of hosting him. At the beginning of last year he gave an inspirational talk at our Entrepreneur’s Gent’s Evening, where he shared his motto: “Doing good, while doing well”. In other words, success should be measured not by financial reward but by the difference you make.
Of course, his family has made a lot of money since Mara was founded 20 years ago. Back then Thakkar was selling IT equipment, which he’d source in Dubai, then fly back to sell in Uganda where he lived (Thakkar grew up in Rwanda and Uganda, but was born in the UK). This grew into a pan-African multi-sector business services company with interests in technology, financial services, infrastructure, manufacturing and property. But what interests him more is the platform Mara provides.
Helping him make a difference in Africa is the former chief executive of Barclays, Bob Diamond, who teamed up with Thakkar in 2013 to launch Atlas Mara, which invests in African banking institutions. Thakkar also set up the Mara Foundation to help young African entrepreneurs, a mentoring app, and the Ashish J Thakkar Global Entrepreneurship Index. To-date his mentorship programme has helped 650,000 entrepreneurs in Africa, 56 percent of whom are women. Thakkar told us at the Man at His Best Awards how, though Mara Group just turned 20 years old, he feels like they are only just getting started. “We’re very excited and there’s still lots to do.”
What will that be, I wonder? And how will it change the world?