A clutch of international achievers with interesting life stories to tell converged on Muscat as part of the Open Minds thought leadership forum organised by Black & White magazine last week. From British bestseller writer Jeffrey Archer to amputee mountaineer Tom Whittaker, from Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler to Europe’s “Satellady (satellite lady)” Candace Johnson and Coffee Republic founder Sadar Hashemi, among others, the participants shared with the audience their life experiences. Primarily focused at young entrepreneurs, the forum was billed as an attempt to open minds, to inspire and motivate.

Tom Whittaker’s in particular was an inspirational story. This adventurer, mountaineer, professor and motivational speaker lost his kneecap and a foot at the age of 31, in a driving accident. That did not deter him from climbing the Mount Everest in 1998, the first person with disability to do so.

According to Whittaker, when he started climbing the Everest, the chances of perishing on its slopes were one in six. He wears a prosthetic and has picked up twice as much weight as the tissue he lost. “So in terms of energy and effort you are trying to climb a 40,000 feet mountain when climbing Mount Everest (29,029 feet),” he said. But “failure was not an option” and he succeeded after two failed attempts. His message was simple: “Get excited about big ideas. If the idea is not important why would any human being waste time on that?” He is currently climbing the seven highest peaks in seven continents. “I have to finish the seven summits. The last one left is the one in the Antarctica, which is the most fascinating. Only 115 people have done the Antarctica summit,” he said.

Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet talked about how travel was his passion, his business and his life. It all started soon after his marriage to Maureen, when in 1972 the two of them backpacked their way through Asia from Europe and wrote about their experiences in Across Asia on the Cheap. Wheeler’s second book South East Asia on a Shoestring was the result of a motorcycle trip in 1974. This guidebook has had 17 editions and sold 2 million copies till date.

He even did a travel blog for a website in the early 1990s before blogs were invented. A prolific writer, he regaled the audience with anecdotes from his travel to countries like Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Colombia, etc. “At night Pyongyang (North Korea) is really dark, as there is no electricity. It is also a country where the army dances in the stadium,” he said. Wheeler, who sold Lonely Planet to the BBC six years ago, is currently working on a book about reaching Melbourne from London by taking several one-hour flights. He has already done 16 flights and expects the journey to be completed in 24/25 flights.

Sahar Hashemi, the Iranian-British founder of the UK chain Coffee Republic gave up her career as a lawyer to sell “skinny cappuccinos”. She and her brother Bobby were rejected by several banks before finally managing a loan to found a US style coffee shop chain in the UK. “When you get on the path of entrepreneurship it’s the most amazing path of self-discovery because you discover things about yourself you never knew you had. All you need is the idea and in the journey of making it happen, you become an entrepreneur. And in my life, I’ve never met an unhappy entrepreneur,” Hashemi said.

Luxembourg-based Candace Johnson, one of the leading figures of the satellite industry in Europe, talked about how she believed that the “next big frontier (in communication) is the brain. Mind to mind.” Nicknamed “Satellady” by the Economist, she helped establish Astra, the first private satellite company in Luxembourg. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, Astra was the only satellite to cover the whole of Europe. She also successfully took on a cartel comprising Rupert Murdoch, Leo Kirsch and Silvio Berlusconi, which was trying to take over Astra.

Jeffrey Archer waxed eloquent about the 1,000 hours that he devotes to every book that he writes: “Talent is very useful. But there is no substitute to hard work.” Emphasising on the importance of charity, he said, “If you are lucky enough to make a packet of money, there is more to life than getting richer and richer.”

Giving back to society a part of what you have got from it was a recurring theme in the forum, with speaker after speaker highlighting the work they are doing to help the needy. Some of the other participants at the forum were speed painter Brad Blaze, beat boxer Tom Thum, scholar Sheikh Khalfan Al Esry and singer Sami Yusuf.

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