Dr Adil Alzarooni vehemently challenges the prevalent notion of the ‘fear of failure'. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai: Long before Emirati business leader, educator, and author Dr Adil Alzarooni rose through the ranks to become the CEO of Al Zarooni Emirates Investments (ZEI) and Al Bidayer Holding, and the Founder of Citizens School, he ran a chain of laundries in his 20s.

With a capital of Dh100,000, all of which came from his savings and earnings as a top student at Etisalat College of Engineering (now known as Khalifa University), Alzarooni kept his first business venture a secret from his family.

“I had just graduated from college. One day, I picked up the newspaper and saw someone selling a laundry. I wanted to run a business, so I bought it and began operating it. But I wouldn’t tell my father because I feared failure. And I didn’t want to embarrass myself and my family,” he says. “But operating the laundry taught me invaluable lessons in sales, customer service, financial literacy, and efficient management practices,” says Alzarooni.

‘Failure is the norm’

Although not financially lucrative, two profound lessons were etched into his entrepreneurial spirit from running the chain of laundries. First, he embraced the identity of an ‘experience guy’. “Everything that I do needs to be an experience. Education is an experience, healthcare is an experience, everything in food and beverage is an experience,” he says.

Second, he vehemently challenged the prevalent notion of the ‘fear of failure,’ which he believes is deeply ingrained in students through traditional education systems.

“Existing systems train students to become employees, and a good employee does not fail. In case students choose to become entrepreneurs, well and good. But statistics say nine out of 10 businesses fail in the first three years. So, isn’t failure the norm?” he asks. According to Alzarooni, these systems inadvertently discourage the invaluable process of learning from mistakes.

Years later, these lessons would become fundamental to Alzarooni’s business approach, putting him on a path of life-long learning.

Alzarooni had kept his first business venture a secret from his family. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

From hacker to engineer to economic advisor

As a school and university student, Alzarooni topped his classes. “I was the tallest guy in the front row. At the same time, I drove a Camaro and wore a cap. But I wasn’t a geek,” he says.

Growing up, he also indulged in some ‘ethical hacking’, a skill that proved vital during his career as a telecommunications engineer with etisalat by e& in Saudi Arabia.

“As a member of the generation that witnessed the advent of the internet, I entered the scene as a telecom engineer when the internet was gaining popularity in the mid-1990s. My peers and I were just curious,” he says.

Following his stint in Saudi Arabia, where he was part of the team that developed Mobily, Alzarooni returned to Dubai and worked with Jebel Ali Free Zone (JAFZA) for 10 years, where he was focused on attracting FDI and developing economic zones. During his tenure at JAFZA, he attracted investments from over 1,000 companies, of which 50 were Fortune 500.

Family business

Alzarooni’s natural curiosity for the world of business caught up with him eventually. “I launched the family business in 2009, during the height of the 2008 economic crisis,” he says.

When Zarooni took over leadership of Al Zarooni Emirates Investments, he says the family was reliant on real estate, travel, and gas businesses. “I needed to diversify and started with healthcare. Fortunately, we did very well in the specialised healthcare sector (Manzil Healthcare) and continue to do so,” he adds. From there, he forayed into logistics, which didn’t see the success he expected. “I probably will go back into logistics. I got into financial services and also found some success with it,” he says.

Life-long learning

Citizens School, launched in September 2022, is his ‘dearest baby’. Ten years in the making, the school has a considerable investment size and inculcates entrepreneurial skills in pupils from the foundations stage. “One of the things I realised during my research is that schools operate like factories. They try to put a frame around the child,” he says.

That said, Alzarooni says schools did not have the privilege to provide individual education services because of population growth. “But that is going to change. Last year was the first year humans above 65 exceeded those aged above 5. By 2080, those aged 65 and above will be 25 per cent of the world’s population. And that changes everything,” he says. Economies change, valuations change, and the way we handle education has to change, he adds.

Plus, the current curriculum of schools worldwide is designed to create employees and occasionally produce entrepreneurs. “With a Dubai curriculum, I want the opposite to happen. I want it to be designed and delivered to meet the new market dynamics and complex social realities,” he adds.

“From teaching methodology to seating configuration, everything in the school is geared towards nurturing enterprising students. We don’t have teachers. Instead, we have mentors. Also, we do not punish our students for failure,” says Alzarooni. Instead, he recommends gearing students to rely on research and team work to achieve success.

The school also made waves for being the first one in the Middle East to allow the use of cryptocurrencies to make payments for tuition fees. It also launched a startup studio to develop and fund student-led ideas in partnership with the leading global education platform, 8billionideas. Alzarooni hopes to replicate this model with other school branches eventually.

Wealth management is key

Alzarooni’s experiences with Citizens School motivated him to diversify into parallel industries that require education. “One of my ventures, SocialGYM, is a wellbeing initiative to educate the public on scientifically-based health practices. I noticed that most of the content consumed on social media lacks scientific validity, and I want to change that by providing reliable information,” he says. Another venture - KANZ Capital - focuses on long-term wealth management.

“Currently, a significant amount of money, approximately $600 billion, sits idle in regional banks due to a lack of financial education because educational institutions do not teach students money management,” he asks. “Managing money should be a fundamental skill that everyone possesses. I aim to address this knowledge gap and empower individuals to make informed financial decisions,” says Alzarooni.

Life++ is the future

His next big venture is a real estate development brand called Life++, a concept emphasising on a ‘good quality life’. “People have never been taught how to live optimally because they have been designed to be merely good employees,” he adds.

With Life++, Alzarooni is looking to create an environment where residents at the development would learn how to live a ‘peaceful life’.

“I hope to eventually onboard my children into the business. I have an extremely supportive family; my wife, my kids, and my brothers and sisters, and my father have entrusted me with their wealth. It’s not an easy thing,” he adds. “My ambition is to pursue foray into several other industries. And I hope to do this for the rest of my life,” says Alzarooni.

Dr Adil Alzarooni’s many roles

Alzarooni holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Etisalat College of Engineering (Khalifa University), an MBA from the American University of Sharjah and a PhD in family businesses and business systems from the British University in Dubai. He is the co-author of ‘Economic Zones: The Essentials’ and the author of ‘Sustaining Family Businesses: The Essentials’. He has penned a fiction title called ‘Red Island’ as well.

He is also:

• Founder of Citizens School

• CEO of Al Zarooni Emirates Investments (ZEI) which invests in multiple sectors and companies such as The Entertainer, Manzil Healthcare, Stonepine, Citizens Education Hub, etc.

• The founder of CapiZona Ventures, which is currently working on the following projects: SocialGYM – Fitness and Wellness, KANZ – Fintech, Unesportsity – Gaming and e-sports.

• CEO of Al Bidayer Holding (the family office founded by Sheikh Mohammed Saud Sultan Saqer Al Qasimi in Sharjah), which has investments in real estate and food and beverage (with franchises of brands like Dunkin’ and Wonderbee)