The adventurous entrepreneur discusses his bold approach to business and the importance of giving back to the community, as well as his devotion to family values.
“He was my mentor,” said entrepreneur Dr David Harilela, pointing to a picture on his office wall of his late father, the legendary businessman George Harilela. “We argued a lot but we still loved each other.”
Dr Harilela, who describes himself as a “conservative radical”, is a third-generation member of one of Hong Kong’s most prominent Indian families. He started out in the world of trading in 1984 when he travelled to South America with three suitcases of samples, HK$30,000 in his pocket, and a few simple Spanish phrases. He returned to Hong Kong two months later with confirmed orders worth over HK$11.7 million. “I fear nothing,” Dr Harilela said. “When I want to do something, I’m always very strong-minded.”
With the money, he then revived and bought out the family export trading business. The company flourished, expansion continued, and in a first for an Asian company, he secured an international multi-category licence for the World Cup covering Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Mexico.
The 66-year-old self-made workaholic believes he inherited this entrepreneurial spirit from his grandfather, father and uncles, calling his father the “cement” and uncle Hari Harilela the “bricks” of the family. “They worked very hard for the family. Back then, we were very poor,” he recalled.
Like its businesses, the Harilela family has grown over the years. Now over 50 members from four generations reside under one roof in Kowloon Tong. His father and uncles were instrumental in this living arrangement. Now the torch has been passed to Dr Harilela. “As long as I am alive, I will try to keep the family together,” he said. “No one is perfect. But I think love, sharing and compromise are very important in a family.”
Dr Harilela has been married to his wife, Avisha, for more than 30 years and they have three daughters. Dr Harilela said his role as a parent was to be both father and friend. “I am a father to guide and look after them. As a friend, I want to let them know I’m always there for them if they have problems,” he said. “My father always imparted to me how important love and sharing are.”
This caring spirit is extended to the wider community as well. “Life has been good to me,” Dr Harilela said. “You have to give back.”
Since 1999, Dr Harilela has been a member of Rotary International. In 2011-12, he served as a District Governor, during which time he launched THE ONE, an annual international humanitarian award that seeks to recognise and honour the Mother Teresa of tomorrow. In setting up this Rotary award, Dr Harilela sought to empower unsung heroes by providing a monetary prize with which they could continue to help others.
“When the world is in chaos, that’s when we need our heroes. So we have to look for them,” Dr Harilela said. “Heroes give you the light, show you goodness, and inspire you in the right direction.” He also recently established a similar award locally called THE ONE Hong Kong.
Dr Harilela is now a member of another large family after receiving an Honorary Doctorate in Business Administration from CityU in 2015. He is delighted that CityU has established initiatives to empower young people, and particularly enthusiastic about mentoring fledgling entrepreneurs – just as he was once mentored by his father. “I’m very proud to be part of CityU and proud to know that CityU has such a great alumni community,” he said.
THE ONE website: www.theonerotary3450.org