The bridal industry is big business, especially for those who cater to brides without big budgets. Just ask Kellee Khalil, a spirited entrepreneur who is helping no less than 200 DIY-minded women simultaneously plan their weddings with her newest virtual wedding planning venture.
Kellee Khalil by Dustin Senovic
The Loverly Virtual Wedding Planner is a chat-enabled application that assists brides throughout their wedding planning, as much or as little as they like. Flat fee wedding planning packages range from $49 to $399.
“It’s the first ever virtual wedding planner,” says Khalil. “We help with everything she could need, from setting the budget, to helping find dresses, stationary, decorations, hotel room blocks, to creating your registry and your wedding website to purchasing engagement ring insurance. Who even thinks of that?”
The app, which launched this spring, grew out of the Loverly website, a wedding-focused media engine that allows brides to discover ideas and evaluate vendors.
“We have this database we’ve built for four years of all this inspiration, content, and are using it to power our recommendations,” says Khalil of her new app, which features a chat bot virtual assistant named Eva.
In The Family
For Khalil, becoming self-made was only natural, as entrepreneurship ran in the family.
“We spoke about business around the dinner table,” says Khalil. “It was something I was always around as a child. I definitely had a lemonade stand in the summer. In high school I taught myself how to code, and built my own eBay store. I always had a little bit of a hustle. It’s in my DNA, and in all my siblings too.”
When it came to launching her own business, which in her case was the Loverly website, Khalil says she waited until the right moment.
“I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I hadn’t found a problem I thought was big enough,” says Khalil, a graduate of one of the country’s first entrepreneurship programs at USC.
To satisfy her desire for creation, she quickly jumped onboard her sister’s bridal public relations business, which was focused on promoting the key players in the niche market.“I started learning the mechanics of the bridal industry,” says Khalil. “When my sister got engaged and started to plan her wedding, I was on Google three pages deep [helping her do research], and I thought ‘this is really hard. Why are there no resources for this?”
According to Khalil, it was at that moment when the lightbulb went off, and she decided to marry her years of experience in the bridal industry with a new idea that would make it easier for overwhelmed brides to get help planning the details of their wedding.
“I couldn’t shake idea of a place where you can find all the ideas and inspiration, products, vendors, and brands that spoke to me as a consumer and showcased real couples, not Barbie and Ken,” says Khalil, who moved to New York in 2010 to pursue her new venture. “We launched in 2102 with mission to make wedding planning easier and more fun.”
Her site, which allows brides-to-be wedding search filters like color, theme, and style, began to evolve into a content-rich destination for information and inspiration.
“We create three to five pieces of content a day,” says Khalil, who utilizes a team of about eight full-time employees as well as a contributor network to keep her site rich. “We have all this data and content, so the question was what can we do to take to next step?” It was then that the Virtual Wedding Planner was born.
In terms of funding, Loverly raised close to $2 million in its seed round in 2011, an additional $3 million in 2014 through Montage Ventures, and another $2 million from Loverly insiders in 2015. Although the numbers sound lofty, Khalil says it’s not as much as one might think.
“It’s been challenging to fundraise,” says Khalil. “It sounds like a lot of money but I have been fundraising since I started the company. It’s a misconception that you get it all at once.”
Interestingly it was a failure that spurred Khalil into her newest idea. After closing her Series A Funding, she was thinking of how to monetize her blossoming media business, at the request of investors, and jumped on the bandwagon of offering shoppable content via proprietary e-commerce.“I was getting feedback from investors saying you need to figure out a business outside of advertising in media, so I went down this rabbit hole [of e-commerce] that wasn’t really in line with my business, but I was chasing the investors,” says Khalil, who in February, 2015 introduced Loverly e-commerce, offering the Loverly Collection, an exclusive e-commerce brand of wedding products and fashions. “We thought we were so good converting for others (via affiliate channels) that we could do it ourselves. I barely survived as a human, the company barely survived. I call it the dark days of Loverly.”
"We thought we were so good at converting for others that we could do it ourselves."
The reason for the failure, Khalil says is that she was out of her wheelhouse.
“Operationally running a content business is completely different than running a commerce business, and because of that you need so much money to offer operational experiences like free shipping, and free returns,” she says. “We asked why are we doing this.”
Ever the forward-thinking entrepreneur, Khalil soon noticed that rather than about purchasing merchandise, customers were asking for wedding planning advice. She connected the dots.
“I’m not a wedding planner but that’s what everyone was asking us to be,” says Khalil. “That’s when I thought, OK that’s what we should be, and the lightbulb went off again four months before the e-commerce failed.”
With the concept of creating a wedding concierge, Khalil said people began signing up like crazy. She plans to continue growing her app by remaining focused on her niche, offering additional services as her customer asks for them.
“We are no longer making big bets without information to back it up,” says Khalil. "I’ve been beat up along the way, and had doors slammed by investors, but I will say the way we will grow is to always listen to our users, looking at data and making small incremental changes as we go.”
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.