Amid the many challenges of the pandemic, Jesla, Jan and Clare are among many professionals in the UAE who are finding creative ways to augment their livelihoods Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque and supplied

Sole comforts: Jan Stoop, creative director turned shoemaker

Jan hand-picks all the material, creates the design and gets the shoes crafted from a production unit overseas Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque

For the last five years, South African expat Jan Stoop had been working as a freelance creative director with many multinational advertising agencies in Dubai. Part of his job responsibilities included planning advertising campaign ideas, conceiving and executing photo shoots and working with illustrators and designers on branding projects.

However, when the pandemic kicked in and a lot of freelance work dried up, Jan found himself staring at days when there was not much to do.

That’s when an idea popped into his mind: creating shoes for kids.

"The inspiration for creating kids’ shoes came when I looked at my own family and realised how much money we were spending on shoes for our two girls, four-year-old Charlotte and Isabella who is nearly two," says Jan. "I saw a clear need for quality kids’ shoes that are well designed, eco-friendly and reasonably priced."

Jan hand-picks all the material, creates the design and gets the shoes crafted from a production unit overseas. During the time he was starting up, his wife Carina Onzer, who is a lawyer by profession, became his voice of reason. "I am a creative guy and in business it is always good to have someone with a more practical approach to life," he says. "Charlotte and Isabella act as in-house models and go by the titles of general manager of mischief and assistant mess maker."

The inspiration for creating kids’ shoes came from his own family, says Jan. “I saw a clear need for quality kids’ shoes that are well designed, eco-friendly and reasonably priced” Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque

Initially he considered creating an adult shoe brand but quickly realised that it would be impossible to break into a very competitor-heavy market.

"We decided to name our brand Baho, a range of soft-soled shoes made from natural leather and fabric for ages 6 to 24 months. Why Baho? It was chosen randomly because it’s kid-friendly and rolls off the tongue easily," he says.

Jan admits that being a new business owner is no easy task; the position has made him look at life a bit differently. "I have a new-found respect for entrepreneurs after starting this venture."

What has been the response to his product?

"We’ve had really great responses from our little customers. I particularly enjoy selling at Ripe market as you are able to get grassroots feedback from customers. Business has been good but like most businesses it takes time to establish a brand in the market. There are other baby shoe brands in the market that have been around for much longer than us. They have good-quality shoes, but we know we are better and hopefully we will convince mums (and dads) out there of the same," says the dad of two.

For Jan, the pandemic also put a new interest in e-commerce businesses to amplify the message to a larger business community. But he soon realised that starting up a business in the Covid era probably amplifies the stress factors too.

"Probably the most difficult part of our road was setting up the e-commerce website. As a seasoned creative director, I have worked on many similar sites, but it still took much longer than expected to set up the site."

Having a background in advertising surely helped. "Coming from an advertising and fashion publishing background, I have been able to combine my passions into a beautifully designed boutique-quality product that kids will enjoy and parents will appreciate," says Jan. He is also hoping to expand the range and move into the Saudi market soon.

More details at www.bahoshoes.com.

Making tangible memories: Clare Fenella Greenwood, event manager turned keepsake teddy bear maker

Each bear is unique and special to the individual customer Image Credit: Supplied

During her 18 years in Dubai, event manager Clare Greenwood maintained a hectic schedule. Frequently working long hours on the various projects she enjoyed executing until the pandemic struck and the entertainment scene grew quiet. Almost overnight, Clare found herself with fewer projects.

But the 49-year-old single woman refused to allow anything to come in her way, least of all a virus. Fishing out her trusty sewing machine – gifted to her on her 18th birthday – she began exploring the possibility of working on craft projects and activities that would not only keep her occupied but also help pay the bills.

"Since I had a lot of time on my hands, I picked up a few pieces of fabric lying around and came across a keepsake bear pattern. Since it was a tough time for everybody, I got busy making something for friends to add some cheer to their lives during this year," recalls the British expat.

Though the plan started out as a hobby, she began enjoying the experience of creating special bespoke gifts. It also gave her a sense of being in control and fuelled her creative side. After the first couple of months, basking in the positive feedback she received, she realised that her new vocation could be an enjoyable career in the making.

In August Nella’s memory bears opened for business in Instagram.

"Since research showed that Clare was too common a name, I used an abbreviation of my middle name Fenella. This also allowed me to create more of a unique brand identity, while maintaining the feeling of a personal approach," she says.

Her business model currently relies on the bespoke and handmade aspect. Each new bear is unique and special to the individual customer. Scaling up on the production side is something Clare would like to consider in the future, but for now she is focusing on the personal touch. "A keepsake or memory bear is a teddy bear that is created from pre-loved clothing that has a lot of sentimental value.

"It’s a great way to upcycle pre-loved clothing. For example, using babygrows, a school uniform or a favourite shirt of a loved one who has passed on."

The last one holds a particularly fond space in her heart as one of her first projects was for a friend whose father had passed on. "I remember visiting her and seeing some of the clothes her dad had used," says Clare. "They were not just items of clothing; rather they were precious memories, of a life lived, of a much-loved family member." She remembers she was a bunch of nerves as she made the first cut on the fabric. "However, this anxiety also prompted new levels of creativity and the desire to preserve happy memories to be cherished in the years to come."

The soft bear she made for her friend was much loved and cherished.

Over the past few months since she began creating the bears from pre-loved material, Clare has been enjoying the "control I am having over time as well as being able to create lasting memories especially when most people wish to forget 2020", she says.

"The excitement of creating a new business and brand from scratch is also really motivating and brings a positive feel to what otherwise would’ve been a worrying and stressful year."

Clare admits that the pace of life in her new job is very different to that of the events world. "I’m not yet at the stage where this can be my only income," she says. "However, for the time being I am enjoying the process and the challenge of developing and enhancing my memory bears concept."

Creating her own brand has also brought new challenges in establishing her brand presence over social media. "I am cautious of limiting my outgoing costs at this stage, so the support and advice from friends and former colleagues has been invaluable."

Since her customer base is mostly through personal referrals, the next challenge will be to assess how to establish a physical presence through the local markets or by hosting workshops.

A recent project she has worked on is the transformation of the uniforms for a nursery school. Clare used the school badges to create little pockets – the idea was that the bears are not just about preserving fond memories but could also be used to store a personal note or message that can be rediscovered years later.

"Whether it prompts a tear in recalling past memories, or the excitement of a unique gift, the best feedback is seeing the pictures of these ‘forever’ bears in their new homes. It makes it all worthwhile."

In terms of future plans, Clare plans to adapt and diversify to a build this into a main source of income. "This period has reminded me of the importance of a work-life balance, so this is something I really want to hold on to as the business grows. I am excited to see what the future brings."

To know more about the bears, follow @nellasmemorybears on Instagram.

Fruitful comeback: Jesla Majeed, senior bank officer turned COO of a fruit and veggies shop

Being a female entrepreneur has its advantages, says Jesla, especially when it comes to knowing what a woman needs in the kitchen Image Credit: Supplied

For Indian expat Jesla Majeed, leaving her corporate job of 10 years was a decision that was awash with mixed emotions. Though her job was essential to bring the butter to the table, she felt she needed to do something she was more passionate about.

"My father Majeed was definitely the inspiration for starting my own business," says the resident of Abu Dhabi. "He has been in the fruits and vegetable business since the last 40 years. I decided to make use of his experience and augment it with some new-generation ideas like social media marketing."

Naming her venture Al Burooj Fruits and Vegetables, she decided to start out as a small-scale set-up where her father managed the operations and Jesla undertook the marketing and sales. Together they recruited a dedicated team for packing, checking quality, and ensuring prompt delivery. "From day one, I decided I wouldn’t sit in an ivory tower and operate the business remotely. I worked closely in tandem with my team in every aspect of the business."

The first challenge came up barely a few weeks after she set up shop – the pandemic struck. Not one to be deterred, Jesla, a mother of two daughters Hanadi Abdulla, 6, and Ruya Fathima, 4, took the business online and started marketing using social media channels.

Her insistence on quality was appreciated and word of mouth worked wonders for her business, says Jesla. Since she wanted to build a good customer relationship, she sometimes accompanied the delivery staff to thank customers personally for the trust they placed in her. "During one such visit, I was in for a surprise when I met the principal of my daughter’s nursery – she was one of our customers. Now I can say that I have garnered friends rather than customers, who give me ideas on improvement."

With the help of her father, Jesla Majeed has created a business selling fresh produce Image Credit: Supplied

The hard work and determination appear to have paid off. If during the initial days, Jesla would have to wait for the phone to ring for an order, now she claims they hardly have time to keep it on the hook.

"Thanks to this completely contrasting career switch, I can see the real me. Each day I think about new ideas, products, and quality improvement. No more boring corporate routine," says Jesla.

"People think owning a business means more personal time but in reality we work 24/7. As a mother of two kids I face lots of difficulties especially with online education. I am blessed to have the support of my family, including my husband Abdulla Meethale, who is a banker."

Moving forward, she is planning to establish a brand for fresh fruits, veggies, spices and oil. Jesla admits that being a female entrepreneur "it is a gender advantage that I know what a woman needs in the kitchen. I am going to use that knowledge to expand my business".

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