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My Brussels: Entrepreneur Rachid Azaoum

21:04 19/11/2018
Rachid Azaoum on building businesses – and why young people from diverse backgrounds need strong role models

When Rachid Azaoum took a student job flipping burgers in Woluwe to help pay the bills, he had no idea it would be a first step into the world of entrepreneurship. The Belgian-Moroccan businessman rose through the ranks at Quick and now owns six franchise restaurants, creating 250 jobs along the way. He’s one of the faces behind a new campaign, Success Within You, which aims to tell the positive stories behind immigration to Brussels and fight stereotypes. “We’re lucky to live in a country that gives people the possibility to succeed,” he tells The Bulletin. “If I can do it, anyone can.”

How did you end up in Brussels?

I was born in the village of Tamsamane in northern Morocco, in a region where a lot of migrants ended up moving to Belgium and the Netherlands. My father was one of them: he’d left in 1968, four years before I was born, to work on farms in the south of France. But it was mostly seasonal work, so he headed north and spent his working life in the construction industry in Brussels. The rest of the family moved when I was seven.

It wasn’t easy at first. I went straight into a Belgian primary school and didn’t speak a word of French or Dutch, but as a child you quickly acclimatise. Ninety percent of the kids in school were migrants – mostly Turkish and Moroccan – but the Belgian education system is one that helps integration. I then went to a secondary school in Auderghem where there were hardly any migrants, they were Belgians and the children of EU officials. I think experiencing that mix has helped me in my personal and professional life.

Tell us about your professional path

One day I walked past the Quick in Woluwe shopping centre and I thought: that’d be a nice job. It was pure chance. I never thought that one day I’d develop a career in the group’s head office. My parents always pushed me to give my best, so I threw myself into the job. I discovered it was a business in which you could learn fast, take on new responsibilities and grow. It was a company that rewarded good work, whatever your background.

I did a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a master’s in business management at Solvay. While studying, I continued to climb the ranks at Quick. After becoming manager I was asked to join the head office in Antwerp, and then in Paris.

I always wanted to launch my own business, but getting started on your own is risky. Then I found out a bit more about how franchises worked. A lot of Quick managers went on to run their own franchise, so in 2004 I took the plunge and became a franchisee. The first restaurant was at Porte de Namur and today I have five. I also run a Brico City franchise and, from September, a Burger King on Chaussée d’Ixelles. That’s a big project and will be a driver for the local economy.

What challenges have you faced along the way?

As the eldest in a big family, I always felt a lot of responsibility towards my parents, brothers and sisters, and I still have it today. My father was illiterate and I would deal with administrative tasks, explaining what a letter meant and what needed to be done. There was just my father’s salary and eight of us at home, so I started work around 16. I sold comic strips, delivered newspapers, put up advertising posters, cleaned offices and worked in a call centre.

Professionally, the most difficult challenge has always been finding good, motivated people – and good managers. We think about customers all the time, but we often lose sight of the people who make the business happen. Everything revolves around them, and that’s what determines success or failure. Most of my managers today have been there from the beginning and have grow up with the business. Many of our staff are young people: it’s often their first experience of work and that’s not easy. Some lack experience or professional maturity and I see our role as being a bit like a school.

What does Brussels mean to you?

Brussels is a truly international city. I love its diversity and its cultural richness. All the different waves of migration have created the Brussels of today. That’s why I gave my backing to the Success Within You campaign, which aims to put across a positive and constructive image of diversity. It’s about raising awareness of what diversity brings to our society, but it’s also about giving hope to young people from minority backgrounds who are lacking direction, who need inspiration.

Youth unemployment over the years has pushed more young people to want to start out in business, but they often don’t know where to begin. That’s the biggest challenge the region has, investing in youth and in organisations that work closely with them. Young people from poorer backgrounds sometimes think a successful career isn’t for them. But take my example: you can start from nothing, come from quite a poor family... if I can do it, anyone can. Perhaps I was lucky at times – and I know for sure I worked hard. But I’m happy with where I’ve ended up.

Rachid's best of Brussels

Berchem-Sainte-Agathe
This is where I live. It’s great because you feel you’re in the countryside but you’re still in Brussels. There are fields, horses, cows and little woods within walking distance of our house, such as the Bois du Wilder.

Sonian Forest
I love nature and I’ve passed that love on to my children. We can walk for hours in the Sonian Forest, stopping here and there to look at trees or listen to the birdsong.

Châtelain
Ixelles is a commune I like a lot. For a drink with friends, I’m a fan of Place Flagey and Châtelain, where you should try out Casa José, a restaurant serving up Spanish specialities. 1 Rue du Mail, Ixelles

MolenGeek
I was one of the first entrepreneurs to get involved with this association. It’s a start-up incubator that provides coaching and support for young people looking to start their own business. 10 Place de la Minoterie, Molenbeek

Place Saint-Boniface
For places to eat, this is great. I think I’ve tried all the restaurants. The simple concepts are the best: Le Clan des Belges, Mano à Mano, Deuxième Elément.

This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn 2018

Written by Paul McNally