Mountaineer Omar Samra was ready for a challenge when he set off to row across the Atlantic in 2017. But he and his teammate Omar Nour weren’t ready for what came next.
On the 4,800 km Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, their boat capsized during a storm with 45-knot winds. It failed to self-right and crashed into eight-meter waves. The two Egyptians were hurled into the ocean and left clinging to a lifeboat that wouldn’t fully inflate. For 13 hours they waited for a miracle.
Help finally did arrive in the form of a passing cargo ship, but that wasn’t the end of their troubles. Their rescue was told in Beyond the Raging Sea, a work-in-progress documentary presented at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Samra saw a tiny glimpse of the perilous journeys migrants make each year – risking their lives in search of better ones.
Is there opportunity in adversity, he wondered? Samra teamed up with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to follow their story and draw attention to the plight of refugees crossing dangerous seas. The two experiences appeared to strike a resemblance. Samra says, “I could never have known just how closely our two stories were inextricably linked.”
“People have become desensitised to the refugee crisis,” he says. “It has become faceless and just about statistics. We felt that we could help stir up a different dialogue. We wanted to find creative ways to turn this challenge into something positive.”
This sentiment threads together Samra’s grittiest and most successful endeavours.
"We wanted to find creative ways to turn this challenge into something positive."
“I never saw myself as an entrepreneur,” admits the London Business School graduate. In 2005 when Samra embarked on an MBA he made himself two business-school promises: don’t climb any mountains, don’t take a job in banking.
Yet four weeks into his masters, Samra discovered that classmate Ben Stephens was putting together a mountaineering team. He was in: “I just threw all caution out the window and signed up.” Climbing Mount Everest was a childhood dream. “I was asthmatic at age 11. I thought, what better way to prove to myself that I could overcome it than to get to the top of the world where there is very little oxygen!”
Over 65 days he, Stephens, Greg Maud, another LBS student, and friend Victoria James toiled their way to the top. On 17 May 2007, Samra became the first Egyptian and youngest Arab to summit Everest, age 28.
As for banking? “I left a career in investment banking to join London Business School, to chart a new path.” After the MBA, he landed a private equity job – hands-on management experience with portfolio companies was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Two years later, in April 2009, Samra climbed Carstenz Pyramid, the highest mountain in Australasia as part of a project to complete the Seven Summits. “The experience was out of this world. I met remote tribes and learned from nature. I could see that there was so much more to life. It made sense for me to design my own unique path.” Galvanised, he quit his job.
Wild Guanabana, the Middle East and North Africa’s first carbon-neutral adventure travel company, is Samra’s idea born at the peak of the world’s financial crisis.
He ploughed his life’s savings and all his energy into making it work. Determined to give his first customer an unforgettable, authentic experience, Samra spent more than what he made on ensuring his first client got a “life-changing journey” – the company’s tagline. By the end of 2009, business had picked up and moving into 2010 he started to think, “Well, maybe this entrepreneurship thing isn't so hard.”
When Egypt’s revolution erupted onto the streets in January 2011, tourism, the country’s traditional economic growth driver, took a hit: Samra faced more than 80% cancellations. “The business looked like it was going to shut down,” he admits. Samra doubled down and recognised that 15% of revenue flowed from the Gulf region. “So I took an exploratory trip to Dubai.”
Samra won support from Sahara Global Investment, a UAE-based family-run fund, and was able to open an office in a more politically stable Dubai.
“I learned a lot of valuable lessons through that experience. The resilience and perseverance that it takes you to climb a mountain versus what it takes you to start a company: in many ways, being an entrepreneur is more challenging because there’s no respite. It's relentless. Day-in, day-out. It's dealing with doubt in your head. It’s people telling you, go back to what you were doing.”
Still, he stuck with it.
For two years, the business grew steadily. However, without warning in June 2013, Samra suffered the tragic loss of his wife, Marwa Fayed. Broken-hearted, he faced running the business without her while living with grief. “Marwa worked with me on the business very closely. Her loss sent the company into disarray. I couldn’t work. Our team couldn’t work. I thought we would have to fold.”
Eventually, Samra found a way to build something in Marwa’s name: “Back in 2010, my beautiful wife decided that every child has the right to a toy; a loving friend and companion to nourish their creative minds,” he says. Samra brought her initiative back to life. What started as a one-off event in August 2013 quickly grew to become Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run (MFTR), a charity that collects unwanted toys from cities around the world and shares them with children who need them most. To date they have collected over 100,000 toys. It became his main focus.
By the end of 2013, the charity won Humanitarian Project of the Year from MBC Al-Amal. It was awarded a grant to scale. Samra bravely shared his grief in a series of posts on Brandon Stanton’s famous Humans of New York blog project, hoping it might bring comfort to others.
Reflecting now, Samra says: “It’s been a really difficult journey but I’ve learned that sometimes one can find beauty in extreme hardship and turn it into something positive. Whenever you adapt to a challenge, you turn it into an opportunity.”
“Like I said, it’s been a tumultuous journey.” In fact, Samra readily admits that he doesn’t know what it's like to operate in a buoyant economy or with the odds in his favour. “I went from world financial crisis to Egyptian political revolution to the loss of my wife.” But he does have advice for anyone hoping to achieve their dream – whether that’s to scale a mountain, row the Atlantic or grow a business.
1. Break it down
“Anything can seem daunting when you first look at it. Climbing Mount Everest, you see the mountain looming as you're walking up to it. It looks terrifying. But as you get closer, as you break down the expedition into 65 days, take one day at a time, one hour at a time, it starts to become manageable.”
2. Don’t listen to the sceptics
“No-one can tell you what you can and what you cannot do. I'm a great believer in the human spirit, and that the human spirit can endure and succeed, but you have to believe that you can do it. So define success not as achieving the goal or reaching the summit of the mountain, but purely as the endeavour. If you wake up every morning and do your best on any given day, then you have already succeeded. The outcome is a bonus.”
3. Embrace uncertainty
“As human beings, 99% of anything that happens is completely out of our control. It would be foolish to think that we have any measure of control in this vast universe. We only have control over are our own actions and words – and they are two very powerful things. But what usually happens is that people spend most of their time worrying about what could go wrong and they become paralysed. You need to believe in the beauty of your journey and take risks.”
As Egypt’s Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme, Samra has been appointed to promote and advocate for the planet’s protection and youth empowerment.
“My partnership with the UN has been special, and it has allowed me the opportunity to combine whatever limited resources I have with the vast resources and network that the UN has to further my work and do more good.” Samra is focused on generating support for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and speaks regularly at education and development conferences to this end. He is also a regular motivational speaker with companies around the world, drawing on from his unique story that draws parallels between his adventures and the business world.
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