Photo of Zaki Khalifa by Amy Freeman
During his 41 years in High Point, Zaki Khalifa has developed one of the nation’s largest Oriental rug distributorships and gained a reputation as one of Furniture City’s most philanthropic business leaders. Now, Khalifa, the 73-year-old owner of Zaki Oriental Rugs, is moving into a new phase of his life. He donated his current 100,000-square-foot space on South Main Street and his remaining rug inventory, which runs in the millions of dollars, to Pakistani nonprofit Akhuwat, which will reap the proceeds once the property is sold. Akhuwat works to reduce poverty through interest-free microloans and free grade-school education. Khalifa is packing his bags for Lahore, Pakistan, where he’ll spend eight months out of the year teaching children at Akhuwat schools.
“It was a difficult decision,” Khalifa says. “But I want to spend my remaining years impacting the lives of the maximum amount of people. This is an area where I can help thousands of children. … We need education. These are the most desperate kids that have no hope for the future.”
Helping others isn’t new for the High Point resident. He previously gifted his former High Point showroom spaces to house the chamber of commerce, the convention and visitors bureau and Community Against Violence, a local nonprofit. He and his wife, Rashida, have contributed thousands of dollars and hours to the Al-Aqsa Community Clinic, a Burlington-based free health clinic co-founded by Rashida, and Friends of Aabroo, a nonprofit founded by Zaki that provides a free education for more than 4,000 Pakistani children.
Pakistan, wedged in South Asia between Afghanistan and India, is the fifth most-populous nation, with more than 212 million people. Nearly 39% of Pakistanis live in poverty due to lack of education and poor health facilities, according to a 2016 report from the country’s Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform.
“I’ve decided to donate around 80% of my net worth to charity,” Khalifa says. “I don’t have to have the biggest house or the nicest car. One is to live comfortably in life, but one should do what they can to help better society.”
Khalifa came from a prominent Pakistani family and was raised in part by his grandfather, a successful attorney who was politically connected. A graduate of Forman Christian College, he spent two years working as a management trainee in a bank in Karachi, one of Pakistan’s biggest cities, but he wanted to start his own rug business in a different country. At the time, Pakistan was under a military dictatorship. One of his former professors, Carl Wheeless, was working at High Point University and suggested Zaki settle down in the home of an international home furnishings market. Khalifa moved to High Point from Pakistan in 1977 and opened Zaki Oriental Rugs.
His store now claims one of the largest selections of fine handmade rugs in the U.S. and boasts customers from all 50 states and 17 countries, according to Khalifa.
Khalifa’s High Point customers have never amounted to more than 1% of annual sales; rather, 90% of the approximately 7,000 rugs sold every year go to customers from other American cities and 10% go to foreign countries. He has attracted most of his out-of-town clientele through word-of-mouth.
Khalifa has received numerous awards for his business and service endeavors, including the BB&T Distinguished Citizen of the Year and Small Business Advocate of the Year from the High Point Chamber in 2004. He was selected as one of the top 50 U.S. Asian-Americans in business by the Asian American Business Development Center in 2009.
“Zaki is a humble man who has demonstrated that diversity in America is good and that diversity in America makes us whole,” High Point University President Nido Qubein said in 2015, when Khalifa received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, a prized honor bestowed by the state of North Carolina. “He has been a person who has promoted the kind of values that are noble and precious to each of us and that [show] us what we believe in America is important and worthwhile.”