As CEO and Founder of Style Lend, I got my start in fashion at the age of 16 modeling in Albania for companies like GUESS and Versace. In 2013, I decided to combine my love for fashion and entrepreneurship and I launched my company while traveling the world.
The premise was simple.
I wanted to create a platform to borrow clothes from stylish women all over the world. Enter Style Lend, a peer-to-peer marketplace based in NYC that provides a website and app for lending and renting designer dresses. It's like your best friend's closet, but better.
Although it may seem simple, fashion is a complex industry and navigating it is no easy feat. Here, five things I learned in my first year in the fashion business.
It’s harder than you think, but even more worth it.
Although I don’t yet have kids, starting a business from scratch is one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life - particularly because it was a venture business requiring seed capital to be raised. Building my business from zero made prior challenging experiences I’ve had in my life look simpler and more straightforward – those being: moving to a new country, learning several new languages, changing entire careers, and finishing my MBA at the top of my class.
I have a thirst for growth, problem solving, and variety, so starting a business let’s me experience all of this on a daily basis. I’m very grateful for this opportunity and continually inspired by others who have started businesses of their own.
People will let you down.
When starting a business, be prepared that anyone from co-founders, to partners, to contractors, and employees can disappoint you. I went through so many different engineers in the first year of my business that we doubted we would ever get the website off the ground. This can be quite frustrating because you are giving all that you have for a chance at success with your startup and you hope that you choose the right people for the job. I’ve realized it takes a very strong person to continue after so many let downs and disappointments. You have to be extremely dedicated to your cause and excited about the problem you are solving, otherwise you and your company have little chance at success. The importance of finding trusted partners and suppliers at the early stages of your business cannot be overstated.
It takes twice as long to get anything done.
Let’s say, you’ve just quit your job and you’ve given yourself three months to build the prototype for your web-based business. Newsflash! Everything takes longer than you think. The first time I realized this was after I hired a contractor to build my website and they continued to tell me that everything was on time, but instead they kept missing agreed deadlines and came up with all kinds of excuses. Before I knew it, three months had passed and there was nothing to show for it. I quickly had to fire them and hire a team in Poland, thanks to a recommendation from a business school friend. Although it took a further three months, they got the job done and delivered a superb website experience. When putting together a business plan, allow for contingency on the overall timelines and be prepared to adapt the plan if it is not taking you to a successful outcome.
Prepare for things to cost a lot more than you think.
So, you’ve secured a seemingly generous budget to build your app/website. Enough that you believe would surely get you some kind of a prototype to test with beta customers. Right? Wrong! From my experience if you don’t know exactly what you are building, it can be very hard to estimate the cost. For us, we were exploring uncharted territory, so we needed to add features and work with different service providers to get what we envisioned in place – this meant that the costs kept adding up. It’s important to be mindful of the fact that what you are quoted is just an estimate and it might take some extra money to get things exactly the way you want it. Therefore, be prepared for that both mentally and financially by having enough cash in the bank or a side job to pay the bills. It’s likely that it will take some time before your company is profitable, and even when it does there are often other priorities that you need to invest in, like product inventory or marketing.
Be clear on the Vesting Schedule/Equity distribution before engaging other potential owners.
This is one of the most important things to have in place before you start to work with anyone that may become a partner, advisor, co-founder, or employee of your company. For example, a typical vesting schedule (that I adopted) is four year vesting with a one-year cliff. One-year cliff means that if the individual leaves the company any time before the one-year anniversary they do not vest their shares. If they stay one year and a day, then they get to keep 25% of the shares allocated to them, and so on up to four years when they become fully vested. Make sure to be clear about this from day one and have contracts in place that specify goals and milestones that need to be met and specify how the contract may change if they do not meet those goals.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.