When the Arab-American social entrepreneur Sahar Wehbeh wanted to buy a doll for her one-year old daughter in 2011 as a Christmas gift, she couldn’t find one that matched her taste. So she decided to make one herself and went shopping for materials in New York. It took her months to figure out how to make one using her mother’s old sewing machine.
“One of the things that happen when you have kids is whenever there is a holiday or birthday they get the most ridiculous amount of toys and things that have no shelf life,” says Ms Wehbeh, 35. “So I tried really hard from the beginning with my daughter to give her things that are meaningful and that will last.”
In her pursuit of a stylish doll for her daughter, Ms Wehbeh came up with the idea of starting her own doll-making business, Dumyé, which was launched in July 2013.
“Dolls today sit in two camps,” says Ms Wehbeh. “They are either really inappropriate and they look like they have Botox or wearing bizarre clothing or they go on the complete opposite spectrum, where they are very homely and they are totally not stylish and they do not reflect a contemporary woman’s design aesthetic.”
The Christmas gift became an Easter gift as Ms Wehbeh fiddled around with materials. Soon after, the rest of her family started requesting dolls. So when she returned from the US she started working on her business idea.
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Dumyé, which is inspired from the Arabic world for doll, has the logo “Dolls With Purpose” because it gifts one doll to an orphan or another child for every doll sold.
“I just thought there are probably lots of mothers out there that are like me that want to give their children something that is meaningful, that is safe, both for kids and the environment, and that is stylish and that was sitting in my head,” says Ms Wehbeh, a former designer and brand manager.
“I didn’t decide to change careers and become a doll maker until I saw the opportunity for Dumyé to be a living lesson for my daughter because the other thing that happens when you become a parent is that you look at this child this is your responsibility to teach her the ways of the world and to be one with humanity and respectful and kind.”
Launching Dumyé was not just about making money, but giving back to the community and being a responsible entrepreneur.
“If I could build this company with a living lesson to [my daughter] about the kind of woman that I hope she will become that will be a win for everybody,” says Ms Wehbeh.
“The creative process is not only liberating but it is also healing, and I think the biggest gift that we have in this life is actually in the giving and I wanted her to see that, so Dumyé was born.”
Working out of her studio in Garhoud, Dubai, Ms Wehbeh and her team of four make dolls that range from Dh240 to Dh620.
She sells her dolls in markets, and retailers in the UAE and abroad, such as Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong.
She also works with underprivileged women in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, who make the dolls used in Dumyé kits and the dolls given to orphanages. “We use a lot of organic and sustainable materials in the dolls that we make because I think it is really important to be respectful of mother earth,” says Ms Wehbeh. “We work in part with underprivileged women in rural communities, which is really important to show compassion to others.”
Her work has earned her kudos from the social entrepreneur community. In 2015 she was the Gulf winner for The Venture, a global search for the most promising social enterprise, winning US$20,000. To start her business, Ms Wehbeh used $8,000 she earned from a small design project, and with the $20,000 she was able to launch her latest products.
The business is still in its infancy, but the company has managed to be cash positive a year-and-a-half after set-up.
But starting the business was not easy.
“When you are a small company and you are self-funded, it is a very challenging market to work in from everything like the basic things of opening bank accounts,” says Ms Wehbeh. “A lot of banks want you to have a high minimum balance, which makes it hard because you are trying to grow and you need to spend.”
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