Thought Leader Interview: Bijay Shah, Master Franchisee of BNI United Arab Emirates

Tell us about yourself and your background.

I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. I graduated with a BSc Econ in Banking & Finance at University of Wales, College of Cardiff in 1993 and a MSc in Shipping, Trade & Finance at Cass Business School, City University, London in 1995.

I then embarked on a career in Retail Banking with a local bank in Nairobi, before moving on to acquiring a Small Family Business General Insurance Brokerage and expanded its operations to offer Financial Advisory & Wealth Management Solutions to clients.

In 2001, I migrated to the UK and joined a leading American Retail Stockbroker where I first came across BNI through my colleagues who were members – I didn’t get a chance to join as a member though.

Then, in 2004, and by accident and a side-hustle, I moved to Dubai and ended up taking the Master Franchise opportunity for BNI in the UAE

Tell us about Business Network International (BNI) in the United Arab Emirates.

BNI was launched on 14th September 2005 in Dubai with the first chapter, BNI Falcons. The concept of a structured referral network meeting early in the morning was a noble idea and 9 out of 10 people didn’t quite buy into it given the cultural norms of networking in the evening in the region at the time. The only reason I persevered to launching it was because of my belief in how powerful it can be if done right and following the organisational core values.

How many people attend the networking events in the UAE?

Today, we have a community of over 1,200 local businesses who are members and they meet every week in-person with their local chapter mostly over breakfast, but some are now meeting in the afternoons. We also have a few chapters that are hybrid and meet online for 3 out of 4 meetings a month. We have 29 active chapters with an average of 42 members per chapter, with our smallest chapter being 25 members and the largest chapter having 87 members.

Why is networking so important for business growth?

Networking is vital for business growth as it cultivates a robust support network, increases visibility and awareness, expands customer bases, enables entrepreneurs to stay on top of industry trends, and allows them to learn from and collaborate with other professionals.

Networking also provides a structure for solving problems, gaining support during challenges, and uncovering opportunities through connections that might otherwise remain inaccessible.

Why is being part of BNI so beneficial to business owners?

Being part of BNI specifically adds to these general networking benefits by providing a structured environment where business owners can thrive. BNI’s philosophy of ‘Givers Gain’ encourages members to provide value to others, which in turn leads to receiving support and referrals. This structured approach to networking ensures that members can build relationships with trust and credibility, which are essential for long-term business success.

What are your top 5 favourite networking questions?

  • How did you get started with what you’re doing? Or how did you end up with what you do today?
  • What is the biggest challenge you face in your business/industry today?
  • What are the trends in your business/industry that you’ve experienced in the last ___ months/years? Or you see coming in the next ___ months/years?
  • If you had a chance to start all over again, what would you do differently and why?
  • What would you be doing today if you weren’t in your current business/position?

What are your current growth goals for BNI?

We have a Vision for 2025 – it goes like this: “2,025 by 2025” – meaning, we want to have over 2,025 members in our community by 2025. We’ll be celebrating 20 years in the UAE next year and we believe there is scope for BNI to be in every Emirate in the UAE. We aim to have a presence in every Emirate by 2030. We already have a core group forming for Sharjah, Ajman & UAQ and another 6 new chapters launching in Dubai this year.

What current trends do you see for start-ups in the UAE?

As for current trends for startups in the UAE, it is widely acknowledged that the UAE is a thriving hub for startups, with a strong inclination towards technology and digital transformation. This reflects a broader global trend where startups are leveraging technology to disrupt traditional industries, focus on sustainability, and provide innovative solutions to both local and global challenges.

Both the public and private sector are engaged in attracting more start-ups in the country through various engagements and with the infrastructure being built to support them, the UAE is a preferred destination for many start-ups. There are multiple programs to provide capital, human resources, mentoring and other resources.

What do you see right now as the number 1 challenge companies in the UAE face when scaling their business?

The number one challenge companies in the UAE may face when scaling their business can be linked to adapting to rapid technological changes and integrating these into their business models. Additionally, accessing talent and capital to support growth in a competitive market can be challenging. Networking can play a crucial role in overcoming these challenges by connecting business owners with potential investors, skilled professionals, and partners who can aid in scaling operations and navigating the complexities of a growing business.

Where can our readers find out more about yourself and BNI UAE?

We can also be reached by email at

Editor-In-Chief of Bizpreneur Middle East