Entrepreneur and philanthropist Zulfi Hussain experienced a tough start to life in the UK. But he vowed he would get an education and make a difference. Suzan Uzel met him.
“Think big, start small, but act now.”
These are words that Zulfi Hussain lives by today, embodying a philosophy which he adopted from a young age.
As an 11-year-old boy, he came to the UK, namely Bradford, from Pakistan with no knowledge of the English language or culture, and no formal prior education.
“I ended up in what they used to call immigrant centres,” Zulfi recalled, “like a school where 100 per cent of the kids were like me, no prior learning experience, so it was just a total waste of time because the whole modern thinking about language learning is language immersion and when you had 100 per cent kids like me you are never going to learn the language.”
When he reached secondary school age, Zulfi was bussed across Bradford from his home in Thornbury to the now extinct Eccleshill Upper School, as part of efforts to integrate young Asians in the community. But this approach presented its own challenges.
“It was one of the roughest, toughest white estate schools in Bradford at the time. The area was also the regional headquarters of the National Front Party so it was not a pleasant place to be,” Zulfi said.
As a teenager, he remembers how he would carry pepper spray and chilli powder with him to defend himself, and he enrolled in karate classes to the same end. “We had to fight our way through school for three years,” he said.
But Zulfi’s father instilled in him early on the importance of getting a good education and the value of making a contribution to society.
Having been a prisoner of war in Burma in the Second World War – and surviving to tell the tale unlike many others – he told his son: “If I can do all that, surely you can get yourself an education. Education is your way out, education, education is king.”
And with those wise words, Zulfi was on his way to better things – and no-one was going to stand in his way. He specialised in engineering early on, acquiring a national diploma in the subject, later studying for a degree in engineering systems and control at the University of Huddersfield. Today, with an MBE under his belt for services to business and charity and an honorary doctorate from the University of Bradford, Leeds-based Zulfi holds a multitude of roles.
He is a high performance coach at telecoms giant BT, the founder of and driving force behind social enterprise Global Promise and co-owner of Farsley restaurant Deeva.
Meanwhile, he has spoken all over the world on his experiences and philosophies, and has written books and articles on social inclusion, coaching and mentoring, equality and diversity, and leadership.
Not forgetting his published selections of poetry and portfolio of property across Yorkshire, it is safe to say Zulfi is a busy man.
“I think it’s really important that all businesses, large and small, have a responsibility to make a befitting contribution to the communities we work in.
“There are still far too many people going hungry, far too many people dying of treatable diseases around the world. I think if each of us put a little bit back we would make a positive difference to people around the world,” said Zulfi.
Global Promise, which is now approaching its seventh anniversary, was launched in response to the devastating tsunami which hit South Asia in 2004. “Just like everyone else I woke up thinking, this is terrible, what should I do?” said Zulfi. He gathered together like-minded people from the business community and began his mission to help the victims of the disaster.
By day four of the campaign, Global Promise had raised its first £1m worth of ‘stuff’ – Zulfi’s term for funds, goods, services and expertise. Within the first eight weeks of operation, £2m had been raised.
Since then, Global Promise has diversified into areas such as enterprise education – helping disadvantaged youngsters, particularly in Bradford, create a better future for themselves – and ‘connecting and building communities’ – getting people of all cultures, religions and backgrounds to engage, breaking down barriers and stereotypes. To date, the organisation has raised more than £6m of ‘stuff’ for a variety of charities, both internationally and closer to home.
Meanwhile, Zulfi has also enjoyed a lengthy career at BT in Yorkshire, working his way up from software design engineer in 1989 to a number of senior roles, including his current position of high performance coach, which sees him coach high level personnel so they reach their full potential.
In the late 1990s, Zulfi was sponsored by BT to do the full-management programme at Leeds Metropolitan University, up to MBA level. “I was supposed to take five years, part-time, but because I was a man in a hurry I did it in three,” recalled Zulfi.
And just under three years ago, Zulfi and a friend, Sanjeev Johar, decided to set up an Indian restaurant in Leeds. “Although it’s a very competitive and crowded market, we wanted to create something that had three elements: one was the ‘wow factor’ for the building which we achieved by converting a very iconic, historical building in Farsley.”
The restaurant occupies what was originally a Wesleyan chapel built in the 1800s, but which was later the Porritt dance school. “We took a big risk and borrowed a lot of money from the bank to convert it into a very modern-looking restaurant. It’s very contemporary but we kept the original features of the building. And the other two key elements are excellent food and service,” said Zulfi. The business, which employs around 12 people, has won a string of awards.
Zulfi, who sits on a number of boards including the Welcome to Yorkshire tourism advisory board, is now taking a share in a Sheffield company called Idea Smiths, specialising in leadership, coaching and change. And despite his busy schedule, Zulfi still found time last year to spend his 50th birthday scaling Everest to raise cash for Marie Curie Cancer Care, Help for Heroes and the National Autistic Society – an experience he describes as “one of the biggest challenges in my life”.
“I’ve had an absolutely magical journey of life so far,” Zulfi said. “I couldn’t have dreamt some of the things I’ve done. I’ve had some wonderful opportunities, I’ve had some wonderful guides, mentors and coaches along the route including my parents, who have helped me along.”
But he added: “It’s been a lot of hard work and determination as well. I’m very much of the belief that chance always favours the prepared mind.”
Zulfi Hussain Factfile
Title: Founder of Global Promise; high performance coach at BT; co-owner of Deeva restaurant in Leeds
Date of birth: 15/10/1961
Place of birth: Pakistan
Education: MBA at Leeds Metropolitan University; BSc in engineering systems and control engineering at Huddersfield University
Currently reading: Screw Business As Usual, By Richard Branson, and The Essence of Rumi, by John Baldock
Car driven: Toyota IQ
First job: Worked as an instrumentation design engineer for the public health labs at Porton Down, Salisbury
Favourite holiday destination: Dubai
Favourite song: Search for the Hero Inside Yourself, by M People
Most proud of: Doing the Everest trek last year