Hanif Lalani is an international telecommunications executive based in the United Kingdom. A vocal proponent of efforts to address the digital divide, he is presently involved in multiple high-speed internet projects across Central Asian nations, as well as in the Middle East and East Africa.
Lalani was born in Uganda, where he resided with his family until the age of ten. At that time his parents, who were thriving entrepreneurs in the country, made the difficult choice to depart as political tensions escalated. They hastily left during the night, carrying just one suitcase of possessions for the entire family and immigrating to Yorkshire, England.
After earning his degree in mathematics, operations research and economics from the University of Essex, he was hired as a graduate recruit by the multinational telecommunications corporation BT Group. Lalani went on to spend almost three decades with the company, holding a number of financial, managerial and leadership roles over the course of his tenure there.
Lalani has been internationally recognized for his work guiding the United Kingdom through a time of extraordinary transition within the telecommunications sector. Honors include being number 30 on the Institute of Asian Professionals’ “Muslim Power 100” list and receiving the designation of “Finance Director of the Year” by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start this business?
I worked in telecommunications for nearly 30 years, in one of the largest service provider of mobile and broadband communications in the UK. I would say for the better part of my final decade with the company, I became increasingly aware and troubled by the growing gap between communities that had access to broadband and 4G services and those that did not.
I started working with like-minded people, or for companies who have the same vision and who want to make an impact on society. The key geographies are Middle East, Central Asia and East Africa.
How do you make money?
For most of my career, I was a salaried employee now, I work on a contractual basis, signing on for projects that I am passionate about. In terms of the logistics of making money, it can vary greatly from project to project. For some, I earn consulting fees for my expertise and consultation services in planning and executing the infrastructure projects. Sometimes there is also a negotiation of profit-sharing agreements with the private shareholder, allowing me to receive a portion of the profits generated. I have also been offered an equity stake in the project, allowing me to benefit from the increased value of the assets over time. On top of that there are typically project management fees for the oversight of the infrastructure development.
There is always enough money but the greatest joy is making a difference in people’s lives.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
Without my own business, I can’t speak to becoming profitable, but I can say that I think it’s important for young people entering the workspace to understand that building a career takes time and dedication. My biography highlights my greatest career accomplishments, and while I’m so proud of where I was able to take my career.
Our society often places a strong emphasis on instant results, but whether you are growing your career as an employee or starting your own business I believe it is imperative to focus on sustainable growth. Oftentimes that means putting in the work and being patient, rather than looking what can make you “profitable” quickest.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
My life had previously been defined by a steady paycheck, and the idea that I would no longer have that as a crutch was frightening. As with every big decision I’ve had to make in my life career, I am always able to assuage doubts by conducting as much research as possible. I researched the viability of such an endeavor, as well as meeting with people who I knew in the sector. Utilizing my contacts was actually a massive part of handling my doubts, it not only gave me new information to work with, but helped provide me with a jump-start in terms of finding projects I could consult on. My advice to those in a similar position to me would be to trust that the skills and knowledge you have are valuable assets, and you will be able to find people and projects that can properly utilize them.
How did you get your first customer?
It’s a funny story, because going in I assumed that I would need to “work my rolodex” pretty hard in order to find work on these high-speed projects. I had lined up conferences and industry events to attend, was conducting market research as I mentioned previously, but believe it or not I met the first person I collaborated with by chance. It just goes to show that remaining open to opportunities extends past the end of the workday. From there, projects tend to come around as others end, and I tend to work with the same people who need me for a new initiative. You never know whether the person you strike up a conversation with in line at a coffee shop or sitting next to on an airplane may be aware of or present you with opportunities.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
When working to educate people in the locations we provide high-speed internet infrastructure for, we try to engage them in places that are central to their communities. We establish a strong presence in the local community. Attend community meetings, events, and forums to connect with residents, local businesses, and community leaders. I believe that this strategy can be extended to marketing – grassroots efforts will often result in the strongest connection with your customer or clientele. Consumers today aren’t interested in companies that are trying to appeal to everybody. They want to feel connected with the brands they purchase or services they sign up for on a personal level. Getting “down to their level” is one of the most effective strategies a company can take in terms of not only generating new business, but also strengthening existing customers and ensuring they will become returning ones.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
I feel privileged to say that the toughest decision I’ve had to make in the last few months was which consulting project to take on. I am fortunate in that as a consultant rather than a salaried employee, I am able to work on multiple projects at once. However, I found that I was already at near my full capacity when I was simultaneously asked to contribute on two separate initiatives. As someone passionate about closing the digital divide, and a self-proclaimed workaholic, it was incredibly difficult for me to not simply say yes to both. However, it is a lesson everybody who finds success learns in their career at one point – stretching yourself too thin benefits nobody. You have to be self-aware enough to recognize when you need to say no.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
When my alma mater introduced me as guest speaker for their graduating class, they quoted me as saying “If you rise to a challenge and have a habit of delivering, people can see the capabilities you have and they will find you if there’s a job to be done.” While this was over a decade ago, I stand by this as one of the main contributing factors to the success I have had in my career. Going back to what I said about doubt, achieving great things isn’t about being the most qualified and prepared, it’s about having the confidence in your ability to problem-solve and figure things out as you go. Whether you are vying for a promotion or building a business from the ground up, this skill is more valuable than practically any other.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Seeing people who had never had access to high-speed internet before gaining digital literacy and utilizing the broadband we set up in their community. I’ve received countless recognitions for my work, and while I’m immensely proud of the work I did, very little compares to the feeling of truly making a difference in the lives of others.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
For now, I am excited to continue working in a consulting capacity on 5G projects. I am excited about the fact that I have learned in my four-decade-long career that you truly never know where you will be in the future. I do not anticipate any big changes, but there is beauty in not being rigid in the idea of what path you will take. To be frank, I never expected my career to go in the path that it did, but I am immensely grateful for the lesson I learned in letting go of expectations. Becoming more flexible has made me a better leader, a better businessperson, and helped me find more success in ways I could have never anticipated. I used to feel anxiety thinking about the future, but now the thought brings me nothing but excitement.
What business books have inspired you?
“Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek. It delves into the essence of leadership, and the vital role it plays in fostering a work environment in which people feel valued and motivated. I particularly enjoyed his concept of a “Circle of Safety,” meaning when leaders prioritize the well-being of their team members, it builds a culture of trust and safety that in turn creates more cooperation and innovation. Not to mention the satisfaction that results in lower turnover. I may no longer be a C-suite executive, but I still manage and lead people on a daily basis. The central message is that leadership isn’t about being in charge, but rather taking care of those in your charge. It also made some great points about how modern technology and societal changes have had an effect on the workplace.
What is a recent purchase you have made that’s helped with your business?
A meditation cushion. Meditation is something I practiced in my younger years, but unfortunately fell out of habit for much of my professional life. I recently took it up again and have sincere regrets for not doing so sooner. There are the obvious benefits such as mental clarity and stress reduction, but I have found in ramping up my practice that it has also increased my creative thinking abilities, and even positively affected my health. You could say that it has almost proved to be a “gateway drug” to wellness, and I now find myself doing many of the healthy habits that have been recommended to me for years. I take long walks in solitude, eat a protein-rich breakfast, and ditch my screen time before bed, and truly have never felt better.
If you could offer guidance to your younger self, what words of wisdom or advice would you provide?
Take a step back and have gratitude more often. My younger self was constantly focused on the future, always wanting more and looking to what could come next. While I can’t deny that drive and ambition certainly helped me move forward in my career, I can tell you that I wasn’t always happy because of it. Now that I’m older, I look back on that time recognizing how lucky I was. Having gratitude doesn’t mean becoming complacent, it’s looking around and seeing all of the beauty and joy that is right in front of you.