Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2019: Dina Sidani, Head Of Greenhouse, Chalhoub Group
The Greenhouse is the Chalhoub Group's space for entrepreneurship and innovation, and it was born from the need to disrupt before being disrupted.
Not too long ago, Chalhoub Group, a Middle East luxury retail conglomerate, started on its quest for tech startups capable of addressing ever-evolving retail challenges. The Group's approach has been two-fold: employees can test their ideas through Ibtikar, its internal innovation lab, while promising entrepreneurs outside of the company can apply for The Greenhouse, an equity-free accelerator program aimed at enabling new solutions to be deployed within the retail giant. "The Greenhouse is the Chalhoub Group's space for entrepreneurship and innovation, and it was born from the need to disrupt ourselves before being disrupted," explains Dina Sidani, Head of The Greenhouse, on how this initiative fits into the Group's plans to digitally and culturally transform itself from a traditional distributor into a hybrid retailer. "We partner with external startups through the retail technology solutions accelerator program, piloting their solutions in our stores, and rolling them out to more stores or brands if they're successful. This not only improves our customer journey through innovative solutions to our pain points, but also keeps our finger on the pulse of retail innovation out there."
Taking place in the Group's headquarters in Dubai Design District, each of the annual three-month Greenhouse programs is designed to offer to selected retail-tech startups a US$20,000 grant, as well as market access and retail expertise through the Group's partnerships with over 300 brands and more than 600 retail outlets, as well as in-depth regional coverage of 14 countries. "Equally as important, we run an internal incubator program called Ibtikar offering Chalhoub team members an opportunity to test their disruptive ideas with dedicated time, funding, and mentorship, aiming to create sustainable growth for the Group," Sidani adds. "And finally, we run a community space where we host events, speaker sessions, and hackathons, where we hope to create what I call "cultural osmosis' between the Chalhoub teams and the entrepreneurial ecosystem."
Sidani herself is no stranger to being open to bold and disruptive ideas, both personally and professionally. "When I moved to Dubai from Lebanon in 2004, it still wasn't common for Lebanese women to work in Dubai," she recalls. "It took a lot of convincing to get my parents to support my move here, and I'm so glad I was persistent enough to make sure that happened. According to my mother, it was my progressive Palestinian grandmother who rallied with me to convince my parents that it was an important move. Dubai has been integral in giving me the opportunities I needed to grow in my career."
Once she had gained a few years of experience in PwC offices in Dubai, Sidani decided to pursue an MBA education, and was soon faced with a difficult choice: deciding between an MBA at Columbia or at Harvard Business School, to both of which she had got accepted. Eventually, she opted for Harvard Business School, and some time later, armed with its degree, moved back to Dubai determined to start a career in the retail sector. "And the Chalhoub Group was the obvious choice in retail," Sidani says. "Heading finance for several different business units and departments within Chalhoub, the most noteworthy role I had was at Level Shoes, where I worked alongside the General Manager to develop and grow the business, contributing to different parts of it such as finance, strategy, legal, merchandise planning, and e-commerce.After a couple more roles within the Group, I was interested in getting more involved in e-commerce when Noon was announced. I took the leap, and moved to Noon to head finance there, learning a lot about the digital world, before moving back to Chalhoub Group to take on what I would call the ultimate dream job, heading The Greenhouse."
Prior to The Greenhouse, all of Sidani's roles were mostly in finance and internally facing, and therefore taking up this new position required her to move out of her comfort zone, and learn new skillsets in different areas. "It's been the first project I've led and developed end to end from idea phase- a startup of startups we like to call it," Sidani explains. "I was given the freedom by the CEO and Chief Transformation Officer to build the strategy and subsequently execute on it, really giving me a sense of ownership of the project. While we continue to gain adoption internally, I also need to spend a lot of time in conferences and events sourcing and selling to the startup ecosystem. And given that we are doing something that is unique, both in the region and globally, I spend a lot of time presenting The Greenhouse and what we do. Since I started this role, my network has grown exponentially, and I'm also constantly learning from the entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs at The Greenhouse, about their challenges, their opportunities, and their relentless mindset."
When asked about the obstacles to success she has faced as a successful female executive, Sidani exclaims, "One of my pet peeves is a mansplainer! I will immediately call a man out for mansplaining!" The strength to confidently confront any kind of injustice comes from her family. "As you've heard already, throughout my career, I have been very fortunate to have a family that has only been a source of support and strength," Sidani says. "My parents have always pushed me to excel in my education and career. My brother, now a surgeon at Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi, has been a role model in his work ethic and has been there for me at every challenge and opportunity. My family members are all very opinionated; dinner at our house tends to end in loud debates which meant growing up I had to be outspoken to have my voice heard. I took that with me throughout my career."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first thing Sidani mentions when listing her final pieces of advice for young women eager to follow in her professional footsteps is "to be authentic and honest in everything they do." Sidani adds, "I'm often called blunt, but I believe that I'm not doing anyone any favors by not telling people what I really think. Second, continuous improvement. Always strive to add value. "If you don't ask, you don't get' is one of the very few things I remember a professor saying at my business school. I think women tend to shy away from demanding what is their right negotiating their salaries, asking for a promotion, stating their achievements. I make it a point to encourage women to always ask for what they deserve! My mother, also Palestinian, always pushed me to do the same- I think there's a theme here."
The Greenhouse Head Dina Sidani's tips for female executives
1. Be positive and passionate, and surround yourself with a team that is the same
"I know those are two different things, but they go hand in hand, and are the foundation of exceeding expectations in work and personal life. When I'm passionate about something, I give it my all and will not compromise on the quality of my work."
2. Be confident in your opinion, and be assertive
"Some might call that bossy, particularly in women, but I'm bossy and proud. Even if you're not right, speaking up will always result in a better decision making due to considering all angles."
3. Build strong relationships throughout your career, as they will always be where your best opportunities come from
"You don't need to be loved by everyone, but you need to build the right relationships."
4. Challenge the status quo
"Strive for continuous improvement- just because things were done a certain way in the past, doesn't mean it's the best way."