Inspired by his own entrepreneurial endeavours, this businessman is a driving force for local start-ups
Staying in one place is not one of Bernard Lee’s strong suits. When I meet Lee – clad in a plain white shirt and jeans, and armed with coffee – he’s dividing his time between quick meetings and answering questions from an intruding journalist.
“One thing I know is that I’m bad in predicting my future,” he laughs, finally finding time to settle down.
“Because if you asked me five years ago, I didn’t even know what a business centre was. But I can tell you that this is something I see myself doing for a long, long time.”
He’s referring to GlassQube, the trendy co-working office space he co-founded for freelancers, start-ups and small business enterprises last year on Al Reem Island.
It’s a unique initiative that arose from his own personal experiences as an entrepreneur and businessman.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Lee has always displayed an ingenious spirit dating back to his campus days.
“In high-school I had a small T-shirt printing and retailing business. I would print and sell them on the streets, and it was quite successful for three summers. Then in college, I used to promote parties.”
After finishing his molecular biology course, Lee set up a café business, which unfortunately failed.
“It was a miserable experience so I went back to school and studied finance. When I graduated, I landed a career in banking before deciding to move to New York to work on Wall Street,” he recalls.
Working in the cutthroat US financial district was “very, very tough” but it taught Lee valuable life and career lessons that would serve him well later on in life.
In 2012, Lee arrived in Abu Dhabi to work for the government in its post-financial crisis debt restructuring programmes.
It was during this time that he met Fahad Al Ahbabi, a young Emirati whose family was on the lookout for potential business opportunities.
“We started looking for investments for his family’s portfolio and it was through that process looking for an office space that we realised that there was a gap in the market for a nice, affordable modern office – and that’s how we came up with the idea for GlassQube.
“It’s the classic entrepreneur’s story of building something out of frustration based on our own experience, and as we continued to look for office space in the market, we just realised that it can and should be done better.”
The concept of co-working spaces is a growing global trend brought about by the shift in dynamics among the new generation of workforce.
A 2016 study by the commercial real-estate firm Colliers International attributed this to technology – people can now work anywhere thanks to the internet – and flexible lease terms, enabling new businesses to save money as they test the market.
“The new generations have a different kind of career philosophy,” Lee explains.
“Since I graduated, I have worked for three different investment banks. If you put me in the 1950s, I would have had one employer and would be settled until I retire.
“So I think there’s more career mobility and willingness to jump either to a new company, shift to a totally different type of work, or be a freelancer now that it demanded an evolution of workspaces that cater to this new group.”
Since opening, GlassQube has become a hub for freelancers and budding businesses. Its diverse list of tenants includes companies involved in everything from maintenance and design to teeth whitening – even Uber is among the list of (former) clients.
“This is a much more attractive option than working in a coffee shop,” Lee explains.
“Our clients get access to our eco-system, meeting rooms, internet connection and we basically provide an opportunity for them to network.
“We also provide trade licence services: we can help them establish themselves so they can work legally here, which is a complex issue that most start-ups struggle with.”
But as with any start-up, running the business comes with its challenges, from dealing with subcontractors, setting timelines and budgets to marketing, sourcing clients and improving the services.
“When people think about start-ups like us, there’s a focus on the ‘sexy’ side but what a lot of people miss out on is that it’s very, very tough and stressful,” says Lee, who can often be seen sweeping the floor or refilling the coffee machine.
But the benefits outweigh the challenges, and it’s not purely about revenue.
“I love the fact that we’re creating a community,” Lee beams.
“We’ve created friendships: it’s not unusual to see people here calling for food delivery and sharing it with everyone or organising after-work events like dinner and karaoke.
“Because as human beings we want to be connected and want to make friends instead of sitting alone in front of the computer in the kitchen or coffee shop. And that’s what makes communal working spaces successful, because there’s this casual element to it yet you have others to bounce ideas off of as well.”