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INSPIRATION IS EVERYWHERE EVERYWHERE.

Summary: Sara Al Madani has rebuilt her brand from scratch, become the youngest board member of the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and is working towards helping start-ups avoid her business mistakes

In 2002, when Sara Al Madani was 15 years old, she wanted to be financially independent from her parents. She found a store in an industrial area in Ajman that the owner was looking to vacate, the shop had an annual rent of AED 10,000. She sold her laptop and other electronic items, and worked side jobs, without her parents' knowledge, to raise AED 30,000, which she paid the store owner up front.

The store owner employed a tailor, who Al Madani took on. His salary was affordable and any time she needed more money, she would pick up another job. In her first year, she sat in the store, staring at the tailor, not too sure what to do. But she did have one idea and her Rouge Couture fashion label was born.

"I disliked the way women wore the abaya, because they were just covering themselves. Tradition dictates that women wear the abaya, and religion tells women to be covered. But it doesn't specify where and what has to be covered. I wanted to modernise it to enable Arab women to feel like they were part of the fashion industry, using traditional wear," she said.

She added that when a designer is dealing with a traditional garment, it has a message and a presence. She has seen too many designers destroy the image of the abaya by making it look like a dress. She added that she comes up with new designs every month, because her customers wear the garment every day, therefore she cannot only release a collection each season.

Despite the limitations imposed by staying true to the essence of the garment, Al Madani said inspiration can be found anywhere, if you look for it. One collection was inspired by the movie Gladiator, where each abaya was given Roman-influenced panels because she wanted women to look like strong protectors.

"Once I was sitting down outdoors, drinking coffee, and a leaf fell onto my table and it was beautiful; the transition of green to brown was there. I created a whole collection based on these colours, influenced by leaves and nature. Recently I was at the American Embassy in Abu Dhabi and I got inspired by something there for my current collection," she said.

By the time she was 18, she opened her second store in Sharjah, under the guidance of Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi. Sheikha Jawaher, who runs a number of women empowerment programmes, handpicked eight people from about 50 to mentor, of which Al Madani was one. She was given full assistance in finding the location for her store in Sharjah, as well administrative assistance in the business set up.

Two years later, at 20 years old, Al Madani opened her first store in Dubai, without any government assistance because she wanted to take on the challenge of moving from Sharjah to Dubai by herself to see if she could do it successfully. In 2013, owing to some misguided business decisions, she lost the entire business overnight.

"When you work with someone you know it's easy to think it isn't necessary to sign certain documents or involve a lawyer. I had to start over from scratch because my documents were not safe with my partners, and I did not protect my rights," she said.

She said it was her favourite mistake, because it showed her that she could rebuild her business from the bottom up, and it forced her to rethink her business strategy. She closed all her branches except the Sharjah branch, retained her factory in Ajman, and decided to operate her business online. This allowed her rebuild her business without excessive overheads, and she said if it did not succeed, then she would not lose anything.

ENTERING THE BOARDROOM

One month after losing her business, she found out she was appointed as a board member of the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce via Instagram.

She follows H.H. Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, and she saw the names of the board members for the upcoming cycle on his feed; then she saw her name. Apart from one other woman in Dubai, to her knowledge she is the only Sara Al Madani.

"Congratulatory phone calls started coming and I was being tagged in posts and this was the best thank you I could receive, since I was recognised because of my work. Usually we think when we work hard, nobody notices what we do, but people do notice. It takes time but it is worth it," she said.

At 30 years old she is the youngest board member, and only one of two women in a team of about 19. However, she said she is treated like an equal, with both women's thoughts and opinions taken into account. The board makes financial and strategic decisions for the city, with the priority being the development of Sharjah. Board members can put forward a campaign, and decisions are made by a vote.

The initiative closest to Al Madani's heart is Sharjah Scene, an initiative designed to promote life and business in Sharjah under three initiatives: activate, incubate, and award.

'Activate' promotes the lifestyle, culture and economy of Sharjah for anyone wanting to live or open a business there. It is a community initiative with activities that anyone can join.

'Incubate' is an incubator developed by the Chamber after two years of researching similar enterprises from all over the world, and has been created to cater to the Middle East, particularly with regards to terms and conditions that have to be met and processes that need to be in place to set up a business.

"Usually a government incubator caters to locals only, but this one caters to expats as well. No money is paid from the start-up's side; everything is sponsored by the Chamber. Nothing like this has previously existed in the Chamber, and now we have a full wing dedicated to it," said Al Madani.

Finally, the award programme is the Chamber's way of acknowledging and thanking the people who have contributed to the economy and growth of Sharjah. She added that it is an award that has existed for about 21 years in the Chamber, but it has been modernised. The first Sharjah Scene awards ceremony took place on 21 January 2017.

"We're creating an ecosystem where everybody can do business, whether they have a start-up, small, medium, or large business. Our motto is 'One city, lots of soul' because we believe that humans make things happen, and we want to show people that they matter to us," she said.

These initiatives are especially important to her, given her own mistakes in business making her start over. Had she not made them, she estimated she could have completed her business journey in six years, not 15.

SUSTAINING START-UPS

Al Madani said her experience makes her want to use her position in the Chamber to create a safe environment for start-ups, and give people the playground to make mistakes through the trial and error phase. That way, with the right support, people can cut so many years off the process of growing their business.

"The advice we give businesses on sustainability is based on research done by independent consultants. The past two years of studies suggest within the next four years, Sharjah will be the Middle East hub for start-ups," she said.

Having opened her business in Dubai and Sharjah, and from the perspective of being a Chamber board member, Al Madani said that opening a business in Sharjah offers some important benefits over Dubai. As an untapped and unsaturated market, and being quite new to the start-up environment, she said Sharjah is more affordable and more convenient.

With regards to imports and exports, Sharjah has two ports in prime locations offering easy access to target markets. For anyone living outside of Sharjah, they are always going against the traffic which is useful, said Al Madani.

The Chamber is currently in the process of zoning Sharjah in terms of sustaining start-ups. Any business owner who wants to set up a business within a specific sector can approach the Chamber and be advised on the best location for it. Al Fisht Road is a popular location for start-ups and there is a rule that similar businesses cannot operate in the same location, which Al Madani said, keeps competition regulated and healthy.

HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT BUSINESS PARTNER

1. Please do not do business with people you meet online or via social media. I have heard of too many people doing that, and then the deal goes sour and they wonder why.

2. Investors have proper channels. Those channels are displayed publicly. Not using them is at your own risk.

3. Meet your potential partners in person. They should be referred to you by a government body or another business person.

4. Make sure you have lawyers and consultants go through your financials and draft your contracts.

5. Make sure the lawyer you use is a business lawyer. I know people who say they are friends with a lawyer who will draft the contract. Just because it's a free contract doesn't mean you have to take it! Pay the fee for a proper business lawyer, because it will save you a lot of money in the future.

Source: Sara Al Madani, Board Member, Sharjah Chamber of Commerce & Director, Rouge Couture

We're creating an ecosystem where everybody can do business, whether they have a start-up, small, medium, or large business

-- Sara Al Madani, Board Member, Sharjah Chamber of Commerce & Director, Rouge Couture

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Date:Jan 31, 2017
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