Serial Entrepreneur Stresses Importance of Corporate Culture

Ask YPO member Saima Khan where she comes from and expect an open-ended answer full of different geographies and experiences. The serial entrepreneur, now based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was born in London, England, UK, and raised in North America, between Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and Los Angeles, California, USA. Early in her career, she developed a passion for launching new ventures, raising seed funding for pre-IPO startups that included Netsol Solutions, the first Pakistani technology company to trade on NASDAQ, and Mirage Collection, the largest ethnic luxury boutique in the United States.

In 2002, Khan moved to Dubai and co-founded an advisory group offering regional financial consulting and advisory services for North American-based investors. But seven years later, her career focus took another shift, this time into the world of children’s edutainment. With 10 locations across the UAE, and regional expansion plans underway, her latest venture, Cheeky Monkeys Playland has established itself as the leading regional edutainment center where kids can learn and play.

In a recent interview for YPO, Khan recalls her career and life transitions as well as her evolution into a global entrepreneur and advocate for cultural understanding in the workplace.

What motivates you to launch new ventures in so many varied industries?

I think most entrepreneurs keep their radar receptive for new market trends, niches and underserviced gaps in consumer markets. In my most recent venture, Cheeky Monkeys Playland, I personally experienced having young children in a region where there were not a lot of recreational and edutainment outlets. We have six kids, so my adult life always has been centered around children. When I saw the gap in the market, I was more than happy to do something I am very passionate about, while still moving within the arena of startups.


Do you think entrepreneurship is innate?

Yes, definitely. I do not think being an entrepreneur and all the challenges that come along with it can be put or taught in textbook content or a classroom setting. Key prerequisites like an understanding of accounting, technology and contract administration are helpful. However, I feel the key trait, more than a skill, is having tenacity.


How do you define achievement and how do you define failure?

Achievement is a moving target. One of my all-time favorite quotes by Mohammed Ali sums it up: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.” As for failure, it is similar to “making lemonade out of lemons.” Who would have thought something sour could be so sweet? There really is no such thing as failure in the world of business. Some of the greatest icons of our generation have found silver linings in their so-called failures. There is always a valuable lesson to be learned.


With the rapid growth of Cheeky Monkeys, has it been difficult to build a cohesive corporate culture? 

Corporate culture comes from the top. My husband and I spend a lot of our time sharing our vision and ethos with our team. I like to train all new employees and have them understand our culture, values and vision. The challenge in the Middle East is that we have a convergence of cultures; therefore a great deal of time is spent on getting everyone to shed their preconceived ideas of what is right or respectful and integrate them to one homogenous culture.


Is it difficult being a women entrepreneur in the Middle East?

I think women in the region receive a tremendous amount of respect and courtesy. The Middle East is a lot more progressive than its general world perception. Dubai is a phenomenal forward-thinking city that has a distinct vision for its growth, and I feel those sentiments start to radiate on its residents. So, it is not difficult being a female entrepreneur in the MENA region but key is understanding the local laws and culture.


Do you think women make better entrepreneurs? 

No, I feel entrepreneurship doesn’t favor a certain gender. Entrepreneurship doesn’t fall into a specific box, but is a certain breed of person. Whether you’re a man, woman or child, young or very old, if you have ideas and a commitment to working hard, then you have no limits. But I think women are natural networkers. During an average woman’s day, we are constantly interfacing with people. I also believe behind every successful woman there is a tribe of women. Secure women tend to be great advocates of each other and offer a great support system. I personally enjoy mentoring other women and never decline an opportunity to share.

Do you think your multicultural background was a factor in your success? 

I think any insight and understanding of culture is invaluable. For the world to see true peace and people to prosper and succeed, we must exercise tolerance for humanity. I think the more we can immerse ourselves in multiculturalism and interfaith discussions, the better the results.

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Rola Tassabehji is a writer and content marketing specialist with background in global brand management experience at Unilever and higher education at INSEAD. She is passionate about sharing stories of accomplished business leaders and has been interviewing chief executives and thought leaders from around the world for the past eight years.