He graduated from IFA Paris with a MBA in Fashion Business, the 33 year old alum Mahmoud Salahy, a former engineer who decided to embrace a new career in the fashion industry is now the Director of the Direct-To-Consumer channels of the American giant The North Face (VF Group) in Greater China. Mahmoud Salahy offers a great lesson of will and humanism in this interview.
Michel Temman: Could you tell us how did you reach the fashion industry after studying engineering?
Mahmoud Salahy: I first graduated in Egypt, in engineering, majoring in electronics and communications, but during my studies, in 2004, I had the chance to apply for a job, as a sales representative in Egypt for the international fashion brand Esprit. At that time, in 2005, Egypt was starting to open its market to foreign brands and was getting more globalized. The industry was searching for people with a diverse background. There was a desire to elevate the level of fashion retail, to upscale the quality, compared to local brands. I worked for Esprit as a sales representative for almost 3 years. Then, I took a decision. I liked sciences, maths, but while studying engineering, I wasn’t much into it anymore. So, I decided to follow a more normal path in the retail industry. From sales representative, I was appointed to assistant store manager, and to store manager. Then, I had the chance to apply for an office position.
M.T.: Before working in the retail industry in China, you already had lots of experiences in the sector in Egypt…
Mahmoud Salahy: In Egypt, regarding foreign brands, it works mainly with franchises managed by operators. After Esprit, I started to work through those operators for several brands, like Bossini, from Hong Kong. I also worked for Guess Jeans, as an assistant brand manager. Then, I worked for Timberland, for almost three years, as a brand manager. Then, in 2011, we had our revolution, the famous revolution.
M.T.: Then, what happened to you?
Mahmoud Salahy: The Egyptian revolution is a milestone in my life. I took part in it. I’m not into politics but I strongly believe in myself when I feel that there is something right or wrong happening. Coming from a mid upper-class, the pressure wasn’t too strong. But for the lower classes, everything was so unfair back then in Egypt. People didn’t have the same opportunities in terms of jobs, education, healthcare…The revolution came from these classes in the Egyptian society and I took part in it, at my modest level. We didn’t know what would happen, if it would succeed or not. But then we had a new president, and then later another one again. It was super dramatic and personally, I was lost. Suddenly, I thought: “I’m now trying to change my country! But I never tried to change myself!” Then, it came to my mind that the first thing that I should try to understand and know better wasn’t my country – that was too complex – but me! Three years before, I met my wife and got married. I wondered suddenly if my wife and I weren’t locked into this situation. If this was the life that we really wanted to live. Were we sure that we would also have the chance to explore the world, encounter other and different cultures? I thought that maybe, it was time to move on.
M.T.: This is the breaking point, when you decide to go back to studies and pursue a MBA into the fashion business?
Mahmoud Salahy: Exactly! For having been in sciences, I learned that you need to validate any decision from a logic point of view. I told myself: “I’ve been working in the retail industry for 7 years, but I never studied anything related to this business science” – because there is always some hidden science, in the marketing, sales, management… I wanted to enhance my skills with more theorical learnings. Also, besides my mother and father, I’m very inspired by my brother and sister. My brother performed a MBA in London and I thought that I could also do the same. I started to search for a MBA abroad specialized in retail. I found the London Fashion School and many fashion schools in Paris. Then, I found IFA Paris, which had campus in Shanghai, in Istanbul, and a collaboration with Polimoda in Italy. IFA Paris and Polimoda looked like the best fashion schools in Europe, and they were offering the possibility to study in Shanghai, France, Italy and Asia: for a guy like me coming from the Middle East, it was an opportunity. It was an interesting mix, and what I wanted. When a school comes with such customized and globalized programs, it gives me the impression – and I don’t want to compliment IFA Paris too much! – that they think differently. Then, I talked to my wife, who is the main contributor to my path. She always supported me down the road, accross everything. I applied to IFA Paris, had an interview. I started my MBA with IFA here in Shanghai, in 2012, and it went well. The studies were more practical than academic, and it was very interesting to study with people coming from Canada, Philippines, India, United States, Italy, Mexico, from everywhere. What is great also at IFA Paris is the possibility given to each student to customize its preferences.
M.T.: When you left Egypt, were you not worried a bit?
Mahmoud Salahy: I was! It was scary. Everyone around me was wondering if I was chosing the right thing. In the airplane, on the way to Shanghai, I told myself: “What am I doing? I’m leaving my country, my family…” But I had also the feeling that this was the right thing to do. To leave is brutal, it’s tough. But hopefully, the future will be better! And in fact, it was. Years later, my family is proud of me. I miss them and they miss me. But they say also that they are proud of me!
M.T.: When you arrived in Shanghai, what were your first impressions?
Mahmoud Salahy: It was a “Whaou!” When first, I saw the giant hall of Pudong International airport, I thought that in China, there are no limits, that nothing can stop you in this country. I would do whatever it takes to reach my objectives. Before, I had a totally different impression of China and Shanghai. It was very interesting for me to encounter the Chinese culture. Now, I’m even used to Chinese food. Hunan cuisine is my favorite!
M.T.: You’re now a Director in charge of the business operations at The North Face in Greater China! How did it work?
Mahmoud Salahy: After IFA, I stayed in Shanghai. Through my contacts at Timberland, I talked to the head office in Europe and I was offered a job in Switzerland. Because of visa issues, it didn’t work out. It looked like bad news, but it became a good one. VF Europe sent my resume to VF China. The Senior management team of North Face Asia Pacific contacted me. I had several interviews and the last one took place only one day before my student visa expired. I went back to Egypt and started applying to other companies. Few months later, VF contacted me again: they were hiring me and in 2013, I came back to Shanghai to work with North Face. First, I worked without any team. After one year, I got promoted as a senior manager and now, I’m managing a team of 15 people. Consumers know Timberland but they don’t know VF: a major American apparel company, which also owns Lee, Kipling, Vans, Nautica, Napapijri and more. VF achieves 17 billions US dollars in annual revenue.
M.T.: Your story can inspire other IFA Paris students and all others. Do you have a message you could convey to them?
Mahmoud Salahy: The good thing about IFA Paris is the consistency and the continuity. With IFA, it’s not: “Ok, you did your MBA, goodbye!” IFA is always keeping contact with you. I’m a big fan of Adile Cretallaz (in charge of the IFA Paris Career Center, ndlr). IFA Paris keeps the link and follow you through your career, even years later! That’s precious. For example, I’m really glad to do this interview. But you’re right: talking about my experience can inspire other people. I hope that maybe, by any chance, some young men and women, in this world, will read this interview and that, maybe, it will give them the hope and the strength to pursue their dream!
For more information on Mahmoud's program, please see: MBA in Fashion Business.