Nour Al Hassan, the Jordanian CEO of Abu Dhabi-based Tarjama, has built one of the region's most successful translation businesses by unlocking the underused talent and tenacity of stay-at-home women
It wasn’t, Nour Al Hassan, insists, by design. But there is something undeniably compelling about a pan-regional translation and content company with 70-plus employees, offices in three countries and a portfolio of clients from governments to multinationals being based almost entirely around the talents and tenacity of women working from home.
While the CEO of Tarjama, which literally means “translation” in Arabic, and now editorial marketplace, Ureed, admits that she didn’t plan it, she quickly realised that the combination of self-discipline, flexibility and motivation of her part-time network was the ideal fit for her business.
The ability to stay lean yet still deliver a round-the-clock service while also empowering and enhancing the skills of a greatly underused resource – in this region in particular – provided a win-win scenario that continues to propel Al Hassan’s businesses forward.
Now that the Middle East is beginning to embrace social change and champion women in the workplace as never before, she is convinced this is just the beginning.
Can you give us a quick overview of the journey that took you from employee to entrepreneur to CEO?
I graduated from Ahliya University, Jordan, with a law degree back in 2002, and started working with some NGOs in Amman, including USAID and Siyaha, a tourism development project. It was actually there that the idea for Tarjama came about; we used to receive a lot of documents in English and had to translate them all into Arabic – but the result from our suppliers was always disappointing, both in terms of quality and timeliness of the delivery.
In 2008, I decided to open a small copywriting company in Amman, Jordan, and provided website and brochure material in English and Arabic for local and regional clients, especially in the real estate sector in the UAE – which was booming at that point.
In 2011, I moved to Abu Dhabi and then expanded the business by acquiring a translation company in 2013 and started doing bigger and bigger projects in Dubai and Saudi. That’s the story, really. What started as a company with two employees now has 73 full-time staff working with government bodies and major multinationals.
That’s a rapid rise. Where did you learn how to not just run a business but expand it as well? Who did you get advice and input from?
I sought mentorships from every single person I could think of! But what actually made the real difference was realising that I had a couple of team-members internally I could rely on for managing tasks – and these were quality assurance people and translators!
I leaned on them a lot as we grew. One translator in particular was a huge help and became a superstar. In fact, he’s now the chief operating officer! His name is Zaid Abu Al-Feilat, and he really helped fix things for me – he literally set up the operations department. We now have 11 people who only do operations, working in shifts until 3am, for instance.
Their sole task is to organise the workflow within the company every day. I really couldn’t have taken on the very large accounts we have now if I didn’t have this team in place.
It’s interesting that your pivotal hire was actually accidental and not some structured plan.
Honestly, I used to go to Fadi Ghandour and the Wamda team all the time with this problem and that problem. And he used to just say to me, “Hire someone!” That was one of the best pieces of advice I received, actually: without hiring, you will never grow.
Why were you reluctant? Is that part of the transition from entrepreneur to leader?
Partly it was cost control, obviously, but mainly it was me wanting to retain control – why hire someone when I can do it myself? That’s just the way I am. I used to work 18 hours a day when the business first started, wanting to be involved in everything. Even when I hired the operations team, it took them more than a year to get me out of there to leave them to it – even though I was ruining the entire the flow of the team! Now, I don’t know anything about operations. No idea.
What occupies your time now, then?
Mainly business development. But even that’s going to change. I have to build that function within Tarjama otherwise there will be no continuity. That’s in the pipeline.
What is the transition like between Jordan and Abu Dhabi in terms of practices and management?
I think the main thing about Jordan is that you work within your social circle, your community. So, you count on personal relationships – I know this person, so I’ll get the contract. I know that person, so I’ll get a deadline extension. It’s not institutional. But when you work with multinational companies with KPIs, with hard deadlines, with processes and with a strong emphasis on quality, it’s a different ballgame. It was a really big learning curve for me.
Did you seek any funding as you grew the business?
No, not at all. We bootstrapped everything. That was how we grew. Although I have to thank Nour Al Kaabi and Maryam Muhairi at TwoFour54 in Abu Dhabi for helping out in the early years – both with budget-friendly rent and a supply of work. They were a huge help.
Client retention must be biggest business challenge you face, especially in a competitive, service-sector field. What policies and practices did you put in place to ensure clients stayed loyal?
Honestly, all of the major clients we worked with in 2011 are still with us – 90 percent at least. It’s all down to client servicing. If the client needs a job ASAP, we deliver. I meet with our clients regularly and try to understand the challenges they have, and work with them as partners not as vendors. We’ve been trying to build relationships for the long-term. If something isn’t working, I try to find out why, what went wrong, where did we fail. That gets a lot of focus.
Is there any specific failure or non-delivery of a contract that you learned the most from?
In the early days, when we had a small team and were trying to deliver on very big contracts, we would get complaints about consistency, whether that was quality of work, the people on the account or even, in translation terms, the terminology we used.
One thing we did was to invest heavily in customised management software, which manages both the workflow but also retains the styles and lexicon of each client so we can translate the same way no matter who is working on the account. This addressed the consistency element and ensured continuity when someone leaves. This investment was a huge plus in maintaining clients and quality.
What is your growth potential as you move into the future?
I don’t think we’re at 30 percent of our potential, honestly. Most of our business development has been word of mouth so far, so by having a proper business development unit, we can move into different areas, different verticals and different markets – including the US. We are also moving into content creation and also training in translation, mainly for women, and we’re starting to do both live interpretation work for governments. We’re also in the process of acquiring a sub-titling firm, too, for TV shows and movies. So we are expanding all the time.
How about other languages?
The majority of our work is English to Arabic but we provide services in 30 languages and we use partnerships all around the world. We’ve translated books into 14 languages, for instance. Obviously it’s harder as we have to have quality assurance in those languages, too, and we have to trust that the standards are up our English-Arabic work, but the processes are the same. But we did lots of research and due diligence to select who we felt are the right partners.
What’s interesting is that your company is built around women, isn’t it?
Most of our network of translators is made up of women, yes, and most of them work from home. We offer working patterns and shifts to suit them and their lifestyles, and even though we have offices in Dubai, Amman, Abu Dhabi and Saudi, they all want to work from home – because it fits in with family, or other responsibilities. They self-manage their time.
Was this by design or something that evolved over time?
It became part of our DNA but, no, it wasn’t by design. In the beginning, I worked with one or two women who worked from home and then they started bringing in their friends and neighbours and it grew like that.
I realised that this is a very lean model, that didn’t need a huge amount of office space, and HR and everything, so it’s quite cost-effective. But I also knew that I was tapping into an underused resource.
Nobody wants to hire people part-time or who want flexible hours to fit around their families, but there are so many talented women who are desperate to work and have the skills and discipline to offer their services freelance. We have women who wait until their kids go to bed and then work until 1am to meet a deadline. Some women take their laptops in the car, do some daily tasks then park somewhere to send emails!
It must help provide a sense of financial independence, too.
Exactly. The women tell us that the money they make allows them to have a summer vacation or do something special with their kids – or even to hire help at home. It’s hard to survive on one income in the UAE, in particular. We’ve now trained more than 200 women in Saudi, and they are so eager. They don’t want to sit at home and not work.
You have a new venture, Ureed, too, that can extend this network even further, right?
Yes, it’s an online editorial marketplace that focuses on content and translation. The idea began when Tarjama started receiving a lot of requests from start-ups and SMEs that we are unable to service – whether because of the sheer volume and the required timeline, particularly if it’s an e-commerce platform, or because their budgets really don’t suit an agency set up.
So, we thought about an Uber model for translation or copywriting, where we can pair freelancers with customers for these kind of jobs. Again, we knew that there are huge numbers of very talented women at home who would welcome the flexibility of these kind of skilled service jobs. So, we were able to expand our network and attract new clients without having to scale.
How does it work?
It’s all online. You post your profile, skillsets and rates, and companies can select you, ask for samples of work and make payments – and we take a small margin from the freelancer. We hold the fee in escrow until the client is happy and we can mediate disputes, too. We hope it removes the doubt or fear of using freelancers. We also have a service where we can use our management and vetting services to guarantee the quality. For instance, we worked with Noon.com, and we used Ureed – but on a managed basis. This is a headache for them; it’s not a core function but they desperately need it. Agencies can also sign up and offer their services, so I think this will help unify what is a fragmented sector.
Are there margins there for this work?
It is a low-margin business, that’s true. But something like 80 percent of economic growth in the UAE is now powered by SMEs, our target customers, and Saudi Arabia alone spends more than $700m on translation services. For the entire region, it’s $2.5bn. We launched in June and without any marketing, we already have 4,500 freelancers signed up for it – and there is work already flowing in from the likes of Reuters and others.
Talk about your own journey as businesswoman and CEO in the Middle East. Have there been obstacles you faced because of your gender?
Honestly, it’s been the exact opposite. It’s helped me. I really believe that. Whenever women say that it’s very difficult doing business in the region, I honestly find it weird. I don’t really know what they mean. In the UAE, the leadership here push women in every way, they respect women, they put them in leadership roles, empower them.
Since I moved to Abu Dhabi, I’ve found that people here wanted to help me because I’m woman. That was also my experience in Saudi. I started doing business there around the time of the announcement of Vision 2020 and they were talking about female empowerment and in every project I’ve worked on there, women have been central to it. I don’t know how it used to be, but I have never found it a problem. And I have never had any issue from the men on my team about having a female boss. Not once. I never felt it.
How Nour steps away from running two companies
The gym: It’s very rare that I have a weekend without a meeting or some work tasks, so my major switch-off time is the gym. I work out every day and do beach walks every day, so that’s where I detach from work.
Reading: I have also really been trying to catch up reading, which I have neglected recently. I realised I needed to regain that “me” time and I have already read three books this year. They were: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a really moving book about life and death; Shoe Dog by the Nike founder Phil Knight; and finally a business book called Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross.
Travel: I also switch off when I go abroad. I just went away in December, and I do try to detach completely and not look at a computer. I realised that if I don’t have a break, I lose focus and energy – and you struggle to look at the big picture.