CEO Mid­dle East pro­files Shailesh Dash, a se­rial en­tre­pre­neur and sea­soned in­vestor tak­ing a prag­matic, prac­ti­cal ap­proach to chal­leng­ing times



at the big­ger pic­ture. It’s per­fectly sound ad­vice of course, for all man­ner of sticky sit­u­a­tions, but even the most op­ti­mistic amongst us may find it a lit­tle bit of a stretch dur­ing a time when en­tire na­tions, busi­nesses, and in­di­vid­u­als are be­ing chal­lenged as never be­fore. The world has tem­po­rar­ily shut up shop in a bid to stem the spread of Covid-19 and at time of writ­ing, self-iso­la­tion at home is the new nor­mal. It is a strange and un­pre­dictable pe­riod in the history of the world and there’s a vague feel­ing that no­body re­ally knows how it will all play out. Fig­ur­ing that out re­quires a mix of prag­ma­tism, re­al­ism and, if you’ll al­low us the pun, a dash of op­ti­mism.

It also re­quires lead­ers to act more de­ci­sively and quickly than ev­ery be­fore, be­cause the only con­stant is change, says se­rial en­tre­pre­neur and fi­nancier Shailesh Dash. Chal­lenges will come and go, but our legacy of how we dealt with them will re­main.

“We have to deal with things in a very hu­man way, whether with our stake­hold­ers, clients or our own fam­i­lies. I don’t think there is a way to be pre­pared for this spe­cific sit­u­a­tion. As a busi­ness owner, you pre­pare for dif­fer­ent eco­nomic sit­u­a­tions. You’re gen­er­ally not pre­pared for bi­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions such as a pan­demic. But now all of us have this ex­pe­ri­ence and we have to make quick de­ci­sions that will have an im­pact on how we deal with our lives and how we deal with our busi­nesses.”

Ex­ud­ing calm, Dash smiles fre­quently and speaks in the re­laxed, un­hur­ried way of a man who is used to be­ing lis­tened to and heard. A mem­ber of sev­eral boards, he was in­stru­men­tal in Al Na­jah Ed­u­ca­tion’s re­cent and much-pub­li­cised de­ci­sion to be the first

school group in the UAE to of­fer re­duced school fees for term three.

“We have ob­served un­usual and tur­bu­lent times. It would be wrong, as a busi­ness, not to do what we can to help our cus­tomers and to recog­nise their loy­alty,” says Dash. “Things are chang­ing rapidly, and the onus is on ev­ery in­di­vid­ual and ev­ery busi­ness to act in a pos­i­tive way. With a 20 per­cent re­duc­tion in fees for par­ents, we can en­sure the on­line in­fra­struc­ture of the school is still main­tained, in­clud­ing our teach­ers’ jobs.”

Ahead of the curve

Dash, who pre­sides over a diver­si­fied group that in­cludes health­care, ed­u­ca­tion and lo­gis­tics, ex­udes cu­rios­ity for global events and how they af­fect those around him. When he sat down with CEO Mid­dle East, just a few days be­fore so­cial dis­tanc­ing and work­ing from home was fully im­ple­mented, Covid-19 was the main topic of con­ver­sa­tion, and he was keen to get ahead of the curve in terms of the most ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponses and ac­tions. A sea­soned in­vestor, knee-jerk re­ac­tions are not his style and he ex­plains that the de­ci­sion to re­duce school fees has been in dis­cus­sion for a few weeks, with both the board and the school con­sulted as to the most sus­tain­able way to en­sure that when the cri­sis is over, the busi­ness and its cus­tomers are in a po­si­tion to re­cover and en­dure.

“At this time there is a lot of un­cer­tainty, but when neg­a­tive news seems to be the only news, a ‘this too shall pass’ ap­proach is a much­needed at­ti­tude. It is easy to fo­cus on our own chal­lenges and for­get the big­ger pic­ture. No one is ex­empt from this, and we have to work to­gether to find so­lu­tions and sur­vive.” Dash should know; he him­self launched a suc­cess­ful busi­ness in 2009 fol­low­ing the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, at a time when the mood was one of cau­tion and pes­simism.

“Today, we have to get through, but lead­ers need to be­lieve there will al­ways be op­por­tu­ni­ties. Gov­ern­ments need to take pre­cau­tions, rather than stop the econ­omy.

But it is hard to stop a virus un­til a vac­cine is de­vel­oped. We look for­ward to the med­i­cal in­dus­try find­ing a so­lu­tion but at the same time we have to be care­ful that the econ­omy doesn’t close down and that peo­ple – es­pe­cially those liv­ing from pay­check to pay­check – have enough to sur­vive.”

A vet­eran of the in­vest­ment in­dus­try, Dash has more than two decades of ex­pe­ri­ence and in­sight in nav­i­gat­ing the ups and downs of global mar­kets. His ex­pe­ri­ence is for­mi­da­ble; the In­dian na­tional and UAE res­i­dent has ex­e­cuted more than 14 IPOs, served on dozens of boards, and cre­ated the sec­ond largest pri­vate eq­uity busi­ness in the MENA re­gion.

Hav­ing founded sev­eral suc­cess­ful fi­nan­cial ser­vices com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Al Masah, Reg­u­lus Cap­i­tal and Fu­ture Cap­i­tal, he has presided over more than $1 bil­lion of in­vest­ments, of­fer­ing clients pri­vate eq­uity ad­vice in health­care, ed­u­ca­tion, and lo­gis­tics, along­side ser­vices ad­vis­ing on real es­tate and wealth man­age­ment. A trusted thought leader, he urges busi­nesses to com­ply with gov­ern­ment and med­i­cal direc­tives while as­sess­ing their own in­ter­nal chal­lenges.

“We ob­serve the me­dia and what other busi­nesses are do­ing. We are try­ing to keep our em­ploy­ees safe as pos­si­ble through

san­i­tiz­ing and work­ing from home. That’s im­por­tant, but what is also very im­por­tant is you still ser­vice clients and your staff. There has to be work, they have to be paid. This is im­por­tant. We may all suf­fer, but we have to go through it to­gether.”

Dash ac­knowl­edges that the sit­u­a­tion is com­pletely new, and re­flects on his own ex­pe­ri­ence of leav­ing the cor­po­rate world and em­bark­ing on an en­tre­pre­neur­ial path in 2009, a year also no­table, as 2020 is now, for not ex­actly be­ing the most eco­nom­i­cally en­cour­ag­ing of times.

“I am not a pes­simistic per­son and have started busi­nesses dur­ing the most chal­leng­ing times. I be­lieve that doom and gloom times can lead to op­por­tu­nity. For ex­am­ple schools may be closed, but there is a huge op­por­tu­nity for e-learn­ing. Op­por­tu­ni­ties will al­ways be there.”

In search of sat­is­fac­tion

What drives an ex­tremely suc­cess­ful cor­po­rate fi­nancier to go it alone and set up his own busi­ness dur­ing a time when the world is still shak­ing off a fi­nan­cial cri­sis? The an­swers, says Dash, was a search for mean­ing and sat­is­fac­tion.

Hav­ing spent decades in the fi­nance in­dus­try work­ing for oth­ers, he reached a point in his life when he no longer felt that he was learn­ing any­thing new.

The sense of grow­ing stag­na­tion be­came per­sis­tent enough that the highly suc­cess­ful fi­nancier made a de­ci­sion, turn­ing his back on a guar­an­teed salary in search of some­thing a lit­tle more thrilling: the un­known.

“I wanted the sat­is­fac­tion of cre­at­ing some­thing, in­stead of im­ple­ment­ing some­one else’s vi­sion.” Mod­estly, he notes that this am­bi­tion wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily des­tined to trans­late into do­ing some­thing bet­ter than his pre­vi­ous em­ployer, and in­deed he roundly cred­its the peo­ple he has worked for in the past with con­tribut­ing to his suc­cess today. “In my own way, even if I was only to build a small busi­ness, the hap­pi­ness in do­ing so has the most value. Be­ing part of a big or­ga­ni­za­tion is great, but I had some ideas and at age 40, I wanted to at least try and im­ple­ment them. You have to at least try. I be­lieve it has been a very re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in terms of job sat­is­fac­tion, and when peo­ple speak well of our busi­nesses, well, I feel very happy.”

Dash says he has been in­cred­i­bly for­tu­nate over the past few decades to have met men­tors, ad­vi­sors and in­di­vid­u­als who have helped him to im­ple­ment his vi­sion.

“Peo­ple in my world of fi­nance, sim­i­larly to other in­dus­tries, may share cer­tain qual­i­fi­ca­tions and ed­u­ca­tion, but it is the ex­pe­ri­ences that ul­ti­mately dif­fer­en­ti­ate,” he says.

“The peo­ple around us in­flu­ence us and change us.” When I was start­ing out from an in­vest­ment back­ground, I ini­tially thought of build­ing upon what had come be­fore.” Un­for­tu­nately – or per­haps ul­ti­mately for the good – 2009 wasn’t a par­tic­u­larly for­tu­itous year in which to be build­ing on the es­tab­lished

prac­tices of the in­vest­ment world. In­stead,

Dash was com­pelled to look at his in­dus­try in a com­pletely fresh way, cre­at­ing a busi­ness model that would at­tract the trust of in­vestors while bring­ing some­thing vi­able to the ta­ble.

“We ended up go­ing into debts and bonds, and did hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars of that even though I hadn’t done it specif­i­cally for over a decade. Change is the only con­stant – you can’t have a fixed mind­set! You must look at how you can add value to your in­vestors, and at that time in­vestors wanted se­cu­rity but also to be able to ac­cess their funds when­ever they wanted. And of course, still a good re­turn!”

The real deal

“Peo­ple in this part of the world be­lieve in this re­gion, and are in­ter­ested in de­vel­op­ing tan­gi­ble busi­nesses. How­ever, they don’t want to be hands-on. This is where we come in to man­age, and how these busi­nesses have evolved. Ed­u­ca­tion and health­care have done well his­tor­i­cally in the re­gion, but there are chal­lenges. That is part of an eco­nomic cy­cle.”

Hav­ing es­tab­lished his em­pire here and in South-East Asia, he is eye­ing up Europe for his next ven­ture. Tech­nol­ogy is a huge fo­cus and one that in­ter­ests him per­son­ally.

“You need to be ready, as an ad­vi­sor to your in­vestors. They are wealthy, in­tel­li­gent and suc­cess­ful peo­ple and you have to re­spect that in your role as their ad­vi­sor. We build eco-en­vi­ron­ments for en­trepreneur­s to build busi­nesses to grow.”

En­cour­ag­ing a nim­ble mind­set in his com­pany re­mains key, a vi­tal com­po­nent of growth. “I think you learn to swim by be­ing thrown in the deep end, though when we are talk­ing about in­vestor funds, it isn’t quite like that! But it is im­por­tant to give peo­ple the train­ing and sup­port they need, and sup­port them in an en­vi­ron­ment where they can bring fresh, new ways of think­ing to the busi­ness.”

Fu­ture-for­ward think­ing

De­spite the mar­kets in­di­cat­ing a global re­ces­sion and some of the worst fig­ures in liv­ing mem­ory, Dash re­mains up­beat about the big­ger pic­ture. He doesn’t be­lieve that eco­nomic re­cov­ery is des­tined to be as painfully slow as many pre­dict.

“Sen­ti­ments in the mar­ket are al­ways mo­men­tary, they are a knee-jerk re­ac­tion. A longer-last­ing ef­fect is that many busi­ness mod­els may change; trends such as e-busi­ness and on­line busi­nesses will grow at a faster rate. Un­for­tu­nately there may be less hu­man in­ter­ac­tion, which is not my pre­ferred way of do­ing busi­ness, but we have to ac­cept change and deal with it hu­manely. Change is the only con­stant.”

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