The year is 2050. The United Arab Emirates will be immersed in a diversified economy of renewable energies and tourism, having sold its final barrel of oil. Blockchain digitization technology will be pervasive, and the Hyperloop will allow consultants to travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai in 12 minutes compared to the four hours it took to drive on pre-infrastructure dirt roads.
Future projections of a moratorium on oil sales in the UAE, financial terrorism, cryptocurrency and emerging mass transit technologies were just a few of the topics that Abdulfattah Sharaf (BA 1994) discussed at Voices of Experience May 16 at the Newman Center for Performing Arts at the University of Denver.
The DU alumnus took the stage to share his wealth of knowledge about financial growth in the Middle East and North African (MENA) markets, gleaned from his position as CEO of HSBC Bank in the United Arab Emirates and head of international markets in the Middle East, where he oversees the bank’s operations in Bahrain, Kuwait and Algeria. Sharaf was previously CEO of personal financial services, Middle East and North Africa, and responsible for all of HSBC’s retail banking business in the MENA region. Prior to joining HSBC Bank Middle East Limited, Sharaf was CEO of NBD Securities, a subsidiary of Emirates NBD.
Daniels College of Business Dean Brent Chrite served as the host and moderator for the event, and COO Yee-Ann Cho introduced Chrite as the best person to interview Sharaf. She also bid farewell to Chrite as he departs the University in June to become president of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“Chrite, who has previously met with Abdulfattah Sharaf at his office in Dubai, is an expert on building individual and institutional economic capacities in challenging emerging markets around the world,” Cho said.
Voices of Experience was held during the University’s alumni weekend, where Sharaf was one of three Distinguished Alumni honorees. Chrite and other University leaders welcomed Sharaf back to DU with a cold and windy round at Arrowhead Golf Course Thursday morning. Chrite apologized for the weather.
“They told me not to bring a jacket this morning,” Sharaf joked to the audience. “They said it will be better in the afternoon. I looked at my watch three hours later and it was still freezing.”
Jesting aside, Sharaf told Chrite, “You’ve been very kind and hospitable; thank you very much.”
Sharaf knows a thing or two about hospitality; he grew up serving tea and coffee to guests at his grandfather’s house, which acted as a hotel to anyone who wanted to visit nearby countries and needed a place to stay.
“It was very important to us that we serve everyone,” Sharaf said. “That’s how it was and how it still is.”
Diplomacy was Sharaf’s intended career path—his father worked for the British Embassy in Dubai.
“Meeting people from different cultures all over the world at the University of Denver and learning about them set me up for success,” Sharaf said in a video that played at the start of the event.
After studying political science at DU, Sharaf first worked in Customs, then tried banking at the National Bank of Dubai and later HSBC—the most widely represented international bank in the Middle East.
“My dream was to work for an international firm,” he said. “I wanted to connect with people as an ambassador, so I thought this was the best place to go work and be connected to people internationally.”
“I feel I’m still a diplomat at HSBC,” Sharaf continued. “I serve all kinds of customers; it’s the same thing that diplomats do, but on the business side.”
When Chrite asked Sharaf which cultural elements resonate most deeply with him as a global businessperson, Sharaf replied that it all boils down to the lesson he learned from his grandfather: providing excellent service.
He added that he attributes his success to two things. First, finding opportunities amid challenges. He said seeing Dubai’s rapid infrastructure development and diversity inspires him—even when he is surrounded by a war zone.
Commenting on HSBC’s new $250 million headquarters, which Chrite described as ‘stunning,’ Sharaf said, “The war zone is around us, but we still have to create the best environment for our people to grow. There’s a lot happening politically in the Middle East but things are moving in the right direction. The learning coming from the West is really improving the Middle East.”
The second thing he attributes to his success is cultivating a diverse and talented team.
“My success comes from my people,” Sharaf shared. “Pick the right people to learn from. If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
He said leadership is also a mindset.
“What makes me an effective leader is being myself,” Sharaf said in his introductory video. “Being open, meeting people and listening to them. The best advice I’ve received was from a boss at National Bank of Dubai who said to me, ‘You decide whether you want to be a leader or a follower. The decision is yours.’”
Chrite ended by asking Sharaf for his advice to the class of 2019. “Follow your passion and do what you love,” he said.
Abdulfattah Sharaf was the third and final speaker of the 2018-2019 Voices of Experience series hosted by the Daniels College of Business, which brings CEOs and significant leaders into the University of Denver community to share the lessons learned from their triumphs, mistakes and decisions as they navigated through their leadership careers. Cho and Chrite thanked representatives from US Bank, Zayo and Newmont Mining for sponsoring the series. For more information, visit the VOE website.