“Nothing can stop you if you, if you accept challenge and adapt.”
ALUMNUS AZHAR MURTAZA IS THE DIRECTOR OF VEGAN DRINKS COMPANY BORN MAVERICK. HE INITIALLY PRESENTED HIS BUSINESS CONCEPT TO ENTERPRISE SU AT QUEEN’S, WHERE HE RECEIVED MENTORSHIP AND GUIDANCE TO LAUNCH HIS BRAND.
As the director of Born Maverick, Queen’s alum Azhar Murtaza, from India, has faced his fair share of challenges. Food technologists questioned whether a vegan brand had sustainability in Northern Ireland, then there was the issue of how to package a vegan drink when your brand values are based around ecofriendliness. Shunning plastic bottles in favour of compostable and biodegradable sachets, Azhar has proved the doubters wrong, building a successful, ethical beverage brand and scooping accolades including Student Invent Finalist; Queen’s Dragons’ Den Finalist and a Belfast Business Idea Awards 2019 Top 5 finalist.
Accept and adapt to challenges
He urges graduates of 2020 to lean into change in order to cope with challenges. “Change is the only constant and being able to adapt to those changes is what defines us,” he says. “That principle has got me through all the challenges that were thrown at me, right from the moment I landed in Belfast to study a Master’s at Queen’s. Nothing can stop you if you are willing to accept and adapt.” Like many graduates, Azhar wasn’t sure where his career path would take him, but hoped a Master’s from Queen’s would help him pursue his passions. “I chose a university which would allow me to explore different aspects of my interests in science, business and art. I wasn’t sure where I was headed, but all I knew was that I would accept the challenges and give it my best.” He adds, “We are all in the same boat right now, plans and dreams on hold, as a result of the pandemic. But we are all in this together and we will prevail if we are willing to accept the challenge and adapt accordingly.”
Develop networking confidence
While at Queen’s, Azhar blended his love of biotechnology and business to begin to shape his career path. “I was helped a lot by Enterprise SU in defining my own career growth. As an introvert, I would usually have taken a step back from presenting myself and my ideas but through mentoring sessions and workshops, I was able to develop my confidence to put myself out there and present on various platforms.” Rather than being solely purely goal-orientated, Azhar developed softer skills that he has carried with him into his career. “I learned that winning is a by-product: being able to express yourself and to utilise your network is what matters. I was reaching finals of various business competitions but never able to cross the line into first place. However, those competitions were putting me in front of the right bunch of people. Ultimately, I gained contacts and experience worth more than any prize money.” It was while he was competing in the Queen’s Dragons’ Den final that he was offered an opportunity with Invest NI. “I lost the competition, but Invest NI offered me a place on their programme and Born Maverick Vegan Beverages Ltd was born.”
Innovation in action
The company owns the Púr brand of vegan drinks made with whole grain and finger millet, and are developing vegan non-alcoholic popsicles, fortified with vitamin D, and in flavours including Gin & Tonic, Prosecco, Irish Whiskey and Coffee. “Both these product lines have been formulated with the help of food scientists at CAFRE using Innovation Vouchers from Invest NI,” says Azhar, whose ideas keep on coming. “I am also working on a R&D project developing vegan eggs from mung beans along with Campden BRI and I am in an ideation phase of developing vegan prawns from seaweeds. In the coming years, we aim to represent Northern Ireland in food innovation on a global platform and lead consumers here towards living an ethically healthy life,” he adds.
Advice for new graduates
While Azhar acknowledges that this year is particularly challenging for graduates, there is still space for innovation, creativity and strategy. “These are challenging times and quite different to when I was about to graduate myself, but there is still scope for constant innovation.” He urges graduates to seek support from Queen’s, Invest NI. Catalyst Inc and Belfast City Council who are at the heart of innovation in the region. “Patience and perseverance pay off eventually,” he adds. “As a student, I made sacrifices to help me achieve my dream, like working nights at KFC and Tesco’s to free me up to attend workshops and business meetings during the day. I found out that there is so much support available within Northern Ireland for innovative small businesses. Reach out to Enterprise SU, The Graduate School and Queen’s Careers, Employability and Skills team.” He adds, “I wish you all the best as you graduate this year. I am sure this phase is going to help many to reflect. Now is the time to rebuild, restructure and plan according to your goals. As they say, when going gets tough, the tough gets going. There is a world of opportunity if you are willing to explore beyond your immediate circle.”
For more inspiration download our Grad Guide 2020