Reflections While #StayingHome: 10 Lessons I Learned Through The COVID-19 Crisis

With hundreds of how-to guides pouring in from "experts," is there really a survival handbook for all this?

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The world has been presented with its greatest fear: an ever-changing pandemic forcing global business communities at large to pause in confusion, in panic, and in distress. Leaders from an array of disciplines have been pushed out of their comfort zones to reassess their modus operandi and adapt to new market dynamics.

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Like many owners of self–funded businesses, I have nurtured the growth of my social concepts, The Happy Box, The Happy Studio, and Happy Hearts Global over the years organically and regionally, and yet, I was not prepared for a market play overnight.

However, there is beauty in chaos, because amidst it all, a silver lining shines. This pandemic has forced us to remove our blind shades and see clearly, probably for the first time in a very long time. With hundreds of how-to guides pouring in from “experts,” is there really a survival handbook for all this? With so many lessons doing the rounds, here are a few of mine.

LESSON 1: BACK TO BASICS IS KEY

How many times has entrepreneurship been dubbed as the never-ending hamster wheel? I have been on it for six years, and I am exhausted. My business was always chasing the next big thing. I had this urge to diversify my product and service base, because it would increase our financial rewards, which it did- but so did our expenses. The COVID-19 disruption has enabled me to take a step back and refocus. By understanding what my business’ 10x factor is, I am able to capitalize on it, and ensure further systematic growth and sustainability. Despite the pandemic, our sales have increased, because our product offering has remained consistent over the years, with a strong consumer sense of brand loyalty.

LESSON 2: EMBRACE AGILITY

My late father used to always tell me, “You are a lion, Jumana,” and his words ring in my ears more so lately. This ethos bears a similarity with my leadership style. I have always thought of my business as agile, in the sense of its ability to move fast and be responsive, whilst maintaining a strong foundation. With market fluctuations over the years, there was no choice but to continuously innovate. Six years later, our concept remains. Businesses must never remain stagnant, and they must continuously evolve and adapt to new market trends. Nothing is ever set in stone- including existence.

LESSON 3:  THERE’S STRENGTH IN PARTNERSHIPS

What competitors fail to understand is that it takes years to build a brand, and a lot of trial and error. Brands are never built overnight, and what may work for one business may not necessarily work for another. Clients buy a product or service because of their allegiance to that brand, the consistency in its offering, quality, and service. As such, duplicating another business’ offering will not ensure success. There is power in partnerships. I’ve witnessed an increase in competition, even from the closest of our partners, but I have also seen impactful collaborations come our way in the form of co-creating with like-minded businesses and government entities for the greater good.

LESSON 4:  SHOWCASE SOLIDARITY

Small businesses are important to the growth of any economy, yet they are fragile at this time, and need the greatest of support from governments and semi-government entities. Government fees alone compromise approximately 7% of our business’ yearly expenses. A solidarity fund supporting small businesses could help our future and the future of many others. The key to staying financially afloat is by lowering administrative costs, which could lessen the burden on small businesses like ours.  What is needed is a backbone to rely upon, and there is no better one than having the support of our enablers, who basically helped nourish the sheer existence of our entrepreneurial spirit.

Related: Reflections While #StayingHome: Takeaways From An Enterprise Shifting Gears For A Post COVID-19 World

LESSON 5: CASH IS KING

In the words of Ken Morse: “Cash is more important than your mother.” Well, not mine, but you get the gist of what I am trying to say. Cash is everything. It is of great importance to maintain your business’ financial health, and more so when you are self-funded. This gets difficult at times when expenses are high and receivables are delayed from partners, thus creating a prolonged cycle of payment delays, which hurts small businesses the most. I would love to see an expenditure scoring system put in place for all stakeholders, as this could really change the course of how we do business in the future.

LESSON 6: REALIGNING TEAMS

If anything, the COVID-19 crisis has made us all more human, more resilient, and more understanding, and yet even with that, there is a fine line. I have always said that personnel are at the core of a business’ success. With the right people on board and the art of delegating, your business is set. This pandemic has enabled me to determine the keepers, the ones who share my business’ core values, and those who don’t– and that is ok. It is always hard to let team members that you invested in go, but a crisis calls for thick skin and tough decisions to be made. 

LESSON 7: THE FUTURE IS TECH

Technology has kept us uniquely connected and informed, and now is the time to upgrade and integrate technology processes in our business functions. In my business, I am not only deploying technology for communications, but also looking into more effective technological channels and platforms to innovate our products and services, and serve our core essence. Tech is the future, and an investment that all small businesses should consider.

LESSON 8: WEIGH SOCIAL VS. ECONOMIC VALUE

We’ve seen throughout this crisis that social values supersede economic values. In my humble experience, social enterprise should be a core component of one’s business, be it in the realm of education, nutrition, healthcare, environment, female empowerment, or microfinance.  The point is, initiatives that aim to create social value will add purpose to one’s business, and offer greater meaning to its existence and now more so, especially with the ongoing issues concerning global welfare. 

LESSON 9: REMAIN ETHICAL

Ethics are the backbone of all human interaction, and when faced with risk, they tend to surface. I found this to be an incredible moment of truth that has helped me filter my stakeholders, from personnel, clients, and business partnerships. It has been my greatest learning, which will certainly serve as a basis for future business undertakings, and which will enable me to establish the boundaries I need for my business to thrive.

LESSON 10: DON’T FORGET “YOU”

Don’t forget to care for yourself. As you adapt to the new normal, you are truly not alone in the process. No matter how hard we try to manage, there are things that remain outside of our control. Reach out to your trusted networks and engage. I have always said that entrepreneurship can be a lonely experience, let alone leading during a time of crisis. We all need each other, and what an amazing journey it is to share this experience with others. The beauty of this process is that you will be equipped for anything, literally anything, after this.

Related: Reflections While #StayingHome: Takeaways From An Enterprise Shifting Gears For A Post COVID-19 World

Jumana Al Darwish

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Jumana Al Darwish is an award-winning social entrepreneur and philanthropist. She is the co-founder of the international franchise, The Happy Box, and the founder of global brands, The Happy Studio, and Happy Hearts Global.

Being the visionary and creative member of the team, she brings an international perspective as the daughter of a UN diplomat. Inspired by the work of her late father, who changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and families all over the world, she vowed to embrace a similar journey and become an active global change maker.

Jumana holds a Bachelor’s degree in Community and Ethnic Studies from Concordia University in Canada, a Master’s of Science in Evidence-Based Social Intervention from Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and a Strategy Execution Program Certificate from INSEAD in France. With over 10 years of experience in the public and nonprofit sectors, Jumana’s skills as a philanthropist, strategist, and fundraiser seemed like the perfect fit working as the Head of Corporate Planning and Development at Dubai Cares. Following the birth of her daughter, Ayla, she began to realize in her pursuit towards happiness, that family quality time was the key anecdote.

Jumana embarked on her first entrepreneurial journey with her sister in law educationalist Linda Darwish and co-founded The Happy Box in 2014. The social enterprise aims to instill the love of art and creativity amongst children and promote family bonding through educational arts and crafts activity boxes.

In 2017, and coinciding with the The Happy Box’s third anniversary, Jumana opted to expand on the success of the company and establish a secondary lifestyle brand, The Happy Studio. Besides being home to The Happy Box factory, The Happy Studio a community space that encourages social interaction between strangers by offering curated arts and crafts workshops and interactive installations, targeting all members of the community, regardless of age or gender.

Jumana’s happy venture would not have been complete without her going back to basics and embracing her philanthropic roots, which is what led her to the establishment of Happy Hearts Global, a foundation currently being registered under the UK Charity Commission, which aims to provide children, and in particular girls, with access to primary education and art therapeutic and rehabilitation programs globally.