Zeeshan Shah was one of the Muslim candidates in this year’s BBC The Apprentice. In an exclusive interview with Dilly Hussain, he tells us about his time at The Apprentice, what led to his firing and the role Islam has played in his life.
DH: Zee tell us a bit about your family, your background, where you were born and where you currently reside?
ZS: I was born in Doncaster, UK. I spent the first eight years of my life there. When I was 8-years-old my parents moved us out to Karachi, Pakistan where I lived until I was 19 and did my A-Levels there. I used to come back and forth between the UK, Pakistan and Dubai.
Although we lived in Karachi, my family are originally from Jhang which is between Lahore and Multan. This allowed me to explore and find out a lot about my country of origin. I got to see the village life of Jhang and the city life of Karachi where most of my school friends were along with the UK and Dubai. I had a very “multicultural” upbringing in that sense. It was a great eye opening experience that from a young age I was exposed to so many different places and cultures.
Throughout the whole of The Apprentice coverage they never stated where I was from or that I was from London or the UK. I wanted to make sure people knew I was Pakistani because that’s where I grew up.
If someone asked me “what are you” I would say I am Pakistani, I’m not your traditional “British Pakistani” cos that’s where I grew up.
DH: Did you go to university?
ZS: I went to University of Nottingham to study Economics and Finance. The reason why I went to university was because that’s what my parents wanted me to. They had always emphasised the importance of education though I didn’t concentrate much in school. I was always a rebellious child, doing things my own way giving my parents a lot of trouble.
I didn’t finish my studies and left half way through. In hindsight, looking at why I didn’t finish university, Economics was just a subject that I did in A-Levels which I thought would make sense to continue in university.
My parents weren’t majorly against me not completing my studies, but ideally they did want me to complete my degree. They’ve always known I was a unique child in the sense that I always done things completely my own way. I’m not a big listener, I just do what I do and it’s best to leave me to my own devices.
DH: At what point in your life did you realise you had an entrepreneurial streak?
ZS: At a very young age. When I was eleven I wanted to buy a dog which was imported from Europe, a Boxer. At the time it cost 40,000 Rupees (£800) and I had asked my parents for the money, they said no, and said I’d have to save up for it.
We had a female dog which my parents brought me when I was eight, and down the road there was a park where I used to take her for a walk every evening. There was a similar breed dog that belong to someone who lived down the road from us. I mated both the dogs, they had puppies and I sold them on. I made enough money to buy the Boxer I wanted and that was my first “entrepreneurial” experience.
DH: What led you to The Apprentice?
ZS: A lot of my friends had been saying to me for a while that I should apply for it, and that I’d win it. I was 26 when I applied (I’m 28 now). I felt the timing and my age was right. I wouldn’t apply now because my business is at a certain stage and you can’t take that kind of time out.
But at the age of 26 I felt the opportunity was right. I’ve always followed the show, it’s great exposure, once in a life time opportunity, the biggest business show in the world and I thought LETS GO FOR IT!
It was a great feeling when I was accepted, I was actually driving to work when they rang me and believe it or not, I was sure that I had got in. There were three days of interviews, group interviews, meetings with psychologists and final auditions but I was confident I had done enough. There were over 100,000 applicants this year and to be chosen as one among them is a great feeling and humbling.
DH: Who did you get on with the most in the house?
ZS: I got along very well with Neil Clough and Alex Mills…Alex was a character!
DH: I know this has probably come back to haunt you since but how well do you actually know Dubai?
ZS: I know Dubai quite well actually, I’ve lived out there and started my career there. In regards to the task, we were only in Dubai for 6-7 hours and there was so much traffic and I didn’t really get to apply my local knowledge.
Think of the task as a sprint, anyone who’s fast and hurries through can win. If it was a marathon, people’s stamina, patience and mindset comes into play. If the tasks were longer then these factors would have mattered. I’m not one to dwell on things, everything happens for a reason. There are lots of things I could say went wrong or could have been done differently but it is what it is.
DH: What’s your favourite oud? (perfume not Egyptian guitar!)
ZS: …I don’t really have one!
DH: What went wrong in week 5?
ZS: There’s a couple of things that went wrong but if I’m to start with myself and go through what I did wrong, the main thing I’d have changed is I would have gone to the markets myself because most the traders speak Urdu, a language which I’m fluent in.
In terms of the wider reasons behind why we lost the task and the individual performances of other team members, Leah’s performance was terrible and from the get-go she was very counter-productive, working against the team. What you usually see when a task is going wrong in the latter part of the day, candidates start pinning blame on others in preparation for the boardroom. But with Leah, from the moment the task started she was moaning, being pessimistic, and constantly undermining me.
What The Apprentice didn’t show was that the week before Alan Sugar had told Leah that he’s keeping an eye on her and that she’s been very “quiet”. So when he moved her over to our team she fulfilled the requirement of “voicing” herself but in the wrong way by working against the team and at my expense.
DH: Why did you bring back Leah and Natalie to the board room instead of Neil and Kurt, who made mistakes that contributed to the loss of the task?
ZS: Firstly, I blame the wider failure of the sub-team on Leah. I don’t think just Neil is to blame for the failure of the sub-team but Leah’s managing of the team is to blame because she should have led them properly, been more positive and just got on with it.
In regards to Natalie, as a business owner myself, if I’ve got two people in my team, one contributes but makes a mistake (Kurt) and the other doesn’t contribute at all, I’d fire the one that hasn’t contributed regardless of the mistakes of the former because it’s their effort that counts and they may get it right next time. Someone who doesn’t contribute is dead weight.
DH: What are your views on the claims made by Leah and Natalie that you can’t work with women and insinuated that you are sexist?
ZS: They actually stated it quite clearly and it was absurd. The “sexist” argument was brought forward by Natalie because she didn’t have anything significant to say in regards to her own performance or mine’s for that matter. She picked up on the point that “oh he’s brought two women back to the boardroom”.
I’m a very straight forward person, and I wouldn’t resort to such tactics even when bringing candidates back to the boardroom, it would always be based on effort and performance, hence I brought back Leah and Natalie. If I wanted to play a strategic game I would have brought Neil and Kurt back to the boardroom.
I have morals and principles, even though The Apprentice is a game. Natalie throughout every task was quiet but when it came to the boardroom she’s fiery and loud mouthed. So for the sake of staying in the show, they will lie and manipulate to keep themselves in. Fair play, it’s a competition and you have to stand your ground but you need principles.
Once the show had been aired, both Leah and Natalie tweeted “Zee’s a great guy” and “It was just a competition” so I think they clarified themselves that they made all that up.
The “sexist” claim was outrageous and it is the equivalent of me saying they were against me in the task because I was Pakistani, and suggesting that they’re racist. There are no grounds to make such outrageous claims.
DH: I know Napoleon Bonaparte is one of your role models, surely you must have a Muslim role model who you look up to?
ZS: Napoleon isn’t actually my role model. The first person I stated as a role model was the Prophet Muhammad (saw), but the show picked up on the fact that I also said Napoleon as someone who influenced and shaped the modern world as we know it.
They didn’t mention the Prophet Muhammad (saw) though Alan Sugar did mention it in the boardroom but they didn’t air that. Because it’s a show, and they wanted a “controversial” personality they went forward with Napoleon.
DH: What role has Islam played throughout your life, especially in business?
ZS: When someone asks me what the key principles in business are, I always say “perseverance” and “patience” (sabr), a concept I get from Islam. Being successful in business is all about perseverance and patience. Those who have attained “success” usually get there after experiencing failure after failure but at the same time learning from their mistakes.
In business there will be moments of hardship, struggle, difficult decision making, sometimes impossible situations where you see no way out except failure or making a massive loss. Islam for me gives me that faith and belief that everything that happens, good and bad is the qadr (divine decree) of Allah (swt), that He will help me and whatever is meant to be is His wider plan.
Praying five times a day and reading the Qur’an gives me that understanding that regardless of what happens, Allah (swt) has decreed it and He may have something better for me planned or something harder to test me with.
In life in general, you need faith, belief and conviction to get you through moments of hardship and difficult situations where failure seems inevitable, that there is a greater force that ultimately dictates what happens.
DH: Tell us a bit about what you’re currently doing? You’re the CEO of One Investment?
ZS: One Investment is a property investment company. We have over 50 projects in over 30 countries across four continents. A lot of our clients are lawyers, bankers, doctors and professional investors who are looking for “tailor made” investment packages.
These professionals are looking to invest in property without dealing with the managerial logistics associated with property investment so they give us permission to manage the business aspect of it.
We’ve found two “hot spot” areas – in the UK, student property is a fast growing sector, and internationally Dubai is back on the map. Last year Dubai had the second highest capital growth, this year they’re going to have the highest capital growth. Another key area for investment is North Dakota in the US where there’s a boom in the property market.
We always go out to find niche markets, find the right opportunity without necessarily going through all the headaches and that is what One Investment does.
DH: What’s your advice to young Muslims who aspire to succeed in the business world and those already struggling in the current climate?
ZS: I can only speak from my short experience in the business world, I don’t have 50 years of business experience to be giving some magic words.
Basically follow your dreams, when you see an opportunity, don’t think or procrastinate, just go do it. Don’t dream, ponder, think or contemplate too much. If you have a gut feeling just get up and go do it! Worse case scenario, if you fail and it doesn’t work out, you learn something, so there’s no harm in trying.
A quick story which sums up my advice. There was a friend of mine who lived with me in Doncaster just after university. A lot of my friends were in Dubai and they were making a lot of money in the property market, so they told me to come over and join them.
At the time, I only had around £1000 to my name. £500 or so went on my ticket. I asked my friend who was living with me in Doncaster to come with me, but he made all kinds of excuses regarding work but said he’d book his ticket to Dubai in couple of weeks. I thought he would turn up but he didn’t. I was 20 at the time, eight years on, I am where I am and he’s still at the same call centre. Who knows where he could have been if he had joined me, but the point is, I just got up and did it.
I didn’t have anything behind me, no money, or a clue in what the property market was. I was going into the “unknown”, I didn’t know what was going to happen but I had a gut instinct and followed it. Sometimes you’ll end up procrastinating all your life and before you know it, 10, 15, 20 years have passed and you’re still in the same position.
In life it’s these small decisions and steps that make a difference. You don’t have to be super clever, have big ideas or loads of money to make a difference. It’s the little things that you decide to do that the other person didn’t which makes the difference.
DH: What do you think of 5Pillarz?
ZS: I think it’s a fantastic initiative given the reality of modern day media, how it’s controlled and manipulated to serve a particular agenda especially regarding Islam and Muslims.
It’s great that 5Pillarz offers an independent media platform for all sections of the Muslim community that is representative of everyone, to show people what Islam is about and what the Muslim community is thinking, and tackling those difficult questions and subjects.
DH: Will 5Pillarz be hearing from you again in the future under a different capacity?
ZS: Yes Insh’Allah, 5Pillarz will definitely be hearing from me again.
You can follow Zee Shah on Twitter @OfficialZeeShah and Dilly Hussain on @DillyHussain88