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Tue 10 Mar 2015 09:56 AM

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Passion and purpose: Dumyé interview

Sahar Wahbeh, founder of Dumyé, reveals to Tamara Pupic the noble cause behind her dolls

Passion and purpose: Dumyé interview

For many girls, a trip down memory lane usually includes the very first doll which has remained a symbol of their childhood.

With the times changing, the dolls have been evolving from paper dolls to the famous Mattel’s Barbie Doll in the 50s, her male friend Ken Doll in the 60s, or the Bratz dolls released at the turn of the millennium.

As it is a sign of times, the doll might also be a symbol of the main values a mother in any given decade aims to instil in her daughter.

Sahar Wahbeh, the founder of Dumyé: Dolls With Purpose, describes a typical buyer of her personalised, handcrafted and eco-friendly rag dolls:

“A mum, in her early 30s, who is creatively spirited, well-travelled and socially and environmentally conscious. She likes to buy organic, she’s active and in tune with what’s going on.”

Although her business tackles a remarkable breadth of problems, it is designed to educate the generation of her four-year-old daughter Neeva about one particular value.

“It’s important for them to know that they are lucky. There are a lot of children out there without parents,” Wahbeh says.

Explaining the business model of her Dubai-based doll company and social enterprise seems a daunting task, since each of its parts has many layers and serves multiple purposes.

To begin with, Dumyé: Dolls With Purpose is a handmade cloth doll designer company. In her home-turned-studio in Garhoud, Wahbeh’s small team handcrafts eco-friendly, limited edition dolls.

She says: “The dolls that we sell we make here in the UAE. They are made of organic cotton and sustainable cotton fibre stuffing. The hair is made of a 100 percent post-consumer plastic, and for the clothing we use mostly natural materials.”

Through their online boutique Dumyé.com, interested buyers can order them for the price of $168, or $98 for the recently launched edition of Petite Dumyé Dolls.

However, it’s not an ordinary purchase. A buyer is requested to select the doll’s skin tone, hair colour, hairstyle, or eye colour in order to resemble the intended giftee as much as possible.

She says: “There are a lot of handmade dolls but there’s not very much variety, and you don’t know what you’re going to get.

“It’s really important that Dumyé made it easier for people to do that [personalise dolls], and on top of that to add a monogram card and put a special message in the purpose pocket of the doll.”

A personalised doll with a special message a mother would gift to her daughter is a seed from which the whole Dumyé concept has developed. That’s what Wahbeh did for her daughter few years ago.

Although she explains that the idea had been sitting in her head for a while, becoming a mother in 2011 brought a sense of responsibility and urgency on how to best teach her daughter important life’s lessons.

“The whole concept of shaping the world for the better became more important, and I felt more of a sense of urgency to realise what my initial intent was because I was about to start telling her all those things like: ‘Dream big!’

“And if I wasn’t doing it, if I wasn’t willing to walk that walk, then there was no way that she was going to pick up on that.”

The warm and friendly American of Lebanese and Palestinian descent was born and raised in Northern Virginia, and having graduated from the Atlanta College of Art, Georgia, she decided to focus on the communication arts.

“Through design you have the power to shape culture,” she says. “Everything requires design, and design shapes people’s opinions. You can take the same product, package and brand it differently and people will perceive it completely differently.”

With her work being acknowledged by various publications such as Communication Arts Magazine, Interior Design Magazine and Type Directors Club, her decade-long career in branding from New York City to Dubai was going from strength to strength.

However, she recalls: “I wanted to use design to shape our world for the better. I thought: ‘That’s what I wanted to do.’

“Looking back, I didn’t necessarily feel that I was shaping our world for the better.”

Not only did the birth of her daughter Neeva made her change the medium from branding to doll making, but it also helped her to clearly formulate her main message – ‘instilling social consciousness within our children.’

“It becomes an ambassador of good, a tangible starting point to talk to your children things that are complicated,” Wahbeh explains why Dumyé dolls are meaningful gifts.

“It allows an easy dialogue about things you wouldn’t have sat down and discussed with your children.”

It is the 132 million children around the world who are classified as orphans that Wahbeh wants to talk about. According to UNICEF statistics, every day 5,762 children around the world become orphans.

Focusing on the Middle East, the estimate fails to give a full picture of the scope of the problem since various institutions fail to regularly report orphan statistics in the region.

Among many other causes, the United Nations (UN) statistics state that there have been 1,500 new orphans in the Gaza Strip as a result of only last summer’s military action by Israel. The same report shows that 373,000 children in Gaza would need psychological support because of the war.

With the social mission of helping some of them at its heart, the other part of the company’s business model is designed to finance, organise and run first-of-its kind art therapy workshops for orphans. “For every doll that’s sold, we pledge to give a doll to an orphan,” she says.

“We use parts of the profits that we make to facilitate these workshops.

“The dolls that we take with us to the orphanages are gender-neutral. We’ve designed them a little differently because the children draw on the doll so it needed to be a little flatter.”

To date more than 300 dolls have been gifted to orphans, with many more still to be given.

The dolls she brings to the workshops serve one more social purpose since for their production Wahbeh has commissioned an NGO that works to empower, educate and employ women in Uttar Pradesh, one of the most poverty-stricken states in India.

She says: “They locally source organic cotton for us to make the dolls, and they use the proceeds from us buying the dolls from them to invest in the girls’ education society which is associated with them. So, it pays for the younger girls to go to school.

“The economic empowerment part is a huge thing to me because I really feel that the world’s problems come down to poverty. To change poverty, you have to give people an opportunity for fair jobs and you have to educate.”

Wahbeh explains that this process of doll creation gives the orphans an opportunity to reflect upon themselves and process what they have been through.

She says: “The beauty of art is that it gives you a space to express yourself in a way that’s so uninhibited.

“In real life, you wouldn’t be allowed to behave that way but through art you could say whatever you want, and it’s ok. So it’s a way for them to release what they’ve seen or been through.

“If they are willing, not every kid is like that. When they come in, they are all very reserved.

“The older ones are especially reserved, they don’t want to get excited, they don’t want to be disappointed, and it’s harder to get them to open up. By the end of it, you see them relaxed and doing things, helping other people, and smiling.”

Working in partnership with START, a non-profit organisation founded by Art Dubai and the Al Madad Foundation, Dumyé has organised two art therapy workshops so far, with the first one being held at the Maria Art Center in Sharjah in July 2014.

Around 40 orphaned boys and girls from around the UAE got the opportunity to create their own dolls while children younger than three years received a ready-made doll.

She says: “It was great that we did the first one here because we are here, and it’s really important to give back here. But it’s fascinating because when I talk to people, they don’t even realise that we have orphans here.

“There’s no country exempt from that. One thing that was the most surprising to me was how multicultural they were.”

“We decided to go to Lebanon next. There’s a lot of turmoil obviously in this region but Lebanon houses quite a few refugees, and especially orphan refugees,” she continues about their second workshop recently held at two orphanages in Lebanon when they spent a day with 250 children.

However, there is a pragmatic side of this big dream, and we question Wahbeh about the process of setting up a business in Dubai. She says: “To open a merchant account in the Middle East is very expensive.

“Because I’m American, I’ve been able to do that through the US. We have an LLC in America and an FZE here, and that’s how we had to do it in order for us to function online.

“There are three things that I wish would change. In the US, you can get a trade license for AED1,836 ($500) and you’re ready to go. Here, a free zone license will cost you upwards of AED18,362 ($5,000), and you pay that every year. It’s astronomical.

“When you are a big business, it doesn’t matter. But when you are starting out, it’s a hindrance on young entrepreneurs.

“The second thing is that the online business industry is huge [in the US] while here it’s so difficult to get a merchant account. They [banks] want a AED50,000 deposit to do that, and that’s not reachable for most people who are starting out. Whereas in the US, that’s not the case, there’s no deposit, they don’t take anything upfront. So the entry point in the US is much easier.

“The third thing are visas. There are a lot of people in Dubai who would like to work part-time or from home, especially mothers. I would like the whole freelance or part-time shift to happen.”

With the company registered in Fujairah Free Zone, she explains that bootstrapping it from the inception has been the only option, and adds: “Now we need to raise money to grow the team and support Dumyé’s mission, which is massive. For now, everyone but me gets paid.

“Everything that we make goes back into business because when you start out there are so many expenses that need to be taken care of. I’m doing all of that to set the foundations, and because I want a track record.

“The next step is deciding exactly how these dolls are going to be made on a larger scale. Most likely it will happen here, and we will set up a studio and hire people from this region to make the dolls.”

Wahbeh is already a step closer to achieving this goal since she was announced as the winner of the Gulf final of The Venture, a global competition for social enterprise start-ups, at an event held recently at the Media One Hotel in Dubai.

Beating four other regional finalists on the basis of Dumyé’s social, ethical or environmental purpose, Wahbeh won a chance to compete for a share of a $1 million fund and represent the region at a global finals for social entrepreneurs in San Francisco. She will also attend a week-long, entrepreneur’s training-camp in Silicon Valley, California.

Since Wahbeh has married her passions with her life’s work, it’s no surprise that her plans for Dumyé are big.

She says: “It is my hope that in 10 years time we will look back and see that Dumyé has made a real lasting difference to people all over the world.

“This includes everyone from the women who stitch our dolls together, to the children who are gifted Dumyé by a loved one, to the orphans that benefit from our giving programme.

“If we can design a way for us all to succeed together, then what a wonderful world this would be.”

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