Dubai: After completing graduation degrees in their respective educational fields, two Arab women in the UAE went on to build up their resumes in the corporate world, like so many others.
However, after spending two decades working full-time jobs in the UAE, they together dared to take the entrepreneurial plunge. So here’s how their start-up journey began a little over a year ago.
Egyptian expat Deena Habib was born in the UK and raised in Dubai, while Ban Jishi is originally Palestinian but born and raised in Dubai. And like their diverse upbringing, their individual passions too differed, but this only helped when they put their heads together to start a business.
Passion for tech, ‘experiential learning’ launches two business women’s careers
Deena, a working mother of two boys, is a techie passionate about public speaking. On the other hand Ban, a professional life coach, is passionate about ‘experiential learning’ or ‘learning by doing’. They have both started a platform to train interns preparing to work full-time with corporates.
“As a child and growing up, I always envisioned myself doing something for youngsters,” said Deena, chief executive officer (CEO) and co-founder of the training platform known as ‘Yspot’, which primarily enrols youngsters between the ages of 16-25 in tailored courses within relevant organisations.
“I used to dream of a villa in Jumeirah that was a ‘hangout’ for the youth with common spaces to study together as well as entertainment for the youth. I always had the passion in me to do something for youth and to own my own business.”
Before venturing into entrepreneurship in the UAE, Deena spent more than 20-plus years in marketing, working with tech titans like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Dell, Oracle and IBM. Deena now uses her technical background to help youngsters tackle their ever changing career-related aspirations.
As a child and growing up, I always envisioned myself doing something for youngsters
Two decades of working with tech giants in marketing
Meanwhile, “unconventional” student Ban found her path to graduation “challenging and not well-rounded”, as she excelled in areas that weren’t considered as conventional building blocks to a professional career back then.
Almost two decades after graduation, Ban eventually recognised ‘human connection’ to be a key element that students needed to thrive in the corporate world. But this was after Ban took on all work opportunities that came her way, holding jobs in retail management and marketing.
“Throughout my professional endeavours I’ve always been open to new and exciting opportunities that will contribute to my personal and professional growth,” said Ban, who is the chief operating officer (COO) and co-founder at ‘Yspot’.
“Having explored various roles and industries I got to a point where I was ready to branch out and the driving factor was the passion to give back and support generations to come in a meaningful way.”
Love for work in diverse fields led her to train in ‘experiential learning’
Although Ban explored jobs in diverse sectors, she always loved what she did, and this kept her going. This is a passion she attributes to her upbringing.
“My father is a self-made man who came from very humble beginnings and set a great example about the importance of education and ambition with purpose. A phrase he lives by and preaches is ‘work is love, if you don’t love what you do, do something else’,” recalled Ban.
“That has always been a driving factor and which is why my professional career is so diverse, seeking work I love. My father established his own successful business over 40 years ago and even though owning your own business has its challenges, I’ve witnessed the rewards to be far greater. Especially when you are creating something that will have a lasting and rippling impact in the lives of others.”
In the last decade, Ban took to ‘experiential learning’, earning certifications in life coaching (improving relationships, careers, day-to-day lives), ‘breathwork’ (referring to breathing exercises or techniques) and ‘bodytalk’, which teaches one how to cope with emotional, physical, and environmental influences.
So by being particularly passionate about guiding or coaching students through career-related challenges, Ban aims to empower them create a real-world vocation they desire.
Throughout my professional endeavours I’ve always been open to new and exciting opportunities that will contribute to my personal and professional growth
Proving that one can manage a business while still working full time
While being at the helm of ‘Yspot’, Deena also manages to balance work at a US-based cloud software development firm Dynatrace. While it isn’t easy to balance two jobs at the same time, Deena offered time management tips to other part-time entrepreneurs.
“I normally spend the first half an hour of my day planning the day ahead and prioritising my work. I always set realistic timelines for projects so I don’t put myself under pressure,” said Deena. “I feel that planning and prioritising work are two key elements that prevent me from getting overwhelmed.”
“I also stay active and workout three times a week. This helps me stay mentally alert and keeps me happy. I always ensure I get my family time and downtime in as well. During the week I try to go to bed as early as possible, but I also ensure that I completely switch off over the weekends, and use it to spend time with my boys and do things I enjoy.”
In school, Deena recalled how she worked on a student committee to put the graduation year-book together, managing the budget and plan everything from the photoshoots, to collecting advertisements for the yearbook, to organising the printing and finally to selling the yearbooks to cover the costs.
“The reward of this experience was that I did something for our school year that was much needed and it gave me a lot of insights from a young age of how to manage work related projects,” Deena added, before she went on to elaborate how their business trains interns.
How are interns given adequate work and equipped with the skill to speak up?
During a recent internship program, which was their first, as part of an ‘on-boarding’ process, interns were asked initially to work remotely through their portal, while being required to complete three courses prepared by them – in time management, presentation skills and work culture ethics.
“They also need to learn about the organisations' (that they will intern at). We ask the organisations to share with us, through the portal, assets that help the interns learn and we also ask the interns to spend some time researching the organisation before starting the internship. Any employee that joins a new company gets on boarded so we aim to give the interns as close an experience as possible.”
The co-founders also explained the mentorship aspect of the internship program, where they get mentored by industry leaders and learn from their experiences, while getting the interns to prepare their questions
“We [also] ask the organisations to set tasks for the interns that are to be delivered within a certain time frame and with expected results. The organisation assigns the intern a contact person that they can reach out to if they need guidance or support; however the intern is expected to complete the task(s) on their own,” the entrepreneurs explained.
I feel that planning and prioritising work are two key elements that prevent me from getting overwhelmed
Interns being trained primarily to engage in open dialogue with organisations
At the end of the program, they ask the interns to present back to the organisations on their experience, what the organisation means to them, their feedback on the program and the interns can use this as an opportunity to share any ideas or recommendations they may have from their time at the organisation.
“This part of the program is valuable to the interns, as it allows them to speak openly, while also giving the intern the experience of presenting within a large organisation. This is of great value to the organisations as well, as they get to learn from their interns through open conversations.”
The co-founders are currently collaborating with organisations across industries such as beauty, technology and healthcare. “We are looking to broaden our reach into other industries as we continue to grow,” they added.
“During our summer program we collaborated with organisations that were in the beauty industry such ‘L’Oreal Middle East’, US-based software firm ‘Ingram Micro’ in technology and Dubai dental clinic chain ‘Dr. Nicolas & ASP’ in healthcare.”
What were some of the struggles of starting this business? What was your initial investment?
While the co-founders preferred not to talk about how much money went into their initial investment when starting their business, they revealed that they had not approached investors and everything has been 100 per cent bootstrapped from their own personal savings.
“When we first started, we had a different idea of what the business would be. However by doing our research and asking the youth what they wanted and understanding more about what they needed, we pivoted Yspot into a different direction,” they said.
“I think learning to pivot along the way, especially in the beginning, is key, however it is certainly a struggle,” they revealed, while adding that a lot of entrepreneurs get fixated on their ideas and this can have a negative impact on the business.
“Learning to be open to change was one of the main things we struggled with initially as change meant time and money but the benefit is that if start-ups learn to pivot seamlessly they can continue to learn and grow and do what is best for their business.”
Deena also shared that it was personally a struggle when particularly coming from a corporate environment, evaluating how there was a fundamental difference in how work was done in a corporate set-up and in a start-up environment.
“I believe your ideas and work are validated daily through your peers and your managers run performance reviews all the time so you know you are on the right track. In the start-up world, there is no right or wrong way of doing things and one needs to make informed decisions and test things before knowing whether or not it will work. This was a change I did struggle with in the beginning as well.”
The driving factor to branch out from a corporate career was the passion to give back and support generations to come in a meaningful way
Any advice you would give women looking to take up leadership positions?
The key, according to Deena, is to follow what you’re passionate in and finding a work-life balance. As to how one can, here is an advice she gives.
“I believe that everyone should follow their passions. Finding a work life balance does take some adjustment but it really is key. As long as you can plan the weekends to make the most of your time with the family and ensure that time spent with family is enjoyable and engaging then you can manage both.
“I personally ensure that lunches during the weekends are spent as a family and that during that time phones and all other distractions are removed. I also plan outings with my family and it always gives us something to look forward to.”
If you are targeting a leadership position and it is something that you are passionate about and know it to be fulfilling and a positive contribution to your life and living, Deena encourages to “go for it!”
“When you follow your passions, and your children see you do that, you are leading by example and there is no greater teacher! So, take the plunge, follow your passions and ensure to prioritise family on the weekends,” she conclusively advised fellow women entrepreneurs striving to be their own bosses.