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Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2022: Desiree Vlekken, Founder And CEO, 4get-Me-Not 4get-me-not is a UAE-based social enterprise with a mission to raise awareness on the latest news, research, and best practices on Alzheimer's disease and dementia, while engaging members in various creative pursuits and events.

By Pamella de Leon

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Desiree Vlekken, founder, 4get-me-not

In 2012, when Dubai-based Desiree Vlekken visited her family in the Philippines, she noticed her father behaving strangely: he was angry, full of rage and confusion. Her mother whispered, "Your dad has it." Vlekken, who had noticed her father's memory lapses and other symptoms, knew that "it" meant that her father was struggling with the early onset stages of Alzheimer's disease (AD).

Once she returned to Dubai, Vlekken became a voracious reader about all things relating to AD, dementia, and mental health. "Between requesting permits for access to medical libraries, to connecting with various physicians in Dubai, I was determined to find out why we missed out on the signs of Alzheimer's with my dad," Vlekken recalls. "I was hungry for information, and I recall those desperate times trying to connect to any community support or non-governmental organizations on AD, but there were none."

It was thus in an attempt to gain more knowledge that Vlekken spent hours online understanding strategies for AD prevention, intervention, and care. "The more I pondered about the people at high risk of AD, the more I found empathy towards senior people," she says. "I become even more aware, and I could relate to the emotional burden of the disease on family and caregivers, even though I was in the same boat, and I was determined to help."

Her father's prognosis and her subsequent pursuit of information around it is what led Vlekken, in 2013, to launch 4get-me-not, a UAE-based social enterprise with a mission to raise awareness on the latest news, research, and best practices on AD and dementia, while engaging members in various creative pursuits and events. But starting a venture wasn't something Vlekken had set out to do.

"I was happily minding my own private life when an AD crisis hit our family," she says. "This was a wake-up call. I wanted to share my story to help increase an understanding of the disease and remind others that they are not alone." Plus, Vlekken was also driven by the need to destigmatize and alleviate misconceptions that surround AD. "The problem with stigma or fear is that it may cause individuals to delay seeking diagnosis and care," Vlekken explains. "This has a significant impact on interpersonal relationships, especially within families."

Being a resident of Dubai for more than 20 years, Vlekken also saw it as an opportunity to give back to the community, especially the aging population of the UAE. "My journey revealed that the peculiarities of the vulnerability of aging parents are something many of us have never been prepared for," she says. "Studies have shown that aging is the most profound risk factor for many noninfectious diseases, including Alzheimer's. This realization led me to a greater awareness that there is no adequate social support for alleviating problems among the older expatriate population here."

From building 4get-me-not, Vlekken noticed the lack of adequate social infrastructure that fosters interaction and meaningful connections for senior expats, individuals with AD, as well as caregivers. Vlekken and her team have since learnt from experience that by providing something as simple as someone to talk with, or organizing events with like-minded people, seniors can prolong their independence and maintain their happiness quotient. "This is a service provision gap overlooked by other sectors," Vlekken adds.

Related: Qatari Startup Bonocle's Braille-Based Education And Entertainment Platform Opens New Avenues For The Visually Impaired

A scene from a 4get-me-not event. Image courtesy 4get-me-not.

Today, her social enterprise not only raises awareness on AD, but also promotes quality of life for seniors and provides social support to individuals who are at high risk of dementia. Some of the services offered include hosting educational events, memory cafes (a comfortable, social gathering to allow people experiencing memory loss and a loved one with them to connect and socialize with others), support groups, seminars, webinars, workshops, and more.

Vlekken also makes sure that her entity organizes meaningful engagements and fun activities too like bowling, chess, painting, and sometimes, even cat therapy (inspired by Vlekken's own cat, Mocha). Its programs have also extended to geriatric wards and Dubai Health Authority's Seniors' Happiness Center, a facility offering medical and nursing care to elderly UAE nationals, across other Emirates, thus helping to boost its profile. "Validating the growing presence of energized seniors in the UAE gained a lot of media attention, and it became a crucial consideration for stakeholders to sponsor 4get-me-not as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) platform," Vlekken reveals.

Initially a self-funded initiative, 4get-me-not's events are now sponsored by private companies through their CSR platform and employee engagement programs. Having staged over 500 CSR-sponsored community events, 300+ corporate volunteers and 200+ seniors, individuals with Alzheimer's, and caregivers, Vlekken proudly says that 4get-me-not is now well on its way to building a sustainable community around itself. In fact, families have started to reach out and entrust their loved ones with AD to join its events.

4get-me-not is also a member of Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI), a global federation for 105 Alzheimer's and dementia associations, wherein, the enterprise is a recognized entity to "facilitate opportunities to enhance the public's knowledge and understanding of Alzheimer's through online and offline informative sessions and community events." It is also working with similar organizations in Jordan and Oman to cross-share relevant information. The UAE Ministry of Community Development have also collaborated with 4get-me-not's initiatives for Emirati seniors, and the latter has also been working the World Health Organization Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office on "enhancing the capacity to implement anti-stigma programs on mental health in the region."

A scene from a 4get-me-not event. Image courtesy 4get-me-not.

If there's one factor that's evident in Vlekken's journey with 4get-me-not, it's resilience amidst challenges she and her enterprise has faced. Last year alone, first, her father passed away in January from complications from AD, and three months later, her mother also passed away after contracting the COVID-19 disease. "4get-me-not had scheduled an Iftar event the following day; I could have cancelled and risked disappointing 50 senior invitees," Vlekken remembers. "But it was a pleasant surprise to witness the senior group volunteer their efforts, and take charge of the operation at a time when I was unable to. They demonstrated not only compassion, but also leadership."

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic also brought on a test of endurance. "The performance of 4get-me-not was at its peak," Vlekken says. "Its creative and innovative characteristic of connecting seniors online made it resistant to the impact of the crisis. The pursuit of thriving made us reimagine our operations. The reinvent mindset made us embrace disruption as a catalyst to drive 4get-me-not forward."

On a personal note, when it comes to dealing with internal hurdles such as imposter syndrome and perfectionism, Vlekken states being able to step back, spending time with her cat, and getting in touch with her support system helps her tackle those challenges. She also commends fellow cohorts from the ADI, particularly those from Jordan and Oman, who remind her of her enterprise's mission. "Catching up with fellow AD advocates reminds me to see myself as an AD advocate," she says. "This positive sensory boost my energy levels, and affects my drive and motivation."

At the end of the day, while Vlekken acknowledges that while getting into social entrepreneurship often puts you on a collision course with challenges galore, she remains adamant that it is a worthwhile endeavor. "Carrying the mindset of a social entrepreneur allows you to follow your passion, find motivation, and make a positive difference, whether big or small, local, or global," she declares. "It's never too late to give back to the community, become a catalyst of change, and find real, lasting happiness."

'TREP TALK: Desiree Vlekken, founder and CEO, 4get-me-not, shares her tips for female entrepreneurs

1. Stay disciplined "Don't quit. I can personally state that the secret to a successful career as a social entrepreneur is persistence and continuous learning."

2. Challenge the status quo "Women are natural problem solvers. Yet, eight out of every 10 media reports worldwide are about men; only two from them have women as their focus. A more gender-balanced system of social entrepreneurship can generate more social impact."

3. Setbacks are progress too "There's nothing to fear but fear itself and becoming mediocre. We as women lean toward the idea that everything must be perfect before starting an idea. Expect setbacks. We also need to fail now and then so we can continue to grow."

Related: Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2022: Abbey Dean, Co-Founder, Bliss Flower Boutique

Pamella de Leon

Startup Section Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Pamella de Leon is the Startup Section Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East. She is keen on the MENA region’s entrepreneurship potential, with a specific interest to support enterprises and individuals creating an impact.

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