Entrepreneur and Founder of adventure travel company Wild Guanabana, Omar Samra epitomises for many people the risk-taking mindset so prized within the entrepreneurship sector. He gives his views on the importance of balancing risk with the careful creation of a sustainable and value-based business.
LT: You famously changed course, from a way of life where there was a strong element of comfort, security and predictability, to one where you are constantly discovering and pushing your limits. Your narrative makes it sound as though that was a natural or self-evident choice to make. What would you say to people who struggle with making decisions or choices of that sort?
OS: It was natural and self-evident but by no means easy. After graduating from university, I worked in investment banking in London and Hong Kong for several years. I ended up leaving that sector, first to pursue my dream of travelling for a year, and then again to do my MBA. I then went into private equity, before leaving that to found Wild Guanabana. Every time I made the decision to leave, it wasn’t an easy one.
So now I know that the way it works for me is that I establish what I want to do, I analyse all the risks so I can try to mitigate them as best I can and then I just leap. When I take the decision, I am far less prepared than people may think but when I actually reach the starting line I am far more prepared than people may think. This is true for work and for any project I undertake. If my heart is in it, I know I will have the motivation and the drive to put the work in.
It does get easier with time, but if you are leaving your job with all its comforts it is not because you know you’re going to succeed at what you are planning to do next. You do it because you think you’ve got a good shot at succeeding, but still you have to embrace the fact that you may fail and that even if you do, you are still better off for having tried.
Especially with entrepreneurship and especially when you are building a value-based business, things often take much longer than you think.
What bothers me about entrepreneurship in the region is that I feel many people make plans to found and build their businesses only to sell them off, which I see as being counterintuitive. Ideally you should be building a business because you believe it adds value or solves a certain problem, pouring your passion and drive into it. Yes, you worry about your bottom line because you need to sustain and grow your business and attract the best people, but generally speaking you shouldn’t be starting a business primarily for the purpose of making amazing profits. That may come, but with time. Even people like Bill Gates didn’t build their businesses primarily to become multi-billionaires, but because they had a burning interest and desire to work on a particular area that interested them.
LT: You have said that artists, adventurers and entrepreneurs all share something essential in their DNA – and perhaps it is that willingness to take risks. Do you think that a society of entrepreneurs is possible or desirable?
OS: Honestly the trend towards glamorising entrepreneurship is dangerous, because there is a huge amount of risk in it and it’s not for everyone. Increasingly, people regard starting their own business as a rite of passage, but it doesn’t work that way. Different people have different skill sets and whereas some people are well equipped to be in that very uncertain, difficult period where you start the business, others are much more suited to growing a company that has already been established.
Often the investment community will not invest money in an entity unless it can demonstrate that significant returns will be generated within a particular time period. So an entrepreneur may have set up a great business that adds a lot of value, but structurally it is medium-sized. Many investors will be reluctant to invest in such a business unless its model changes to generate higher returns, thus putting the onus on the entrepreneur to be profit-focused above all else. But this does not necessarily work, for the entrepreneur, the business or the broader community.
To give a personal example, if I sought to scale my business at faster rate than it would naturally grow at, its core value proposition would change – as would my reasons, desire and motivation for working on it. This commercialisation of business, which stems from our global society prioritising endless consumption, is neither sustainable nor feasible. Our finite resources on this planet are being depleted massively; climate change; food shortages and population explosions threaten our very survival. We have to redefine success so it is not based purely on profit but more focused on adding value and solving real problems.
A key part of this necessitates that people move away from the idea that everything is going to be quick, easy or glamorous – or indeed that we can all conform to an artificial one-size-fits-all model. What I want to do is try to make a difference. If I can do that and make money, great, but it is the work itself that motivates me.
LT: From a practical point of view, what do entrepreneurs need more of?
OS: I am very pro-environment and I believe business owners, and any systems designed to support them, have a responsibility to think about environmental sustainability in their work. There should be incentives in place for entrepreneurs who choose to start environmentally conscious businesses or social initiatives. Tax breaks, greater access to funding, programs with particular support and mentoring and networking would all be helpful.
As a nation, we don’t really know what our needs are. There should be careers counselling and guidance for young people as part of an integrated system that understands the country’s real needs. If we identify that we need more doctors, engineers or technicians, the entire education system should then be geared towards meeting those identified needs, producing skilled people ready to go into those fields.
In Egypt, there are some examples of entrepreneurs who have done amazing things and who are now celebrated at the international level. Some of these people are trying to run socially conscious, sustainable businesses but, in my view, not enough.
LT: What are you most excited about, in terms of your future plans?
OS: I have a number of projects, both personal and professional, that are ongoing and about which I care deeply. But Wild Guanabana is still my main focus and our primary reason for existence is to help people reconnect with nature. As human beings, we live lives that are really far removed from nature and as such we end up losing something of ourselves. Reconnecting helps you to do your best work, better understand how to proceed in your life and be more fulfilled. Every person we can help to experience this on any level is another incremental reason for us to keep going.
Wild Guanabana has a recently established brand called Muricata, which focuses on working with children aged six to sixteen. Now, Muricata is moving from being an entity that, for example, arranges school trips, to becoming almost an alternative education business. Children are learning how to build character and values, to recognise that they do not exist in a silo but are part of an interconnected world and society, and to acquire the skills as well as the knowledge to be part of that.
The beauty of starting a value-based business is that it can really evolve and change – and very quickly if you allow it. So I am very excited about seeing where and how that develops.