Leadership

7 Questions with Emad Rizkalla

The much-decorated Newfoundland tech entrepreneur on what success means to him

Written by As told to PROFIT Staff

What drives entrepreneurs? What caused them to start their first startup, and what pushes them to keep going? To find out, we ask some of Canada’s most successful serial entrepreneurs 7 Questions.

Photo: Bluedrop Performance Learning

In this instalment, we talk to Emad Rizkalla. The Newfoundland entrepreneur launched his first venture out of a class project at Memorial University over three decades ago, and founded current enterprise Bluedrop Performance Learning in 2004. The company is listed on the Toronto Venture Exchange following a reverse takeover of Serbera in 2012. Rizkalla received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013 in recognition of his contribution to Canada’s information and technology sector.

TIME Magazine once named Rizkalla one of eight “young dynamic entrepreneurs who will create the 21st century.” A few years into the century, we asked Rizkalla to explain what makes his entrepreneurial life so rewarding.

Question 1: When did you know you wanted to become an entrepreneur?

I don’t think I realized it that I wanted to be an entrepreneur until I found myself leading a start up. This first start up, Zedd Technologies, was formed in 1992 with some of my university classmates to commercialize our final-term engineering class project.

For mechanical engineering graduates in Newfoundland in 1992, jobs were scarce—only one person in my class had a job within six months of graduating! Zedd was a scheme of sorts to further our class project so that we could sell it to a local company, and raise enough money to move to Vancouver.

Through that process I discovered that I loved running a business. I loved waking up every day with the thought of creating something from nothing—and doing it with people I respected.

Question 2: Who is your entrepreneurial role model, and why?

My parents. As immigrants to Canada, they took the ultimate risk for a young family. They moved in their 30s to a country with a vastly different climate, culture and language. And they came with little money, to start again from zero with the hope of a pay-off and a better life. But their desired pay-off was not for themselves, it was for their children. I admire that profoundly.

By watching them struggle to establish themselves with great tenacity and dignity, I learned that risk is relative, problems and success are all relative. By comparison, nothing I have ever done in business is riskier or more courageous than their story.

In Egypt, my father was running several businesses simultaneously, in addition to his work as a meteorologist. He sacrificed his entrepreneurial aspirations by coming to Canada, because he couldn’t quite get the same business momentum going in this foreign environment.

I am driven to succeed in part to acknowledge their sacrifice.

Question 3: What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started your business?

I wish I had been more discerning about people. An idealist at heart, I assume the best. I fall in love with potential, which is as galvanizing as it dangerous. In the past I have dismissed flaws and gaps in people, while ignoring my own gut level concerns. I have been burned by that several times.

Now I find I need to fight my idealism when deciding who to work with. Choosing the wrong people is one of the most costly mistakes an entrepreneur can make.

Question 4: What is the hardest thing you’ve had to do as a business leader?

Entrepreneurs struggle with life issues like everyone else. But when our personal lives come crashing down, we sometimes can’t afford to take that sick day.

I was in San Antonio, Texas at a conference some 10 years ago. I had just received some devastating personal news, and I was walking around in a daze. It was 110 degrees and I found myself walking around the Alamo. All that were missing from the scene were buzzards overhead.

At this time, I received an urgent call from a senior person in the company. In the middle of this darkest chapter of my personal life, he informed me that my firm was likely to go bankrupt. He had made a critical error in a contract negotiation with a major client—an account we needed to stay solvent. The client had walked, and were giving the contract to another firm. I pulled myself together, called the client, and convinced them to give us a second chance. Compartmentalizing my personal distress in order to deal with this critical business issue was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and I still consider it moment one of my greatest achievements.

As Bob Marley said, “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.”

Question 5: How do you prioritize your time?

I definitely know my priorities, but I often try to take on too much and get sucked into things I am passionate about. I am incredibly thankful for the people in my life who help me fit those priorities into my day.

Question 6: How do you define success?

To me, success means making a difference in the world and helping those who did not win the lottery I won—the lottery of place, time and circumstance.

I am not driven by amassing and gorging on personal wealth, but I do value the ability to make lots and lots of money. Why? Because I can, and that is an opportunity few people get. I am aware of how blessed I am to have moved to Canada and how my trajectory was altered by the sacrifices of others. Squandering my talent, opportunity, and potential to build vast wealth would be wrong.

I think the best reason to have too much money is to give it away. I get to do what I love every day with the hope that I will be able to use my position, my capital and my beliefs to help those less fortunate. I also feel very lucky that some of the work we do at Bluedrop makes a difference to thousands of people who need a leg up.

Question 7: What excites you most about your company’s future?

We are set for great things in 2015 and significant things are around the corner. As the CEO of a public company, I can’t reveal anything more. But I am confident that Bluedrop has a real shot at disrupting and changing the way people qualify for jobs and maintain their ability to succeed at work. We aim to make a difference on a profound scale.

MORE SUCCESSFUL ENTREPRENEURS SHARE THEIR INFLUENCES AND STRUGGLES:

Have you recently reached a big milestone in your entrepreneurial career? Would you like to answer our 7 Questions? Email us your pitch.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com