"I left feeling like there is something to be done."
Usman Shah aspired to become a doctor after it was drummed into him from an early age by his parents.
His parents came from Pakistan to London and they put any loose change into an empty coke bottle with the intention of giving it to Usman for him to study.
But that changed whilst in college when a person asked for volunteers for an initiative.
It was run by Costain and it helped ethnic minority young people from Newham and Hackney, providing work experience within the construction sector.
Usman was given the chance to try out quantity surveying.
Recalling how he had to tell his parents the news, Usman said:
“I remember as a child asking my dad what I could be growing up and he looked back at me and said, ‘doctor, doctor and doctor’.
“They were the only options. When I told my parents about the fact I was going to do work experience as a quantity surveyor they couldn’t believe it.
“One of my dad’s friends said to my dad, ‘does he (me) want to be Bob the Builder?’ There’s a negative stereotype when it comes to construction work as something that couldn’t be made into a successful career and it’s wrong.
“I actually took to quantity surveying and ended up really enjoying it.”
After the work experience, Costain said they would pay Usman’s university fees.
At this point, he gave his parents the coke bottle full of coins. Instead of it being used to pay for his education, he handed it back and told them to go on the holiday they deserved for a long time.
Usman went on to spend six years at Costain.
During that time, he founded a social enterprise called Diversity Hut.
Diversity Hut was created to bring more diversity into the construction industry, something Usman said he “could notice straight away, was off”.
He said: “Through Diversity Hut I was able to create 72 jobs for unemployed ethnic minorities.
“I fell in love with the concept of finding people work and giving them a chance. I got to work with major brands to source people for these jobs.
“Especially with the construction industry, the representation was off and made me happy to get people jobs within in.”
In 2018, Usman travelled to the Middle East and it inspired his date business. However, he saw how people were being treated.
Usman told MyLondon: “I’ve always loved eating dates so when I had the opportunity to visit these countries, I made sure to visit date farms.
“I wanted to see how they were grown and the people there.
“After I visited around 20 farms, I found one underlying problem every time. The labourers weren’t being paid a fair wage or paid at all in some cases.
“When I visited Saudi Arabia, the majority of labourers were from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Phillippines.
“They had left their motherland in search of a better life and instead, they were malnourished, skinny and most hadn’t been paid in months.
“It really affected me seeing this and I left feeling like there is something to be done.
“I was creating jobs for people back home but the people here were suffering far worse.”
After meeting a farm owner, Usman made an agreement. He would buy dates from him at a higher price as long as they paid their workers on time and what they deserved.
Usman had someone to audit the farms to ensure they were doing what was agreed and in exchange, he would buy dates to eat.
“I got a call from the person who I had tasked with auditing the farms.
“He said all the workers are happy and are asking why aren’t I buying more?
“We now have a secure way of life and are actually earning money, we wish he could buy more. He’s like the date Sultan.”
Usman ended up becoming someone who changed lives through the buying of dates. He later created his own date business called Date Sultan.
He said: “I really liked when they called me the Date Sultan but also realised the importance of me buying these dates.
“It felt like my calling and a way for me to leave a legacy and have a huge impact.”
“More than selling dates, the vision behind this is to tackle modern-day slavery head on – every date that I buy, I want to give them the pure feeling that they are eating ethically fairtrade dates – that have been sourced by people who aren’t being exploited and are being paid well.”
Since launching in 2021, the business has been run from Usman’s family shed.
In order to scale up production, Usman set up a crowd funder and raised £19,999.
Usman said: “People commented about wanting to see Date Sultan grow and praised us for the dates we had and them wanting more, it was a proud feeling.
“Knowing that we are tackling modern-day slavery head-on is the main goal in the end.
“We are at around 5 figures in sold revenue and have sent over 1200 orders across 36 countries and this is all helping tackle the issue.”
He added that in just one year, he was on track to earn nearly £100,000 as well as pay the workers a fair wage.