At this entrepreneur workshop for women, no business plan is out of reach, from mobile libraries to bicycle tours.
Your business starts with an idea
Ritika Gupta Merchant is a woman with a vision. Her ambition is to organise bicycle tours in the United Arab Emirates, taking in the cultural landmarks of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. In spite of the UAE's arid climate and dearth of cycle lanes, Mrs Merchant, an Indian national, remains confident that her tours will be viable. She plans on issuing cold-gel jackets to her clients, and beginning the tours at the crack of dawn.
Mrs Merchant, 30, is one of a group of 29 students taking part in the Entrepreneurship and Business Development Workshop, a course run exclusively for women at the University of Dubai. The programme, now in its fifth year, is run in conjunction with the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Trade, and sponsored by Citigroup's Citi Foundation, a US-based financial services company. Candidates are accepted into the programme based on their ideas and drive to launch their own business. This involves a written application, followed by a panel interview. Applications are invited every year before the course begins in February (www.ud.ac.ae).
By the time this four-month course ends in mid-June, female students from around the world -including South Africans, Britons, Indians and Emiratis - will be expected to produce a complete, and viable, business plan. Usha Kual, the course director, says the idea is to provide support, advice, contacts and confidence for budding female entrepreneurs. "In a lot of cases, people have an idea about what type of business they would like to launch, but don't always have the necessary skills, tools, contacts and knowledge to see this through," Dr Kual explains. "To counter this, we offer a highly practical orientated training programme."
After 21 sessions, Dr Kual adds, students are exposed to the key components of a business plan, such as marketing, accounting, finance and management. To make the course seem as realistic as possible, business owners are invited to class each week to share their stories. The purpose is to expose students to real-life situations and brainstorm solutions. Azza al Qubaisi, an Emirati jewellery maker and designer, recently attended the course to discuss how she made Dh100,000 in her first year of setting up shop. Ms al Qubaisi, 32, set up Arjmst from her home in Abu Dhabi in 2004.
While the venture has been successful, she says one of her main challenges has been the cost of re-training expatriate staff, which tend to only remain in her employment for a maximum of three to four years. Ms al Qubaisi says Arjmst is a small business, and she cannot afford to pay her workers more than Dh10,000 each month. Therefore, she emphasises the importance of treating employees with respect, and cultivating loyalty among your staff to survive.
Listening to the lecture, Mrs Merchant hopes to launch her bicycle tours with similar success. She has decided that operating from a free zone is the better option for her business. If she registers herself as a freelance professional in Ras al Khaimah, for example, she would only require a "flexi desk", and yet be free to work anywhere in the Emirates. A "flexi desk" is a shared work station in a free zone that's assigned for freelance professionals, typically costing around Dh25,000 per year.
To keep her start-up costs to a minimum, Mrs Merchant plans to buy a fleet of 12 bicycles at around Dh500 each, and lead the tours herself. Mrs Merchant has already mapped out routes for her clients, including trails along Dubai Creek and the Corniche in Abu Dhabi. She also hopes to reach out to other tour operators, travel agents and hotels in the country. "I just want to offer something that's beyond the desert safari," Mrs Merchant says. "As a cycling enthusiast myself, I think there's a lot of mileage to be had in touring the cities by bike."
Ultimately, Ms Merchant, who currently works as a marketing executive for Mad Science, a global company that teaches elementary-grade science through interactive games, feels she will get more satisfaction from working for herself. "It will be like seeing my own child grow into a well-rounded adult, whereas working for someone else is more like babysitting," she says. Whether tourists will take to cycling the highways and byways of the UAE - in cold-gel jackets or not - remains to be seen.
Since the annual course began in 2005, 114 students have graduated. Less than a quarter - that's 28 - are now running small businesses. Dr Kual says the reason for the low success rate is two-fold. A lack of financing is the major stumbling block. In the current economic climate, she says banks are less likely to lend large amounts of cash to start-ups. The second major hurdle to success, according to Dr Kual, is a general lack of preparation and forward planning.
"This is one area where we can help students by getting them to think ahead about their balance sheets and set-up costs and all the other extras involved," she explains. "We also look deeply at ownership options and ask students whether they want complete ownership by registering in a designated free zone or by enlisting a local partner who takes 51 per cent ownership. Both options have their pros and cons. We also encourage our Emirati students to consider sponsoring other expatriate women to get them started."
Of course, some Emiratis are focused on more personal ambitions. Five years ago, Asmaa Mohammed Ahmed Jafar Nusairi, a 24-year-old Emirati, travelled to Scotland with her classmates at Zayed University in Dubai to work voluntarily as a guide at the Al Maktoum Multicultural Centre in Dundee. The institute, she says, aims to promote understanding and respect between cultures. After spending a month there, she says the experience of meeting people from all walks of life opened her eyes to a world of possibilities, prompting her to consider the world of business.
Ms Nusairi now has steady management at the Government-owned Knowledge and Human Development Authority in Dubai. She currently lives with her parents, and says she should be able to save around Dh150,000 in the next two years. Ms Nusairi is exploring the idea of launching an outward-bound travel company for Muslim women based in the UAE. Alternatively, she is considering setting up a Khaleej-style laundry that infuses different aromas of oud into traditional Arabic garments. Another idea is operating a mobile library to encourage Arabs to take up reading - a pastime she says is lacking in her culture.
"A lot of my peers prefer talking to reading, but I would like to change that by bringing a choice of books both in Arabic and English to their doors," she explains. She says the entrepreneurial course will help her realise her dreams, as well as put her into contact with other expatriate woman who might benefit from her support as their local sponsor. Geena George is equally optimistic about her prospects.
Mrs George, an Indian who was a born and bred in the UAE, is planning to set up a "virtual personal assistant" agency that provides secretarial and administrative support from beyond the office. "A lot of companies are outsourcing work to cut down on the cost and time it takes to train staff," she explains. Mrs George, 29, says she is half way to realising her goal, as she is herself a private secretary for a concierge company. She plans to start out small by first hiring herself out as a virtual assistant before adding to her team.
She has yet to work out the cost, but says the owner of a company in a free zone has already expressed interest in becoming her partner. "Put simply, there are no overheads to hiring a 'virtual assistant' as they can work from their own home and be contactable by Skype, phone or e-mail," Mrs George says. Drawing on personal experience is a common theme for these ambitious entrepreneurs. Similarly, Mahjabeen Nasir wants to make the most of her background with pharmaceuticals. Mrs Nasir, 43, an Indian, is exploring the idea of setting up a one-stop makeover shop whereby clients are given a scientific analysis of their hair, skin and body type.
She hopes to enlist the support of a local sponsor and establish her salon in a downtown area, in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Mrs Nasir estimates set-up costs in the region of Dh200, 000, and says she already has this amount in savings. For Iraqi Yasmine Ali, setting up shop is more likely to take the shape of a retirement plan that will afford her permanent residence in the UAE. Company owners are granted an employment and residence visa that is renewable every three years, and remains valid so long as their business is operational.
Mrs Ali, 52, a widow, is a freelance English and Arabic language teacher, who hopes to set up a tutoring centre in one of the free zones. She says the obvious choice is Knowledge Village in Dubai, as it specialises in education. She says she has adequate savings to get started but declined to give figures. Like many of her colleagues, Mrs Ali, who lives with her children - aged 30, 23, and 15 - is looking to translate her existing skills into a viable plan.
"I've been here for 15 years and have no intention of returning to Iraq, as it's an unstable country," she explains. "I want a permanent home for myself and my children as the elder two are still not married. Dubai is our best choice." Indeed, the students of this workshop hail from a variety of backgrounds and incomes, and everyone has their own reasons for attending. But that what binds them together is their desire to become their own boss.
Only time will tell which one of these eager students will be up and running by this time next year.