DUBAI // Faced with the daunting prospect of divorce and having to raise her three young boys alone, Fathiya Ahmed began to panic. After more than a decade of marriage, she had become completely reliant on her husband for financial stability and had hardly ever left the house in all that time. Summoning up courage she did not know she had, Mrs Ahmed decided to set up her own henna parlour. Eight years later, Heritage for Henna has 35 full-time employees and 40 outlets in the UAE and will open in London's Harrods and Selfridges department stores as well as five other locations in the UK by the end of the year. It is close to signing similar deals in Malaysia, Singapore and Japan.
"It was anything but easy," says Mrs Ahmed, a jovial 43-year-old Emirati from Abu Dhabi. "But I did it for my children. I had to do something to improve their lives." Her journey began in 2002 when she saw an advertisement on television for the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Establishment for Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) offering funding for Emiratis to start their own businesses. Although her application was initially rejected, Mrs Ahmed was persistent.
"I called them again and again and finally they told me to try setting it up alone and see how it went," she said. Mrs Ahmed went to Jumeirah Beach Hotel and proposed the idea of setting up a tent on the beach to offer henna service to tourists. With very little money, she had to take her three sons, Nasser, now 18, Ahmed, 12 and Faisal, 10, with her to work. The venture took off immediately. "As soon as we were set up people were coming to see what we were doing," she said.
Within a month she had two more tents at other five-star hotels and five contracts from shopping malls wanting to host an outlet, which she took to the SME in person. "This time they took my idea seriously and printed out my licence the same day," she said. Using Dh250,000 in funding from SME, Mrs Ahmed went about establishing another 28 branches in the first year. She paid back the loan during her second year. The toughest part of all that expansion, she said, was promoting herself and her idea.
"I always had to approach the management myself and I had to be very brave," she said. "I was not used to dealing with people. I had done nothing but cook, clean and iron for 10 years while I was a housewife and suddenly I was in the business world. I didn't know how to face people, especially from different nationalities. It was not easy but I never gave up." She began franchising in 2006, selling each one for 50,000 (Dh238,702) and offering four to six weeks of training to the staff on how to mix the powders and do the various designs. She also continues to supply them with the henna powder and mixing materials, which she said are key to the operation. A year after starting franchising, Mrs Ahmed bought three farms and began producing her own henna powder.
"We have some of the best henna available now," she said. "It is made with no chemicals and is very fresh. Within four months it expires so we have to keep up constant production." With branches in the Atlantis, Souk al Bahar at Burj Khalifa and the new Meydan hotel, Heritage for Henna is constantly expanding. Mrs Ahmed has hardly has time to reflect, but when she does she cannot believe how far she has come.
"I was sad back then," she said. "You cannot imagine life in that house when I thought I had no future, with no personality and nothing to offer my children. I wanted to give them everything they wanted so they could follow their dreams. "Thanks be to God, I have been successful and now they are very proud." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org