I am Sanjay Shah, an entrepreneur and philanthropist. Though I’m British by birth, I live in dynamic Dubai with my beautiful wife and children.
As you’ve probably discovered by now, I like to keep busy. This blog is a place for me to collect and share my thoughts about my philanthropic work, my business endeavors, and anything else that catches my fancy. Ultimately, my goal is to give back—to pass on the lessons I’ve learned throughout the course of my entrepreneurial journey and to inspire others to change the world.
Here’s my story, from the beginning.
I was born in North London to parents who’d recently emigrated from Kenya. From a young age, I was sure I wanted to become a physician—I was a good student, and I felt medicine would be an effective outlet for my discipline and empathy.
I enrolled in the medicine program at King’s College, not far from where I grew up. I can’t recall exactly when it happened, but it eventually became clear to me that medicine was not my calling. My parents were surprisingly supportive of my decision, especially once I made it clear that I preferred finance—another respectable and potentially lucrative career.
My first non-medical opportunity came at the London office of KPMG, a prominent international accounting firm. I trained as an auditor there, learning the rigorous (and not always rote) business of examining financial statements.
In 1996, I moved on to the London back office of American financial services giant Merrill Lynch. It’s there that I truly fell in love with the rough-and-tumble world of global finance. Back then, London’s financial district (the City, as most know it) was on the upswing. By the turn of the 21st century, it was arguably the world’s most important financial center, though my friends on Wall Street would likely dispute that characterization.
It was hard not to get caught up in the energy sweeping the British capital. Looking back, I can’t imagine a better place to spend the formative years of one’s professional career. And, young and ambitious as I was, I believe I made the most of it—moving from Merrill to Morgan Stanley, to Credit Suisse, to ING and finally to Rabobank, where I served as head of the derivatives trading desk.
Alas, the good times didn’t last. In 2008, like so many other hardworking financial professionals toiling in the City’s trenches during the financial crisis, I was laid off.
I saw the experience as an opportunity for personal growth, not a permanent setback. After careful consideration, my wife and I decided to relocate to Dubai, whose energy and ambition at that time reminded me of my own during the early years of my career. We arrived in 2009, amid a building boom that seemed immune to the economic carnage tearing apart the rest of the developed world.
During those early days in Dubai, I learned two things. First, that Dubai is much sunnier than London. (I don’t think I saw a cloud the first month we were there, let alone a raindrop!) Second, that Dubai’s weather is far gentler on arthritic joints—take it from me, an occasional arthritis sufferer. Within weeks of arriving in Dubai, my flare-ups had receded, and it’s hard for me to remember what life was like back in London.
A few years later, my family and I faced the biggest personal challenge of our lives. Our young son Nikhil fell ill, totally unable to keep down food for days on end. We turned to multiple specialists in Dubai and London, ultimately consulting a panel of U.K.-based psychiatrists. Their conclusion: Our little Nikhil was exhibiting the signs of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.
Back home, we checked in at the Dubai Autism Centre. Like so many other institutions in rapidly growing Dubai, the facility was simply overmatched, lacking staff and basic resources to keep up with the crushing (and ever-expanding) level of demand for its services. We saw firsthand just how many Emiratis of modest means struggled to make appointments and afford treatment, and we resolved to do what we could to help.
We started by donating two minibuses to the center. They were kind enough to place Nikhil’s photograph on the sides, so we could pick out “our” buses at a glance anywhere in the city.
Honestly, it felt great to give back to a cause that directly benefited my family and my community. Though no stranger to philanthropy, I had virtually no experience with hands-on charitable giving prior to my involvement with the Dubai Autism Centre. I was hooked, and I knew I could do so much more.
Looking for ways to get involved, I became a trustee at the Autism Research Trust, a well-regarded British organization that funds ASD research at Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre. AST’s fundraising operation was solid, to be sure, but I felt that more could be done to raise awareness and money for such a worthy cause.
During the subsequent months, I spent a lot of time figuring out exactly what that work would look like. I won’t go into all the specifics, but let’s just say a semi-random meeting with a very prominent American hip-hop artist left me convinced that I could build an innovative fundraising and awareness organization around high-profile musical performances by like-minded stars.
Fast-forward a few weeks, and Prince, of all people, was performing for a packed crowd at London’s legendary Cafe de Paris. The show raised some £200,000—not bad for an inaugural event.
Over the next few years, Autism Rocks hosted nearly a dozen shows. We have a full slate of performances set for our temporary venue in Dubai—christened in 2016 by none other than Nicki Minaj. Our permanent venue, the Autism Rocks Arena, is on track to open in 2018. The Autism Rocks Support Centre, a full-service resource for Dubai families with children on the spectrum, is coming together as well.
Life is good—not without its challenges, of course, but good nonetheless. I invite you to check in here from time to time to learn more about my philanthropic efforts—and to sift through my musings about life and business, if you wish.