Sawsan Ganem, managing director and founder of Dubai-based PR marketing communications agency, Active Public Relations, is a restless person. Her mind is constantly bursting with ideas. “Sometimes I wish I could switch off my brain…as it’s constantly juggling different ideas, check lists and more,” she sighs.
Then she smiles. For in her heart she knows she wouldn’t do that even if she could. It’s this restless energy that led her to set up the agency, along with her husband, Louay Al Samarrai, in 2003. Nearly a decade later, her award-winning agency can boast a client list that includes Xerox, Autodesk, Western Digital, ME Global, Belkin, Banyan Tree Resorts and JP Morgan.
Sawsan has won awards in her own right too. In 2008 she collected the SMB Advisor Middle East Admirable Woman Entrepreneur award, and in 2011 she won Arab Entrepreneur of the Year at the Stars of Business SME Awards.
But this dynamic powerhouse doesn’t like to rest on her laurels. She’s already on to her next venture – an online store marketing young fashion designers from the Middle East. But the new business, set to launch next month, is not just another venture for her. “I want to provide a platform for young and talented Middle Eastern fashion designers who are edgy, quirky and have a talent for fusing East with West and creating unique designs,” she says.
Sawsan pauses, cogs turning in her head. The faint smile on her lips says that she’s already thinking of her next project. Here, she shares her career so far with Friday...
My work is an extension of me and it reflects my personality. I am a workaholic in that I get inspired at work. I don’t really perceive it as work, maybe because it’s my hobby as well.
Motivation for me comes from within; every day brings an experience that is unique and fills me with energy. Achieving success, conquering challenges, discovering new interests, coming up with new business ideas and researching them are huge motivators for me.
Family is really important too, and combined with doing what I love every day, it is just a complete circle. It’s all in the mind – channelling positive energy into the right things. I simply try to do my best in everything I pursue and try not to live in ‘what ifs’. I’m always thinking, “What’s the next challenge?”.
I’m naturally very competitive. When I attended Latifa Girls School in Dubai, this meant I always did my best to score top marks in an attempt to get top spot every year. When I was a child I wanted to achieve something I could be proud of. That, I guess, is what drives me and makes me such a determined person.
If something doesn’t work I will find a solution. I didn’t want to be a person stuck behind a desk with no ambition to grow.
I like to get out of my comfort zone. But it’s not the material stuff – the fast car or the huge house – that drives me. It’s more the food for the soul and mind. It’s great to have a secure life, but I want to do something creative.
This desire to achieve success continued throughout my academic years. My BSc (Hons) degree in Chemistry and Management at King’s College, London University took extra willpower, mainly due to the nature of chemistry and the sheer volume of material I needed to memorise. I was particularly challenged studying for my Masters degree in International Business at Webster Graduate School in London, and that’s when my eyes were opened to the ‘real’ world and to the true meaning of business and achievement.
With an interesting blend of science, business and marketing backgrounds, I’ve developed a set of unique skills, and I now take a somewhat ‘different’ approach to everything I handle, in both my personal life and at work. My diverse educational and work experience history has definitely stood me in good stead in my public relations career.
I often surprise myself with how many things I can remember and juggle at any given time. The team regularly ask me, “Sawsan, how do you do it? How can you remember so many things and in such detail?” I guess it’s just the way my brain is wired now, thanks to a seriously intense chemistry degree, where I was expected to remember quite frankly unreasonable amounts of information all in one go, and recall them all when quizzed.
I am also naturally analytical. Ever since my early childhood, I’ve been fascinated by people – their mannerisms, how they dress and talk – I could spend hours just watching them. I was curious about everything and loved reading books. I would finish a book a day – Enid Blyton and Jane Austen being two of my favourite authors then. And now the likes of Edward Said, Isabel Allende, Harper Lee and Helen Fielding, to name a few, take me to a parallel world where I mentally switch off.
Running a PR agency suits me, as I love the daily challenge. I thrive on it. In our industry, you need to be on your toes all the time. We look for fresh angles and ideas, stay up to speed with what’s happening in the media as well as the local, regional, international and business community, push the boundaries with clients’ communication plans. You have to flex the mind and find solutions to any challenges that any given day throws up, and have fun while doing so!
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” I live by this motto, and I make sure to pass it on to the team at my agency.
For me, Active PR isn’t just a business, it is an extension of my passion and desire to add value and deliver best practice public relations. I always strive to deliver my best, and I often say to the team, “Is this your best? If not, come back when it is.” I will never compromise on standards as this is what has gained us such a strong reputation in the market place, and also made each team member a more rounded PR professional, who can hold their head up high wherever they go in the world.
My husband is my business partner. We met while working at a public relations agency 11 years ago, and it was our vision of creating an agency that was more personal, and working with clients almost like partners made us partners in business as well. If you stay focused on what you do best and keep your standards high, you can’t go wrong.
It’s a very stressful 24/7 kind of career. There’s always a challenge out there to overcome. I don’t see it as an obstacle or an issue though, but as an opportunity to learn, which helps me to grow personally and professionally.
I focus on the positive. If I find that someone has negative energy, I distance myself. I have learnt that you have to choose your battles as well as your friends. You have to surround yourself with the right people who feed you energy, rather than deplete it.
I also love fashion, discovering talents that are out there – not mainstream, but the independent designers.
The new business I am setting up is something I’ve been mulling over for the last three years. It will be a website that will serve as a platform for young Middle Eastern designers who want to build a name for themselves outside this region. Most of them are reasonably well established here, but yet to find their footing outside this market.
The website – Maya’s Closet – will be launched in London, because it’s going to be targeted primarily at the London fashion market, in September. There’s a really talented Emirati designer named Leila Al Marashi and I think that her label, Sugar Vintage, is going to fly in the west.
Although Dubai is home, London is my muse. I lived there for eight years, and go back there at least twice a year. The quirkiness, the quaint shops, the parks – they all inspire me and I come back recharged.
Relaxing is not about lying on the sofa staring at the television. I relax when I am reading, surfing the web for new ideas, studying exciting new business ventures and researching future cultural events taking place around the world.
Cities with history and culture attract me. I need to get a dose of culture, combined with miles of walking, lots of fresh air and a few art galleries and museums. I like to feed the ducks (wherever I can find them) and discover hidden treasures, whether it be cuisine, fashion or quirky, hidden-away little corner stores and markets.
My 17-month-old daughter Maya keeps me on my toes when I am at home. She’s a real bundle of energy, and I sometimes find it difficult keeping up with her!
My parents played a big role in shaping me. My mother was a great inspiration. We are both very emotional people – she keeps egging me on. My father was the calming effect on me – another solid influence.
Books were my fodder. They play a big part in my life. I’d much prefer to pick up something to read – even the newspaper – rather than watching television. I’d certainly count travelling, theatre and books among my weaknesses.
I love walking, people watching, looking at quirky stuff, buildings – a range of weird and wonderful things. I study people. It relaxes me.
Ever since I had my daughter Maya, all my dreams have become centred around her, especially now my own dream of setting up a PR company has already been realised.
I never expected to win any awards so when I was named The SMB Advisor Middle East Admirable Woman Entrepreneur in 2008, and the 2011 Stars of Business SME Awards Arab Entrepreneur of the Year it was a real morale boost. They are big milestones for me.
I work for myself, the company and our clients, and I don’t think of what I will get out of it.
I am now much more interested in giving something back to the community. My dream is to grow my businesses, so that I can contribute more to the community.
Everything I do is dedicated to Maya. I want to leave a legacy for her. Maya’s Closet is one of my dreams, but it’s also something I want to leave for her. It’s not a selfish cause though, as I hope to support and nurture talent in the Middle East through its success.