On Valentine’s Day 2007, a 19-year-old man arrived in Halifax from Yemen to start his Bachelor of Commerce degree at Dalhousie. Akram Al-Otumi spoke limited English, and knew almost no one. Still, he describes his immigrant experience as “pleasant, pleasant, pleasant,” though it took time to settle in.
Now 27, he says with a beaming smile, “I have many friends in Halifax, friends that I consider family. I decided to stay in this beautiful place, and I’m a big promoter of it.”
Not only does he have many friends, he’s become a key part of the international and entrepreneurship communities. On June 24, at a gala event in Toronto, Akram was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Immigrants. The only winner from Atlantic Canada, he’s in impressive company with fellow winners Arlene Dickinson, CEO of Venture Communications and star of CBC’s Dragon’s Den, and Amit Chackma, president and vice-chancellor of Western University. Previous winners include NBA basketball star Steve Nash and recording artist K’naan.
“I was very, very happy and excited to win,” says Akram. “At the same time, it raised my ambitions. I wasn’t expecting any of this attention, but it’s fuelling my energy to mentor and help out more people.”
Meanwhile, Akram picked up another honour: He’s one of 21 Leaders of the 21st Century chosen from among 600 applicants to participate in a 10-month mentorship program put on by 21inc., a non-profit that supports young entrepreneurs.
From frustration to opportunity
So how is a young man who didn’t speak much English seven years ago attracting so much attention?
It started when he chose Dalhousie. He applied to a lot of universities, but came for the excellent reputation of Dal’s business program. Through the New Venture Creation course, Akram formed Azal Student Agency, which provides customized settlement services for international students and newcomers.
“When I came here as a student, I had that experience of frustration,” he explains. Using the leverage from his award and the mentorship he’ll receive in the coming year, he plans to increase the Azal Agency’s impact and transition from doing individual services to establishing multiple student societies at different universities and language institutes. “The impact would be a lot larger, and many more students would be trained to help each other. I want to facilitate that process.”
But it doesn’t end there. Akram also wants to establish youth attraction and retention programs for Nova Scotia and other provinces, aimed at both local and newcomer youths. “Nova Scotia has what it takes to make young people successful,” he says. “I want to work together to create an ecosystem to support young Canadians and international students to come to Nova Scotia.”
He sees expanding his business to embrace all youth, not just international students, as the key to tapping its full potential. “All these pieces interconnect. International students are ready to give and work. The retention rate is low and we can do a lot better. Young Canadians need mentorship and networking.”
Enthusiasm, passion and potential
And don’t worry about Akram not having enough to do. As of last week, he is manager of entrepreneurial programs and projects at the Norman Newman Centre for Entrepreneurship in the Faculty of Management at Dal. He’s also a consultant with Common Good Solutions, where he helps organizations build independence through social enterprise. He recently co-founded 3D Next, a 3D printing consulting firm, with fellow Dal alum Michael Groenendyk. He’s a member of Fusion Halifax’s Immigration and Diversity Action Team. He founded Dal’s chapter of Enactus, the largest student entrepreneurial organization in the world, now sits on its advisory board, and has started the Enactus NS Alumni Network. He is also past president of WUSC at Dalhousie.
Plus there’s the Masters of Leadership degree he’ll be starting at Royal Roads University in January.
Akram credits his family in Yemen with keeping him going, supporting him no matter what. “They know my love for Canada is big! Since day one, they taught me the importance of giving.”
Starting new ventures is more than a career for Akram: it’s his hobby, his passion, his life. “I do believe in making good money and, at the same time I believe in giving, helping people and helping others. It’s a balance.”
Akram pauses, his enthusiasm hovering like electricity in the air. “The main thing I’m interested in is provincial prosperity. Human capital is our greatest treasure. We have the resources in Nova Scotia, a lot of untapped opportunities. I believe the positive power of entrepreneurship can create the jobs we need.”
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