Dubai council award supports women setting up in business

Nadia Wehbe, Isabelle Millasseau and Alexis Martin have a lot in common.

Not only are they mothers, they each started businesses inspired by children and were all rewarded for their efforts by Ro’Ya, a competition that helps women take control of their careers.

“Ro’Ya, a platform that empowers women, gives budding female entrepreneurs a real opportunity to pursue their dreams while also enabling them to support the country’s economy, resulting in long-term benefits for them, their families and their societies,” says Nadin Halabi, the manager for business development at the Dubai Business Women Council.

Ro’Ya, which means vision in Arabic, is a joint initiative between MasterCard and the council.

Nadia Wehbe, the first-place winner, got the idea for her business, Baby Arabia, which introduces young children to foreign languages through play, from a class she took with her son, who was born in Mexico.

“I did Baby Gymboree, a mother-and-child programme with him in Spanish [as there was no other language choice], but I thought what a great way to share our native tongue and expose ourselves and children to new languages,” says Ms Wehbe, 47, of British, Palestinian and Lebanese origin.

Having set the business up three years ago, she entered Ro’Ya 2014 to help her focus on further developing the idea from a commercial perspective.

“I believed the workshops would help get me there,” she says. “I never thought I would win.”

She received the top prize of US$50,000, which has helped her grow the business, which is now is offered in nine different nurseries across Dubai.

“I knew that by winning I was fulfilling a need in the community. The money has been useful in achieving some of my targets.”

Isabelle Millasseau, who finished second last year for her company, entered the competition to learn the necessary skills to become an entrepreneur. Her business, sells her invention fooTup, a footrest for a child’s car seat.

“I met very talented ladies with great ideas,” says Ms Millasseau, 40, a Frenchwoman who had a 15-year career as a flight attendant with Air France and also worked as a perfumery manager in the south of the country for four years.

“Winning the second prize of Ro’Ya has been a fantastic and unique chance for me and fooTup. Thanks to the $30,000 prize, I started the production of fooTup a few weeks after the end of the competition.”

The product is now available in all Babyshop stores in the UAE and Middle East, and was awarded the best innovation in retail sector prize at the Global Innovation Summit & Awards last year.

“I just finished a very important international trade fair in Cologne, Germany, and the feedback is very encouraging. I am currently discussing the opportunity of distribution partnerships in many countries worldwide,” says Ms Millasseau, who has lived in the UAE for five years.

The third-place winner last year was Alexis Martin, 43, from the United States. She is a mother of five but devised the idea for her company, Petit Gourmet, which delivers fresh baby food in the UAE, when her sister was preparing to go back to work after having a baby.

“Parents want to feed their babies the freshest and best food possible, but currently only pre-packaged baby food exists in the market. Store-bought foods don’t taste good, have added preservatives and cause babies to become picky eaters,” says Ms Martin, a former journalist and communications adviser with the United Nations who has lived in the UAE since 2007. She received $20,000 in the competition.

She is still working on setting up the company, which she hopes to launch once she finds a kitchen to work with.

“I entered Ro’Ya for the coaching and networking, as I’ve never run a business before. It has given me a lot of confidence in my abilities as an entrepreneur.”

And that is exactly the point.

Applicants receive coaching and training sessions that outline how to create and run a business. Now in its second year, this year’s competition received 100 applications before the closing date. This was whittled down to 10 finalists, who then received soft skills training to help them refine, structure and deliver a strong business pitch, says Ms Halabi.

Five then pitched their ideas in person, and the top three won cash prizes to help them establish their companies in addition to a place on a six-week accelerator programme.

The winners of this year’s competition were announced last month.

Leyla Lahsini was named the overall winner for her arts and crafts activities business, KenziBox. Amira Awwad’s health app, MedsConnect, received second place and Abir Moussa was awarded third prize for her Officetag online brokerage business specialising in serviced office rental.

If the stories of the winners from last year are anything to go by, taking the prize can make a huge difference.

“Being an entrepreneur has given me new life. Having had five children and given up my career for them, I was beginning to feel like I had lost myself,” says Ms Martin. “But now I’ve found myself again.”


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