"I was only a kid, but I knew from day one that I wanted to be the boss," Ali recalls. "I knew I could manage it and that I could handle the customer, so I insisted on occupying a certain position in the business. Eventually I got my chance."
One of six children, Ali quickly learnt that piloting a business has its ups and downs. Bombings during a civil war in his homeland in the 1970s and 1980s destroyed the store on five occasions. Each time, Ali's father and his family painstakingly rebuilt it.
Today Ali lives in Sweden and is the founder and main shareholder of Birka BioStorage, a Lund-based company that stores and transports high-value pharmaceutical samples.
It has been a long journey. The escalating civil war in his home country made it impossible for him to pursue his dream of a university education. At the age of 18 he decided to leave for Europe.
After arriving in Malmö in early 1990, Ali supported himself through casual work – from delivering newspapers to picking fruit on farms – while learning Swedish. After gaining a residence permit, he took up a place at Jönköping University to study chemical engineering.
In 13 years working for pharmaceutical companies in southern Sweden and Scotland, Ali identified a market for a company that could offer high-security storage and transportation of pharmaceutical products.
Pharmaceutical samples are extremely valuable. Often the product of years of research and clinical studies, they can be highly sensitive to changes in temperature and must be stored in rigorously controlled conditions with full backup. So far, outsourcing in this area of the pharma industry is in its infancy.
And so Birka BioStorage was born. "Once you have a business idea and you really believe in it, you have to try," Ali says. "Getting yourself a network is the most important thing, more important than money. Money will not help if you don't have the right network, the right people to support you all the way, the right investor and the right customer."
For Ali, that network comprised personal and professional contacts along with outside help from a myriad of institutions and agencies in Skåne.
"The support provided to entrepreneurs like me in Skåne has made my life so much easier. There were many occasions when doors were closed everywhere, there was no financing, and no customers believing in the idea. That's where the ecosystem of organisations like Invest in Skåne, Connect Skåne, Almi and the business incubator at Nyföretagarcentrum in Lund kept me going. They knew I had the tenacity to succeed and they helped me build my network."
Being located in Skåne and in the life science cluster Medicon Valley is a huge advantage for a fledgling pharma business, Ali says. "Skåne is close to Copenhagen and that's where the biggest market potential is for Birka. If you're interested in starting a business in Scandinavia, you need to be in Sweden. And if you're in Sweden, you need to be in Skåne. Geography is number one. Skåne has the pharma cluster and critical mass our growing business needs."
Operational since 2012, Birka BioStorage is currently expanding beyond Scandinavia. It already has a presence through partners in the Middle East, and in 2017 aims to launch in Japan.
Building on the success of Birka BioStorage, Ali in 2015 launched three new companies. These businesses, all based at Medicon Village in Lund, are in lab hygiene, skin care products and 3D printing of medical device metals.
"Entrepreneurship is about looking for opportunities, not possibilities," Ali says. "If you only focus on possibilities you sometimes find them, but sometimes not. Opportunities will always be positive, whatever direction they lead you in. I always follow the school of opportunities – every single day in every single thing I do."
It's a philosophy that has worked rather well for a boy who started out stacking boxes in his father's store at the age of 10.