Expansion

Influence For Impact: Steve Harvey And Oweis Zahran, Co-Founders, MELT Middle East

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When you ask people about Steve Harvey, most of them will say that they know of him as a renowned American comedian, television host, and author. However, they might not know that he’s an avid golfer- and that sport is what has allowed for my conversation with Harvey to take place. “Golf is a pretty fair game, and that is why I love it,” he tells me, just a few days before the second edition of the Steve Harvey Golf Classic, a celebrity golf tournament at Yas Links in Abu Dhabi. It is organized by MELT Middle East, a joint venture of OWS Capital, an investment platform of Dubai-based entrepreneur Oweis Zahran, and Steve Harvey Global, an umbrella company of Harvey’s various business interests.

Entrepreneur Middle East/MELT Middle East
Oweis Zahran and Steve Harvey, co-founders, MELT Middle East

The Steve Harvey Golf Classic is one of a number of celebrity-driven events by MELT Middle East, all of which are built on a central ethos of correcting false perceptions about the MENA region in the West, and more generally, at contributing to building bridges between people. “One of the key mandates that Harvey, as the Chairman of MELT, instills in everything is the fact that we don’t want to be another point of segregation or separation between cultures, states, genders, and so on,” Zahran explains. “If you look at our Steve Harvey Golf Classic 2022, you can see female golfers, Asian golfers, black golfers, white golfers, Arab golfers, and so on, and having the right values instilled into MELT from the get-go was obviously a priority for us.”

Since my meeting with Harvey and Zahran is happening two days before the tournament as well as a gala dinner at the Louvre Abu Dhabi where quite a few stars would walk the red carpet (including basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, comedian Martin Lawrence, singer Akon, and many more), we have enough time to sit down and fully reveal the story behind MELT Middle East. “MELT is actually an acronym, and M stands for the merging of cultures and ideas, E for the enlightenment, education, and entertainment of people,” Harvey explains. “L is for leadership, learning, and light, and T is for trade and technology.”

Source: MELT Middle East

From the outset, Harvey points out that at the core of MELT Middle East is his belief that sprinkling celebrity dust atop any endeavor will bring it more attention, and eventually lead to building more meaningful relationships that can help bridge the gap between East and West. “We have to introduce the right type of fame to this region, and we want celebrities to come here, and take back the message that Abu Dhabi is a great place,” Harvey says. “This is one of the coolest and safest places to come to on earth, and at the same time, it offers top quality service, great food, beautiful accommodation, lots of entertainment, and so on.” Harvey has taken part in a few projects in the UAE, which included participations in the 2018 Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix, the 2019 Sharjah International Book Fair, and other similar undertakings, but he admits that, before meeting Zahran five years ago at an F1 race in Abu Dhabi, he had been cautious about going into business with anyone here. “I’m really good at detecting people’s spirit, especially men,” Harvey says. “Because of where I’m from, the neighborhood I grew up in, I had to assess good and bad people very quickly. When I met him [Zahran], I knew instantly he was a good person. He turned out to be much better than I thought, though. This Christian and this Muslim got together and formed a pretty good friendship. We have the respectability of our faiths. His works, I’ve seen it work. Mine works, he’s seen it work. We respect each other.”

The two thus started playing golf together, and before long, they got an idea to launch MELT in the region. “When we first started talking about setting up MELT in the region, it was a lot more narrow than it is now, but because of Harvey’s strong ties with the leadership in Abu Dhabi, we’re now looking at various areas, including the homegrown brands global. To anyone who might suggest that the latter is a far-fetched idea, Harvey has an answer ready for them. “If I could give a young entrepreneur one piece of advice, it is to listen to the song ‘Daydream’ from the show, America’s Got Talent,” Harvey says. “I played it 15 times in a row, and I almost started to cry.”

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Steve Harvey and Oweis Zahran, co-founders, MELT Middle East. Source: MELT Middle East

At this point in our conversation, Harvey starts tapping on his phone, and plays for me the song of 27-year-old singer-songwriter Lily Meola, with which she auditioned on the 17th season of the acclaimed television show. The lyrics ran as follows: “When we were kids in the backyard, playing astronauts and rockstars, no one told us to stop it, called us unrealistic, then suddenly you’re 18, go to college for your plan B… We all got these big ideas, one day, they’re replaced with fears- how did we get here?” Listening to the song, I cannot help but think that Harvey himself has followed Meola’s wise counsel to move ahead in life. While we all remember the moments of his glory, such as his shows with record-high ratings (including Showtime at the Apollo, The Steve Harvey Morning Show, Family Feud, and more), or even his best-selling books (Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, and Commitment, and Jump: Take The Leap Of Faith To Achieve Your Life Of Abundance, to name but a few), Harvey reminds me that his road to success was a bumpy one, which, back in the 1980s, had him live out of his car while traveling across the USA for his performances. “I was miserable all the way, until I was 27 years old,” he remembers. “I was selling and installing carpets, I worked on the assembly line, I sold Amway, I sold insurance, I worked at General Electric, and at four motor companies, but I was dying, man.”

But then, one day, Harvey -who was just another guy on the street back then- realized that he had a card up his sleeve that he hadn’t been actively making use of. “I had been writing jokes for other people,” Harvey says. “This guy used to come to me, and give me US$10 to write him a joke. I didn’t even know what he was doing with them. Then, this girl met me one day, and said, ‘You writing these jokes for him, but why don’t you do ’em yourself?’ How? Where? I didn’t even know how.” But Harvey eventually found a way, and he ended up participating in his first-ever standup comedy competition on October 8th, 1985- and he won. “I won $50,” Harvey remembers. “I went to work the next day, October 9th, and I quit my job.” In the decades that followed, Harvey would look back at this moment as when fortune started to smile on him, but in truth, his career would not become smooth sailing until after a few more years. “That was a $50 win, and let me tell you something, to quit your job with $50 isn’t a big win,” Harvey says. “But I knew, I knew that my dream would become true. It didn’t come true right away at all. From 27, I ended up becoming homeless at 30. I lived in my car. I lived in a car for three-and-a-half years, but I never gave up. When I turned 36, I got a TV show on Apollo, and then they gave me a sitcom when I was 38. I’ve been on TV ever since.”

Source: MELT Middle East

After retelling this chapter of his life story, it befits Harvey to remind me of the Daydream song he first mentioned when asked to advise prospective entrepreneurs, and he repeats a line from the song a few times: don’t quit your daydream. Harvey adds, “If you dream of becoming a writer, you have got to go be a writer. If your dream is to fly an airplane, you have got to go fly airplanes, man. Ain’t no need for you to be sweeping floors. If your job is to be a photographer, man, you’re not going to be happy being a bus driver. You just ain’t, man. You are gonna be miserable.”

Having said that, as someone who has relied on hard work, resilience, and faith to build his career, Harvey also shares with me his reservations about many of today’s so-called celebrities, and I’d say, rightly so. “It’s very easy to get famous now, but it’s harder to make money out of it,” Harvey explains. “It used to take a while to become really entrenched in the entertainment sector, but today, it can be quite easy, because all you got to do is to do something wrong, [a scandal that grabs headlines], and you can become a household name right away. But that doesn’t transfer into money and income for yourself, and there’s no sustainability in that.”

While Harvey praises younger generations for finding different ways of earning through the internet (“I’ve never even thought of getting views and getting paid on YouTube, or getting likes and stuff like that!”), he warns them that fame on the World Wide Web can be deceptive. “I had this guy tell me that he has 40,000 followers, but tell me how that turns into money,” he says. “If they all gave you $1, you would still only have only $40,000. What are you talking about? But, in their worlds, they have bragging rights. So, it’s a weird thing that’s happened to fame. There is a lot of fake fame out here. It’s also very fleeting, because all you got to do is not post for two weeks, and they will forget who you are.”

The importance of preferring profound real life impact over meaningless online likes and views is a lesson from Harvey that I will take with me, and Zahran concludes our conversation by adding that this principle is actually also the competitive advantage that sets MELT Middle East apart. “A lot of these guys that we invite to Abu Dhabi aren’t as famous as some of other people out there, but when you look at the values they stand for, that is what counts,” Zahran explains. “As people say, not all money is good money, and we say that not all fame is good fame. Everybody who comes here through MELT Middle East has been handpicked because they, in some shape or form, relate to the message that we’re trying to promote and that is of inclusivity, respect, progress, and everything else that Abu Dhabi stands for.”

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