Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2019: Deenah Alhashemi, Founder And CEO, Sxill
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Having inadequate know-how to fix simple household items can certainly leave one frustrated, and for Deenah Alhashemi, that sparked an idea for an entrepreneurial venture. Driven by the motivation to be independent and share practical knowledge with the community, while also helping people learn and attain skills, Alhashemi established Sxill, kicking off its first workshop on creating children’s stories, which ended up being fully booked and indicated the market’s interest in the concept. Soon enough, the possibilities of the enterprise consumed Alhashemi’s day job as an international relations executive at Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
“I couldn’t help but focus my thoughts and creativity towards this concept,” she says. “It was almost [as if] I was treating the business idea as a child at home that I needed to nurture and give more time.” She recalls working on the venture after office hours, but she kept feeling that she wasn’t giving it the attention and care it needed, and eventually, she made the jump to entrepreneurship full-time. In September 2017, Sxill launched as a training company providing experimental and vocational workshops, with the mission “to make you more independent.”
Deena Alhashemi, founder and CEO, Sxill
With positive feedback from the get-go, Sxill designed their workshops intentionally for a small number of students to allow customization and focused attention. “We believe there is a gap in the modern-day curriculum that we are looking to fill. Our aim is to offer workshops that familiarize the community with unique concepts and practical skills. There is a huge demand from the youth and professionals who want to challenge themselves and learn something new.”
Alhashemi comments that people here often want to learn new skills unrelated to their job or area of study, and there’s a strong rising demand for workshops that require a short-term commitment where skills can be acquired and applied on the spot. And for Sxill’s part, they’ve catered to these unconventional learning methods: they’ve had workshops on 3D printing, farming, fragrance making, and more- quite different from topics usually covered in after-school programs or corporate training sessions. They’ve worked with Kalimat Publishing to offer workshops on creating children stories, learning about investments in property using gamification with Emaar, as well as a workshop on the basics of woodworking (which turned out to be one of the community’s favorites) with in5 and Dubai Youth Council.
They also count the Ministry of Education and Dubai Culture and Arts Authority as their supporters. Starting with AED35,000 as seed capital, the company has conducted 20 workshops with 540 attendees as of date, with more upcoming workshops before the end of the year. They have a database of 25 mentors across different skills, with the intent to work with self-taught mentors and bring retired employees back to the community to share their knowledge in vocational skills.
Alhashemi describes the entrepreneurial path as hectic, fast, and unpredictable- involving many all-nighters and weekends spent working, and so, make sure you have the time, drive, and mental energy to go the extra mile. “If you do have an idea that you are passionate about, it should be your duty to pursue it. If you ignore or fail to act on this idea, it will always be in the back of your mind, and keep you up at night, as you keep thinking to yourself: ‘What if?’ Whether you succeed or fail, the entrepreneurial journey itself is a great learning experience that will challenge you, and bring you a strong sense of personal and professional fulfillment.”
At the same time, as an Emirati entrepreneur, there’s a notion that she’s had it easier than others, and when I asked her regarding this, Alhashemi is open on the advantage she has- but she’s quick to assert that it is no excuse. “Although Emirati entrepreneurs do receive some support when it comes to business setup, it is their responsibility alone to build, manage, and grow their business, and this is something that you must take full ownership of,” she reiterates. “Starting a business is [a] draining and challenging journey, regardless of one’s background or nationality. The burden and responsibility of making a business profitable and sustainable is one that is shared by all entrepreneurs. Success stories are defined by the hard work and decisions made by entrepreneurs who had to make sacrifices, overcome obstacles, and execute their ideas at the right time.”
Commending the nation as a positive breeding ground for homegrown ideas, she is encouraged to see the many positive changes in policies and new incentives for entrepreneurs to set up shop in UAE. She points out how it’s easy to find likeminded people in the ecosystem- she feels it’s a key characteristic of millennials and the younger generation today as they no longer have their hearts set on climbing the corporate ladder, but instead strive to secure their own future and financial independence.
Throughout the chat, Alhashemi often mentions how supportive people and entities have been a key pillar of the business. Though she admits dreading going to networking events, she also counts their power as an aspect that shouldn’t be underestimated or overlooked by entrepreneurs, especially for her enterprise, which counts itself as being driven by the community. She’s also quick to point out that it’s okay to ask for help and “leave your pride behind,” adding that many of Sxill’s team members were previously volunteers who decided to help during workshops when the startup was underemployed. Sxill’s workforce now consists of eight women from different fields like psychiatry, international relations, design, and chemical engineering. On forming your team, Alhashemi trusts in relying on other people’s strengths: “Hire people who are smarter than you, and who see your cause as theirs and take their input into consideration.” She also believes in communicating well, and providing an inclusive environment to encourage collaboration and new ideas.
It’s often your principles that can make or break you and your business’ daily decisions, especially during critical times. On the business side, Alhashemi says, it’s all about knowing your customers: “Your ideas and concepts should stem from a real market need or demand.” She also believes that as an early startup, it’s not necessary to get investors on board from the get-go, as it will give you more room to experiment. This leads to her next point of maximizing available resources, such as utilizing co-working spaces, building your own website until you’re ready with a budget for it, and taking advantage of Dubai’s platforms, groups, and events that provide support to women entrepreneurs.
On a personal level, Alhashemi advises that before taking the leap to entrepreneurship, it’s important to fully trust your own idea. And how can you can reach that point? By doing due diligence and market research, she says. Once you’re working on your enterprise, she encourages turning your full focus to your vision, especially once you reach a milestone. “I have seen so many businesses lose their drive and ambition once they reach a certain level of success. No matter how well you are doing, you should always remain focused on the next target or goal. There is always room for improvement.”And finally, she regards hard work as a vital key to success: “There is no substitute for hard work. Connections and money can open a door or two, but it is amount of time and commitment that you put into a business that will determine its success.”