The Day we became worth 1 Billion$

I’ve always believed in seeing parallels in stories throughout my life. I come from a family of good , old fashioned , hardcore employees. We are all like that. I was also raised up in a time where I had to be like everyone. I was told and expected to grow up to fit a mold.

Taking risks wasn’t in my D.N.A.

I wasn’t brought up with the mentality to go breaking down doors. I wasn’t brought up with the concept of walking away from the sure thing — from the safe option. I was brought up to walk alongside the wall of security. I was brought up to go for a cookie-cutter mold of what was a sure thing.

Get a steady job. Get a paycheck. Save up. Buy a car. Buy a house. Get married. Have kids.

I did just that.

My first job at IBM, I was paid EGP 400. It was August 1990. I’d gotten a promotion just three months into the job and made EGP 600. When I told the girl I was dating at the time, she was in awe of my worth at that age. That girl would wind up to become my wife and mother of my children. She’d bet on the safe guy. She’d bet on what her parents had brought her up to believe was the sure bet.

A year later, I was presented with an opportunity to invest in “InTouch Communication Services ”, one of the first — and at the time, the only — Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Egypt. I was one of four investors who put down a chunk of money into this startup; I had a 15% stake in it. Before you know it, I cashed out my share — barely making a cent — in order to buy my first car. It seemed like the logical decision to make at the time. Had I left my shares be, they’d be worth more multi-millions by today.

I played it safe. I got the car. I worked up the corporate ladder. Fast forward 26 years later and today, I celebrate a different kind of milestone.

I didn’t get a new house. I didn’t get a new car. I didn’t get a promotion with a salary increase. I became part of something special. Something that’s happened only a handful of times in our lifetime. Something that’s happened perhaps once or twice in our industry. Something that was the first of its kind for the company I’m part of. We became a unicorn.

For those who are unfamiliar, a unicorn is industry jargon for any startup or company whose valuation exceeds the USD $1 billion price tag. Just last week, Careem, my new home, achieved this legendary status. We became the second technology company in the MENA region, after Souq.com to be a MENA-born and bred unicorn. We are the first, regionally, to become a unicorn in our industry sector of transportation. We are perhaps among a dozen locally-grown companies — across all industries — to become a unicorn. We are the 180th, globally. We have every reason to be proud. We have achieved something phenomenal — as a team — in a few short years that has brought together millions of people under one banner.

What does this mean for us? For myself? Now what? What’s next?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We change nothing.

We must steer the same course that brought us here. There are high-fives all around, sure. But now is the time to double down on our achievement. This is not the time to sit back, pat each other on the back and smile. This is the time to buckle up, because the ride is about to get bumpier. This is the time when we consider our quality of output. This is the time to consider our excellence. This is the time to hold true to our values. This is the time to consider our customer-service oriented approach. This is the time to consider all those things that have brought us here to begin with.

To me, Careem and its recent achievement highlight something much more important than a mere financial impact. It’s about being a responsible role model to all the up and coming entrepreneurs in the MENA region. We have more than 800 million people living between Pakistan and Morocco. 800 million opportunities. 800 million potentials. 800 million maybes. Why should we have a handful of unicorns from MENA? Why are regions across the globe with smaller populations and lesser potentials have more output? Why can’t we provide a framework of support and an ecosystem that creates 10 unicorns? 50? 100! The very term “unicorn” refers to the rarity of its existence. Why must we settle for unicorns? I want camels and horses! I want to get news of companies coming out of MENA reaching that status every day!

I’m a believer that in the face of success, one must maintain their resolve. The ethics don’t change. The values don’t change. We have a responsibility of what’s coming next. Why does any of this matter?

I’m 50 years old and I’m part of the team that helped create a unicorn.

I want — and expect — the MENA region’s next batch of unicorn creators to be 40. To be 30. To be in their mid-20’s. I want you to imagine the cataclysmic shifts in the MENA region and the ripples across the board that are to take place when we have young entrepreneurs creating unicorns; creating opportunities that literally transform standard economics by overhauling things from the inside out. These new unicorns will have the power to shift the perfection of the classic business man and their image. They won’t be perceived as over-paid crooks anymore. They’ll be perceived as people with ideas who saw a need and fulfilled it. These new unicorns will have the power to shift how the media perceives and showcases success. These unicorns will give rise to world-class quality and create a generation of leaders — who create leaders themselves and a new model of socially responsible businesses.

I want us to take the moment, not to celebrate our success, but to remember that these are the times of temptation. These are the times when we must resist the urge to sell and lay back in the sun. When you’re the new hot ticket in town, everyone wants a piece. It’s easy to say, “Yes! We did it. We’ve earned the right to sell now and enjoy an early retirement.” But what message does that send to those who are coming next? We must enrich the ecosystem — not just the individuals.

I suppose the real reason I’m writing this is to voice a regret. I always say I have no regrets in life — and I usually mean it. I do however, have this one regret. The regret that I waited as long I did to truly “join” a startup and having settled for the cookie-cutter mold. If you’ll take one thing from all my ramblings, take this: Learn from my regret — don’t settle for the mold, take a chance and take risks; the payoff is much more than you could ever imagine.