Philosophy, gambler’s instincts are recipe for success

| Chung Chow

When Husein Rahemtulla’s parents immigrated to Canada in the mid-1970s from Africa, they had little money.

But they had prospects – and initiative.

Rahemtulla’s father, Salim Rahemtulla, came to this country as a refugee from Uganda, but by the time he fled Africa he had completed a degree in computer science at the University of Manchester in England, which allowed him to start working as a computer programmer when he went overseas. He eventually started his own computer wholesale company from scratch in the late 1980s, and the story is something that still sticks with his son to this day.

“He essentially came over with 50 bucks in his pocket and a family to support,” said Husein Rahemtulla, co-founder of successful food-delivery business Fresh Prep. “He had eight brothers and sisters, and he was the only one who had a post-secondary education. It was a great learning experience for me because I got to see a lot of what he accomplished first-hand.”

Born in 1990 in Vancouver, Rahemtulla said he and his father are part of a long line of self-starters, noting that his grandfather also immigrated to Canada and started a successful dry-cleaning business.

“It’s kind of in our family’s blood – just to be entrepreneurial and just figure stuff out for yourself and always work hard, and make things happen and do it for your family. So I definitely got good values passed down to me through the generations.”

In 2001, Salim Rahemtulla sold his company and got into real estate, buying a couple of hotels on Vancouver Island. Husein Rahemtulla, who graduated from high school in 2008, first headed to McGill University with the intention of majoring in business, but he switched to philosophy at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He acknowledges it was an unusual change.

“My interest in business was never a specific thing like accounting or marketing,” he said. “It was always about entrepreneurship, and I just couldn’t see myself getting into finance. I also felt like philosophy could be effective regarding creating good personality traits and a general understanding of motivations for businesses as a whole.”

Rahemtulla, who graduated from UBC in 2012, is a fan of Stoicism, a philosophy that dates back to ancient Greece and advocates calmness and a mastery of one’s emotions during tough times.

While in university, Rahemtulla was also starting to make some serious cash playing poker online, and he admits it ate into his lecture attendance rate.

“I started playing professionally in 2011,” he said. “My win rate was averaging out to about 40 bucks an hour, and during the peak, it was about 80 bucks an hour.”

He was thinking of moving to Mexico and travelling the world as a professional poker player, but just as he was graduating from UBC and getting ready to leave the country, his father was diagnosed with multiple myelo-ma. Rahemtulla had to jump in and help run the hotels on Vancouver Island as his father had begun chemotherapy. Father and son made regular trips over and back on the ferry, the older man showing the younger how to run the hotels and offering him some perspective on life as well.

“We’d spend four hours travelling back and forth together, and I just got the chance to learn more about his journey. And he passed down a lot of knowledge not just about the hotel operations and business in general, but life in general.”

Rahemtulla ran the hotels by himself for a year and a half as his father battled cancer. The experience changed his outlook on life, showing him he needed to do something more satisfying than just pile up poker winnings.

“I found that in that year and a half, and learning from him, I got inspired to think about starting up my own thing,” he said. “I was also playing poker on and off, but I also realized that it wasn’t providing the value to society that would leave me feeling fulfilled.”

Rahemtulla already had an idea cooking in his brain. During university, he found getting high-quality, healthy meals with little preparation was tough. You had to either order in or go out and buy ingredients – and that could become expensive, he said.

By November 2014 he’d linked up with childhood friends Becky Switzer and Dhruv Sood to co-found Fresh Prep, and a month later they had leased a space to pre-make meals for people who had busy schedules.

He said the idea stemmed from an incident during his days at McGill, where Sood was also a student.

“One night Dhruv and I wanted to cook up a meal, and we wanted to make a red Thai curry. We ended up making a huge pot and felt really sick afterwards, and so when we reconvened the next day we thought, wouldn’t it be great if you had a business that did that for you and cooked [you] a meal? And removing the grocery shopping and the recipe itself. And not having to worry about getting all the different spices and not having them go to waste.”

Fresh Prep took off as the meal plans struck a chord with busy Metro Vancouverites. The company now has 120 employees and delivers food to 16 different municipalities across the Lower Mainland with about 6,000 regular customers.

Becky Brauer, Fresh Prep’s head of culinary, said Rahemtulla has taken his life lessons and applied them to the company, looking to craft a new way of doing business and being an employer. Fresh Prep has a partnership with Open Door Group, a non-profit organization that helps people with physical handicaps or other obstacles join the workforce, and Kiwassa Neighbourhood House, a community agency that provides social services and programs to people in East Vancouver.

“He stands up for what he believes in,” Brauer said, “and is passionate about not only making this company a great place to work, but also leading the way in creating desirable jobs in this city by defining new industry standards.” 

Through it all, Rahemtulla said, he still goes back to his philosophy days in university, finding strength in Stoicism – “just recognizing that everything is always a learning experience and I don’t really have control of a lot of things along this entrepreneurial journey.” •


Inside Information: Husein Rahemtulla

Currently reading:
I’m a voracious reader so I usually have a couple of books on the go, right now: The Daily Stoic Journal: 366 Days of Writing and Reflecting on the Art of Living, by Ryan Holiday; On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

First album bought or music downloaded:
In Rainbows by Radiohead

When you were a kid, what you wanted be when you grew up:
I wanted to be Willy Wonka and run a chocolate factory. 

Profession you would most like to try:
Professional squash player

Toughest business or professional decision:
The decision to start Fresh Prep and forgo a more comfortable career path. To put a lot of time and money into something knowing that startups have high probabilities of failure was a big jump to take but ultimately I decided to do it because I realized I wouldn’t regret it no matter the outcome.

Advice you would give the younger you:
Always make an effort to get out of your comfort zone, confront your fears and enjoy failure – it’s the best way to grow and learn.

What’s left to do:
Our goal for Fresh Prep is to be established and servicing every major Canadian market within the next three years. I plan to also spend time studying and entering professional development programs to scale myself as a leader. Areas that I’d like to learn more on specifically are finance, food science and leadership. As we establish ourselves in these markets, buying farms or potentially building our own is an idea we’ve discussed to improve margins, logistics and quality. Large-scale food production has always fascinated me, and our own farms would be an immense and exciting undertaking which would develop slowly. Outside of these business goals, I have a personal passion for writing and would like to write a book on entrepreneurship and philosophy drawing from my experience, and also offer guidance to younger startups in B.C.