“Where do you see yourself in five years?” This was the final question a senior partner at Booz & Company asked me as we wrapped up our farewell conversation. It was early 2010, and I was leaving my consulting life in New York to return home to Dubai. The partner’s question seemed to have a simple answer: I’d help my father grow his business in the earthmoving industry, a plan I’d had since I was 10. Or perhaps I’d aspire to be one of the first female leaders of this male-dominated industry in the Gulf region. But something else was revving up inside me. Before I could slam the brakes, I blurted out, “Food. I don’t know how, but I see myself in the world of food.”
The executive laughed out loud. That was the end of the conversation.
My fellow consultants had been aware of my fanatical obsession with food. Few things gave me more joy than throwing myself into researching possible options for a team lunch. My friends knew about my passion, too, dating back to my Wharton days and the Indian-food takeout service I co-ran out of a closet-size kitchen in Harnwell. My equally ambitious dormmate, Radhika Gupta ENG05 W05, and I not only learned our mothers’ recipes; we attempted to cook sabzi and daal for the entire community every day between the peak study hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. This seemingly simple idea became an all-consuming pursuit that left the kitchen a mess, my hair constantly smelling of turmeric, and my inner food-loving beast forever awakened.
Nearly eight years later, the food lover in me required a side hustle to be sated. I was automating the credit management for Dahbashi Engineering by day but blogging about my culinary discoveries by night. I was always drawn to the small places that were low on fuss, high on flavor. Once, on a work trip, amid the food carts and bubbling kadais in Delhi’s famed bazaar, I noticed a group of tourists listening intently to a young Indian man waxing eloquent over ghee-smeared parathas. If a seed had been planted back in my curry-smelling kitchen-dorm days, that Delhi food tour was the ray of sunlight it needed to sprout and latch stubbornly onto my mind. Food. And now I know how. I had to bring food tours to Dubai.
The thought of leaving my father’s business to become a tour guide was as jarring as it was enticing. I had been privileged to graduate from Wharton as an undergrad and then as a submatriculant with my MBA. As the youngest in my graduate cohort, I often felt self-conscious and unworthy — and that feeling of not quite fitting in had lingered through the years. Influenced by the stereotypical stories of investment bankers, high-flying consultants, and C-level leaders, I had an image of what it meant to be a successful Wharton alumnus. “Food explorer” didn’t fit the mold. Would I be wasting my father’s investment in the world’s best education — and, worse, abandoning his business?
In 2012, despite my feelings of guilt and shame, I took the leap and approached my father. He hadn’t previously been enthusiastic about my proposed detour, but this time he recognized a familiar stubborn urge. It was the same one he had in the ’60s, when he decided to leave his father’s business back in India to pursue a different path. With his encouragement, I left his firm and began researching how to establish my own food tour company.
Frying Pan Adventures celebrated its 10th year this past January. We have been featured not only in local media but also across international platforms like CNN, Condé Nast Traveler, the Telegraph, and more. And while I feel immeasurably fulfilled with the impact we have had on residents and visitors in Dubai, I still struggle to feel pride about the path I have chosen. I’ve often sneaked my tour-guide badge into my pocket because wearing it around my neck somehow makes me feel less. That shame frayed my ties with the Wharton community, distancing me from regional alumni events or cohort updates for fear of feeling like an underachieving outlier.
Had it not been for Wharton External Affairs, I might never have reunited with my fellow alumni. Senior director of international relations Kevin Weekley made a personal connection with me by joining a food tour on a trip to Dubai. When the Wharton Impact Tour arrived here in December, I attended an alumnae breakfast with Dean Erika James. As it neared my turn to introduce myself at the table, I could feel my face getting hot with embarrassment. I couldn’t imagine saying, “I run a small team that does food tours” in a room of accomplished Wharton leaders and the Dean herself. But the change in energy in the room was surprising and instantly palpable when I spoke up. Rather than an awkward judgmental silence, the responses ranged from “I’ve heard of Frying Pan Adventures!” to “Wow, I need to do this!” to “I did one years ago, and it was amazing!” When breakfast concluded, nearly every alumna approached me to learn more about the tours, and two of the participants booked their tickets on the spot.
That day, the mental and emotional baggage I had been senselessly lugging around for years snapped open to reveal nothing more than rocks — worthless weight that did nothing but cost me years of self-doubt and precious relationships with a diverse and inspiring community. For all those years, I had anticipated an echo of the snarky remark I once received from a government official in Dubai: “You have an MBA, and you decided to do food tours?” But what reverberated around that breakfast table was positive recognition — not only for me, but for the other attending women who had also taken creative diversions in their lives. The alumni community has a far more inclusive and holistic definition of success than anything I’d imagined in my most vulnerable moments. I left that meeting realizing that so many of my peers and I are mold-breakers, and that is a point of pride for Wharton and for each of us.
Arva Saleem Ahmed W05 WG06 is the co-founder of Frying Pan Adventures, a sister-led team committed to celebrating the culture and cuisine of the lesser-known eateries of Old Dubai.
Published as “When Life Gives You Lamb Kebabs” in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Wharton Magazine.