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Captain crusader

Published on Friday, 24 Jan 2014
Ajmal Samuel
Photo: Berton Chang

A spinal injury during his military-service years has not crippled Ajmal Samuel’s dream to promote an inclusive workforce in Hong Kong

Life was never going to be the same for Ajmal Samuel following a near-fatal accident that left the Pakistani army captain with a spinal cord injury that effectively ended his military career at the age of 21.

But as the old adage goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It couldn’t ring more true for Samuel, who has since been turning profit at the helms of some of the biggest companies in Asia, while lobbying for accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities in Hong Kong.

“It was during one of the conflicts in the mid ’80s in Kashmir [a region of the Indian subcontinent] where I had the accident which basically changed my whole life,” says Samuel, currently CEO of OCT03, a business technology solutions provider. “From being a very active army officer [and] soldier, I ended up being in a wheelchair.”

This was a major blow for the young captain who had plans to become a pilot, and who had risen through three army ranks in the span of four short years.

“I joined the [Pakistani] armed forces when I was only 16,” he says. “I went to become a career army officer. My focus was all about the military and I wanted to become a pilot.”

Samuel was forced to reassess his future after two gruelling years of intense surgery and physical therapy to reassemble his spine, during which he became dependent on painkillers.

He decided to build on his telecom engineering background and applied to study information systems at the University of Dusseldorf in Germany.

“After a lot of surgeries and some very interesting experiences in the hospital, my surgeon – who himself was in a wheelchair – was a big motivation for me to get my [spine] together and move on in life,” he says.

A trip to visit his parents – who were posted in Hong Kong – in 1991 set the stage for the rest of his professional journey, which had a rocky start but has proved to be wildly successful. “I fell in love with this city,” he says. “There was just so much energy, especially [for someone] coming from Europe, where everything was snail-paced. I knew I was going to stay here.”

Despite his qualifications, however, finding a job was not easy, largely because of his disability. “It was a really dumb thing to think about at the time because I couldn’t find any job. I was applying for hundreds and hundreds of jobs and I used to get a lot of interviews, but the minute they saw me, they were like: ‘What are you doing here?’” he says.

Social prejudice meant many doors remained shut. “I had a few things going against me  and they were obvious things: I was the wrong skin colour and I was in a wheelchair. The combination meant the end of life – remember, this was the early ’90s,” he says.

“I had to eat humble pie and say okay, I have to always be humble, which we sometimes forget when we are doing really well – and I was doing really well at a very young age.”

Still, many rejections later, Samuel landed an entry-level job at a small computer-repair company. He was soon promoted to a managerial position, and was later headhunted for the Hong Kong office of a Silicon Valley company.

He later became CEO and president of Cityline Hong Kong, a ticketing service provider, which under his leadership went from an almost bankrupt outfit to one worth more than $2 billion. Eventually, he moved on to start his own companies.

“There are opportunities around us all the time. Some people say there are no opportunities, but there are – it’s just how you grab those opportunities,” he says.

Samuel also pursued his athletic side – he competed in the handcycling section of the Tour de France in 2007 and held a handcycling global ranking of 27th.

“What has partly contributed to my success is that I never consider myself a disabled person. Otherwise, it just becomes a liability,” he says.

Samuel, who is single, credits his attitude, discipline, adaptability and, most importantly, his business acumen for his successes. He regularly conducts talks to share his story and inspire people with disabilities to overcome barriers.

“Having gone through the disability path myself, when it comes to hiring people, it’s all about merit,” he says. “I had to put in 10 times the amount of work than any other person just to appear on the radar, a small little blimp, so I don’t want anyone else to be getting away with an easy time,” he says.

He hopes to help businesses understand the daily barriers facing people with disabilities, in the hope of creating a more inclusive labour market in Hong Kong.

“You need to prove you are right for the job. You come on merit – no matter if you are in a wheelchair, or have another disability, it doesn’t matter to me. But [I won’t hire somebody who has a disability] just to fill a seat or a job,” he says.

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