Very close to the Dubai Creek, a historically important site of the city’s commercial activity, a quiet revolution has been under way for the past two years.
Sheltered on the second floor of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is located alongside the Creek, its sister organisation – Dubai Business Women Council (DBWC) – has been setting up a new path for female entrepreneurs in the emirate. Following last year’s success, the second edition of the Ro’Ya programme, an initiative set up by DBWC and MasterCard, recently graduated one more batch of women entrepreneurs at a gala dinner hosted at the Address Downtown.
However, it wasn’t only an evening of glitz and glamour. Rather, the top five finalists were invited on stage to pitch their business proposals to a panel of judges consisting of industry heavyweights from the Emirates Foundation, Worood Intraflora, Qualcomm and MasterCard.
To ease the burden on the judges’ shoulders, the newly established ‘People’s Choice’ award was also voted for live at the event by attendees.
After a series of high quality and professional pitches, Leyla Lahsini and Shirin Benamadi – the co-founders of KenziBox, a subscription service offering monthly craft activities for preschoolers – won the top prize of AED183,647 ($50,000).
Amira Awwad, founder of MedsConnect, came in second place, receiving a cash prize of AED110,188 ($30,000), while the third prize and AED73,459 ($20,000) was awarded to Abir Moussa for her Officetag business.
When we sat for a short talk about KenziBox with the two co-founders, Leyla Lahsini and Shirin Benamadi, it quickly became obvious why the charismatic duo had won the ‘People’s Choice’ award as well.
“I’m a crazy mum who does intense arts and crafts with my daughter,” says Benamadi, a Lebanese native who arrived in Dubai six years ago and worked as a consultant at Morgan Stanley. After her second period of maternity leave, she says, going back to the corporate career was less appealing to her.
Among the many mums she interacted with on a daily basis, it was with Shirin Benamadi, a mother of two, that she felt she could share the ups and downs of an entrepreneurial experience with.
The two friends used to toss business ideas around during many a regular play date with their children.
“We had been sticking them together to do play dates while we were hunting down an idea and then it was right in front of us,” says Benamadi.
“We realised that this [craft activities] was actually the business idea that we were searching for. That’s how it came to be.”
KenziBox offers delivery of boxes containing monthly themed craft activities for preschoolers to parents interested in nurturing and growing innovators and leaders. Learning to play – in particular learning through arts and crafts – Lahsini says, helps the development of creativity, problem solving, and decision making abilities.
The themes of the boxes range from ‘Medieval Tales’ and ‘Rainforest Adventures’, to ‘Space Odyssey’, and the like. Designed in consultation with primary school teachers, the boxes offer learning opportunities to children both when they assemble their toys and then later when they play with them (the end product is not intended to just be a display item).
“We decided that there were a million different ways to put these activity boxes together. They could have a very commercial feel and you just kind of repurpose the toys or they can be a little bit home-grown,” explains Benamadi.
“We went with this home-grown approach. For us, the idea is that it should feel like something that parents put together for their children.”
The Ro’Ya judges particularly appreciated that the contents of the boxes, from ideas to materials, have been carefully designed and crafted in the UAE. “We are especially proud of this as we want to participate in the UAE becoming a hub for innovation and design,” adds Benamadi.
The ‘Made in the UAE’ Kenzibox was registered in the DMCC and officially launched in December 2014, just a few months before the beginning of the Ro’Ya 2015 programme.
When asked about the process of setting up their business in Dubai, Benamadi says: “The actual process, the legality of it, was quite simple. We found a great set-up company that helped us with all the steps. We went to many other companies where we didn’t get the right answers. We could feel that.
“So once we found the right person, whose answers were correct and solid, the set up was relatively easy. Finding the right people, I think, is a bigger challenge than the actual set up.”
Having a launched business at the start of the programme, the co-founders say, allowed them to learn and act quickly. “I don’t think we realised, when we started, that there was so much content to it and since we had already launched it, we thought to see how much we could get out of it,” says Lahsini.
“But actually it was quite good with our day to day running because all of a sudden we would go to this workshop and take a step back and see how we could reapply something.
“We pivoted quite a bit because of what we learnt at the workshops which helped us to take quicker decisions. Instead of opening our books from school, we were like: ‘Everything is here.’”
This year’s runner-up, Amira Awwad, the founder of MedsConnect, a healthcare management app for chronic disease patients which particularly caters for Arabic speakers, launched her business just a few days after completing the programme and winning the second prize.
However, it was the second time that the 30-year-old Egyptian computer science engineer had taken part in the DBWC’s programme. Enrolling in Ro’Ya 2014 with just an idea, she graduated with a notable mention and a cash prize of $5,000.
A year later, she was selected for the programme again because the Ro’Ya representatives had noticed a significant progress achieved by the MedsConnect team.
“I used to do coding and software development, but I had this missing part of marketing, sales, and how to put this in a working business model, how to monetise it, how to introduce it to the masses,” Awwad says about what she has learnt during the programme.
“So last year it was just an idea, and this year I came with a working prototype. I really wanted to put it in a working business model and they really helped me along the way.”
Awwad takes pride in the fact that the Ro’Ya judges complimented her on creating an app in Arabic.
“Most people here speak Arabic and they really feel the need to use a medical app in Arabic just like the way a doctor would speak to them,” she says.
“And also because a similar Arabic-content app simply wasn’t there. We built it from scratch. We’ve got the medication database from Dubai Healthcare Authority and we intend to translate all the medication data to have the application fully supporting Arabic.
“So, for me, the best compliment was that the application really fitted the need in the market because it was the only application offering these features in Arabic.”
Once successfully working for Servcorp, a global service provider, the third prize winner, Abir Moussa, the founder of OfficeTag, took part in the programme after a 15-year-long career as a business development professional.
She started her Ro’Ya 2015 journey with just an idea of an online booking service of serviced office rentals. The clients will be offered to choose a solution that best suits their professional needs from the start-up’s extensive database.
With the knowledge gained through the programme and the cash prize of $20,000, the 35-year-old Lebanese woman is planning to register her business in March.
“You have to do what you love, whether you are a wife, a mother or have a career. You also have to make sure that you are making a difference in whatever you decide to do,” Moussa says.
Awwad says that she will use the prize money to offer MedsConnect on different platforms. In addition to the current iOS version, her team will release the android version in January 2016.
Furthermore, they will introduce other features to the app, such as wearable integration to allow patients or caregivers to connect the application to patients’ wearable and monitoring devices, which will then enable the data to be entered automatically instead of doing it manually.
Honestly sharing a piece of constructive criticism she received from the Ro’Ya mentors, Awwad says: “The comment that I received from most of the mentors in Ro’Ya was that we had waited too long to launch. And this is a piece of advice I really want to share with all entrepreneurs. If you have an idea, release a minimum viable product and build upon it.
“Don’t wait until you have a perfect app because you will never have the perfect app to launch. It’s better to receive comments and customer feedback on something already existing, and not just an idea.
“Maybe you will work on something for two years and then nobody will be interested. You need to know this from the beginning not after so much hard work.”
When asked about her goals, Awwad says: “I don’t think that entrepreneurs have that end in mind at all, but I would say that we have some milestones that we want to achieve. We want to be the leading mobile health manager supporting Arabic and English in the Arab world.
“And we want to take this outside the Arab world. After we make a success here we can start introducing it internationally.”
The winning duo, Lahsini and Benamadi, explain that convincing parents and kids to sit down and do the crafts and activities was a challenge on its own, but a message from a mother saying ‘I’ve spent a Friday morning like I have never spent in my life’ reassured them about the importance of their product.
Lahsini recalls: “Her husband did arts and crafts activities with their kids. She was the one usually doing it. She also wrote, ‘My husband has just spent two hours there sitting and doing activities with our kids.’ She was just taking photos.
“We loved hearing it because we provide something more to a family.”
Expanding into neighbouring markets and growing their e-commerce platform are next tasks for the KenziBox co-founders. Concluding with their business goals, Lahsini says: “I would like to get into more homes. For me it is about that quality time.
“That is what we are after so there’s this double bottom line of reaching out to all of those kids and also having the financial stability that comes with it.
“It’s a business, but the mission itself is quite important as well.”For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.