Walking The Talk: Entrepreneur And Investor, Noor Sweid, Managing Partner, Leap Ventures
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"If you’re looking to succeed, keep your eyes and heart open to opportunities. You’ll miss opportunities that come to you if you’re not open to them. Success is about seizing the opportunities that present themselves to you.” This is what Noor Sweid told the audience during her keynote address at the Entrepreneur Middle East Achieving Women’s Forum in May last year, and one look at her impressive career graph so far makes it clear that this is, indeed, a woman who has (and continues to) put into practice what she preaches. Sweid definitely seems to have an uncanny eye for great opportunities- her work profile reads like that if someone who has, really, done it all. She’s worked for big-name corporates (these include Charles Schwab and Accenture), she has facilitated her family business’ (the Dubai-headquartered global interior contracting company, Depa) multi-million dollar growth and eventual US$1 billion IPO, she’s launched and run her own business (the ZenYoga chain of yoga studios in Dubai that she founded in 2006 and ran until its sale in 2014), she’s been an investor in and mentor for several startups in the Middle East ecosystem (besides her own portfolio of past investments, Sweid is also a member of the Board of Directors at Endeavor UAE), and she’s currently a Managing Partner at Leap Ventures, a MENA-based growth stage venture capital firm. So yes –if that last sentence’s length didn’t make it clear already- Noor Sweid does seem to have done it all.
But for all of her wins in the realm of business, Sweid had no airs and graces about her when I met her for this interview, during which she freewheeled on everything from her work ethic to the region’s ecosystem. In terms of what she’s up to these days, Sweid’s focus is currently on Leap, which launched a $71 million fund for Lebanon last year, and is now in the process of putting together an $80 million regional fund. “As with any venture capital firm, we do several things simultaneously,” Sweid says. “So we look at the pipeline, we invest in companies, and we raise our own funds. Last year, we looked at about 200 deals, and we are hoping that this year, we’ll look at even more. As the pipeline grows in the region, and more people start companies, and more of the companies grow, more will filter into our pipeline. So, we are very active in terms of looking at deals, and then assessing them and seeing how many really fit into our verticals and our mandate.” It must be noted here that Leap is solely focused on growth stage companies- not startups. So, of the 200 or so enterprises Leap’s team reviewed, Sweid reveals that only 17% of them even qualified as being in growth stage. But while the pool of qualified applicants may be a small one, the need for a firm like Leap in the Middle East cannot be understated.
“There are a few VC firms [here] that look at early stage, so companies can raise $1, $2 or $3 million from a few different firms,” Sweid explains. “But what happens to companies when they actually have solid revenues, a good team, they have growth, and they need a $5-10 million check? It’s that they can’t raise that money regionally; they have to go global to raise money, which takes a lot of time and energy from the entrepreneurs. So rather than growing their business, they spend exorbitant amounts of time trying to fundraise for their growth. Globally, about 2% of entrepreneurs make it to Series B growth funding, and these are actually companies we find a lot less risky than others, because they have already overcome that part [of the entrepreneurial journey]. And no one here was doing that. So we thought, as entrepreneurs ourselves –the four partners at Leap (besides Sweid, the Leap team includes Henri Asseily, Hala Fadel and Hervé Cuviliez) have each started companies, have each exited companies- we have done the whole entrepreneur thing, we know how hard it is to actually grow your company, and we know that’s where, for us, the ideal return profile is in investment. We’ve all been investors: pre-Leap, between us, we have invested in about 50 different angel companies. So we have looked at the different parts of the ecosystem, and as ex-entrepreneurs and savvy investors, this is probably where we can add the most value, in terms of taking a company from ‘I know what I am doing; I have revenues too’ to ‘I am a regional success story.’”
Since its launch, Leap has funded only a few companiesits latest investment was a reported $10 million in the Saudi Arabia-based UTURN Entertainment network. But these are still early days for the venture capital firm, and if Sweid’s enthusiasm for the region’s ecosystem is any indication, one can certainly expect more announcements from Leap in the near future. “There are so many amazing entrepreneurs doing great things, and enabling them to grow into regional, global success stories is really what we want to do, and so, we do get excited about the different opportunities out there,” she says. “So we are still closing our first fund- it takes about 2-2.5 years to raise a fund, so we are in that process. We find that there is also a high level of enthusiasm from people around us, who understand what it is exactly that we are doing. That’s actually going very well. I guess the flip side of the coin is identifying the entrepreneurs, working with them, and really enabling the growth of their companies, which is what we like to spend most of our time doing. So that’s where most of our energy goes.” So what are Leap’s criteria when choosing entrepreneurs and enterprises to fund? “We are looking for something with a really large market- so, it’s great that you can grow and you have a great team, but if the market’s very small, then the options are limited,” Sweid replies. “We are [also] looking for a leader- an entrepreneur who can really lead a team, and [has] a strong value proposition.”
While Sweid may be heavily involved with the region’s startup ecosystem right now, her background is from a rather different sphere of business. She started out her career as a consultant for biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the U.S., following which she moved to Dubai in 2005 and worked with Depa, a company that was co-founded by her father, Mohannad Sweid. “When I came over here, I went to help out in the family business for three weeks, and that turned into eight years,” she remembers. “The first three years of that, the company went from $60 million revenue to $600 million revenue. And then I ran the IPO for that, and I continued being very involved.” But even as Sweid recalls the highlights of her time at Depa, I can’t help but wonder: despite her familial connections, she probably would still have been seen as an outsider of sorts at the company. So how did she go about making her presence felt, and ensure that her voice gets heard? “I think that because I had been a consultant before, I knew my strengths and my limitations,” Sweid says. “And when I joined our family business, I didn’t know the first thing about the industry. It’s easy to learn an industry, but that doesn’t mean you have the experience required to be a CEO in that firm. So I never intended to kind of take on my father’s role as CEO, and I would be very transparent about that: I cannot walk on to a project site and tell you what’s going right, and what’s going wrong. So I had no business telling managing directors or project managers how to make money on-site, because I don’t know! And even if I were to spend five years learning how a site operates, I still wouldn’t have as much experience as them, because I haven’t done as many projects as them, because some of them have plenty of years of experience. So I knew that was very much my limitation and my knowledge. Where my strengths lie are in identifying our opportunities, our strategy, our growth, our planning, enabling culture- and when it comes to growth at a lot of family businesses, culture is what’s fundamentally important. Because you’ve built a culture- great; now, is that a strength, or a weakness? Because if it’s a weakness, then you need to change it. If it’s a strength, then that can be your biggest strength. So when I came in, I saw there was a very strong corporate culture, but we were lacking in policies and processes and systems. So how do you bring those in without destroying the culture? There was an opportunity, in that there was no dominant global player in our niche market. How do we become that? Why wasn’t there one? So, my strengths were mainly the strategic thinking, the enablement of the growth, the growth planning, identifying different markets, identifying potential partners in those markets and structuring partnerships and joint ventures- so I could do all that, which is, in effect, strategy and growth.”
But changing -or even modifying- corporate culture, be it at a startup or a conglomerate, is not a simple task, and Sweid realized that first-hand at Depa. “It’s never easy, because human nature is reluctant to change,” Sweid explains. “And I got a lot of resistance. But I think that when you have enough knowledge, data points, experience to convince enough people to try something, and put their heart in it, and if in six months, it doesn’t work, we can go back to doing it your way. But at least, give it six months. And so, when they see that you’re so convinced, but you’re not forcing it down their throats -you are just forcing them to try it- then it becomes a lot easier to convince people to change.” And the company did change- during her time as Depa’s Head of Strategy, the company grew from 1,000 employees in six countries to 8,000 employees in 22 countries. In 2008, Sweid led Depa’s IPO- it was the first private company in the UAE to be listed on NASDAQ Dubai. But making the family business a publicly listed one- how difficult was that decision? “I think, in our family, we genuinely believe that building something that outlives you is a much larger success than building something that needs you,” Sweid replies. “And none of us are very attached to anything we build. On the contrary, it’s about building things for the greater ecosystem that are successes in off themselves, regardless of whether you are involved or not- that is the achievement. So, for us getting the company to a point where it’s publicly listed, it continues with or without us, it’s struggle with or without us, it’ll then probably, hopefully, do better with or without us: that’s the achievement. At some point, you kind of have to let go of it, and see how it does without you.”
Sweid’s answer is indicative of her own thought process when it came to the lifecycle of her own entrepreneurial endeavor, the ZenYoga chain of yoga studios that she founded in Dubai in 2006. The origin story for ZenYoga is quite a simple one- after she moved to Dubai, Sweid, who calls herself “a huge believer in yoga,” found the city lacking in spaces where she could practice the discipline- Dubai may have yoga studios by the dozen today, but remember that this was 2005, and yoga hadn’t become as much of a buzz as it is now. So Sweid took it upon herself to fill that gap in the market- she put together a space that had the ambience, the qualified teachers, and the set-up she herself was looking for, and behold, her small business, ZenYoga, was born. “I started it, so that I could practice [yoga], with the thought that if this was good for me, it’s probably good for many other people,” she remembers. “And if I personally want this for the benefit of my health, I am sure lots of other people do as well. So the fact that it didn’t exist was just the reason to create it. If it had existed, I wouldn’t have started it- I would have simply gone to classes!” But while she may have started ZenYoga out as a personal endeavor of sorts, Sweid soon saw that what she had created was actually bigger –much bigger- than that. “I was right in that lots of people wanted the same thing- a nice place to practice yoga, with a qualified teacher at a reasonable price. It met everybody’s needs, and so, demand was huge. And so we grew as a business; we brought in more teachers- by the time I left [the enterprise], we had 72 people working at ZenYoga, and it had become the biggest chain here.”
ZenYoga’s trajectory as a business may be looked upon as a startup success story today, but much like any entrepreneur in this region, Sweid too had to grapple with sleepless nights thanks to all of the challenges she faced when getting her business on the road. Bureaucratic challenges were aplenty- for instance, given that yoga wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today, getting the business registered properly with the authorities was a task by itself. The running of the studios was another major hurdle- from managing schedules of all of ZenYoga’s customers and ensuring they all have a fruitful experience, to setting out procedures, processes and policies to govern the studio’s day-today activities, Sweid had her hands full through all of the years she ran the enterprise. She thus went through all of the oscillations one can expect to see in a startup’s journey- but in what is perhaps a testament to the “keep-at-it” trait consistently seen in successful entrepreneurs around the world, Sweid too stuck to her vision, and kept moving ahead with her enterprise. “Business has ups and downs, but when you become part of people’s lives, they want you there,” Sweid says. “So, creating that community and that network is very important. Yes, businesses have ups and downs- but I think if you are part of people’s lives, part of the community, and you create a brand and really provide people with something they like and they need at the same time, it is quite resilient.”
To its credit, ZenYoga proved to be a sustainable business in the long run- Sweid, however, eventually sold it to a private equity firm in 2014. When I asked her why she did so, Sweid had a rather matter-of-fact reply. “Well, I started ZenYoga, because there was nowhere to practice,” she says. “So I had achieved my goal- I had created somewhere I could practice. At the same time, every time I would now walk into the studio, I would be inundated with business problems. So it no longer became a place I could practice- so it ended up defeating its purpose for me, personally. So when one of the firms here was consolidating wellness concepts in the region and approached me, I thought that made a lot more sense- they could give it what it needed, and I could get somewhere to practice back!” As for whether she had any struggles letting go of the business she had built up from its infancy, Sweid dismisses the ideamuch like her thoughts on the public listing of Depa, Sweid says she felt the same way about her sale of ZenYoga as well. “My personal philosophy is that you build something that doesn’t need you,” she explains. “You should be there because you want to be there- not be there, because if you’re not, it’s not going to do well.”
But wait- isn’t that at odds with what industry leaders say about entrepreneurs having to be hands-on with their businesses? “When they are first starting up, yes, they need to live and breathe the business; everybody does. I did for Zen Yoga, my father did when he started our family business- everyone does that at the beginning. You have a few years where you are the business, and the business is you. But, ultimately, if you want to grow it to something sizeable, you need to think about how you can close your eyes, and know that somebody else is doing this the same way that you would have done it, or even better. And that’s where your policies, processes, teams come in, and that’s when you really start to scale. If you are still needed in every meeting, you should either be in the startup phase, at which point that is totally okay. But if you are a sizeable business, and you are still needed in every meeting, you are doing something wrong.” Sweid uses the example of Aramex co-founder and Vice Chairman Fadi Ghandour –one of the most vocal champions of the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem- to drive her point home. “Look at Fadi Ghandour- great example. Is he involved at all with Aramex [today]? No. And that’s the success of it. It’s that he has built something that no longer needs him. That’s the wow. If he was still day in and day out involved with Aramex, he would be helping it grow, but also stifling its growth, because every business needs new blood every once in a while. The reason Aramex will grow is because he implemented policies, procedures, corporate governance, structures, so as to make sure everything is being done properly in the manner that he sees fit, without him being there.”
This drive to create a sustainable, long-lasting business is what Sweid encourages (and wants to see) in all of the entrepreneurs she meets in her role today as a mentor and investor- according to her, for a business, being successful and being famous are two entirely different things, and it’s crucial that entrepreneurs don’t mix the two up. “It’s important for people to realize that success is not starting a company- success is growing a company,” she explains. “It’s easy to write a business plan, [but] it’s not going to get you very far. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on- because that’s definitely not what’s going to happen. It’s difficult to go get your license and registration and everything- fine, okay, whatever, that’s just bureaucracy and money. Then you actually have to build your product. Then you have to convince people to buy your product, at a price that makes sense for you to make money so that you can grow your business. And then, you have to do that a thousand times. And then, you have a company. And then, it’s worth talking about! I think a lot of people here confuse fame and success. And that’s something we see consistently- companies that have amazing branding, lots of fame, but, you just peel one layer of the onion, and you realize that it’s much smaller than what one would think. There are very little revenues, there’s almost no tractionbut the entrepreneur thinks they are incredibly successful. So confusing fame and success is happening a lot not just in this part of the world, but everywhere.”
As for other faults she sees with entrepreneurs today, Sweid feels that they’d be better off if they were to focus on just one thing at time. “I think lots of entrepreneurs are trying to do too many things at once. So they are all, like, betting on several horses- but that’s not their job, that’s the investor’s job. You go start one company, and put all your eggs in one basket- as an entrepreneur, that’s what you are supposed to do, so that someone comes along and believes you. If you believe in what you are doing, other people will believe in it too. If you are doing two or three different things at once, then that means you don’t believe in any of themand lots of entrepreneurs do that.” Sweid also wants to see entrepreneurs talk less, and do more. “So many times, so many entrepreneurs, they say, ‘I’m going to do this; I’m going to do that.’ Well, why haven’t you done it yet? Don’t tell me what you are going to do- tell me what you have done.” Sweid also sounds a warning note for the die-hard networkers in the MENA entrepreneurial ecosystem. “I think too many entrepreneurs spend too much of their time in meetings, and not enough time actually doing stuff. So unless you are in a meeting because you are selling your product or service, don’t take the meeting. Don’t spend half your year on conferences. I think if you have an awesome product, you’ll have to network half as much. If you have a decent product, you’ll have to network twice as much. So… go build an awesome product!”
At this point, I ask Sweid to tell me the names of startups or entrepreneurs in the region that have actually impressed her, or are worthy enough to be considered as role models. She takes a moment to think, before replying with a laugh, “I’m not going you to tell about them!” Jokes aside though, she’s still reluctant to name anyone in particular (she does mention UTURN here, but I feel that’s a safe answer just to placate me, than anything else), and her reasoning for that again is so that entrepreneurs will avoid misconstruing fame as success. “I find that when people become role models, then fame and success get confused,” she explains. “And I think that the ecosystem is not yet at the stage where we can afford that. We need our successful entrepreneurs to be focused on growing their businesses and being successful entrepreneurs, not on being role models and on a speaking circuit. Because our businesses [here] are not that strong yet- they aren’t enough success stories here that we can afford that.” It may not be the answer I was wanting to hear- but Sweid does have a point. The region’s ecosystem is growing, yes- but we need it to grow much bigger before we can champion it to the world at large. And with people like Sweid along for the ride, one hopes that it will happen sooner than later.