During a trip to London, philanthropist and businessman met up with Zekra Rahman to talk more about his extraordinary achievements, the challenges of being a young professional and the benefits of being Muslim in business
If you were to look at Azeem Ibrahim’s resume, you would quickly realise that he is a man of many dimensions. Whether it is his academic life, business interests, political involvement or charity work, Ibrahim has excelled in every field to become one of the most respected and wealthiest young people in Britain today. At the age of 31, the Glasgow-born entrepreneur is already worth around £60m and ranks in at number 76 on The Sunday Times Scots’ Rich List.
That is why it is hard to believe that Ibrahim’s business adventure began with a small IT consultancy, which he set up in 1997. In barely 11 years he has risen through the ranks and today owns six businesses in finance, all of which operate under the parent company of ECM Holdings. In 2004 he set up the European Commerce and Mercantile Bank (ECM), a private online bank for commodity traders, with offices based in Dubai and Sweden. He also owns an insurance company based in Singapore, which focuses on the niche maritime-transportation market, and ECM Investment, a private equity hedge fund, registered in London with the Financial Services Authority.
So far ECM Investment has been one of the best performing funds in the market. Despite the financial turbulence in international markets, Ibrahim’s has been giving returns of over 40 per cent a year. He hopes to expand the hedge fund to around £1bn in the next decade.
While it was the hard work ethic that impelled his parents when they first came to Britain, it was the education that they never had that motivated Ibrahim. “Our parents came to this country for economic reasons rather than educational,” he says.
Ibrahim obtained a MBA and a M.Sc. (Econ) in Strategic Studies then read for a PhD at the University of Cambridge on Geopolitical Strategy. He was also a research scholar on the International Security Program at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University.
He is a full member of the Institute of Directors and is an active member of several American and British think-tanks and academic institutions including the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.
Having lived in America for the past five years and travelled the world, Ibrahim says that being a third generation Asian growing up in Britain came with certain advantages, which many parents failed to recognise. “Pakistani’s are amongst the lowest in terms of educational qualifications and being in professional jobs, and that is because we don’t emphasise it enough. We emphasise hard work and dedication but not education.
“I grew up in a council estate in Glasgow and I studied at the highest seat of learning and now I’m at the Harvard University. It’s nothing to do with your background or your financial position; it’s how much effort you are going to put in. It is something we take for granted, which we could definitely change.”
To help people in less privileged countries like Bosnia, Ibrahim has set up The Benevolence Fund, a charity that sponsors talented Bosnian students onto postgraduate education in Europe, which they use to rebuild their communities.
“If you want to transform a society, there is only one way to do it, there is never two ways, and that is through education,” Ibrahim explains. “What we are trying to do with the Benevolence Fund is to try and create a next generation of leaders.
“All we need to do is to try to get enough people through our system and get them into key positions in the diplomatic sector, financial system, academia and politics,” he adds.
Back at home, Ibrahim has established Unity Family Services, a Scottish marriage counselling and family solutions charity. His most recent venture The Ibrahim Foundation was endowed with his own holdings and named after his late father who passed away ten years ago. It will provide funding to cutting-edge community projects, after inviting applications from the public in a Dragon’s Den style.
His achievements have attracted recognition around the globe and he regularly sits on international boards, making strategic decisions and advising world leaders. He includes meeting the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recept Tayyip Erdogan, and having dinner with President Bush as among the proudest moments in his career to date.
Despite achieving so much, possessing a hard work ethic and being armed with a wealth of knowledge, Ibrahim still finds that his age is one of his biggest barriers in the business world. “One of the problems I found was that because of my age, especially in the Gulf region, they don’t take me very seriously,” he notes. “I would certainly like to think that age doesn’t matter, but the first impression is usually really important and the first impression people usually have of me is that this guy is very young.
“Over the years I have been very fortunate to meet and advise a lot of world leaders. However, age is always a barrier, and I can always see it when I am introduced to people. They look at me and think this guy is far too young to be doing all of this or to achieve this. It transpires and I can feel it in people’s faces straight away.“
On the flip side, one of the advantages of being so young is that he can pursue his passion for fitness and set himself physically demanding challenges. Not only is Ibrahim keen on marathon and fell running, but for seven years until early 2006, he was a reservist in the IV Battalion Parachute Regiment, the British army’s elite airborne infantry reserve where they are trained to be inserted by parachute behind enemy lines at short notice. “Initially I did it for the fitness. I wanted a challenge and the parachute regiment is one of the most difficult selection courses in the army. Other good points that came out of it were the discipline and the camaraderie, which is something that I will carry for the rest of my life.”
It is no surprise that this experience led to bigger opportunities and Ibrahim has maintained links with the army ever since. He was recently appointed director and member of the policy board of the UK National Defence Association, a group that highlights the concerns of the British Armed Forces.
“The people involved in the project are all former UK defence chiefs including leader of the Liberal Democrats Menzies Campbell and Lord David Owen. I am half the age of all of them and the only Muslim on the board as well. The state of the UK armed forces being under funded is an issue that I feel very passionate about. It’s something I am happy to be associated with,” he says proudly.
For Ibrahim, being a Muslim has been an asset rather than a hindrance, especially with most of his deals taking place in the Gulf region. Similarly, all his businesses, irrespective of the field, have employed common ethnical principles and have all been Islamically Shariah-compliant. “We wouldn’t invest in companies that are involved in arms, alcohol, or exploitation of any nation. So we have ethnical principles, which we apply to our non-profit organisation’s as well.”
Ibrahim sums himself up as someone who has the rare skill set to take an idea and turn it into something concrete. According to him, “a good entrepreneur is somebody who is willing to go the extra mile, but to take that into the next step and bring it into realisation is the hardest part.”