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Flipping The Script: BulkWhiz Co-Founder And CEO Amira Rashad At a time when the retail sector is under huge pressure to make use of artificial intelligence (AI) in its offerings, Rashad's BulkWhiz is a bulk grocery e-commerce platform in the Middle East, powered by homegrown AI.

By Sindhu Hariharan

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Amira Rashad, co-founder and CEO, BulkWhiz

If we had to pick household chores that we dread a lot -ones that are often accompanied with anguish, and tasks that desperately need a hack- grocery shopping is likely to be one of them. This is especially a pain point for women who are (unfortunately) often tasked with this activity in homes across the MENA region. While many of us may choose to grit our teeth, and take it in our stride, Amira Rashad decided to go at it differently- she started BulkWhiz, a venture that promises to turn the task of grocery shopping entirely on its head.

"As a working mom, I simply did not have enough hours in the day- the last thing I wanted to do in my free time was to go grocery shopping," says Rashad. "It was a mundane, repetitive, and highly unpleasant activity that swallowed up valuable time that I could have otherwise spent with family and friends. I refused to accept that in this age of ubiquitous connectivity, we were still going about grocery shopping the same way our parents and grandparents did," she adds. Having moved to Dubai from the US in 2010, Rashad says she also missed shopping at stores such as Costco in the US, where one could buy groceries in bulk, and realize everyday savings while reducing arduous visits.

Rashad's tendency to be highly mindful of her surroundings coupled with an intrinsic spirit of enquiry then led to her wondering why the MENA hadn't embraced e-commerce as much as it should have, given its "high smartphone penetration, predominantly young population of digital natives, and some of the highest social media engagement rates." The common thread in all her observations on the sector, she says, lay on the supply side. "With the majority of grocery outlets being small baqalas, bulk could not be offered there. Even when it came to large modern retailers, bulk was not a common offering, as it took too much shelf space, that was quite expensive given their predominantly premium locations," she notes.

All these experiences served as a motivation for Rashad to conclude that there had to be a better way, and she was convinced that a scalable tech solution could do the trick. At a time when the retail sector is under huge pressure to make use of artificial intelligence (AI) in its offerings, Rashad launched BulkWhiz- a bulk grocery e-commerce platform in the Middle East, powered by homegrown AI. "The solution to my problems was an AI-driven bulk e-commerce offering that mirrored the offline shopping list ritual, but was smart enough to learn from consumer behavior and personalize the experience to their needs," she explains. "It also had to be smart enough to optimize decision making on the assortment, operations and marketing fronts, and this is how BulkWhiz was born."

The BulkWhiz team at work. Image credit: BulkWhiz.
Launching BulkWhiz in late May 2017, she says the venture was in "invite-only beta mode" throughout the summer, thus taking the time to build out an operational structure, and test out the enterprise's minimum viable product (MVP). Post that phase, BulkWhiz later launched across Dubai in late August, and in Abu Dhabi shortly thereafter. In case you are wondering how well the region's population has accepted this novel offering, Rashad adds that they are witnessing double-digit growth month-on-month in both sign ups and revenue. "We have been revenue generating from the get go," says Rashad. "Moreover, we have average order sizes exceeding those of similar companies in the US, and orders of magnitude higher than in the local market." The entrepreneur attributes these milestones to their focused investment of monetary and other resources into developing their own proprietary AI technology, and also rolling it out in betas "addressing both front-end and back-end operational efficiency," as well as in its personalization for consumers.

With much being said about AI and the advantages of incorporating it across sectors, I ask Rashad about what AI really means and does for BulkWhiz, and how it helps personalize and predict consumer purchases. In response, Rashad says they are currently in beta with their first AI product: Quantifier. "Most people in the region are not used to buying in bulk," she explains. "As such, they are not sure how much to buy of any given item, and how often to buy it. That is why we developed the Quantifier, which asks you 1-2 simple questions related to the category of the item needed, and then advises you on the product configuration and frequency that best suits your needs." While this kind of an automation of a tedious task is certainly a welcome disruption, BulkWhiz also promises benefits in terms of ability to achieve savings on grocery purchases without constantly keeping an eye out for sales and promos. And not to mention, the time it allows users to spend with family and friends, now that the chores are taken care of.

As for the startup's promise to ease lives, it looks like the region also seems to be trusting the proposition, as Rashad shares that BulkWhiz has signed up "over 12,000 homes" in its ten months of operation, and are growing at a rate of 30% month on month- this, with a team of 25 people, the majority of whom are engineers and data scientists. "Finding the right talent has been a challenge," she says. "However, we are proud to say that our team is highly diverse with a 50% male-50% female split, and ten countries represented." The team's composition also reflects on the enterprise's strong focus on being predominantly data- driven. "We experiment early and often, and value failure and the learning- it provides just as much as we value success," says Rashad. "We have a flat, team-based and results-oriented culture with little tolerance for divas," she admits, adding that diversity is one of their key strengths that, in fact, provide tangible business results as well. Not just that, the enterprise has also been chosen to be the subject of a Harvard Business School case study, to be taught at the school this fall, and, potentially at many other leading business schools globally.

If Rashad comes across as a pragmatic person to you, then you should also know that this female entrepreneur adopts the same approach to her management style as well. Being a firm believer of "maintaining a synergistic work-life relationship" with her team, she's made sure to put in place values and culture at BulkWhiz that make this possible. "When my team is focused on collaborating to achieve results, I do not need to waste valuable time micromanaging folks, instead I can focus on charting the path for growth, clearing obstacles and availing the resources they require," she notes. "Achieving this synergy sometimes means bringing work home and home to work. I believe this is both healthy and natural," she adds. A large part of the credit for Rashad's management style also perhaps flows from being in both corporate management roles, and executing projects in strategy consulting settings. "I am quite comfortable juggling strategy and executionall in a day's work. Team and culture building is also a key skill set that I learned in the corporate world, that is very beneficial to me at BulkWhiz," she agrees.

Members of the BulkWhiz team. Image credit: BulkWhiz.
As a 2017 report by MAGNiTT titled MENA Founders shows, startup founders here in the region have an average nine years worth of experience after graduating, and before launching their companies- a good three years more than those heading unicorns in the US. This is true of Rashad as well, who was most recently the regional Head of Brand for Facebook MENA & Pakistan, and worked closely with large enterprises as well as the startup ecosystem. Not just that, she has also advised Fortune 500 companies as a senior consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, and led teams at Pepsi Co., Yahoo, Dun & Bradstreet, and Leo Burnett Advertising, as part of her vast professional experience in the US, Europe, Middle East and Africa. As for her business foundation, Amira is an MBA from Harvard Business School, and also a UK Foreign Office Chevening scholar.

While MAGNiTT's findings reflect the kind of efforts that go into making it as a successful entrepreneur here in MENA, Rashad believes that there's no one answer to the experience vs. age debate in the entrepreneurship. "I think that corporate experience can grant professionals the skills and experience needed to create and manage a business. On the other hand, an entrepreneur who launches his or her endeavor straight out of college is potentially more malleable and willing to shift gears, and said flexibility is key to a successful venture. There is no single formula for success." However, if there's something that Rashad does believe with utmost conviction, it's the power of entrepreneurship. "I have long been a strong believer in entrepreneurship as a key driver of opportunity in a young region like the Middle East, especially in the tech space," she says. "That is [also] why I chose to support two of the leading organizations looking to promote this cause," she adds, talking about her objective of mentoring the next generation of the region's entrepreneurs in her role as board member of organizations such as Tech Wadi and The MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab.

As for her plans for BulkWhiz's future, while the entrepreneur proudly states that BulkWhiz is perhaps "the only player" in the region working on proprietary AI tech to take advantage of the transforming global ecommerce landscape, Rashad is by no means resting on the first mover advantage. "Grocery is certainly a growth area within e-commerce in the region," she acknowledges. "Several offline players, leading online pure plays, and new startups have entered the market lately. Given the nascent stage we are in, there is plenty of room for all to experiment," she adds, naming technologies such as connected home appliances, visual search, automated product tagging, effective lead prioritization etc. as a few features they would like to refine.

The startup (currently funded by seed investors, and in the process of raising more money) is also looking to scale its offering across the UAE, and once they prove the model on a large scale, will also be expanding to other markets soon. "Grocery accounts for approx US$175 billion across MENA. This represents just under 40% of the $450 billion MENA retail market that is poised for transformation, with e-commerce growing but still behind global average (2% MENA vs. 7% global)," Rashad notes. Reflecting on her own entrepreneurial journey and what she feels about the business ecosystem around her, Rashad admits that she never really set out to become an entrepreneur. "However, like most passionate entrepreneurs, I touched a pain point; a need that I personally identified with, and discovered through research that I was not alone," she says. "To make things more interesting, in my case it was a double whammy- I was moved by two pain points, a personal and a professional one, at the same time."

Amira Rashad, co-founder and CEO, BulkWhiz. Image credit: BulkWhiz.
As a woman hustling away in the business arena, she believes that globally, businesses have a long way to go when it comes to diversity and inclusion, but is "highly encouraged" by the changes she observes. "Education and awareness of the barriers to diversity is key in addressing the issue head on. Also, having women role models and mentors is critical to encouraging and supporting women professionals in all fields," she says. "New age businesses in MENA have certainly made strides in this regard. I am pleased to hear about new female-founded ventures and female investment groups [are] making huge inroads by investing in (financial and intellectual capital) in female -founded companies."

While it may sound a cliché, Rashad is also a strong advocate of the popular belief that being passionate in your cause and the potential solution can go a long away to make things work. "As a founder, you are by definition an evangelist for your venture; your passion needs to be contagious, in order to win over investors, employees, customers and suppliers," Rashad concludes.



What's your view on MENA's technology business ecosystem?

"The environment in MENA is changing by the minute. There are more tech startups, accelerators, funders etc. than ever before. That said, we are quite late to the game and have a long way to go. However, MENA does have outstanding resources and talent waiting to be tapped. Removing the barriers and empowering innovative enterprises to create and scale is one of the most strategic priorities for leaders in this region. Exits are ultimately business decisions. The more value a MENA startup is able to create, the more likely it will see exit opportunities for all over the world, including its home turf."

What are the advantages and limiting factors you have faced in your entrepreneurial journey?

"Running a business is challenging, whether you wear a skirt, or a pair of slacks. I focus less on the potential limitations associated with my gender, and more on the potential limitations associated with operational challenges, customer penetration or people management. The fabric of Dubai is global, populated by successful male and female business leaders, so I find that gender is less important than competence. A caveat to this observation is that the technology arena has fewer women and as such, fewer counterparts with whom to collaborate but this is not endemic to MENA."

Related: Effecting Change: A Practical Guide For Nurturing Gritty Women In MENA

Sindhu Hariharan

Former Features Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Sindhu Hariharan is the Features Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East.  She is a financial consultant turned business journalist with a FOMO when it comes to everything technology.

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