Follow The Leader: Alizar Tawil, Founder, Ruuq The founder of the Jordan-based startup talks about her entrepreneurial struggles, and why romanticizing the "I can do it all" attitude comes with repercussions.
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This article is a part of the 2023 edition of Entrepreneur Middle East's annual Follow The Leader series, in which enterprise head honchos from the region talk strategy, industry-specific tactics, and professional challenges as they lead their respective businesses to success.
To introduce Alizar Tawil, the founder of Jordan-headquartered modest wear brand Ruuq, I feel like I must start at a moment that transpired in the middle of our 40-minute-long Zoom conversation. Having listened to her journey of singlehandedly creating and running Ruuq while being a wife and a mother of three, I inform Tawil of the word that had inadvertently begun to ring in my head: superwoman. Almost instantaneously, however, Tawil rolls her eyes- a reaction, I admit, I half expected. "It's funny that you bring that up, because I grew up with that mentality my whole life- seeing my mom as a superwoman, and then feeling like I needed to be the same," Tawil says. "And then juggling my job, kids, and whatnot, it took a lot for me to say I can't do it all. I think that's something that we have to unlearn as women. In fact, part of the reason why I left my full-time job to start Ruuq was also because I had reached a point where I felt like I couldn't do it all."
It was in the summer of 2019 when Tawil left her steady corporate job of seven years to focus on launching Ruuq. Her vision was simple: to create a product that allows women to wear modern outfits while still maintaining modesty. That first led to the birth of the Ruuq hijab bodysuit- a piece of clothing that, at first glance, may look like a one-piece swimsuit, but is actually designed for women who choose to wear loose, modest attire. Now, if this sounds somewhat oxymoronic to you, bear with me as I explain. Now, to many, the word "hijab" may be associated with solely the headscarf that Muslim women wear. While that is true, what the concept of hijab also encompasses is wearing clothes that fully cover the body. And that is precisely why you will often find women who wear the head scarf often combine it with loose-fitting outfits.
But regardless of what any given woman's choice of hijab style is, there's almost always a constant struggle to avoid random strands of hair peeking out of the side of your head, as well as tug-of-war-like attempts to ensure no piece of inner clothing is on display- and that's where the Ruuq body suit acts as a lifesaver. "The ultimate purpose of the Ruuq hijab bodysuit is to inspire women to live authentically in their modesty," Tawil explains. "It is the blank canvas on which they can create and style the look that suits them, knowing it will provide the coverage that they need. Whether you are rolling out of bed heading to class, hitting the gym, spending a day in the office, or getting ready for Eid festivities, our bodysuit can be worn easily under your favorite worn-out hoodie, blazer, or sheer sleeved gown. Its versatility is what makes it so beloved by our customers."
Available in full-sleeve and sleeveless options, as well as in a range of colors and sizes, the Ruuq hijab bodysuit therefore serves as a safety net for women who wish to mix and match modern outfits while still maintaining little to no revelation of their body and hair. "I had always envisioned that, as a hijabi, I wanted to wear clothes that were very practical, relaxed, and borderline-cool, and those that fell in line with street style, because it's a style that's always appealed to me ever since I was young," Tawil explains. "So, I often had to rethink about how I can feel comfortable in what I'm wearing, while still adhering to the tenets of what constitutes the hijab. When it comes to street style, it's very much about baggy and relaxed fits, and I thought that these two could work really well together!"
Now, although Tawil had begun work on her startup in the middle of 2019, it was only in January 2020 that the Ruuq hijab bodysuit officially went to market. Relying on the savings she'd made while working at her corporate job, Tawil decided to kickstart Ruuq as a fully bootstrapped venture. But in 2021, a financial grant opportunity presented itself in the form of a televised pitching competition called "2 Minute Drill"- a weekly program on Amazon Prime and Bloomberg TV that features entrepreneurs from across the globe to vie for a grand prize of US$50,000. "I sometimes tend to forget about this particular example, because the grand prize was advertised as $50,000 in cash and prizes, but the cash component that I received from it was $5,000- which, alhamdulillah, is still good!" Tawil says. "I remember that's when I first started testing, advertising, and marketing for our product. So, it was put to good use."
But as is typical of most startup founders' stories, Tawil was soon faced with plenty of unprecedented roadblocks. "In 2022, I eventually hit the wall. I had fully run out of cash by landing myself in a position, where I had spent on products that had not yet been delivered," Tawil recalls. "At the same time, I was also running out of product. Plus, shipping and other overhead costs eventually caught up to me, and I ran out of cash. The biggest issue that I was facing at that point was that my minimum order had to be very high, but I didn't have the finances for a big minimum order. And so, to place a minimum order of 3,000 pieces, I needed $25,000. It was at that point where I thought, 'What do I do now?' I'd left my job. I have three children. We can't exactly pull that kind of money from anywhere. But this is where my family actually stepped in, and they were like, 'Listen, we'll help you with that. You just get the product done.'"
Having thus received the $25,000 she needed from her family, Tawil managed to keep her business running. And at around the same time, another stroke of fortune hit her entrepreneurial path. In October 2022, during the MENA finals of an entrepreneurial pitching contest which was hosted by the Dubai chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) -namely, TiE Women- and held during that year's edition of Dubai-based technology exhibition GITEX Global, Tawil emerged as the regional winner. And the cash prize she was awarded with? A grand total of $25,000! "Subhanallah, it does not escape me that the amount that I borrowed from my family is the exact same amount that I won at GITEX," Tawil says. "For that to just materialize, for me, it was just such a miracle! It just gave me that assurance to keep going."
That said, Tawil credits her generally optimistic attitude to the people closest to her for the constant support they've shown throughout her entrepreneurial journey. "When you have family members that see the same vision as you, they bring that motivation back out of you [during a slump]," Tawil says. "When you find yourself in those low points, they remind you about those aspects of yourself. I know that my mother, for sure, can always catch from my face if I'm feeling down, and she'll say something like, "No. We don't need that. Get out of there." It's like a wake-up call that I get. Also, I have a very supportive husband who tells me, 'Listen, if it's a financial issue, don't worry about it. We got this. We'll figure it out.' Such a support system, 100%, helps you continue to move forward."
Having thus sorted her startup's finances, when Tawil was finally in the clear, she was faced with her next big decision: product diversification. "But, you know, they say go deep, not wide when it comes to your business!" Tawil adds. "That piece of advice helped me hone in on what it is that I really should be doing if I want to scale successfully, which is something that has been a struggle for me for the past two years. I realized that I shouldn't be trying to add more things to what I already have. Just take the one thing that we're really good at and really known for -which is the Ruuq hijab bodysuit- and just push that. That has been very enlightening, and it's led me to come up with a new scaling strategy that I'm actually in the middle of right now. At the moment, what I'm focusing on is diversifying the platforms on which people can find my product. I just finished registering with Amazon. And while I'm still trying to figure that part out, I actually took a course on how to do wholesale. So, I'm going to hopefully start approaching more brick and mortar type locations to have my product too!"
But deciding on scaling strategies and ensuring healthy finances aside, Tawil has also taken it upon herself to be the face of her brand on social media. If you head to @ruuqwear on Instagram, you will find a plethora of reels where Tawil animatedly explains how the bodysuit can be paired with loose modern wear, or what its advantages are. An immediately noticeable aspect of Tawil's work on social media is her humor and relaxed approach- an accurate reflection of the name she's chosen for her startup. "In Arabic, the word روق (pronounced 'ruuq') means chill, relax," Tawil explains. "When someone's stressed out, that's what you tell them, take it easy. It was funny, because once I got the name, I could not think of anything else to call it. It just stuck!"
And so far, Tawil's hilarity-laced Instagram Reels have proven to be quite the marketing tool for Ruuq. "The videos that I do on social media definitely help drive leads," Tawil admits. "I've noticed it's a clear correlation. Whenever I'm very active, and I'm doing content, we get sales. Then the moment I take a break, it just drops. This is part of the reason why I've been motivated to start looking for other avenues to scale, because that can't possibly be my model. I am one person. It does not give me the time to dedicate to the backend things such as applying for grants, or applying for other investments. I just don't have enough hours in the day to do everything!"
Alizar Tawil, Founder, Ruuq. Source: Ruuq
It is perhaps the women who are deemed "superwomen" who are most familiar with the repercussions of romanticizing the "I can do it all" attitude. And so, at this point of the conversation -the same moment that I described when starting this story- Tawil admits to me her hopes to eventually take a breather from some aspects of her job. "Now, don't get me wrong, I do like the fact that I am a sole proprietor," she says. "But you also have to delegate certain tasks to other people, because, otherwise, it's not possible to run a business as a one-woman-show. In my case, for example, I cannot take care of my children, while also running the business, when I don't have anyone helping me in the house. One of the things that I had to just accept was that I needed to bring help. And so I have a live-in helper who ensures I don't have to worry about the loads and loads of laundry, dishes, and whatnot. That idea of delegating is something that I've done throughout my business too. For things that don't come easily to me, and I know that someone else can do it better, I will get that person to do it."
Such an approach is what has allowed Tawil to focus on figuring out the road ahead for Ruuq. "The long-term vision is that I want to create an entire line of clothing," Tawil says. "I started with this product, because I felt like that would be my foot in the door to this industry. As someone who doesn't have any experience in fashion, I figured that it's much more cost-effective to start with the one thing that is not on the market- which is this hijab bodysuit. Then from there, once I make that successful and become known as 'that hijab bodysuit chick,' it will be a lot easier for me to introduce other things to the roster. That's the 10-year vision. The five-year vision is to just be the staple; to be as known as Haute Hijab is in the US, or as common as Modanisa is all over the world now. I want Ruuq to be that well-known! Inshallah… with time!"