The opening of Alia Al Mazrouei’s nursery was a disaster, or at least it felt like that at the time.
It had taken a year and two months to gather all of the necessary approvals, and by the time the Little Haven Nursery finally launched in autumn 2014, it had managed to sign up only 20 children.
“I was really scared,” says the 35-year-old Emirati from Abu Dhabi.
But thankfully Ms Al Mazrouei, the co-founder of JF Street Food, formerly known as Just Falafel, knows how to create a successful business. A little over a year later, the enterprise is thriving, with 120 children on its books.
And that experience is exactly why Manar Al Hinai chose her to address a group of Emiratis who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs.
"She is on the board of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, [and] of Al Mazrui Holdings. She was listed as one of Forbes' most 100 powerful Arab women in 2014," says Ms Al Hinai.
“She is the kind of person, along with the other speakers, that people want to come and meet. They have read about her success story but they never knew where they could meet her.”
Ms Al Hinai, an Emirati who is also from Abu Dhabi, devised the idea for the Anjez talks – a place where people could come and listen to the success stories of fellow Emirati entrepreneurs free of charge – as part of her interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR).
“My day job is that I am a senior vice president and director of corporate communications and CSR at Abu Dhabi Investment Company (InvestAD),” says Ms Al Hinai, who is in her 20s.
“I am very passionate about CSR. I started the CSR division at work [and] I got my company involved in community work. It was around August or September 2014 when I had this idea.”
She thought it might be hard to find speakers, but she soon realised that there were more success stories of Emirati entrepreneurs than she anticipated. And she had no idea it would be so popular. Ms Al Hinai limits the number of attendees to 100 at each talk to make it easier for people to mingle, and they are always overbooked.
“I did not expect that people were hungry for such events in Abu Dhabi. It’s great. Everyone has a business idea. They are serious with their notebooks, taking notes. Some of them leave and they tell us they felt very inspired and that the talks gave them the push to go on and finally launch their businesses,” she says.
Ali Al Saloom, a cultural consultant who writes a column for The National, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Nuaimi, and Mohammad Al Robaian, a brand strategist from Kuwait, were the first three speakers to feature.
“They all talk about their journey but we have a different focus for every talk,” says Ms Al Hinai, who also runs her own brand consultancy which has worked with small start-ups and international companies including Tory Burch, Swarovski and Jo Malone London.
Speakers at the Anjez events are all either people Ms Al Hinai has heard of or those followers on Instagram have recommended. And its supporters come from all across the region.
“For one of our talks we had people fly in from Saudi. I was shocked,” says Ms Al Hinai.
“I thought maybe people from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but not people from Saudi and Bahrain, who would come and listen to the talks. A couple of girls, one was Saudi, one was Bahraini and the other was Omani. They told me bring it to Bahrain, bring it to Oman. We want to have a version of it there where we could also highlight our entrepreneurs.”
Ms Al Mazrouei is among the most successful Emirati entrepreneurs today but she almost wasn’t an entrepreneur at all. After graduating from United Arab Emirates University, she initially worked in HR. After completing her MBA and having her first child, she started Just Falafel with her friend Reema Shetty during the financial crisis.
“When you start a business there are always ups and downs. Every failure is a mistake but it is lesson learnt. And there is nothing called I can’t. If you don’t know something go and ask for help. No one is going to push you back,” she says.
She plans to share similar advice and speak about her experiences when she addresses attendees at the next Anjez event today.
“I will talk about the nursery. I will talk about where Just Falafel was and where it is today,” says Ms Al Mazrouei. “There is always a lesson to learn.”
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