By: Faisal Chareuf
Like most of our readers, our local entrepreneur of the month is also a public sector employee who has been working with the Ministry of Education for the past 23 years. In this feature of “Local Enterprise,” Ms. Aisha Al Rasheditells our readers how she manages to juggle a full time job and a business of her own, among other major responsibilities.
When we ask Ms. Aisha to give us a brief about her, she gets straight to the point. “They call me Umm Mansoor. I am originally from Ras Al Khaimah. I married in Sharjah where I have been residing ever since with my family. I am the mother of seven children and have 23 years of experience in education.” We laugh as she realizes that her response sounded like a scene from the movieThe Gladiator. She then continues to introduce how she first uncovered her entrepreneurial potential: “I started my business from home in 2007. I have always loved to cook and my food usually receives good reviews! At first, my business was to cater to friends and family and through word of mouth for gatherings, buffets, and all other sorts of events. I was one of the first Emiratis to start a home based business in the Emirates. Thanks to my friends and family who love my cooking, orders starting coming in and I was delivering buffet-style meals to all sorts of events and social gatherings in no time.” When Umm Mansoor saw the potential from her small-scale home-based business, she decided to give it a real shot.“In 2011 I decided to start a formal business and registered ‘RashatSukar’ (Arabic for ‘A Hint of Sugar’),” says Umm Mansoor. In the same year, a royal decree announced that the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, Abu Dhabi’s government sponsorship local business start-up fund, would expand its funding reach to cover all seven Emirates. Umm Mansoor decided to try her luck and applied for funding from the Khalifa Fund. “Al Hamduli Allah, I was among the first UAE nationals outside of Abu Dhabi to receive funding from the Khalifa Fund.”
Umm Mansoor received diplomas in entrepreneurship and hospitality from The Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Establishment for Small and Medium Enterprises Development. As part of the program, she enjoyed an internship at theBurj Al Arab, where she learned the tricks of the trade in the hospitality and service industry. However, her experience in the kitchen came naturally. Umm Mansoor says, “I love to cook. I always have and always will enjoy cooking. This is what I am passionate about and I have always been good at it. However, I have had some great support. The Khalifa Fund together with the Ministry of Foreign Trade, have organized many trips to some of the best international trade and food and beverage exhibitions in the world. I have been fortunate enough to be part of groups that travelled to Hong Kong, Malaysia, and mainland China to participate in some of the best trade shows in the industry.” In addition to the post-funding support she received, Umm Mansoor tells us that she received a lot of support from the Khalifa Fund even before receiving funding. They supported her with workshops and tutorials on market analysis, feasibility studies, and business planning to help her put a successful business plan together; a plan worthy of funding. “Khalifa Fund held a conference in Abu Dhabi to introduce their services, inviting Emiratis from the Northern Emirates to participate and encouraging us to start our own business. H.H Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed himself was there in person and I got to meet him personally! It is amazing to see our leaders get so involved in supporting small businesses. We are truly blessed!” she says proudly.
Umm Mansoor goes on to tell us the very familiar story of the rough start up that most entrepreneurs experience. “In 2011, I opened RashatSukar on Mohammed bin Zayed Street in Sharjah, thinking that location was one of the key factors. Right after opening, major construction started on the street which was estimated to take three years, blocking access for customers to my shop!” Umm Mansoor says rather casually before continuing. “That is when I decided to change my strategy. If my customers couldn’t get to me, then I would prepare orders and deliver to them!” She focused her efforts on establishing distribution deals with local supermarkets and souks, which meant she would now have to work on her product packaging, labelling, delivery, and other requirements that came with this change in strategy. “I got some cars, hired some drivers and got to work. We would prepare and package all our cakes and sweets at the shop and have them delivered to our distribution/retail partners as well as directly to our customers. I was successful in negotiating deals with a number Dubai and Sharjah Co-operatives and local souks.”
Next, Umm Mansoor tells us more about some of her learning experiences in establishing a professional business that is in it for the long run. “If you want to compete in the UAE market, you have to put in all your effort. Yes, I make great cakes! But that is not enough to successfully compete here. I had to learn how to package our products, include labels with detailed ingredients and expiry dates, and learn how to negotiate distribution agreements. I also had to make sure I understood what customers wanted, what the latest trends and favorite flavors were, and then learn how to make and perfect these products. This was all new to me but I was determined to succeed.” She adds proudly, “I have introduced the first ice cream that I know of and now offer it in four flavors!” Umm Mansoor is constantly browsing through cookbooks, websites, and TV stations for the latest and greatest recipes and delightful ideas. Then, as Umm Mansoor explains, it’s a matter of trial and error. “Self-improvement is one of the most important goals for me. I want to learn to be great in all aspects of my business, from cooking to marketing and even accounting. I think this is one of the key attributes required for success: The willingness to learn and improve.”
Umm Mansoor tells us she believes that the UAE market presents extremely lucrative business opportunities for those willing to put in the effort required to succeed. However, she says that because the market conditions are so ripe, it has become very competitive. Therefore, entrepreneurs have to invest a lot of time into market research, analysis, and feasibility studies before launching their business. “With the Expo 2020 coming and the rapid growth of the economy, now is a perfect time for anyone who wants to open their own business. But it’s not about having the money and just deciding to open a business. Entrepreneurs must be willing to put in the extra work to study the market, study the competition, and analyze all the market factors that can work for and against him or her.”
As part of the Ministry of Education leadership program, Umm Mansoor delivered lectures to local high school students in Sharjah for her final course project. Having many years of experience in education, she strongly believes that entrepreneurship and practical business management courses should be offered to high school students to get them thinking about starting their own businesses. She says, “Locals should be introduced to entrepreneurship and business skills at an early age. They should be encouraged to start thinking about establishing their own business before they leave high school.” Umm Mansoor has proposed her idea to introduce elective business and entrepreneurship class in local schools and the idea has been received with great enthusiasm. She felt that the students were very responsive and extremely interested in learning how they can become businessmen and women.
Umm Mansoor started with two employees whom she trained to prepare the cakes using her special recipes as well as a driver for deliveries. Today, she has ten employees: three drivers and seven kitchen and store staff. Her biggest distributors today include Union Co-op, Sharjah Co-op and Aswaaq Sharjah, with many more in the pipeline from Sharjah and Dubai. After her recent success with her sweets and cakes, Umm Mansoor is now looking to expand her business into a comprehensive catering business that offers a wide variety of food and dessert options. But this, she explains, will require considerable investment in capital. “Before I can do this, I will need to invest in new equipment and machinery for food preparation, cooking, and packaging. This way, I will be able to increase the capacity and quality of our production output.” In addition to expanding her product and service line, she aims to continue to expand her distribution channels to cover all of the Emirates through the major supermarket and retail chains. “I want to compete with the large local and multinational companies in the UAE,” Umm Mansoor claims confidently.
We were curious to ask Umm Mansoor how in the world she manages to juggle the responsibilities that come with being a mother of seven and a full-time government employee but still have time to manage her own business. Her answer: “If it weren’t for the support of my husband and family, I would not have been able to reach where I am today. My friends have also been very supportive of me from the beginning!” I ask Umm Mansoor if she believes that the motive for such encouragement was free cake and we have a good laugh.
I then ask Umm Mansoor what advice she might give to anyone looking to start their own business in the UAE. She responds by saying, “This is a great time to start your own business in the UAE. As I mentioned previously, the time is ripe and the economy is growing fast. There are so many opportunities and so much government support available.However,” she adds, “competition is fierce. We do not need any more generic business ideas. We need new and innovative ideas.This is what works and this is what people want here. Most importantly, entrepreneurs should be dedicated and persistent if they wish to succeed.”
Next, we discuss some of the key challenges that business start-ups face in the UAE. “It differs from business to business. Every business is faced with its own unique challenges. However, I believe that one of the biggest challenges is recruiting the right people. The local labor laws also make things tough for us to recruit and retain good employees. Keeping motivated and keeping a positive attitude I believe is the most important challenge that I think applies to anyone starting their own business. You just need to get up every day and do what you have to do with a positive attitude. Staying motivated is tough sometimes, especially when things don’t go as planned, but you just have to pick yourself up and carry on.”by