Sink Or Swim: Nadine Chammas, Founder, The Life Director
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Even people sympathetic to today’s countless attempts to spur entrepreneurship -both here in the MENA region, and globally- often admit underestimating the frustrating experiences it might entail. Nadine Chammas, founder of The Life Director, a Dubai-based life coaching consultancy, which is the third business she has started up in Dubai, is not remorseful when looking back at her entrepreneurial journey. However, even if she were, she’d be forgiven- her learning curve to achieving success has been quite steep, with plenty of twists and turns often out of her control. Today, nearly 20 years after coming to the UAE, Chammas believes that the country now offers fewer opportunities than before, but also fewer thinly-veiled threats to one’s livelihood- a lesson she has had to repeatedly learn.
“The environment today is different than what it was back in 1999 and 2000, which is natural as the growth rates experienced at that time were unprecedented, whereas today, growth rates are still existing, but within normal ranges, and not considered a ‘boom’ as compared to the past,” she says. “Today, entrepreneurs have to be very unique, extremely focused on their ideas, and able to create something meaningful that is also competitive in order to succeed. This is why coaching and mentoring is even more important today to steer those in the right direction based on what we learned in the past.”
Teaming up with her two sisters, Chammas set up Scenez Group, a theatre production company, in Lebanon in 1998 with a vision to create an edutainment system aimed at ensuring cultural openness and diversity for children in the region. A year later, Chammas was a young Lebanese theatre producer and entrepreneur who was ambitious enough to submit a script into a competition for the opening ceremony of the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), as part of the Dubai Summer Surprises festival then. Much to her surprise, DEWA selected her script, and offered her an all-paid expense trip to Dubai to produce the project. “This was my first entry into the UAE,” she remembers.
Soon after, the growth of the entertainment market in Dubai encouraged the sisters to open a branch in Dubai. “I recall that we hired a sales agent who represented Dubai Media City, and within a few weeks, we were set up with a trade license, bank account, and an office in the heart of what was the ‘coolest’ venue for media and entertainment,” Chammas says. “It was amazing how many new companies were setting up in DMC daily. Therefore, Dubai made it extremely welcoming and easy at the time, by creating this free zone type entity which allowed expats to open their businesses without the need for a local partner. At the time, we were the only company that provided theatre services from acting, to script writing, to directing, and so on. We were even one of the consultants on the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (DUCTAC) at the Mall of the Emirates. During my time with Scenez Group, I personally created the first theatre academy at the DUCTAC, where I graduated more than 200 students, and received an award for bridging cultures through theatre.”
The Chammas sisters focused on filling a gap in kids’ Arabic entertainment by creating local Arabic theatre plays with high global standards of production. Between 2000 and 2008, when the Dubai Summer Surprises and Dubai Shopping Festival were picking up in prominence, the Scenez Group Dubai team produced over 250 bilingual musical theatre plays that were both educational and entertaining. The stellar list of clients included Dubai Immigration, DEWA, Dubai Tourism, to name but a few, in addition to organizing similar festivals across the region. However, the 2008 financial crisis brought a time full of cutbacks and uncertainty. Having enjoyed a tremendous double-digit growth trajectory for over eight years, it was hardly imaginable for the Chammas sisters not to expect the good times to continue. But, Chammas explains, with oil prices plummeting further, the crisis became a reality soon enough- government entities cut off their budgets significantly, while corporate sponsors withdrew all their funds to focus on their staff, as well as rethink their priorities for survival. “Being a medium-sized company with more than 200 employees and a heavy cost base, including the office, license, warehouses, props, surviving on two to three projects per year, as compared to 20 to 30 projects in prior years, became impossible to sustain,” Chammas says.
“We decided to shut down the branch a year after the crisis began, and focus on operating from Lebanon, where costs were much lower than in Dubai.” Chammas, who decided to stay in Dubai while her sisters moved back to Lebanon, still remembers this period as being a quite a challenging one to endure. “I found myself at home with two young kids, working on nothing, and not being able to create,” she says. “As an entrepreneur who never stopped working since college, this emptiness created a lot of anxiety, sadness, and a dilemma of either following my career and going back to Lebanon to join my sisters at Scenez Group, or staying here with my husband and figuring out how I can rebuild another business and come up with a new idea.”
That’s what led to the creation of the Super Dooper Kids Edutainment Center, an edutainment center for parents and children in Dubai, which was in operation from 2010 to 2013. Although it’s been five years now since the center shut down, its story can still serve as a timeless reminder of the weak position small business owners often have when negotiating rental costs and buy-outs with much more powerful actors. But let’s go back to the business’ beginnings, as Chammas remembers it. “As a mother regularly taking her kids out into kids play areas, I realized a lot of gaps in education, hygiene, and positive approach with kids. I also observed mothers that lacked positive parenting. For me, birthday parties became overwhelming, and caused a lot of panic. I used to stick to my young kids throughout the parties, due to a fear and lack of trust in the venues and their service. I therefore decided to create a happy, positive, safe, innovative concept, where both kids and parents can have a blast together and create memorable and fun moments.”
Established in Dubai Marina, Super Dooper Kids Edutainment Center offered educational and entertaining activities for children to unleash their artistic and creative talent through performing arts, such as arts activities, new sewing ideas, cinema workshops, DJ and karaoke birthday parties, and much more. Soon enough, Chammas was winning projects to spread cultural education and entertainment with the likes of Dubai Police, Dubai Healthcare Authority and schools. In parallel, she was also winning industry accolades for her enterprise in multiple categories.
However, the 2012-2013 period can, at best, be described as unsettling for Chammas and her team, for which her description of the misfortunate series of events needs to be read in its entirety. “Unfortunately, despite great success and growth of over three years, we had to shut down due to an investor approach that did not work out,” she recalls. “One of the local malls was after me to relocate to their premise. I initially rejected the offer, and wanted to carry on with my location at Dubai Marina. At the same time, the landlord whom I was renting from had several legal and financial issues that were pushing me to relocate anyways. I therefore accepted the offer from the mall to relocate with a large down payment for the idea, and a larger venue with 50% of the rent amount, which was the main cost burden for such a business. We signed contracts, invested in design and engineering for the new venue, sent all the staff for summer holidays, and cancelled their residencies at extra cost, and rented a warehouse to store equipment until the new opening, which was supposed to be in September 2013. As part of the contract, I was expecting the large down payment within a month from signature. During my summer holiday with my husband, I got a call from the lawyers of this mall stating that they wanted to proceed, but wanted to “amend” the contract to remove the down payment. The down payment was the main reason for me to relocate in order to cover the overall expenses, and some of the initial investment that I had incurred. I explored several options to resolve the problem, including a potential legal route, which my husband and I decided to let go due to several reasons that I prefer not to disclose. Now, I found myself again in 2013 in the same situation I had been in back in 2008.”
Throughout the interview, Chammas repeated on several occasions that her main lesson had been learning how to accept the situations which were out of her control. This mindset, I believe, was her main shield from what was about to happen next.
As it turned out, Chammas had followed a well-trodden path of entrepreneurs who sacrifice their personal health to concentrate on their businesses. Just after closing down the Super Dooper Kids Edutainment Center, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. However, looking back at what can be one of the most challenging life situations for anyone, she enthuses that it was a turning point empowering her to change her life once again- that’s how she launched The Life Director. “After my experience with Super Dooper I found myself totally depressed, unhappy, and defeated,” she says. “It felt like someone forced me to let go of my ‘baby,’ in which I put all my past experiences, learnings, and hopes for the future. I decided to enroll myself in an NLP course for self-help and healing. I immediately got attracted to this module and started diving deeper into the power of the mind, positive thinking, manifestation, hypnotherapy, and so on. I worked very hard on myself and got certified in all these modules within two years, with the main goal to learn how to detach myself from the situation, and rebuild my self-confidence and self-esteem. I came up with a new concept in coaching, which includes combining my theatre background in directing plays and my life coaching certifications. It resulted in what I called ‘Life Directing,’ and thus my current title ‘The Life Director.’ In December 2014, I started directing each situation in my life, which helped me forgive, let go, and accept the passing of my parents in 2000 and 2001, as well as my other challenges with Scenez Group and Super Dooper.”
The Life Director offers different forms of individual and group coaching sessions, enabling clients to connect with the roles they play in their lives and improve personal and professional performance. According to Chammas, everybody needs to be directed and coached to achieve success, especially entrepreneurs. “Passion and creativity give you amazing ideas, however, would not on their own help you build a sustainable business,” she adds. “You need to combine your creativity with a business mindset, detach emotionally from the concept, and observe your project from an eagle’s eye. A coach/mentor is essential for being able to achieve all of the above. They work on helping you create a healthy relationship with yourself, which focuses on balancing your mental, emotional, and physical energies in order to perform with discipline that will consistently bring success and positive results. This is what I’m offering to entrepreneurs and companies through workshops, team building activities and events. The Life Director modality gives you the opportunity to write the script of your future, call for casting, and choose the actors of your story, and sit in the director’s chair, owning your own script- your own life!”
LEARNING FROM FAILURES
Nadine Chammas on what she learnt from running Scenez Group
- Always diversify your client base and sources of income as you are growing your business.
- Create a solid service that helps the local community, and remains sustainable, and in need, regardless of the macro environment. In our case, we should have focused on working more with schools.
- Focus on small and medium budget projects to offer a consistent revenue stream in addition to the large budget projects that boosts your company for growth. At the time, we focused all our energy on large government funded projects, whereas we should have in parallel worked on penetrating schools, smaller private clients and events to cover our base costs.
- Never give up on your dreams. Always believe in your opportunity to grow. In our case, despite the short term financial hit due to the crisis and relocation, we were able to go back and create several successful projects in Lebanon and the region. The company is still up and running today in 2018.
- On a personal level, learn to accept failure as feedback without taking things personally.
LEARNING FROM FAILURES
Nadine Chammas on what she learnt from running Super Dooper Kids Edutainment Center
- Business plans should be built on the worst case scenario for survival. Entrepreneurs tend to inflate business plans due to their strong passion and belief in their ideas which can cloud reality.
- Decisions should not be made based on emotions, or based on fear of failure. > Make use of mentoring and coaching to evolve your business, and scale it up is a must.
- Your legacy will be built on your reputation. If there is one consolation for me relating to my experience with Super Dooper, it would be my strong reputation, customer service, and life-changing experiences that my clients still talk about today.
- Put your business on hold if it starts causing mental and emotional drain. It means you are not ready physically or mentally and therefore you should stop, reflect, and then come back stronger to pick it up or decide it was a shortterm venture that will lead you to a bigger event as part of your entrepreneurial journey.
- Never fear to deviate or change your career path. As an entrepreneur, you have the luxury to do so and adapt to changes around you without having to change your core values.