How Getting Rejected From Every University in Saudi Arabia Helped Me Launch a 5-Million Dollar Business

Photo courtesy of the USDA.

Photo courtesy of the USDA.

In the nineties, I was rejected from every university in Saudi Arabia. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. That experience taught me that failure does not mean what most people, maybe even you, think it means.

Today, I encourage Saudis to drop out of school, abandon their family businesses, and quit their jobs if it helps them get serious about entrepreneurship. I do this knowing very well that there is a serious chance their new start-ups or ventures will fail, and that this failure is exactly what could make them successful.

If you want to learn my definition of failure, and find out how getting rejected from every university in Saudi Arabia helped me get to where I am today, please keep reading this article.

The First Root of Failure: The Failure to Dream

To better understand failure, look at the problems we are having with our economy. The real issue is not just a shortage of jobs or limited circulation of cash. What is really holding our economy back is the fear of failure. People are very scared of being judged as unsuccessful.

Because of the fear of failure, we Saudis stopped dreaming. When we stopped dreaming, we stopped innovating. And when we stopped innovating, our economy dried up. We traded hope for safety. Because we gave away our power, the same millionaire families, now billionaires, have controlled our economy since the 70s.

But the future of our economy depends on our ability to innovate. Once we get enough people dreaming again, their dreams will grow into new businesses, these new businesses will create new jobs, and we will build the entrepreneurial environment this country needs.

The first cause of failure we Saudis need to overcome is the failure to dream.

The Second Root of Failure: The Failure to Begin

Many people never start working toward their dreams because they think these dreams are impossible. These are the people who say there will never be a billion-dollar Saudi start-up. But before you join them in calling big dreams impossible, let me remind you of the story of Mohammed Bin Laden.

Mohammed bin Laden was born in 1908 on the coast of south Yemen. He grew up poor, uneducated, and illiterate. His father died when he was a child. When Mohammed bin Laden first came to Jeddah, he worked as a porter. Then, in the 1930s, when he was in his twenties, he started his own construction company. He earned his success by bidding low on contracts and working reliably. You know the rest of the story. His company helped build the Kingdom as it stands today.

So, what if you woke up tomorrow in the same situation Mohammed bin Laden was in when he came here? If you woke up without your house, without your money, without your university degree, and without your family, would your risk of failure really be higher than it is now?

If you understand what failure truly is, you will see that it does not matter. Beginning to work toward what you love, no matter what your situation, can only bring you closer to success.

So, the second cause of failure we Saudis need to overcome is the failure to begin working toward “impossible” dreams.

The Third Root of Failure: The Failure to Make Mistakes

It is resistance to change that is holding our economy and our future entrepreneurs back. Changing means taking risks, and taking risks means making mistakes. I know how painful that can be, but I also know much it helped me.

I moved closer to success in 1994, when every university in Saudi Arabia, and even many in other countries, rejected me. The reason I moved closer to success is that I changed my strategy. I began to frame my rejection letters, not because I was proud of my situation, but because something had to keep me motivated. In 1996, I wrote a letter to the rector of King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals pleading to be allowed to go to classes, not even as a full-time student, but just as a learner. Although I had done nothing to earn it, he responded by giving me a full scholarship.

I moved closer to success in 2004, when I launched my own start-up with only 30,000 riyals in the bank, naive and ready to change my life. And I moved closer to success in 2011, when I attended the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Summit, ready to change my thinking by learning more about entrepreneurship from a global prospective.

There is nothing special about me that you, the future entrepreneur reading this right now, do not have. I have a willingness to fail and keep trying, but you can choose to adopt this attitude, too.

You can decide to start early and make as many useful mistakes as you can. The younger you are, the more you will learn from your mistakes. As you get older, your life will weigh heavier around you, and your mistakes will hurt more. Soon, you will be 40 or 50, and although it is never too late to start, you will find yourself thinking that it is too late for you to change. But the truth is that as long as you keep making mistakes, you will keep moving closer to success.

The third cause of failure we Saudis need to overcome is the failure to make mistakes.

The Core: What Failure Truly Means

Despite what society may tell you, failure is not falling into poverty, dropping out of school, angering your family, or even shutting down your business. These old ideas of failure are what is holding our economy back. To change our economy, we need innovation. To start innovating, we need to go back to dreaming.

So, what is failure?

Failure is refusing to change.

The rich businessman who is sitting in his office, doing work he does not love because he is afraid to change his life, he is the failure. The student attending class after class, studying something she does not like; the young man working in his family business without room for innovation; and the employee sitting down again to do the same routine job are failing themselves.

The young innovator who is broke, but always learning more about what he loves, is succeeding. Because as long as he keeps working to improve himself and change the economy for the better, he cannot fail. As soon as he starts working toward his dream, he is succeeding.

So, whatever your entrepreneurial dream is, start working toward it today. Because as long as you keep learning from your mistakes and improving yourself, you will never fail.

Readers: what is your entrepreneurial dream? Post in the comments section below and share it with the world.


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