September 19, 2021


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Here at the Emirates

Here at the Emirates

From Employee to Entrepreneur in the UAE – Insights from those who successfully made the leap.

by Sanjay Duggal


There’s an entrepreneur hidden inside all of us 

While preparing to get into business for myself, I diligently observed and analyzed the world of entrepreneurship and in the process, exchanged endless ideas with countless people. Based on my experience at the time (and ever since), I have developed an unshakable conviction – that every person is an aspiring entrepreneur at heart.

There is an outside chance that this belief emanates from the ‘blue car syndrome’. You know, when you buy, say, a blue car and then instantly acquire a heightened awareness that the roads are full of blue cars. However, I emphatically argue that the conclusion is not a figment of my biased entrepreneurial imagination. Besides, I qualified my pronouncement with ‘aspiring’.

Everywhere I go, I meet armchair innovators with passionate views and ideas on how a new product or service could make the world a better place. In most cases, however, the actual entrepreneur needed for those ideas to see the light of day remains buried deep inside the individual, with layers of doubt, indecision and fear preventing him or her from emerging to the surface.

So what sets apart the less than 10{481076ee53a1fc97de0369f33ed2e92f10b25aa7745daa7b1993dd39620a4254} who dare to follow their true calling, while the vast majority unwittingly prepare to die with their music left inside them? Frankly, I’m tempted to throw in my own two fils of wisdom here, but don’t feel qualified enough yet. It’s still early days for me as an entrepreneur and the 25 years of corporate mindset from my previous avatar is yet to be entirely cleansed from my system. As an employee, no matter how eminent we may consider ourselves, we are simply wired very, very differently.

My sample of seven UAE based entrepreneurs

The best way to learn something is from those who have already done it successfully (and made all the mistakes in getting there). So here’s what I did – I approached 7 of my UAE based friends and associates who have all been entrepreneurs for at least 5 years, and sought permission to probe their minds and share my findings with others.

Fortunately, they have all been generous and have provided some valuable insights that we could all benefit from. Here’s what my sample looked like:

Background: Lebanon (1), UAE (1), UK (1), India (1), Jordan (1) & South Africa (2)

Time previously spent as an employee in the UAE: Between 6 and 17 years

Location of business: 4 in Dubai, 1 in Sharjah and 2 in Abu Dhabi

Business sectors: Real Estate, Insurance, Retail, Restaurants and Building Maintenance

Annual turnover: It was inappropriate to ask, but I can vouch for the fact that at least 4 of them are turning over several million Dirhams annually in businesses started from scratch, with the other three getting by more than comfortably.

Disclaimer: I was presented with a whole gamut of views, all of which were articulated differently and many of which overlapped. In the interest of a coherent and concise narrative therefore, I have had to use a little creative license. The essence remains untouched though.


1. Loving your job is a sign of commitment, but falling in love with your company could be a mistake (no, they were not promoting disloyalty). In the age of ruthless cost-cutting, mergers, acquisitions, and economic fluctuations, the simple truth is that you can stop being loved back by your company in the blink of an eye. Heaven forbid that happens to you one day, keeping it real will help you escape psychological devastation. After all, a job is a job and not your life, unless, of course, you mistakenly see it that way.

2. Employment should be seen as a relationship of equals. The individual needs a platform to translate his skills and experience into a living and a career, and the company needs the individual to conduct its business. No one should have the upper hand here, as the need is clearly mutual. So make sure that you are not being short-changed in a lopsided arrangement in favor of your company.

3. Toxic bosses and work environments are seriously bad for your health – and that cannot be weighed against any amount of money. If you ever tried to cling on to an extremely appalling job just because of the paycheck, then consider this: The inevitable temporary loss of income that comes with quitting a job will abundantly be compensated by the 3, 5 or more extra years you are going to live because of shunning that health damaging environment. So next time you decide to continue hanging precariously by a thread, do the math!

4. ‘Job security’ is an oxymoron (an inherently contradictory phrase like ‘clearly confused’ and ‘pretty ugly’ that just doesn’t make sense)When you work for someone else, no matter how well you perform, the key to your future lies in their pocket and is hostage to their whims, fancies and more. How could a situation like that possibly offer you any real security, regardless of whose blue-eyed boy or girl you might be today?

5. Your self-worth should not be based on someone else’s ability (or often, inability) to see it. The biggest self-defeating habit that employees tend to develop is to only see themselves through the eyes of others (usually their superiors, who in turn, love to manipulate this fact according to their convenience). A fragile and uncertain sense of self-esteem is often the end result – which is a big price to pay because wherever you go, your self-esteem goes with you.


1.  Consider yourself an entrepreneur even while at your job. A mistake that employees make all too often is to get carried away with the assignments at hand, while the remaining time is considered a well-earned reprieve from work. Invest time in your professional education and make sure you learn as much as possible in your current job, with all the resources that are available to you. It could prove invaluable for your future.

2. Once you decide to leave, resist the counter-offer. If your intended departure doesn’t suit the company’s interests, you are likely to receive a ‘counter-offer’. Odds are that it’s presented with undertones of resentment that will probably come back to bite you – this time when it’s convenient for your employer and when you least expect it.

3. Positive thinking is not a substitute for positive action. Do the research, meet the potential collaborators, visit the key players in your intended business, attend the industry events – the most effective plan to embark on the entrepreneurial path is called ‘action’.

4. There is never really a good time to make the move. Each one of them stressed this emphatically. At any given time, there will always be seemingly valid reasons to do or not to do something – today, tomorrow, next week, next year. In the end, its all about the clarity of your internal dialogue and what you choose to tell yourself. And of course, how badly you really want something.

5. People who have already succeeded are not smarter than you. Many of us go into business because we want to emulate someone else’s success – often people that we know. Invariably, the true reason for those people’s success is grit, determination, and hard work. So, if you think that you also need to be as smart as they are, just remember that more often than not, smartness has less to do with success than you might think.


1. Never chase the money. Chase a worthwhile ideal with single-minded focus and passion and the money will chase you. Just think of any wealthy business person you know – chances are that the first example off the top of your head complies with this reality. End of the day, profit is always the result of purpose.

2. Your network is your net worth, so develop it as your life depends on it. I can vouch for this first hand, as I have met and connected with more people in the first year of my business than I could in the last 10 years of my career. Any meeting between individuals is loaded with opportunity for both, provided you look well enough and delve deep enough. Personally, my results have been very encouraging and more often than not, I turned out to be the opportunity that the other was looking for.

3. Be willing to accept discomfort for a while. Setting up a new business will take you out of your comfort zone as nothing else can. The discomfort is nothing more than the price for your future success. Embrace the discomfort wholeheartedly, for the rewards are truly staggering. Try avoiding it, and you’re setting yourself up for a life of mediocrity.

4. Your biggest business asset is your mind. What you can visualize, you can materialize. So the ability to form and more importantly, sustain a picture in your head so clearly, that you can almost touch it, is the greatest ability you need. The rest is just details.

5. After the idea, singularly focus on value and differentiation. Despite the intent, massive competition and the challenge of making a mark in a sea of similar products and services can sometimes deter potential entrepreneurs. Most successful companies, however, were not the first in their field. They just found a way to do things in a better way……and there is always an opportunity to do that, no matter how crowded the market is.


The points in this section belong to multiple categories and that I have abbreviated for quantitative ease. They are presented in no particular order:

1. As an employee, make sure that your job isn’t only about developing your bosses career at the cost of your own.

2. If you can’t be an entrepreneur, at least work someplace where you can be celebrated and not just tolerated.

3. Even if your motivation is money, a job will just make you a living, while a business can potentially make you a fortune – how many millionaires do you know who are on someone else’s payroll?

4. In the end, good and profitable is better than perfect but never done.

5. Age, background and present level of knowledge are no bar to success, but self-discipline and self-belief are non-negotiable.

6. In a business, complexity is your greatest enemy and simplicity, your best friend.

7. Spend time with successful people in your field. Invariably, even if it’s only at a subconscious level, something good will rub off on you.

8. Avoid over-reliance on business plans, as they are only about the mechanics of a business and not much about how it’s to be run. How effectively do you think you can teach someone to drive a car by explaining the workings of the engine?

9. When you totally commit your heart and soul to something you are unlikely to even partially own, ask for sweat equity or a percentage of the profits. Salary can never be fair compensation for such sacrifice.

10. Work and play are labels that we give different parts of our lives, that do nothing more than creating mental blocks. Remove the labels and you are left with just life – which should be fun and fulfilling in whatever you do.

CONCLUSION: There is no dearth of theoretical information and advice on entrepreneurship out there, but acquiring insights straight from the horse’s mouth added a valuable local perspective, that is often elusive. These are real people, like you and me, who have walked the walk in our own back yard, the UAE, and they have an unambiguous message – if they can do it, so can you.

Incidentally, I have attended 19 business conferences, SME events and seminars over the past 14 months, during which I have met more successful entrepreneurs than I can remember. Some of the events were exclusively organized around made-in-UAE billionaires (both Emiratis and expats) sharing their success secrets with large audiences. The common theme to each one’s story – UAE’s extraordinary business-friendly culture has been the single largest contributor to where they stand today.

It might be cliché,  but we really have one life to live. Are we merely existing to pay the bills, survive office politics, go on annual vacations, return and begin the cycle again, or can there be a deeper sense of fulfillment and meaning to our lives? The answer lies within.


(This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.)