Icon: From India To UAE Royalty, He Guides Impact Investing

Zulfiquar Ghadiyali’s roots in investment and philanthropy are built on three generations of real estate, mining, and a familial ethos for civic and social impact. We caught up on his Middle East impact investment firm “One World Business Group,” and his unique role in steering impact and investments within the UAE Royal Family.

Brendan Doherty: How did you first get into impact investing?

Zulfiquar Ghadiyali: I come from three generations of philanthropists, real estate investors, and a mining family in India. Almost 100 years ago, the British government consulted my family about policies in the Indian villages and even then, despite the challenges of that time, we kept our local relationships strong because we always gave back to society. I’ve learned in my life that money comes and goes but relationships last. So as a family, historically, we’ve worked a lot on impact — but back then it was more charitable giving than investing. 

Doherty: Were there some specific business lessons that your family passed along?

Ghadiyali: Long ago I was with my grandfather at his shop where he sold watches and alarm clocks. One day, another guy opens a shop next door selling the same wares. My grandpa was very happy about this, which I didn’t understand. He explained that competition was good because everyone has more options when there’s more competition. I learned from him that’s how you make a bigger, better economy. That’s the whole idea behind social impact investing for me. If I have money, rather than putting it in the bank or buying some crypto asset, I’d rather give that money to 100 more people and empower them and make 100,000 more employable people, and 100 more enterprises. They say when God gives you resources, make a bigger table rather than make bigger walls. So that’s where I come from. 

Doherty: You’ve had the unique chance to guide investments for the UAE royal family. How did you steer that corpus toward impact investing?

Ghadiyali: I started an initiative almost five years ago when I began my role at the office of H.H. Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Saeed bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan. Many people assume that private offices for the UAE royal family have billions of dollars. That’s not the case. Their sovereign wealth fund, like the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, does have a lot of money because the royal family pools their wealth into one common trust. But each royal family member’s private office must generate its own cash flow, and in our case we generated a lot of cash. Instead of just simply going to London or Manhattan to buy a trophy asset we decided to invest in emerging technology and in projects that help alleviate poverty. And for me, development doesn’t mean just smart cities and tall buildings. It can be smart villages that have beautiful farmland, great schools, and hospitals. 

Doherty: I agree, we need economic mobility in cities and rural areas. From a perspective of impact investing, where do you think the UAE is on its journey?

Ghadiyali: This whole trend, in my opinion, began in the UAE or at least in the Mideast. In Islam there’s a concept of “zakat,” or the concept of a religious tax, which is 2.5% of one’s income. The money taken as part of this tax has to go toward uplifting society at-large through various social initiative projects. So impact investing is a part of our religious upbringing. I believe the answer is not capitalism, socialism, or communism. It’s about welfare economics, which works for the well-being of everyone. My cultural and religious teaching begins there. The whole idea of Islamic finance revolves around welfare economics. It doesn’t charge interest, it doesn’t exploit, and there’s a fixed profit share. I think that’s a well-driven economy by itself and the world can take a cue from it. I mean, imagine if everybody started to believe in helping each other and society at-large. There would be a lot more impact investing.

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Doherty: It’s true that culture and faith can deeply shape our economic system. What do you think is behind the UAE’s approach to impact, what’s really driving it?

Ghadiyali: I think their approach is partly driven by religion and partly driven by the region, where there are issues of image management. Some people think they’re just rich oil money who want to throw that money in London, New York, or Lake Como. I think there’s a need to shift perceptions and I think the UAE has been at the forefront. The Saudis are also in a transformation mode. Today, almost 49% of the government jobs in the UAE are held by women and some of the biggest initiatives revolve around gender equality and creating an economy that works for everyone. There’s also a serious focus on renewable energies. Even as the second largest oil exporter to the world, the UAE has committed to cut fossil fuels by 60-70% by 2030. I think they’re very serious about their commitments toward the Sustainable Development Goals. The attitude is more “why not?” when focusing on futuristic ideas. I mean, look at digital banking or cryptocurrency exchanges – these are very well supported by the royal family offices as part of an entire ecosystem that’s been created.

Doherty: Your company One World Business Group, was it one of the first impact investing offices in the Middle East?

Ghadiyali: I don’t want to take credit as the first but it’s certainly one of the first. When we began this journey and launched One World, the idea was to create a structured platform where investors meet entrepreneurs and the ideas are strictly impact-driven and visible. Projects that are focused on gender equality, building up rural economies, helping renewable energies, and others. When we started, we signed up a lot of investors and mentors who could help these young entrepreneurs define a proper business plan and scale it.

Doherty: Do you focus on specific sectors like climatetech or real estate?

Ghadiyali: We’re sector agnostic. We focus wherever there is an opportunity for impact. One example is we bought a small stake in an organic fertilizer company that helps solve farmland deterioration. The soil is losing its nutrient value with the constant use of inorganic fertilizers and creating very low output from the farmland. Some farmers are even committing suicide because they’re not able to pay expenses, especially in India and Africa. Another example is that we went into areas where women were forced into marriage because they were considered “unproductive” members of the household. We said, “Okay, if you believe that 50% of the population is ‘unproductive,’ why not offer them skill-development opportunities?” Last year around Christmas during a peak in the pandemic, we went into villages and taught women how to make candles and chocolates. I mean it sounds naive and simple but we had 7000 women enroll in just two days in a very remote part of India. And then we were able to approach companies and say, “Instead of buying from big brands, why don’t you give us a chance and purchase from these women?” We were able to offer these women a way to serve their families with dignity.

Doherty: How actively are you impact investing in India

Ghadiyali: India is my primary market and country of origin, so we have substantial involvement here. We’re involved in many women-driven projects like the one I mentioned. There’s also been a push for climate related investments with a focus on cutting emissions and adding greener cars. There’s also many private-public partnerships. A perfect example is a company called Ola, which secured a $2 billion investment to set up an electric vehicle and bike plant in India. We’ve also partnered with a couple initiatives looking at ways to commercialize hydrogen technology that matches current energy pricing. We’re also working in the pharmaceutical space on cancer research with one of the premier institutions in India called Tata Memorial Hospital. We can make money in our sleep, but for us it’s about making the right investment and generating the right cash flows in an ethical manner.

Doherty: Such great momentum and impact, I love it. Any last words? 

Ghadiyali: I’m not here to chase anyone for money, and I don’t like to be chased for money either. That’s never a healthy exchange of ideas. I like to be engaged in conversation about how to make this world a better place. I’m not a tree hugger but I believe that if you have to cut down trees, then replant them in smart ways. I’m a practical guy looking to have a deep impact.

Doherty: You and I both! Thanks, Zulfiquar.

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