The “what to do in life” conversation usually starts at the rambunctious age of 6 for most people, when first graders scribble on career assignments that they’re going to be a “fiyah fiter” or “noorse” when they grow up (sound it out spelling at it’s finest).
Mix those vague career dreams with parent’s best intentions, and you get a cocktail of murky water in your cup of life. I had the good fortune of a mother whose career advice was “as long as you’re happy and paying your bills, I don’t care where you work! In fact, if you wanted to pick berries and make jam in South Carolina, that’s your prerogative”
I don’t like jam but if I did, that’s great advice. Mohamed Amine Belarbi defines this mentality - going against the grain and taking risks in his career. From being a shy reserved boy in Morocco to launching four successful ventures by the age of 21, he has taken a path few have followed and went against a traditional upbringing to make it happen. I chatted with him through email about what’s driven him to be a risk taker and shaker:
Let’s start from the beginning, where did you spend your childhood?
I spent my childhood mostly in Morocco up till the age of 17. I was a true definition of introvert, asocial and nerdy. The peculiarities of the Moroccan social environment make it hard if not impossible to think of venturing outside sciences and engineering, so my ultimate goal from an early age was to secure those good grades and go on to attend a good university in Morocco or in France if I was lucky, before ending up in a regular job that would pay enough for me to live a standard life.
I had no interest in business, let alone entrepreneurship. It's hard to believe that I run multiple startups and speak at various entrepreneurship conferences today. The shift and transformation was mind blowing to say the least!
What inspired you to jump on the entrepreneurial roller coaster at such a young age?
My friend found out about the United World Colleges and told me about the possibility to attend a high school somewhere in the world along with 200 other students from all sorts of nationalities. The two years would be fully covered and it would open the door for higher education in prestigious US universities. Now that all sounded amazing, but there was one issue: my English, along with my shyness, weren't going to help me much when I would be competing for a scholarship nationally against the brightest students in Morocco.
Filling out the application was more or less like a gamble where the chance of me winning was 0.0000001%, but I managed to submit the documents on time. Fast forward a few weeks and a couple of tests and interviews later, I was surprised on the 5th of May 2010, my birthday, with an email saying "Congratulations....". That moment was literally the beginning of a new chapter of my life that I credit for all the wonders that have happened to me since.
What struck me most in that little campus I attended, with 200 students from 90 nationalities, was the noticeable accomplishments they all had. Some wrote books, others spoke at conferences or had businesses already at the age of 16, and I was there wondering what on Earth I was doing with my life, and whether I built anything to be proud of. That was when I promised myself that I will channel my energy and passion into building organizations, businesses, and initiatives that I could look back on and feel that I left a legacy, a print I and others can feel proud of.
You have founded three businesses? What do they do and what’s their purpose?\
I’ve founded two NGOs, and two businesses that are profitable:
1) Think Tank
The first NGO I launched with a friend after the Arab Spring. Although youth were fueling the revolution, we felt they would ultimately be left out from the policy making process later on. We created the Arab Institute for Youth Policy Making, an Arab based think tank with the mission to raise awareness among Arab youth about the importance of being involved in policy processes. We grew to six countries and host chapters of our NGO in more than nine nations within and outside of the Arab world.
The second NGO I launched, Al Amine Foundation, helps incubate and mentor entrepreneurs and their initiatives. The idea came after realizing the lack of mentorship, guidance, and marketing resources available to Moroccan students interested in entrepreneurship. I decided to put my networks and contacts from my school program to good use and mentor aspiring Moroccan entrepreneurs. The first year was full of challenges and successes, but overall I was happy to see that many of our entrepreneurs managed to operate successfully and gain traction.
3) Design Firm:
I felt that my initiation to entrepreneurship would not be complete unless I started learning about how to manage my finances, deal with clients, and become financially independent. I launched a design and branding company with my roommate Studinov Marketing Strategies. We started slowly by helping NGOs and student initiatives pro bono in order to master our business approach and get acquainted with the process, but as soon as we felt confident in our startup, we went on working with paying clients. Fast forward one year and we deal with multi-nationals, we worked with celebrities, and boast an impressive portfolio and solid revenues.
One year later, I was learning how to design brochures, leaflets and booklets in order to add that service to my startups offerings, and at the same time I was writing for Elite Daily about entrepreneurship and business. One day I decided to play around with designing a magazine and practicing what I learnt in online tutorials, and as a filler text I used my articles. The result was exciting.
I saw an opportunity there, and I knew that as an Arab student, I could start becoming a source of content on entrepreneurship for others in the region instead of using US platforms. I reached out that day to a friend in Sweden at 4am, with a simple yet crazy message: "Yo, let's start a Magazine!" The rest is history. We boast tens of thousands of readers a month, we featured a number of celebrities and business icons in the Gulf region.
I had no expertise whatsoever in design, marketing, or business in general, but I threw myself into it and forced myself to learn. We're not born artists, math geniuses or professional body builders, we become ones, and that for me is a life motto that took me from one field to another, from one venture to a new one. It's like believing you have superpowers and realizing that you can become good at anything should you want to.
Has new media/social media contributed or helped what you’re doing?
Social media has been key to all my successes. Social media is just like a huge pool of clients, partners, business opportunities, free advertisement space, potential employees, and free resources. All you have to do is lean in and make use of them. We have no excuse today for not being able to excel and thrive with establishing our brands and building our reputation. This is the holy trinity of business, and it's all there for you to leverage.
What advice could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
10 things I found useful from experience, and that would be of great use for aspiring entrepreneurs:
- Listen only to your gut
- Take Risks
- Never take on a loan
- Seek mentors
- Leverage Social media
- Never take things for granted
- Always say yes to a client
- Force yourself to learn
- You are as good as the people you hang out with
What are some quotes that you live by?
My favorite quotes are mostly from Tech and Business figures:
"You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don't do too many things wrong."
- Warren Buffett
This quote is something I strongly believe in. You don't have to be perfect in your choices, and sometimes we will have to make bad decisions, but it takes just a few good decisions to have a breakthrough.
"Done is better than perfect"
I hate being perfect at the expense of getting things done on time. A lot of people lose opportunities left and right because they work so hard on getting something to look shiny until they realize they missed a deadline or they got someone angry. I believe in practicality, and I always prioritize delivering something than holding onto it because it's not good enough.
"What would you do if you weren't afraid"
I love risk, and that's something that I feel defines me most. I took the risk of becoming an enemy of the state when I visited a refugee camp and a military group in the middle of the Algerian desert as part of my research (Four Moroccans visited before me, all of whom have either ended up in prison or were exiled). I took risk in saying yes to clients even before knowing what I had to do or how to do it. I took risks by coming to the United Arab Emirates instead of going to the US for college, and I took a risk by putting my time and effort into launching ventures I had no guarantee will succeed. I believe rewards are found in risky undertakings, and I believe that fortune favors the bold.
What are some of the biggest adversities you’ve faced while building your own path?
I faced a lot of challenges throughout my life. I used to spend most of the time in Morocco stuck in my room working on school assignments or reading books. I didn't go out much and was awkward in social gatherings. This obviously made me miss out on so many opportunities, I wouldn't go to interesting events just because I wasn't comfortable being around a lot of people. Moreover English was not my forte. Now all these hurdles were tough to overcome, and living in Norway in an english speaking community with constant interactions made it easier for me to handle myself in social gatherings and led me to improve my english dramatically.
Being an Arab and Muslim has had its challenges as well, from awkwardly avoiding a drink when your client offers it to you, to dealing with US based clients who don't have much trust in a Muslims and Arabs, let alone doing business with them. But again, I do believe in the statement "Be so good they can't help but notice", and I work hard to be the best at what I do so that my nationality, religion, or mother tongue become secondary in the assessment of my performance.
What’s your goals for the future?
I want to leave a positive legacy for others to be inspired through. I know I have been blessed with so many opportunities in life when others couldn't afford to even go to school or have a decent meal. I was given so much in such a short time, and it would be obscene to think that I have no responsibility towards my fellow man.
My goal is to be remembered as the person who inspired generations to believe in their dreams and get out there to make things happen. I want people to remember you are the one who can choose to do whatever you want because you are invincible and limitless. We are our own limitations, we are our own dream killers, and once we realize that, then we will be liberated from the chains of self-doubt and self-questioning. Only then will everyone be able to achieve whatever he or she wants to achieve.