From fledgling start-ups to booming businesses, three regional movers and shakers open up about their journeys to the top.
Fouz Al Khonaini, Kuwaiti, Entrepreneur
“It all comes down to your team,” says Fouz Al Khonaini of her business motto – one she has put into practice herself with her three businesses. Her first business, she tells us, launched in early 2016.
“BASE is a boutique, luxury nail spa located in the heart of Kuwait City. [My partner and best friend Lulwa Al Ajeel and I] believed there was an opportunity to elevate the standards of quality, ambience and luxury in the beauty industry, so we tried to bring forth a brand that does just that.”
The second business “came almost one year after in February 2017. It is a local, artisanal, handcrafted donut line called DOH! The local food and beverage industry is quite competitive; however, despite its high level of traffic we were missing artisanal donuts. My partners and I collectively put forth a vision and a plan to serve real donuts by establishing a multi-dimensional competitive advantage,” she explains.
TRIO is her third business that launched in September of this year and holds particularly special significance for Fouz.
“It was my first idea as an entrepreneur and my first dream,” she tells Emirates Woman. “It is a financial and accounting services firm tailored and targeted towards SME’s (small to medium enterprises) which stemmed from the rise of small businesses in the region. We found that many business owners were in need of proper financial and accounting services to help them gain a multilateral view of their operations. We aim to assist our fellow entrepreneurs to effectively develop their business using compelling financial information.”
Although incredibly busy, Fouz says she’s “grateful and very thankful to be fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to transform ideas into reality” and the businesses have performed exceptionally well so far with great growth prospects, too.
“Thankfully, both BASE and DOH! have witnessed growth in their own ways. We have dynamically adapted to growth by increasing capital, investing in software, curating new marketing campaigns and increasing team members. Roughly speaking, the projected growth rate for BASE is around 25 per cent, whilst the projected 60 per cent growth rate for DOH! is higher due to the dynamics of the food and beverage industry,” Fouz explains, adding that it’s too soon to tell for TRIO but that she’d “like to wishfully say 100 per cent!”
Fouz says she celebrates her success “with my partners, by thanking them, learning from them and growing with them” adding that whilst BASE’s success came with time through “the high percentage of returning clients and the sustained high level of occupancy,” one moment with DOH! stands out in particular.
“Our first big moment of success with DOH! was our pop-up event that took place in the middle of the desert, in a far area close to the border. The amount of people that showed up and the enthusiasm of our audience felt like true success to me.”
Maryam Hassani, Emirati, Co-Founder and Principal Designer of 55Fifty7
A lifelong passion for jewellery led Maryam Hassani to co-found one of the Middle East’s most successful jewellery labels, 55Fifty7. The Gemological Institute of America alumni joined forces with Dr. Harshad Mehta of the 7Cs Group in 2014 to create the company – whose name comes from the longitude of Dubai, as well as the fact that “a perfectly cut diamond has 57 facets thus meaning Dubai is the perfectly cut diamond!” – after conducting extensive market research.
“I felt the need to have a design studio for jewellery where clients could come and have a design experience that no other retail store would offer,” Maryam explains. “At 55Fifty7 our main offering is customised, personalised luxury diamond jewellery. Our customers are taken on a design journey and we involve them in the entire process of bringing their piece to life.”
It didn’t take long for the business to find success, with their unique approach to jewellery design resonating throughout the Middle East almost instantly – so much so that in their first year of business, they hit a huge financial target with just one order. “In early 2014, we had a million dollar order from a member of the Royal Family,” Maryam tells Emirates Woman. “We made a beautiful diamond ring for them which was a very breathtaking piece. The client wanted something unique and we brought their vision to life.”
Since then “the company has made steady progress” and as a result, Maryam and Dr. Harshad have made several changes to the business to help it evolve, including moving its headquarters to Dubai Design District and setting up the 55Fifty7 Incubator program. “This is a unique and innovative business strategy where designers can come in to our studio and occupy a space to unleash their creativity. They get the opportunity to be sponsored by us for international jewellery design competitions and it is the first program of its kind in the MENA region.”
Maryam believes the business’ success also has to do with the region’s appreciation for jewellery. “Within the Middle Eastern culture, we have always received and given gifts of jewellery to each other from a very early age. We realise the value and beauty of fine jewellery early on and appreciate it.” She adds, “At 55Fifty7 we don’t just sell jewellery; we strive to make the experience very special for all of our clients, something which is greatly appreciated by our local clientele in particular.”
The aforementioned passion for the industry is something Maryam says is vital for success, regardless of the business you’re in, and she advises any future entrepreneurs to wholeheartedly immerse themselves in their chosen projects. “Go for it with all your heart and soul. You can only achieve success if you’re passionate about what you do. You are not just investing money in your business, but you are investing your soul in it too.”
Kunal Kapoor, Indian, Founder and CEO of The Luxury Closet
Of how the idea for The Luxury Closet came about, Kunal Kapoor explains, “I was working at Louis Vuitton and a client brought in a bag for repair that was nearly 20 years old and in immaculate condition and I wondered how many such items there must be in closets around the world. Bain & Co. (a global management consultancy firm) estimates that there is Dhs1.8 trillion worth of re-sellable items in consumers’ closets – I thought if only we could unlock these amazing closets and build a virtual online closet with these products. And that is how The Luxury Closet came to be.”
Kunal says his goal was always to “create a scalable start-up that solved a unique problem in the world of fashion and luxury” and he started The Luxury Closet, described as “a marketplace for luxury pre-loved items,” in 2011 from his apartment.
“The company began in my own apartment with my own capital, however, once there was measurable traction, I raised my first round of angel capital from friends and Middle East Venture Partners.” In the six years since, the company has experienced impressive growth which Kunal describes as a “transformative experience”. He explains, “The Luxury Closet now has close to 80 employees, across three countries (UAE, India and Saudi Arabia) and has raised over Dhs36.7 million from leading regional investors.”
The biggest challenge he says was “trying to hit the Dhs550,000 a month mark in 2013. We had decided that when we crossed it, we would buy a Nespresso machine for the office. We missed a few months and then finally hit the target. We cherished that machine once we finally got it!”
The company has continued to enjoy enormous success in the years since. “In 2016, we sold over 10,000 luxury items and our aim has been to nearly double this number every year. With 20,000 unique items online, we are the largest luxury products catalogue in the region and add 3,000 plus items, or Dhs7.3 million, in inventory to that each month.”
One of the moments of success he recalls fondly was the company’s “first VIP client who rolled in five suitcases filled with limited edition bags. This included a rare collection of Dior Saddle bags named and inspired by different countries, all made in numbers less than 100, and she had every one of them.”
With plans to expand the company’s technology and supply that will “translate into major growth in core GCC markets,” Kunal is just getting started. Having tapped into an unexplored niche, he’s well on the way to creating an empire.
“We are making it possible for our customers, who are mostly women in the region, to turn the assets in their closets into cash. With a majority of the women in the region unbanked, the opportunity to turn bags into cash using a mobile device proved to be a historical concept.”
Words: Maddison Glendinning