This past weekend I attended a conference at Wharton Business School that focused on reshaping the future of the Middle East. I knew very little about the region and initially pictured the conference to be a boring day full of lectures about topics that were way over my head. I also figured that the people attending were prestigious business men and women with whom I could never compare. However, I left the conference more confident in my abilities and knowledge, more interested in global events, and more inspired than when I had initially come. It was one of the most interesting and unbelievable opportunities I have ever experienced. I was surrounded by people I typically don't come across in my day-to-day high school world such as business school students from Wharton, investment bankers, professional writers and successful entrepreneurs. And since I was amongst the youngest there, I found myself looking up to these people. I was amazed by their accomplishments, their immense amount of knowledge, and their attitudes toward life. I will forever remember the advice my classmates and I were given that day, as it does not just apply to the business world but life itself.
Before the conference began my entrepreneurship teacher introduced us to Henri Asseily, founder of Shopzilla (which was later acquired for over half a billion dollars). I first noticed his laid-back attire, as everyone else was dressed in suit and tie, and his modest attitude. I also found it interesting that he did not react to a group of seven high school students as if he were much more important than us but he accepted us as peers. After talking to us and telling us more about his life, he shared the following advice with us, "Don't let anyone tell you you can't. They will always say you're too young, but you're not. Age doesn't matter." As clichéd as it sounded, it had a great impact on me because it was coming from such a hardworking and honorable man.
Next, we shuffled into the first keynote address given by Joe Saddi, chairman of the consulting firm Booz & Company. He spoke about the economic growth in the Middle East and his main point was that the unemployment rates of the young people (15-25) in this region must improve. After getting past his Arab accent and my three pages of notes, I found his presentation to be very intriguing. Since I was included in this age group, I found his points to be very relatable, even though I didn't live in the Middle East. Then the floor opened up to questions. Many questions came from other CEOs, college professors, graduate students, or writers, and, although intimidated by their professional attitudes, I never lost interest.
After the keynote address I attended the entrepreneurship panel in which Christopher Schroeder (an Internet entrepreneur, advisor, investor, and writer), Henri Asseily, and Anthony Rabih Kory (CEO at Spreengs which launched the Internet's first video greeting card) all participated. This panel was hosted in a very personal style, which helped it to be less intimidating and easier for me and the other students to get involved. After the panel had finished, we were able to meet with Christopher Schroeder and discuss the entrepreneurship classes we're taking at school and pitch a business idea to him. This one-on-four meeting was a great opportunity to meet with someone who was such an important figure at the conference and had taken time out of his schedule to meet with high school students. His open and encouraging attitude was so comforting and boosted my self-confidence as a young entrepreneur. Christopher, like Henri, amazed me with his open and modest attitude.
Alex Shalaby, chairman of Egypt's mobile company Mobinili, gave another keynote presentation on the digital revolution in the Middle East and the growth of mobile phone use. I felt that this presentation, since it focused greatly on the younger generation, related directly to me and my future and I found it very interesting. My confidence had grown throughout the day and I felt comfortable asking a question among the other prestigious business men and women. It was at this moment that I was truly inspired by the successful people that surrounded me. When I asked my question (as unintelligent as it may have sounded to the others), I held the undivided attention of not only the speaker, but also all of the people in the lecture hall. I felt their respect and was confronted afterwards by many people who were impressed with my ability to step up and participate. I was amazed by their encouragement, advice, and accepting attitudes.
To conclude, I would like to state how dumbfounded I was that I had not encountered one "snotty" millionaire or business person as I had expected and that I never lost interest throughout the duration of the conference. I was welcomed into the international business world by open, accepting, and modest people who have inspired me to grow as an entrepreneur. As I embark on launching my first business, I'll remember the advice of Henri Asseily who said to never let anyone tell me that I can't.