A chat with Sabirul Islam
When I read in the Times of Swaziland that a 21-year-old self-made millionaire from the United Kingdom was travelling the world to inspire the youth to become entrepreneurs, I just had to meet him. Fortunately for me, this pleasant and intense young man had the time to sit down over coffee at the Riverside Café and explain his message to me. It’s a message you want to hear. Sabirul Islam made his first million pounds by the age of nineteen and his message is simple: there’s no reason you can’t be like me.
Born into an economically-depressed area of London (he estimates that 98 per cent of the residents were unemployed and living on social welfare), with family members taking or dealing drugs and a father with a criminal record, his start in life was not promising. But by the age of fourteen he was already an entrepreneur and he has consistently placed the defiance of expectations at the centre of his success.
It began with "one of my worst experiences in life I was fired by my 14-year-old cousin when I was 13 for being lazy. It was a wake-up call. I wanted to prove my cousin wrong, I wanted to prove a point; that I am not what he told the whole world I am."
His youthful anger was the foundation of his passion to succeed, but, he said, "I used it positively. It’s either that or turn to drugs and crime."
I asked him how a fourteen year old from a poor background became an entrepreneur and he told me of how he had hired six of his schoolmates who had skills in web design and then they went to big banks and offered to design their websites, explaining what they could add to them. He smiled; "I set up a website design company and I don’t know how to design a website". They were rejected a lot, often scornfully, but eventually one said ‘yes’ and they were on their way.
"Perseverance is key. I was rejected by over 40 publishers with my first book. I eventually self-published it and sold 42 000 copies. Then I went to 150 authors. All I needed was a recommendation."
At 14 he began a web design company, traded in stocks, wrote books, created educational games and went to speaking engagements. One opportunity led to another. Today, Islam is travelling the world in a bid to speak to one million young people in person, to inspire them to conquer their fears and follow their passions. In South Africa he spoke to 2.9 million people in nine days.
"Self-discovery is key; find your passion. Once you express yourself you know what to do. But the spoon feeding of knowledge is something restricting young people. They want something to fall into their laps; that’s not going to work. Our objective as young people is to create employment, not to be employed. Who creates jobs? Businesses. Who creates businesses? Entrepreneurs."
I asked him what he thought was preventing people from becoming entrepreneurs.
"Fear is what stops us – fear of rejection." But fear is in the mind; "It’s like walking into an empty room which is dark. You think there are monsters but it’s empty. It’s about challenging fear. The only thing restricting you is yourself. Learn by doing. Unless you take that first step, you can’t see what’s true. Attempt what you want to do before you give up."
To Islam, setbacks are not disasters but challenges which he need to be overcome. "It’s not abilities that define who we are but our choices," he points out. "When you choose success, money follows you, but when you chase money, success never comes."
In fact, the money is secondary. "Entrepreneurship is not about money. What you need is people, not money. People make things happen. Every urban area was once rural; it’s not a miracle. Who changed it? People. It’s the power of networking, get yourself out there, make yourself visible – visibility is key. Every business venture I set up didn’t cost me a penny. I go to people who can help me make it happen. I stood up at an awards ceremony in Japan and announced I wanted to inspire one million youths with my message and the sponsors came. Fetch the people who can make it happen; approach social media, libraries, schools, go knock on their doors."
Islam thinks online social networks such as Facebook are underused. He encourages approaching anybody you think can help you achieve your dream.
"On Facebook, there are people who know things. People are afraid of having their ideas stolen but it’s about building a network. Why should other people pull me down? I have high ambitions in life. You need to find right-minded thinking friends, not stay in your comfort zone. I’m not in my comfort zone; I haven’t seen my friends in 3 ½ years – you have to give up the social element."
But being professional is crucial. Islam advises against using language which young people use, such as cos for because.
"You just have to be professional; correct punctuation, spelling, has to be perfect," he warns. People are judged on their presentation. "You don’t get second chances, and that’s the reality. There has to be a selling point, so you need recommendations, branding. To the world you are a nobody. Something you’ve done outside the norm defines you," he says, noting that "when you are young there is no responsibility. You need to stand out and one way is to act responsibly while young. You need to outline who you are professionally," he said. He recommends something like the following:
‘I am Sabirul Islam. This is what I do. This is my vision. This is where I want to go and I have not had the support as of yet. However, with your support I feel I can achieve my vision. Can you help me?’
My suggestion? Find a computer with Internet access and Google him.
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