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The rise of Arab women entrepreneurs

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For over 20 years, Joy Ajlouny has been an e-commerce industry professional whose business and fashion influence has spanned the globe. Joy is the co-found of Fetchr, a Silicon-Valley backed technology company based in Dubai aimed at solving emerging market shipping logistics. Fetchr is the first start-up in the Middle East to be funded by a top venture capital firm in Silicon Valley.  While only 2.7% of venture capital funds have been raised by women, Joy has successfully raised funds for two companies from some of the most prestigious Silicon Valley venture capital firms.

Prior to Fetchr, Joy founded Bonfaire, an internet-based VC-backed discovery platform for luxury footwear and accessories. Bonfaire was acquired in 2013 by fashion e-commerce giant Mode Operandi, owned by LVMH and Condé Nast. She has also been a strategic advisor to fashion startups, venture capital firms and major fashion publications. Joy’s personal style and keen sense of fashion is a product of her extensive travels.

It takes a special kind of entrepreneur to raise $11million for a start-up venture, but that’s exactly what Joy accomplished when she launched Fetchr, an Uber-like GPS-tracked parcel delivery app. “That’s my biggest achievement, not just as an Arab woman but as a woman period. Only 1 per cent of all women have ever achieved that. I can’t believe I have done that sometimes. I feel like I’m going to wake up and it’s all been a dream.”

Joy Ajlouny shares her achievements and dreams with us in the interview below.

  1. What did you eat for breakfast? (This helps people relate to you–plus it’s fun to know.)

One tablespoon of oatmeal, one tablespoon of flaxseed and one tablespoon of chia seeds, plus a double shot of espresso with a splash of almond milk, which I can’t live without.

  1. What’s your favorite sport or exercise? 

Swimming or walking at a fast pace, every day for 45 minutes. It relieves my stress.

  1. What inspired you to start your business? Where did you start and where are you now?

I have always been a rule breaker, so when I was told you can’t do it and it’s not possible, it automatically made me want to do it even more. I was told women in tech are rare and when I heard only 2.7% of female founders raise venture money, well I was sold. I had an e-commerce business and experienced the pain of delivering in emerging markets. Most of my packages came back with a message stating “return to sender, can’t find the address”. I then quickly came to realize that there are no addresses in emerging markets. This brought about the idea of Fetchr. We have a real solution to a real problem. We use your cell phone number as your address and therefore, we don’t deliver to you but to your phone. It comes in real handy in the part of the world where you get five annoying calls asking where you live, and receiving a package can be a very painful experience. We eliminate that and give you a seamless delivery experience.

  1. How large is your business? Please share the size of team, the number of customers, or something that gives us a sense of where you are today. 

We have over 700 employees now and that number will double in the next year. We operate in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. We are looking into expanding in India in the next 4 months as well. We have over 400 clients and growing.

  1. What do you see as challenges for you and your business? Is there something you need to grow your business you’d like to bring up?

My biggest challenge is people – hiring the right team and building a culture that is Silicon Valley in nature has been very challenging. In emerging markets, they have a mentality of servitude not service. This has been my biggest challenge: how do you instill customer service and ownership and change behavior? After all, in a service business like ours which is last-mile delivery, the experience is in the person at your door. They are the most important people in the company and the face of Fetchr.

  1. Tell us a story about a success in your business or a mistake you overcame that made you proud of yourself, or more confident.

Raising 11 million dollars in funding and being the first company in the Middle East to be backed by a top tier Silicon Valley VC made me feel confident that I could do anything I set my mind to. Although making the cover of Forbes as #1 Start-up definitely made me proud. As for my mistakes, too many to count. I would have to say that there are no accidents, and mistakes are just learning curves making you an even better entrepreneur.

  1. What about your business matters most deeply to you? How does it engage your values?

Making everyone feel inspired in what they do. Getting the team to believe in the vision, so they feel connected to the company. In emerging markets most of the workers look at the company as a means to an end, just a salary. Getting our employees to feel connected to a dream and feel empowered that this is their company not mine and we would be nothing without them. I get such satisfaction when I see my employees excited about coming to work.

  1. Who is the entrepreneur you admire most right now? Why does s/he inspire you?

Sheryl Sandberg – I love her approach that being aggressive as a man makes you “confident” while being a woman makes you “pushy and overbearing”. She has given me the thumbs up that it’s okay to have that “you go, girl” energy.

  1. What’s the best and the worst thing about being a female founder? 

The best thing is being part of a such a small group, it makes you stand out and it helps in being able to set the stage for other women to follow. It makes me feel like a pioneer and a role model to help other women by inspiring them. If I can do it, so can you.

I use being a female to my advantage because I feel like they never see you coming. I work it to my advantage. Men have egos with other men while when dealing with a woman they leave their egos behind. They can hear you without feeling challenged. That has been my experience.

  1. What was the best advice you ever received, and from whom?

Never take no for an answer and never let it affect your self-esteem. Rejection is a part of life and if you let it affect you then you need to step off from being an entrepreneur. Have tough skin and believe in yourself –  because that is what people are buying.

  1. What piece of advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

Don’t waste your time crying over broken relationships and attaching your identity and self-worth to a man. Study hard – don’t give up the books chasing boys. Concentrate on being the best you.