Dubai: This year was challenging for many people; it was a year of lockdowns and the fear that comes with a pandemic. It changed lives and perspectives. It also took a chunk out of many livelihoods. However for these UAE-based women, 2020 also brought possibility and opportunity and as a result made their dream - of starting their own business - come true.
Here's a look at some motivational stories from the UAE.
Ruby Giroux, a French-Canadian who started her career in Paris and worked there in the fashion industry for 15 years before moving to Dubai, created a plant-based, toxin-free sustainable home cleaning product. Giroux's interest in environment-friendly products was sparked when she started a family. Giroux explains: "When I moved to Dubai, a few years ago, I set out to find natural home cleaning products to use at my home and around my family. But I failed to find any that I would feel safe to use, especially since I don't feel safe to expose my children to chemically engineered home cleaners."
Not satisfied with what she found in the market, she decided to start making her own cleaning products.
"I have two kids, Sasha who is 9 years old and Hedi Skander who is 6 years old. They are my true inspiration. They are extremely supportive of my new journey, and I cannot be more proud of them!" she says.
Ruby describes herself as stubborn and determined, and that's what helped her to think about mass producing her cleaner. "I developed a product I felt was safe to use around my family: a plant-based castile soap, chemical-free and naturally scented with a range of fresh and therapeutic essential oils. The concept then grew from there into what eventually became The Botanist, a collection of eco-friendly and toxin-free home cleaning products for every room of the house, packaged in eco-friendly elegant glass bottles that you don’t have to hide away under the sink!"
The Botanist came handy in a COVID-19 year as people became more conscious about sterilising and deep cleaning their home. "And here we saw sales growing and last month we made to supermarket shelves like Spinneys and Waitrose."
She concludes: "We’re really proud to be a UAE home-grown brand and are so grateful at the opportunities it has allowed as a local start-up. Many facilities in UAE allowed us as a startup and a small business to launch and grow at this time. Supporting local has never been more important."
Lil’ Tots, a food concept designed specifically for infants and toddlers, was founded by Rihab Saab. "I saw a white space in the UAE, a country I call my second home, having resided and worked here for over 25 years. The idea came to me when my little nephew Adam, who was 8 months old, was on a trip to Dubai with his family. They were staying in a hotel. I needed to provide him with baby food, but when I went to the supermarket, I realised that there was no fresh, tasty option."
"Standing there in the dry shelf section where all the baby products are displayed, I felt that none of the things available suited little Adam himself. Everything was wrong including the food texture which was too creamy - he should be eating chunky food at this age - and also I thought this cant be his only source of nutrition for their long stay. I was left with no option but to go back to the traditional way of doing things and picking up fruits and veggies from the fresh food section to cook something at home instead."
"And that was it. That was my Eureka moment. There was a need in UAE for healthy fresh food for babies and toddlers that mothers can walk into the supermarket on her busy day, grab her baby food and leave. Also a website were mothers can get educated about healthy food for their children and can order straight from there.'
Rihab says Lil’ Tots offers a sustainable solution 'It helps parents raise healthy children by feeding them right from the very beginning. Our mission is directly aligned to UAE’s focus on health issues and falls at the core of the 50 Year Challenge agenda issued in February 2020 for achieving zero child obesity rates.'
According to Rihab, the company is a trusted brand for concerned mothers "Today we operate in an innovative way across the whole value chain. We source our fresh ingredients from local markets and produce our food in a HACCP certified kitchen, our logistics partner then transports them in special refrigerated vans and not motorcycles."
For Rihab, her success in a COVID year was supported by UAE government and the flexibility of the system. "What helped us survive and sustain this unforeseen situation is the ecosystem business model that we’ve adopted from the very beginning. But it was still not enough, and when we approached the Dubai Economic Department for assistance at the time of license renewal, we were given payment facilitations, which helped tremendously."
My Lily Box
My Lily Box is a subscription box that allows women to design and personally put together their very own feminine hygiene and self-care products to be delivered to them every two months.
For Layaly Hadad, founder of My Lily Box, there was a space in the market that she wanted to fill. "I have always felt there was something missing in the market. I could always tell that women were settling for what was available on the supermarket shelves and not what they actually wish to buy. Also the tech industry was cattering to many segments but not precisely to women. It has always been hard for us women in the MENA to get what we wanted and to access the right educational content in order to maintain our personal hygiene and personal care, so I decided to make a way."
Hadad spent most of her life studying and working in the UAE and has been a witness to the growing e-comerce sector. "UAE became one of the most vibrant destinations to dream and build. I am very passionate about technology and its power to transform societies. I've been fortunate to work and learn at companies that created positive change in their fields, and my goal is to continue bringing technology and transformative solutions to scale."
For Hadad her dream is to grow My Lily Box, for it to become the go-to platform for everything feminine. My Lily Box is set to become not only a shopping website but the next female forum in the Middle East. Growing the business means creating a platform where sensitive topics, such as women's menstrual cycle or health, can be discussed.
She said: "Women will be able to speak freely and anonymously with each other, and with experts. All of your questions and concerns will be heard and expert advice will be given, all in one place. Plus buy all the products that at one point many women were uneasy about going out and buying themselves."
For My Lily Box, 2020 was not only the launch year but also a year of growth. Movement restrictions meant women looked for alternative means to get their preferred products. Lily Box helped many women to buy their personal items from the comfort of their home.
"We turned the pandemic from a challenge to a tool that allowed us to test our digital ability and readiness to serve our growing consumer base. The whole e-commerce economy in UAE witnessed a surge in number of orders and a growing basket size as a result of the lockdown and consumers being at home."
Hadad says the UAE economy makes her confident that her business will grow. "Our business grew in the lockdown by 48 per cent per month. We are supported with a number of initiatives and programs by the government. We are very happy from the level of easiness & automation in setting up our startup and incorporate our business in the UAE, we've also benefited from several exemptions & reduced fees that were part of enhancing the financial wellbeing of SMEs in the UAE."
Today every women can design her own lily box on their website. Products available include hygene goods and vitamins.
Mask Minder is a pouch for your mask. It has been designed to offer a solution to store your mask in a safe and stylish way when you are out. Founder Anneka Gasan, originally from Ireland, and a mother of one child, has always been interested in starting her own business and found the idea during the COVID-19 lockdown.
"I founded Mask Minder in April 2020. After being stuck indoors for weeks during lockdown, naturally myself and my family were excited to start venturing out again. During our first trip out I noticed that we did not know what to do with our masks when we were not wearing them. Tuck them into our pockets or push them to the bottom of our handbag? I knew this was a problem that needed solving. Not only a functional solution was needed but also a fashionable one."
The mum says: "I have always been interested in starting my own business,then COVID happened and my career was being questioned as the comany I was working for had a setback. So I used the time of lockdown to research, build the business plan and design the minders. Mask Minder was founded early April then I spent the next two months setting up the company, gaining followers, designing the website, branding and engaging with influencers and media."
Gasan credits Dubai with part of her success. "It is an incredible place to start a business. What I have noticed is that women in this region really join forces with one another. Several networking events, social groups, conferences and meet-ups involving female entrepreneurs have been taking place, thus creating more opportunities and connections for me and my product to spread.'
As the year comes to a close Mask Minder, which was founded and launched in UAE, is available on different ecommerce websites. With the success that was Anneka found in UAE market she decided to expand into the UK market.
Honest Badger Foods
Another fresh food firm gaining popularity in local supermarkets is Honest Badger foods, founded by Yasmin Hadi. Hadi's product is a far cry from her what her career as a geologist was leading her to.
"I have always loved food and wellness, and being able to combine the two through Honest Badger Foods is a dream come true. Before starting Honest Badger I was a geologist in Oil and Gas, working offshore (on an oil rig) across Europe and the Middle East. Cooking is something that came to me naturally, I learned at home and enjoyed as a hobby, it developed into a passion through experimenting, reading books, and watching a lot of cooking shows. That is what drove me to leave behind my career as a geologist in the Oil & Gas industry and launch Honest Badger."
The product philosophy came from the growing lifestyle adopted by UAE residents. "Most people today have good knowledge about nutrition and wellness; they want to eat well and look after themselves. But that does not always translate into healthy habits because of the busy life we lead. Eating healthy means time, effort and planning to shop, prepare and cook a balanced and varied diet. At Honest Badger, we want to help people achieve their wellness goals, whatever they may be."
"Today I do what I love, develop healthy recipes. As a business owner my moto is that everyday food should be healthy and delicious. The concepts of “healthy food” and “delicious food” do not have to be exclusive. I believe healthy food can be fun, exciting and something you really crave. I saw a gap in the UAE market for healthy, delicious and indulgent food, and in an easy access to all. So I jumped on the wagon and developed the ‘Honest Badger food ‘line’ that today is being sold in supermarket fridges."
Hadi's 'Honest badger range is focussed on comfort classic dishes with a healthy twist. The entire range is plant based. "I wanted to bring in my mixed heritage to the range: Shepherds pie, classic British dish, and Tepsi an Iraqi casserole. Of course, I have added a Honest badger twist, the shepherds pie is made from sweet potato, mushroom and lentils," she says.
Honest badger foods started as a meal plan but with COVID Hadi had to develop her product to become a off-the-shelf product.
"We began offering our direct to customer meal plans in February, after initially focusing on corporate event catering. Since our first pop-up we sold out on the first and second day, we have delivered over 80,000 food products across the UAE through our healthy meal plans. While our sales have grown steadily over the last 9 months, the initial COVID lockdown and protection measures led to considerable logistical challenges. We had to rethink our delivery approach to ensure our customers received their daily meal packages."
She adds: "'So during lockdown the concept of our plant-based ready meal range developed. We wanted to make healthy, plant-based dishes more convenient for customers. Today I still cant believe we are now on the shelves in 12 Spinneys and Waitrose outlets across the UAE."
What helped most in developing a business in one year that fast for Hadi was the flexibility of UAE goverment, especially smart goverment "The Department of Economic Development (DED) provided a one-stop shop for all my licensing and registration. I was able to secure my trade license within a few weeks and with minimal paperwork. The Smart Dubai initiative maximizes flexibility and minimizes administrative burdens. I didn't have to make many visits to different regulatory authorities and submit multiple copies of documents. This is particularly important in the post COVID-19 landscape."
Toddle.ae a local educational box that was also developed in 2020, and was inspired by a little boy called Ansh who is five years old. Ansh mother, Smitha Dsilva is the founder of this educational product ‘My business idea was conceptualised during COVID. With lockdown, and no schools many parents like myself were looking out for the best tools to help their children develop and be entertained indoors in a family setting.’
So Toddle.ae was launched aiming to offer a solution for both these requirements. ‘We launched in August 2020 with just our Educational Boxes, but following the overwhelming response and welcome, we have since added a whole new range of products. Our products include Educational boxes, which can be purchased via a subscription or on a one-off basis. These boxes cover all aspects of child-development from language, communication, numeracy, logic, critical thinking, emotional and social development and as well as motor skills.’
The material according to Smitha is researched, developed and hand-picked by a panel of experienced Educators. 'We also have added toys due to the overwhelming response of the market, catering to various learning journeys like math, language and cognitive growth. Our suite of products today also includes teacher-developed games for skill development during family bonding time, skill builder kits, handwriting development kits and lots of other fun educational resources. We also launched our hugely popular Diwali boxes and our current Ho-Ho-Holiday boxes which are the flavour of the season have got great reviews.'
What really helped Dsilva business grow fast in 2020 according to her is the efficient process of setting up in UAE. 'I set up Toddle.ae in 2 months, from licensing, branding, products, website, basically launched the brand in 60 days- this was due to the clarity of processes, paperwork in the country, great support for women entrepreneurs in terms of attractive business packages and a very responsive business community across the spectrum of requirements a small business has to get off the ground.'