Ali didn’t just learn a lot from his course. He learned a lot from spending time in the labs at Imperial too. “They were amazing,” he remembers. “So I started buying things through the College so I could build microprocessors.”
One of the things he convinced the College to buy was a newly released Apple II Computer. He built another computer inside this and turned it into an industrial engine, which could drive an x-ray microanalyser. These weren't cheap. But Ali built one at a fraction of their regular price. This made him popular, with several of the College’s departments asking him to work for them.
That was the moment when Imperial suggested he set up a company. With their encouragement, Ali founded Appropriate Technology, or Aptec, for short. “Then they said ‘Why don’t you sell your idea to major companies outside of Imperial?’ And that’s exactly what I did.”
Ali’s ideas caught the attention of several national and international companies, including Cambridge Electronics and CAMECA in France. “I found I could sell stuff and explain complicated technology in a simple way,” he says. For Ali, this was the start of his entrepreneurial journey. “I left Imperial after finishing my PhD and decided to keep on building the company.” But that’s not all he did.
I’ve always been fascinated by building tech that helps people do something different or useful. I volunteered with charities as a student, offering my tech expertise. I worked with the Commonwealth Science Council on solar and methane gas technology to generate power. I developed models for rural development, replicating tech in countries to overcome language barriers so people could copy what they see.
His original idea for Aptec was to use tech to make people’s lives better. “I took it to countries where computer language wasn’t widely understood. These were countries that at the time had no idea what computers could do. We kept going from there.”
Admit you don’t know
Ali’s learnt a lot along the way that he can pass on to others. First and foremost, "When it comes to family, it’s very important to maintain a good work life balance. For me, family will always come first. My wife Samaa and my sons Adam and Ramsey have been great supporters."
It's important to Ali to support the next generation of founders and innovators. “I’ve mentored entrepreneurs for a long time. Many don’t make it because they focus on one thing and think they know everything. One of the most important things to realise is you don’t. You might be good at what you do but not good at finance, accounting, cash flow management, maybe even people management.”
You need to realise what your weaknesses are and bring in people who can add value to what you know. It’s very important to get to grips with money. If you’re not interested, get someone who can take care of it. If you don’t, you’ll quickly overspend or buy what you like and never manage the company financially.
In the first ten years of running Aptec, Ali relied on support from his Chief Financial Officer. “Gradually you learn how to look at profit and loss, balance sheets and KPIs, if you’re interested. But if you’re not, leave it to the experts.”
Use everyday language
Ali says talking in layman’s terms is important. “If you want to make a good idea popular, you’ve got to talk everybody’s language. You’ve got to translate it into something people will know.”
“I see many technical people who hide behind tech terms and try to be impressive. That doesn’t work, even for me. People shouldn’t be shy in asking what someone really means. I’d rather be asked what I really mean than have someone pretend to know, walk away and never see them again.”
A love for storytelling
Ali thinks his ability to explain complicated ideas in simple ways comes from his love of storytelling. “There are a lot of kids in my family. You have to come down to their level to tell them something that’s meaningful to them.”
“As a child, I loved watching cartoons. Then as a student, I got involved with using cameras. I built tech to help edit movies. That’s when I bumped into some people who were making educational films.” Ali suggested they make them interactive. “I remember John Cleese doing some good educational films at the time. But these were passive.”
Together the group formed Interactive Information Systems, with them shooting the films and Ali building the tech to edit them. They created 20 interactive educational movies, covering topics like finance and selling. Once again, Ali’s ingenuity got him noticed. “Andrew Lloyd-Webber and his company, The Really Useful Group, came along. They offered to buy the company and that’s when we sold it.”
But Ali’s involvement in film didn’t stop there. “I wanted to find people who could make stories that educate, or introduce people to a new concept.” He has since produced several films including Yomeddine, which went to the Cannes Film Festival in 2018. Ali liked the film because it “addressed a number of issues in a nice way, like leprosy, and how religion can be a barrier between people but shouldn’t.”
Today, Ali is Senior Vice President & CEO of the META region at Ingram Micro, a Fortune 100 company with revenues of $50 billion. He’s responsible for overseeing the company’s cyber security and AI solutions. Although he sold Aptec to Ingram Micro in 2012, he continues to serve the company he founded. “That’s what keeps me busy. I get lots of flexibility and leeway in what I can do. I hope I can offer them value.”
There’s no doubt he is, especially in 2020. “It’s been a weird year. In spite of COVID-19, we came up with many products assisting with the pandemic. Like AI software that helps CCTV cameras monitor people’s temperature, and identifies if they’re wearing masks or not while hiding their faces to stay in-line with GDPR and data privacy laws. This is being used in airports and shopping centres. We donated much of this technology. It’s not just about making money.”
Don’t be shy
Ali has plenty of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. One piece is to have a bit of courage. “You can go beyond your own expectations and can even get a response you never thought you’d get. Back in the late 1980s, we needed to go to an exhibition abroad. The Department of Trade and Industry were latent in issuing us an export licence. We didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t travel with this kit to another country.”
So, he encouraged his brother and business partner Essam to write to 10 Downing Street. Soon after, they got a letter from then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher giving the go-ahead to export their kit. “Don’t be shy of doing whatever it takes, as long as it's ethical and within the law.”
Separate work and ownership
Ali got another good bit of career guidance when he was starting Aptec, from his good friend and then auditor Allister Campbell.
When you sell a company and become a minority shareholder or board member, you decide things for the benefit of the shareholder, and separate that shareholder from the way you do things as an employee.
“If you own a company and you’re going to work in it, you’ve got to be an employee. Separate the two. You’re not better than your colleagues. Some people mix the two and think they have more say as an owner, more power. But you have to separate them.”
No such thing as legacy
There’s a lot that Ali could look back on and be proud of. But the work continues. “Some people ask why don’t you write a book? I don’t think of legacies. What’s important is the people I mentor and work with can carry on with the journey. That’s far more important than being recognised or leaving a so-called legacy.”
"The world faces so many challenges. If we can make a small contribution to help communities or industries and have fun while doing it, that’s great."
Ali says people shouldn't be afraid of making mistakes. “As long as you learn from them, it’s a blessing. And enjoy what you do.”
I don’t believe in retirement. What I do is my hobby. As long as I’m able to keep doing it, that’s a blessing.
Follow Ali's journey: connect on LinkedIn.