ISMAIL AHMED has been named the third most influential black person in the UK. He escaped civil war in Somaliland in 1991 and founded digital money transfer service, WorldRemit.
How did you start out?
I grew up in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. I won a scholarship to study at the University of London, but war broke out and I got stuck. After an arduous journey overland, I eventually arrived in London to find my scholarship cancelled! Only after lobbying the Somali ambassador was it reinstated.
What happened next?
After I left university, I took a job with the UN aimed at setting up secure money transfers to the Horn of Africa after 9/11. But I uncovered corruption in the programme and blew the whistle. I lost my job. I took my case to the UN Ethics Committee and won. The compensation I received provided the initial seed money to set up WorldRemit.
What have been your best investments?
WorldRemit has been the biggest and best investment. We have made sending and receiving money easier, faster and more convenient for millions of migrants and their families across the world. A big milestone for us was when we managed to raise $40million of investment that allowed us to expand the company to build a truly global business.
What’s your biggest financial regret?
We learn from the mistakes that we make — so I don’t have any regrets on this front. But I do wish I had bought a home earlier. When I was a student, I used to spend a lot of money on international telephone calls, in those days very expensive, to speak to my family back home. My sister jokes the money I spent on telephone calls would have paid for a deposit on a house!
How did you pay for the calls and everything else as a student?
Like many other students, I took other temporary jobs including strawberry picking in Ashford, Kent. The money I earned, I sent back home to support my family and it also paid for many international telephone calls!
Are you a saver or spender?
More of a spender: my wife is a saver — so it all works out.
Cash or card?
Whether I am home or abroad, I use my phone to pay for goods and services. In the UK I use Apple Pay and when I travel to Africa, I use mobile money — where the funds are held on a mobile phone. This is widely accepted and more widely used in many places than traditional banking alternatives. In August, I went back home to Somaliland for three weeks and didn’t touch cash or credit cards once. Mobile money is accepted everywhere and Hargeisa is closer to being a cashless city than anywhere in the world.
Borrow or lend?
We have financed our business by selling equity rather than debt.
What’s your latest impulse buy?
I like online shopping on Amazon — it’s smart at suggesting items that we will enjoy. Our latest purchase is a video camera.
Do you consider yourself savvy with personal finance?
Let’s just say that I never make the ISA deadline!
What advice would you have for budding entrepreneurs?
Work on something you are passionate about — you are more likely to overcome the challenges. I have always been very passionate about international remittances because it provides a lifeline to millions of poor people. When we launched in Canada we did not fully understand online payments there. It took us almost a year to get traction for the business. No amount of market research prepares you for the reality on the ground.