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Wed 2 Apr 2014 10:32 AM

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Bags of talent: Palestyle interview

Founder of fashion brand Palestyle, Zeina Abou Chaaban, talks social enterprise, sustainability, and what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur

Bags of talent: Palestyle interview

Social enterprise is becoming big news.

The desire to help others is increasingly being absorbed into the business world, with more and more entrepreneurs launching companies not to maximize profits but to improve the lives of others who are much more in need.

Different to charities, social enterprises generally work on sustainable business models, allowing them to provide long-term benefits to the communities they aim to help, while standing up as successful companies in their own right.

The popularity of such businesses was recently emphasised in Dubai with Social Enterprise Week 2014 taking place during March, helping entrepreneurs launch and develop start-ups which can help solve social problems at home and around the world.

One woman who has proved social enterprises can be successful is Zeina Abou Chaaban – founder and owner of fashion label Palestyle.

The company’s main line is luxury handbags which are sold in high-end boutiques in the UAE and elsewhere in the region, employing Palestinian refugees to help produce the items, and investing five per cent of its total sales into development projects in refugee camps.

Based in Dubai’s Motor City, the company has empowered more than 400 refugee women by using their traditional embroidery which is distributed with each and every one of the company’s bags.

A Dubai resident for the past 22 years, Palestinian Abou Chaaban studied and worked in the emirate before taking the bold step into entrepreneurship.

A three year stint at Procter & Gamble was enough to convince her that the corporate world was not where she saw herself, instead yearning “to do something by myself in social development.”

The idea for Palestyle came in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2009 that it materialised, on the back of a visit to the Palestinian Al Baqaa refugee camp in Jordan.

“It was the first time in my life that I’d visited a camp, and it was not easy,” Abou Chaaban says.

“There were well over 100,000 people living in a 1km sq area – they were living on top of each other with no community infrastructure, lots of basic necessities missing such as electricity and waste management, and no job opportunities at all, even though they were educated.”

It was during this visit that she met women doing embroidery work, leading her to realise that “it was the right time to start”.

Launching in the same year, Abou Chaaban says Palastyle started as a “luxury social business embracing a timeless collection of fashion. The genuine leather handbags are made by artisans, and they have calligraphy and handmade embroidery.

“We employ refugee women to do the embroidery, using between ten and 20 women at any one time. Seeing them when I first went to the camp was the push that I needed. I saw that it was important to start, that the impact could be huge. It really motivated me.

Measuring the extent of Palestyle’s social impact is an important aspect of its operations, validating its work and helping people understand the company’s core purpose.

Earlier this year, Palestyle became the first certified social enterprise in the Middle East after being awarded the SROI (Social Return on Investment) certificate after having its social impact measured through an extensive process set by SROI Network.

Abou Chaaban explains that the company partnered with C3 (Consult and Coach for a Cause) for the process, with C3 measuring the social impact of its projects at Al Baqaa refugee camp in Jordan.

“One of the key development projects there was the water tank exchange,” she says. “Most of the camp’s population drinks contaminated water – the tanks are expired, have broken pipes, and so on. The easy thing to do is to exchange them or fund new ones. It provides extra and cleaner water.

“C3 measured the impact of this, and it was fascinating for us to see – 4,000 refugees were helped by doing that.  About 500 hours per week were saved from not having to collect water from elsewhere, which equated to about AED12,000.”

Another project Palestyle worked on was installing a water pumping system at a school within the camp.

Abou Chaaban says: “It saved students so many hours because they would previously have to leave the school premises to go to the bathroom. These things really make a difference.

“We have a long list of things we’d love to do – it’s exciting to be able to do each of them, but it’s going to take a long time. There are so many people who need help, especially with basic infrastructure things.

“We partner with various people to make these things happen – we’re open to working with just about anybody, as long as they are the right people for the job.”

Ethical business and social enterprise appears to be on the rise in the region. Indeed, Abou Chaaban spoke at the recent Social Enterprise Week in Dubai, an event which drew together existing and budding entrepreneurs, as well as leading thinkers and doers in the field, who are focused on social good and improving their communities.

According to Abou Chaaban there has definitely been a more positive mood in recent years.

She says: “I’ve seen a change, definitely. And not just in terms of the number of social businesses, but also the understanding of them.

“When I first started Palestyle I had a few customers coming to me saying that the percentage I’m giving is too little. I had to emphasise that we are a social business; that we have to be profitable to be able to support the people we’re trying to support.

“We have to be able to give them job opportunities, to execute projects on the ground. It’s not just about giving out charity; it’s about shedding light on women empowerment.

“I used to have to explain this idea a lot, but people are much more aware of the social business model now, and more people are taking it on themselves.

“There is definitely a more ethical approach. The whole rise of entrepreneurs in general, and social entrepreneurs in particular, there’s a lot more happening now, and a lot more in terms of support.”

For a fashion brand to be sustainable, it is quite clear that the aesthetics need to be first rate. Without attracting customers, there would be no business at all.

That particular responsibility fell to Abou Chaaban’s brother, Ahmad, who designs the collections.

He said: “It’s necessary for us to implement new items and new collections that really mean something for people. The look of the bags and the meaning behind them needs to appeal to women.

“Previously only some of the bags included embroidery in them – now we’re putting embroidery into each and every bag. The calligraphy on each item is also more versatile now. The fact that we have the handmade element is so important as well – each item is made out of love, with care and quality. It truly adds something, and the customers get that.

With a background in visual design and graphic design, Ahmad combines his ideas with the wishes of the customers.

He adds: “I have a lot of ideas in my head, and some of them are being worked on.  We also go to the buyers and the sales staff and we ask what direction they would like to see the brand go. The spring/summer collection has numerous aspects which are based on the feedback we received.

“It’s great to be able to understand what people want and act on it.”

He also explains that it’s beneficial being in a small team, allowing Palestyle to react quickly to market trends.

“It there’s a really big trend then we can do it directly, instantly,” he says. “That’s the great thing about being in a small team. It makes it so much easier to be at the forefront of what women want. It’s all done between me and Zeina – we can implement anything we want, and can move quickly and easily.”

Being lean and nimble has definitely held Palestyle in good stead, but Abou Chaaban explains that growth is always on her mind.

“We’re always looking for expansion possibilities,” she says. “There are definitely other markets we would like to go into. It’s a great motivator for us. Demand is growing. We’re looking to cover the full GCC and Middle East, as well as entering new markets like North America, France and the UK.

“There’s also a booming luxury market in Asia, so we’re looking at that too.

“Ideally, expanding will mean we’re dealing with higher volumes, which means we can offer more jobs and generate more money for the projects.

“At the moment we have to contain ourselves. We have to manage limited resources. But the more we grow, the more of a social impact we can have.

As a young entrepreneur who is making significant strides with her business, it would be tempting to assume Abou Chaaban’s journey with Palestyle has been an easy one. To think that would truly be a gross misinterpretation.

She says: “As far as my entrepreneurial experience goes, there’s certainly a lot of pressure put on your shoulders when you’re by yourself. There’s no team under you and it’s your responsibility to do everything – to drive the business, hit the targets, make sure you’re going in the right direction, find contacts, and much more.

“It adds up to a lot of pressure. And at the beginning you definitely feel like you’re being taken advantage of. That’s really stressful.

“One myth that’s a common misconception is that being an entrepreneur means flexible work time; that you get more time to yourself. Yes, you’re building something for yourself, but in doing so you’re putting much more time into your work than before.”

As a result of her own experiences, Abou Chaaban is full of wise words, explaining that “you simply have to get comfortable with the extra workload – you have to embrace the challenges”. While adding: “But you also need to be able to disconnect. You have to be able to recharge, and if you can’t disconnect then you can’t recharge.”

She continues by expressing her joy at witnessing the growth of the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, claiming it represents a big opportunity for social projects.

“It’s amazing to see how the number of entrepreneurs has grown in recent years. It’s really incredible. There are so many different ideas, which is great. Importantly, there’s now the opportunity to create a benchmark for social businesses – to measure your impact and to strive for more.”

In terms of advice, Abou Chaaban is straight to the point.

“I would say to any aspiring entrepreneurs that if you’re in the corporate world then take advantage of that experience and don’t rush it. If you take your time, your idea will be stronger in the long run.

“Also, be confident in sales. A lot of businesses are largely about sales, so make sure you into any sales pitch feeling totally confident in yourself and your product.

“Finally, don’t shy away from asking help from experienced people. Have a mentor – they can give you huge benefit and help you to avoid mistakes.”

Sound counsel indeed from a woman who knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed not only in fashion, but also social enterprise, sustainability, and ethical business.