By Tamara Pupic
The famous Egyptian mountaineer-turned-serial entrepreneur Omar Samra advises start-up founders to safeguard their entrepreneurial passions from greed-fuelled growth plans, pointing out that it is small and fragile business ventures that might help them overcome life’s obstacles
It has been seven years since Omar Samra leapt from working as an investment banker in London and Hong Kong to running Wild Guanabana, the region’s first carbon-neutral adventure travel company.
Today Wild Guanabana is widely acknowledged as a major disruptor to the region’s adventure travel industry due to its 35 carefully curated local and international adventure trips per year, in addition to 30 bespoke corporate team building programmes and student adventure camps.
This year, the company has recorded a 20 percent increase in bookings for its adventure travel packages, which span 17 countries and range in length from three to 30 days, and the team expects a 70 percent increase in revenue compared to a year ago.
However, back in May 2009 the odds were stacked against Samra, including starting a carbon-neutral travel company in a less environmentally-focused market and at the peak of the financial crisis. But it was not uncommon for Samra to test his resolve under the most difficult circumstances.
This first Egyptian and youngest Arab to climb Mount Everest was once an asthmatic boy gasping for breath more often than freely playing in the streets of his native Cairo. Sticking to a strict exercise routine, he grew up to also climb the highest mountain on all seven continents, becoming the first Egyptian to complete the “Explorer’s Grand Slam”.
“If you start a business and you are passionate about it, your business is a self-expression of how you want to change the world,” Samra says about his enterprise set up to encourage people to follow into his footsteps of breaking through their limitations by embarking on authentic and life transformational travel experiences.
The theme of transformation through travel is regularly touched upon in more than 130 motivational speeches Samra has delivered across the MENA region and internationally, including TEDx conferences in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, and most recently TEDxBend in Oregon with an audience of 1,400 people and thousands more via live streaming.
Samra also often asks regional entrepreneurs to repeat a message - one he delivered at a meeting in Cairo less than an hour before our Skype interview - about the importance of using entrepreneurship as a means of personal and social transformation.
“Entrepreneurship is on the rise in the region and that is healthy because it will be one of the drivers of our economies, but a lot of people that I see now are getting into entrepreneurship because it has become trendy,” Samra says. “Also, a lot of people are getting into it now because of ‘I want to be my own boss’ or ‘I want to be in control of my time’ beliefs.
“That is not necessarily a totally valid reason for starting a business.”
Samra is talking from his own experience. A graduate of the American University in Cairo with an MBA in entrepreneurship from London Business School, he pursued his investment-banking career with HSBC in London and Hong Kong after being selected from a large pool of international applicants.
“I had a pretty traditional career path up until that point [starting up Wild Guanabana],” Samra says. “In this region, if I look at my parents, there was a sense of pride associated with their son reaching a certain level of success in his career.
“Certainly, people considered me accomplished because I had worked in London or Hong Kong, for this and that bank, but then you can get into a situation when these things start to matter to you a lot and that clouds your decision-making.”
Ambitious and well-accomplished, he was nevertheless uneasy with the contours of the world of a high-profile banker. For some time, he successfully channeled his wanderlust by embarking on adventure travels, such as a 370-day journey across 14 countries in Asia and Latin America in 2003. Before long, however, his need for a sense of purpose went beyond such escapades.
“I didn’t necessarily have a huge amount of support in the beginning, or any support actually,” Samra continues. “I believe that in order to start a business you have to be uber passionate about your idea and you have to believe that the idea will add something to humanity even in a small way. You have to believe that it will solve a problem and impact people’s lives in a positive way.
“That is basically what is going to keep you moving and keep you going when it gets tough.
“Sometimes I tell people that if you have an idea and you realise that there is somebody who is doing this idea just the way that you want to do it, then why don’t you join that person’s journey? You can help create something better because, at the end of the day, we are all here wanting to leave a mark and add value as a collective.
“I believe that the [entrepreneurship] ecosystem needs to be less individualistic.”
Starting with a small sum of personal savings, Samra has managed to turn the company into a disrupter of the region’s adventure travel industry, in addition to boosting awareness of responsible tourism across the region. Wild Guanabana, with offices in Cairo and Dubai, has carved a niche for itself, but Samra is cautious about further growth. “We need to invent a better way of how we see value,” he says. “For now, the value is creating wealth either for myself or for my shareholders. That is not sustainable.
“For example, my business is sort of medium-scaled. I don’t necessarily want it to be large scale, like the biggest travel company in the region or the world, because I believe that the type of product and service that I have is scalable, but only to a certain point. More scale means destroying the actual proposition.
“If every single entrepreneur has that as a mindset, then the world will be a better place. But we tend to look at all start-ups in the same light. Everybody wants the same end game for every single start-up.
“Investors are also propagating this mentality. In order for you to get investment you need to prove X,Y and Z, and it is not necessarily a model that can be sustainable.
“So how does that reflect on one person’s decision to start a business? A lot of entrepreneurs who have amazing ideas that can add a lot of value and can become successful and profitable, but not necessarily of the scale and profitability that we see in movies, are discouraged from taking these ideas forward because they are not enough for investors.
“Also, some entrepreneurs have lost their identity. When they start their concept, they are very passionate about it and how it can make a difference. But along the journey, as they get exposed to the realities of the ecosystem, they kind of forget why they came up with this idea in the first place.
“So there needs to be more alignment to have more people do the work that they love.”
Samra’s passion is to divert people from today’s tech distractions by advocating the importance of healthy living and pursuing an active lifestyle. Wild Guanabana’s business model rests on four pillars, including local and international adventure travels, outdoor corporate team building programmes, and experiential learning programmes for students called Muricata. The company’s newest division focused on creating unorthodox community events, recently launched the Great Cairo Kidathon, the first ever marathon in Egypt dedicated to children.
“We are in the business of changing people’s behaviour, which is the hardest thing to do in entrepreneurship, because you are not just convincing people to buy this or that product, but why they should buy this type of product at all,” he says.
“Yes, it is an adventure travel company, but the primary objective is that we are bringing people closer to nature. I do believe that a lot of the problems that we suffer from in this world today are because people have been disconnected from nature.
“When you are disconnected from nature, you are disconnected from yourself.
“We have more profound things happening, such as people coming back from these trips energised and invigorated and starting to question their old habits.”
His other business ventures, The Mountain Project and Rock’n’Rope, are initiated with an aim of developing adventure parks and state-of-the-art indoor rock climbing centres in regional cities to promote the sport of climbing. The final goal, he says, is to develop a team of local athletes that can potentially compete for the Olympics once the sport is admitted.
Pursuing these and many other initiatives is due to the Wild Guanabana team successfully navigating some of the less usual challenges faced by young businesses.
When the revolution broke out in Egypt in 2011, the tourism sector, accounting for over a tenth of the country’s gross domestic product, recorded 32 percent fewer visitors and a dramatic decline in revenue. “We started panicking because we had around 80 percent cancellations for 2011 going into the year,” Samra says. “We realised that we need to either shelter ourselves by not spending much or if we continue to grow, we had to look at other markets.
“We looked at the data that we had and we realised that around 15 percent of our revenue was coming from the Gulf.”
Sahara Global Investment (SGI), a UAE-based family-run investment fund, decided to support Samra despite the fact that the business was going through a turbulent time, enabling them to open an office in Dubai. “They didn’t even change the valuation that we had agreed upon despite the fact that our revenue proposition in Egypt was hit massively. Their approach was to believe in the idea,” Samra says.
In 2013 the Wild Guanabana team again had to navigate a situation unlike any they studied at business schools - the tragic loss of Samra’s wife Marwa Fayed, who had been instrumental in setting up and growing the business, seemed a cataclysm for the fledging company and Samra personally.
“I couldn’t work,” Samra says. “The people in the team, who worked closely with her, couldn’t work either. When you are faced with something like that, all you can do is to do the best with what you have and move forward every day even though it is just one tiny step.
“The advice that I would give to people is to ensure that you document everything that you do in the business. The learning needs to leave your brain and come out into the world so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time when you go through a certain challenge. That is creating a process so that everything doesn’t crumble around you if a dramatic situation happens and you cannot be as involved for a certain period of time.
“That is probably something I learnt the hard way.
“Maybe I’m being too hard on myself because the business really was quite young when this happened and my wife was an integral part of it. We were not ready for something like that and the entire business almost closed down.”
Eventually, work resumed but only due to the strong emotional foundation of Samra’s next project - Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run (MFTR), a charity that collects used and unwanted toys from multiple cities around the world and redistributes them to children. Since launching in 2013, the charity has distributed over 100,000 toys in more than 10 countries worldwide.
“Because of everything I went through I lost my drive,” Samra recalls. “You don’t care about yourself so much, so you don’t care about anything that you are doing. But I managed to rediscover my passion and my drive for the work that we do once I got into the Marwa Fayed Toy Run. That made me remember how passionate I am, and how dedicated and hard-working I can be when I immerse myself into something that I care about.
“I had to remind myself of why I got into the business in the first place, why my wife got into this business, and why she decided when we got married that she would work alongside me and not continue doing what she had done before.
“For me, the business is more than just an entity, but sort of a living being that has grown with me for some time. It wasn’t something that I was willing to give up on.
“Now I’m building it in a way that if for any reason I have to remove myself, the business can outlive anything like that.”
Sharing the story of his grief with people, including a series of posts within Brandon Stanton’s famous Humans of New York project, was a shift for Samra, who used to be protective of his privacy despite a large part of his life being in the public domain.
“When you experience any adversity in your life, it is always an opportunity. You always have to try to understand how to turn it into something positive, how to turn a personal tragedy into a collective good,” he says. “For many months, of course, I was totally broken, but I was still moving forward somehow. It was coming from a will to heal because I do understand that we are here to heal ourselves and help heal others. That is the only motivation for me.”
“It is the belief in the why. Why is it that I am doing it? If you don’t believe in why you are doing something, you are never going to carry through when it is hard.
“I believe in the potential impact of the power of sharing that story. Even if it goes to ten people and they get inspired, that is enough. I also have the responsibility towards my family and my daughter to honour the story and turn what happened into something positive.”
Samra’s latest victory – winning the AXE Apollo Space Academy competition which is set to launch only 23 carefully selected contestants into Earth’s outer orbit on a private spaceship – will see him become not only Egypt’s first astronaut, but the first human in history to have completed the Adventurer Grand Slam and gone to space.
He aims to build upon this experience to launch a national space science competition in 200 schools across 28 governorates of Egypt in order to bring the space industry to national consciousness and empower children to dream big. “Science, in general, has suffered because usually scientists communicate it to other scientists or experts. This disengages the average person. More than ever science needs people who are able to communicate it in an engaging way that is appealing to the average person,” he explains.
“In order to be advanced in the space industry you cannot be good at just that sector and that’s it. Countries that have made breakthrough in space are powerful on all fronts because you need to be competent on many different levels to be able to achieve these goals.
“I think that the space sector is not something optional and nice to have, but it will become increasingly more important from a science and military side, and also from the point of view of inspiring the will of our nations to achieve something.”
‘To be continued’ appears the only possible ending of a story about Omar Samra.