Aston 50th Anniversary: Farhan Sharaff Q&A

Farhan Sharaff

Born in Kenya, Farhan moved with his family to Pakistan when he was a teenager.  After struggling to settle in the new country, he hitchhiked, mostly alone, from Pakistan to the UK in his late teens. The journey saw Farhan narrowly escape jail in Iran and work his way through Europe before arriving in the UK in 1970. He graduated from Aston University in Electrical Engineering in 1974, worked as an engineer in Rugby and went on to complete his MBA at Manchester Business School in 1979. 

Farhan has held Chief Investment Officer Roles at Citigroup, Zurich Scudder Investments, CIGNA Corporation, and was a partner and Chief Investment Officer at MJX Capital Advisors. He has lived and worked in four continents and is now based in New York, he undertook his current role as Senior Managing Director at Guggenheim Partners in 2009.  Farhan helped in establishing and became the first President of the Aston University in Americas Foundation in 2016.

Tell us how and why you came to study at Aston University?

I was born and raised in Kenya. My father worked as an engineer and his company landed a big contract in Pakistan and asked him to move and work there. We as a family moved with him. It was a difficult time for me and I never really settled down, and eventually I left the country.

I actually hitchhiked from Pakistan to the UK. I was in my late teens. There were a lot of people hitchhiking all around the world then. Things were peaceful. I travelled through Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey and across Europe. Iran was under the regime of the Shah, and was a bit of a police state. I almost got arrested at the border because someone in Afghanistan told me I should carry cigarettes because I could sell them for a decent profit across the border and in Europe. Naive and stupidly I did it and I almost got thrown in jail on suspicion of carrying drugs. I made my way through Europe and ended up in Germany. There I ran out of whatever little money I had and worked on a building site for a month. From there I went to Holland and caught a boat to the UK. I’d been on the road for months and I really wanted to study in England. When I grew up in Kenya it was a British colony, and the entire education system was British – the school system, the curriculum, so to me it was obvious to come to the UK and complete my education.

The Immigration Officer asked me what my plan was, and I said this is who I am and this is where I’ve been, and I would like to go to Rochdale, here is the address of some friends (from Kenya) I’ll stay with, and I’m going to figure out what to do after. He gave me a three month visa and said ‘good luck and if you decide to remain for any longer, here is the address of the Home Office, write to them and ask for an extension’. 

This was 1970, and I ended up in Rochdale. Some friends from Kenya had landed there and studied at the local technical college. So I joined the same college to complete my ‘A’ levels. My objective was to enrol in a university that had a good engineering faculty and an urban location, as I would need to work to pay for my tuition and living. Aston fulfilled that criteria and was happy to accept my application

What has your experience at Aston given you personally?

Aston was very welcoming and it gave me confidence. On arrival, each student was allocated a member of the Faculty as their mentor. I ended up with one of the senior Professors in Engineering who was regarded as an expert in the in the area of field theory which is one of the more complex areas of Engineering. We students used to joke that there were only three “people” in the universe who truly understood field theory, God, Einstein and Professor Morris Jevons. 

He had a very formal and serious demeanor. Meeting with him the first time was a daunting experience and I thought it was going to be hard from there on. Strangely we developed a bond and a friendship, although he always called me Mr Sharaff, never by my first name. I studied hard in addition to having an evening job during my first year at Aston and this paid off as at the end of the year, based on my exam results, Professor Jevons suggested I apply for a scholarship from the Institution of Electrical Engineers. He said I would be very qualified and be a favoured candidate for them. I just could not see how that was going to happen. The Institute was a very prestigious organization with high and demanding standards. However he encouraged me, and I applied and managed to win a scholarship. 

I have fond memories Professor Jevons, his intellectual prowess and how we got on.  

I have lots of great memories of my time at Aston – lighting my pipe in a lecture just to spite one of my teachers (one could smoke in lectures halls then), playing bridge in the Vauxhall Dining Centre, members of the faculty, the supportive staff and helpful postgraduate students in the labs, and I’d never come across anything like the paternoster lifts!

My Aston experience was a combination of staying on and off the campus, the relaxed ambiance, the environment, it being one of the smaller universities somewhat in the shadow of the bigger and more established competitor across town, and everyone I came across then and since loved it. Over forty years later I’m still in touch with many of the friends I made there. I have very fond memories.

How have you become reconnected with Aston?

There was always something in me that said ‘Aston gave me so much, I have to pay back’. I kept on thinking, how? The simple solution is to send them money. And I thought I really need to find a way to do something, other than promoting Aston to people I knew.

I insisted that my niece went to Aston. She came and studied marketing and is now doing very well in the business world.  After my high recommendations, two of my friends’ daughters also came to Aston. They all had a wonderful time and now good careers.

Then Marc Hornby from Aston University got in touch via LinkedIn and said that they were thinking of starting a Foundation in the US and would I be interested in being part of it. I thought, ‘this is it, this is my opportunity to give back.’ Working with Marc and his team has been fabulous.

What is it about Aston that motivates you to give back?

It laid the foundations for what has become my life. The first year was a great character builder, it founded the values that I hold dear. It rounded me out pretty nicely as an individual. I really think that Aston was my stepping stone to what happened subsequently.

When I graduated I had many job offers, much to my surprise. I wasn’t sure I would have one or two, but I had multiple. I think that was due to Aston’s reputation, the employers thought I could deliver.  For what the University did, I feel very grateful. From everything I see and hear Aston has become so much better and greater over time

You generously made a donation of $10k to the Aston Foundation. Why should others follow your lead and support Aston?

The world we live in today is very different to the one when I joined the University. Then education for most students was funded with a government grant. The world has changed a lot and has become very competitive, and I feel that Aston has a role to play not only for students in the UK but for students from outside the UK. The makeup of an institution like Aston is the sum of its staff, management, leadership, current students and importantly all the past students.

For me, the donation of $10k is a start and hopefully there will be more as time passes. I would like to see us raise money so we can contribute to Aston becoming stronger and more visible and better. And this can all be done by contributions in cash and in kind. 

I have met a number of people in the US who have said they can’t really give much in terms of cash, but can give in kind. Recently, a graduate I spoke to, who has been successful in starting a couple of small ventures, said he has learnt so much and wants to share his knowledge with Aston’s students. I think that is fabulous. Students enrich a university as much as university enriches students. I would like to see myself become an Ambassador for the University. 

What is the best advice you can give to today’s graduates?

Based on my own experience and my own time spent at Aston, there really is no substitute to hard work. You only have one shot at being an undergraduate. You have to make the absolute best use of the time, the facilities and value imparted by the teachers. You only get one chance to study and you have the rest of your life to socialise. 

Reach out, and go out of your way to make bonds with faculty and students from different departments. There is a lot of learning to be had from other students and members of the faculty. They may come across as dry and difficult, that was my first reaction to Professor Jevons. And yet, if you reach out, they give back a 100 times. 

Farhan Sharaff, picture taken in the 1970s
Farhan as a student in the 1970s
Farhan Sharaff on the day of his graduation in 1974
Farhan Sharaff on the day of his graduation in 1974

Paternoster Lift

Paternoster Lift
Class of 1974
Electrical Engineering, Class of 1974