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Meet Nour Mouakke, From Syria To Durham University

Nour Mouakke came to the U.K. from Syria to study for a master’s in marketing from Durham Business School and never went back

Name: Nour Mouakke 

Birthplace: Aleppo, Syria

Place of residence: London, United Kingdom 

Current job role:  Founder/CEO of Wizme

Fun fact about yourself: I moved house more than 10 times in the last 4 years!

Business School programme: Masters in Marketing at Durham University Business School. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your life and career before studying a business degree?

I was born and raised in one of the oldest cities in the world, Aleppo in Syria.  Sadly, I lost my Mum to cancer in 2007 leaving my four youngest siblings, my Dad, and I to look after each other. 

I started working in hospitality back in 2002 while I was studying at Aleppo University. I built my way up and covered different management roles working for hotels (Marriott International – Dedeman Hotels & Resorts), rent a car (Budget and Europcar) and a local tour operator.

However, I had that burning desire to be an entrepreneur, so I followed my passion for music and set up an event agency. I used to organise music festivals and gigs mainly in Aleppo and across other cities in Syria. 

Then in 2009, I moved to the UK in order to study for a Masters in Marketing at Durham University Business School. 

Can you talk us through your decision to seek refuge and move, and the journey this involved?

I originally moved to Durham two years before the Civil War broke out in Syria, so initially came over to the UK purely to study and not as a refugee. I graduated from Durham University and went on to work for the Intercontinental Hotels Group who sponsored me to stay in the UK, as I had worked for them as a highly skilled immigrant post my graduation.  I enjoyed the role, learnt a lot, and met plenty of wonderful people. 

During my days at IHG, I spotted a real gap in the meetings, events, and groups market when I learnt about all the time, effort and cost needed to book even a small meeting. The entrepreneur in me could not resist the temptation of thinking to solve this complex problem. I had a business idea that I wanted to pursue – Wizme, wizard for meetings & events, the start-up I am still running today.

To launch Wizme, however, I was hit with an immediate hurdle.  I was sponsored by IHG to stay in the UK, which means I was tied up to them.  I could not have left them and stayed in the UK.  My only option was to give up my highly skilled immigrant status and apply for refugee status in the UK.  When you are a refugee, you have the same rights as any UK citizen and that includes being able to set up a company.

Nevertheless, this was still a massive gamble as during this time, the war in Syria showed no signs of abating with Aleppo being one of the worst hit regions. Naturally, I was extremely worried about my family but if I am seeking refuge from my home country, by definition, I am unable to travel back home.  Not until I’m a British citizen will I be able to do that. 

In addition, most Arab countries do not recognise a refugee passport so I can’t even go and see some of my siblings that have moved to Cairo (I tried to apply once and was rejected).  In the same way I was denied a visit to the US, and I was even prevented from boarding a flight to France to visit my uncle – I was treated like a criminal.  I have not been able to see my family for almost 11 years now due to my refugee status.

However, in terms of the decision, it’s still one I’m glad I’ve taken as I was able to launch my business Wizme – the smart management solution for meetings, events, and group bookings which offers speed, greatly reduced costs, revenue generation and accuracy for venues, organisations, corporates and agencies.

What did you find most difficult when arriving in a completely new country?

Syria is a melting pot of different cultures, ethnicities and religions who used to live in harmony.  I come from quite a liberal and open background anyway, so it did not take me long to adapt to the UK culture.  Most importantly, I am an extrovert who loves networking.  I used to be called the “CNO” (Chief Networking Officer) at IHG, so making new friends and immersing myself in the new culture was pretty much my natural habitat.

The only two challenges I found were the weather in Durham as often it was very rainy. I could not comprehend how Northern people would be walking around in shorts in the freezing cold.  The other challenge was the infamous accent of the region, Geordie! I remember arriving and speaking to a lovely woman in a local shop on my first day and not understanding a word she said – however you soon get used to it.

Why did you decide to apply for Durham University Business School, and the Masters in Marketing?

I always wanted to go to the UK, ever since I was around 14/15 years old.  After reviewing the options, I found Durham to be the perfect choice with its amazing student life, remarkable educational content, and great heritage.  Needless to mention that Durham University is a very prestigious academic institution which is well-recognised globally.

I originally wanted to study a Hotel Management Masters, but opted for a Masters in Marketing instead as it widened the scope of what I could go on to do afterwards, and is a vital aspect of virtually all businesses. 

I’m incredibly glad I chose Durham, and I love the UK as a place to live and work – I certainly made the right choice. 

How was your experience and what did you find most challenging?

I absolutely loved every single minute of my experience in Durham. There is a very special vibe at Durham that gives you a very strong sense of ‘home’.  I met some of the most wonderful people from all over the world and built life-long relationships.

I was incredibly inspired by the academic staff, the lectures, and all seminars and case studies.

The only challenging aspect is the intensity of the programme, which is expected of course.  It’s certainly not easy, but it’s interesting, fun and engaging and a good experience for the challenges of becoming an entrepreneur.

Can you talk us through your life and career post-graduation?

I was so keen to get my teeth into the UK job market as soon as possible, so I started working before graduation while working on my dissertation. I joined a company doing door-to-door sales selling home broadband in Newcastle for a month. That was a fun short experience in a pyramid sales environment, but it was not sustainable – the purpose was just to gain some experience.

After finishing my dissertation, I left Durham and moved to the Lake District, and I started job hunting while volunteering for Oxfam.

I also worked for a lovely local hotel during the Christmas season as a waiter and kitchen porter. I had a painful, yet funny, incident where I spilt a bowl of boiling hot soup on my hand while serving.  I remember the amazing Chef who immediately gave me a bucket full of ice and literally commanded me to put my hand inside.  “It will be painful but trust me you will thank me tomorrow!”.

After three months, I got my dream job in the big city!  I joined the Intercontinental Hotel Group in London working in the global sales team managing key corporate clients like Apple, Mars, AP Moller Maersk and WPP among others.  As previously stated, I was lucky enough to receive a highly skilled immigrant status sponsorship from the Company which allowed me to stay in the UK post-graduation for longer. 

After obtaining my refugee status, I left IHG and worked in FinTech for a few months as Head of Commercial which allowed me to gain some knowledge in the tech world and its dynamics while expanding my network into new verticals like banking, airlines, and gambling.

I embarked on my journey with Wizme, Wizard for Meetings and Events, in 2015.  My dear friend and genius marketeer Iliya Lazarov, who was my classmate at Durham, helped me come up with the Wizme branding.

My vision was to build a new and disruptive technology eco system in the meeting, event, and groups’ space. 

I set out to build an enabling technology in the business meetings & groups segments that creates stand-out value to venues, corporates (both procurement managers needing spend oversight and control, & meeting arrangers who wanted confidence that the brief was being met), and the intermediaries that book on behalf of those corporate clients.

Speed, greatly reduced costs, accuracy of search returns and revenue generation were the key tenants of the “eco system” and design principles I pictured at the start of this journey.

It has been a challenging journey as any start up sole founder, building a software company with limited or no technical expertise in a very B2B complex market, would appreciate. Balancing time and energy on fundraising, solution design, market listening, sales, implementations and governance has been tough but highly satisfying. 

The disruptive innovation, we are delivering through the Wizme eco system, is gaining real traction as customers of the three stakeholder groups recognise the real challenges they face in managing meetings, events, and groups, and understand how those challenges can be addressed by the Wizme solution.  I am grateful to be working with market experts in our engineering and commercial teams supported by some great industry Advisory Board gurus.

We have launched with our first agency client Blue Cube Travel this year and signed a partnership with HotelREZ Hotels & Resorts which gives us access to 1,000 hotel members.

What skills have you utilised from the programme into your career?

The programme was comprehensive, and it truly helped me broaden my horizon and build a great deal of understanding of how businesses operate, and scale globally, and thus evolved my business acumen overall. 

The analytical and research skills which I acquired at Durham Business School were vital to where I am today.

What advice would you give to other refugees looking to leave their countries and considering studying a business degree?

I’d say make the most of the opportunities that are to hand.  Studying in another country, like the UK, is a fantastic way to broaden your horizons.  I’d also suggest networking and building as many relationships as possible if you do study abroad and learn about as many cultures as possible – not only where you are living, but those of your classmates. 

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

I see myself working on some philanthropic project tackling: sustainability, water crisis, education for children/unprivileged and homelessness.

As a refugee from war-torn Syria, I know only too well the impact that such crisis has on families, their health, education, and economic well-being.  For me, Wizme will always have a role to play to support people in a positive way, and to do so as we grow and succeed, helping those in real need.

I see Wizme as globally recognised green brand, the mature “go to” meetings, events, and group accommodation solution.

As Wizme grows and flourishes, I am committed to giving back and helping to make a difference. Being separated from my family back in Syria for almost 11 years has been challenging, and I am determined to make a real difference to the lives of so many caught up in wars and poverty.

DON’T MISS: MEET THE BUSINESS SCHOOL REFUGEES