Brushstrokes and Business Risks: Deena Fadel's Exercise in Creativity and EntrepreneurshipPublished January 08, 2013 in Arabic Knowledge@Wharton
A few years ago, Deena Fadel began to feel choked in her role as the artistic director of an advertising agency. Her creativity had been bottled up. When she quit her job, she returned to painting, exercising long-dormant limbs. She got down on the floor, spread her arms, stood up, stepped back to gaze from a distance, returned close up. The results surprised her.
"It was a lot more vigorous and energetic and use of color was a lot more daring," she says. "I used to be more of an earthly brown and beige person, but it's when I quit my job -- I don't know why -- I got this, like, color burst in my paintings and in my design work."
This newfound artistic groove served as the jumping point for Fadel's transformation into a designer and business owner, on a course of constant discovery. What began with the notion of making usable household objects works of art has manifested into her Cairo-based company, Joud Home Accessories. Her aesthetic hails Egyptian motifs with preened minimalism and warm, bright colors. Feeding off inspirational quotes and success stories, Fadel has stayed positive as she trudged amid the difficulties fledgling enterprises face. From building her presence through social media and small fairs, she now runs a store and has taken her wares abroad. It is proof that there's both a regional and global market, however niche, for locally made, innovative wares. For her part, Fadel tries to shuffle life, work and art, but they become indelibly linked, as reflected in her daughter's name: Joud.
At the Joud store in Cairo, distinct images are repeated on mugs, glasses, teacups, trays, jewelry boxes, pillows and coasters. They include profiles of yesteryear Egyptian movie stars; dervishes with spinning skirts; the Hand of Fatima; a fez-capped man sitting cross-legged and playing the oud; and curling calligraphy spelling out the welcome greeting, ahlan wa sahlan. Turquoise, fuchsia and other hues imbue the room.
Dressed in a patterned floral blouse, a bright green scarf around her neck and dangling red earrings, the 29-year-old Fadel looks at home in the sea of color. Even within her long brown layered hair, there are hints of gold. She didn't have an exact plan when she left her job, but knew that she wanted to experiment and liked the idea of home accessories, but couldn't find the kinds of things she wanted.
First, she had to fend off coworkers and other critics, who questioned whether things would truly be better by jumping ship, especially after the world economic recession. "I think anyone who tells you, 'Do you think the grass is greener on the other side?' tell him, 'I should go there and find out myself,'" she says. "Maybe it's worse when you go out there, but you're never going to find out unless you just take the courage, just take a year out, take a few months out, take a week out and just find out what's out there.
Fadel found herself analyzing coasters at people's houses, finding them banged up and only taken out when tea or coffee was served. She thought: "Coasters have the right to look like a piece of art as well." Therein, coaster art emerged. When four of her coasters are placed next to one another they form a picture or design and serve as a decorative, functional piece. She made trial sets and went to a home accessories exhibition. They were a hit. Fadel focused on this single product and approached shops to display the coasters, but they told her it was a new idea and they didn't want to take the risk.
Undeterred, she went virtual. "What made me boom was a Facebook group," she says. She showcased pictures and built a strong rapport with customers through interactive techniques. For instance, she held a competition, asking customers to submit names for her company, and out of 300 entries, Joud ("generosity") won out. Her sales raced up. Customers' comments and insights boosted her morale. "I mean, I didn't believe in it as much as they did," she says. Shops took note and came back to her, saying they'd seen her products on Facebook and wanted her to exhibit in their spaces. Staying selective but broadening her reach, she has products in shops across Cairo's districts. Listening to customers also meant expanding her product line, as they started to ask for trays, mugs and other items.
Fadel started off with designs that had Middle Eastern and European influences, not surprising for someone who grew up mostly in the U.K. and partly in Qatar and later returned to Egypt for college. Her sales were revelatory. "I found that the Middle Eastern ones boomed a lot more from Egyptians and non-Egyptians. I think it's becoming more fashionable and people are appreciating the history and tradition of Egypt," she says of the designs. Individuals again are valuing aspects of their heritage, such as the Arabic lettering seen in her work. "It's like before there was one time where everyone was really Westernized and sort of belittled" such art. Now she says it's esteemed, while at the same time, "we're taking whether it was letters or whether it was icons and revamping them." A traditional theme is mixed with what she calls reality and fantasy, with modern backdrops, photographs and shades, as she weds passion and professional design.
Initially, Fadel was frustrated by her limited resources, since she had to apply her own savings to the venture. Looking back, however, she considers the lack of capital lucky. "I'm so thankful that happened, because I think if I had a lot of money, I would have started with a lot of product and a lot of designs. So I wouldn't have been able to concentrate and understand each product," she says. "I started with one product and a few designs and got to really understand them and then sort of expanded bit by bit, which really stabilized each product." With the profit she gradually garnered, she folded it back into the business.
Other challenges, what Fadel calls "the ugly stuff," arose as the enterprise expanded. She says production is the most difficult part of the job, having to find carpenters and manufacturers, traveling far to see them only to find product samples aren't done correctly. The mostly male producers are also located in rough areas. "I don't want to say [they] look down at women but they feel like they have certain roles. And to deal with these producers, you have to have a really sort of evil side or a really tough side that's associated with a man more." It's made her stronger, she says, and she sticks it out until they get things right. "My character changed, like I was never the type that would be so strict with people and sort of raise my voice and sort of threaten people, 'If you don't give me this on this deadline, I'm not going to take it,' but I have to just do these things. They're ugly, but I had to do them and it really sort of shaped me up and taught me things."
Space was another issue as her work spilled about her home. (She credits her husband with being understanding.) She later secured a work area with a stock room, showroom and office and was about to open, but then Egypt's revolution struck. Rent and salaries to her assistant and driver were still due, even though the shop was closed. She twice delayed the opening because of the uncertain times, her producers were closing up, and then learned she was pregnant. Some sales did continue online. Eventually, she opened in February 2011, and pushed the Mother's Day gift-giving season and that March, when the holiday is marked in Egypt, she had one of her bestselling months.
There's competition now and to stay fresh, she tries to release a new product or design every month and cater during holidays, such as giving out bags around Ramadan. Having her daughter also inspired her to create a new line called, Baby Joud. Beyond Cairo, her products have gone to shops and exhibits in places like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Paris, Belgium, Dubai, Jordan, Kuwait and Hong Kong. "I really wanted Egyptian products to get out there and I wanted my designs to be in different parts of the world," she says.
Fadel expanded with four employees and a freelancer, who helped in retail and design areas. Noting that handling finances is her weakest point, she hired an accountant whom she observes to better grasp that side of the operation. Although she studied integrated marketing and art, she never saw herself running a company. "It made me realize the business side of me," she says. "At several times, I feel like giving up and sort of just finding a manager to manage everything. I just want to do the designs, but then I just feel so attached to everything."
Fadel's discourse is chock-full with inspirational quotes and motivational maxims. She jots down encouraging notes to herself and stores up lessons from others' experiences, a reminder that if they could do it, so can she. She mentions Virgin Group founder Richard Branson's book Screw It, Let's Do It; self-development speaker Brian Tracy; Apple founder Steve Jobs; and Irish businessman Bill Cullen's book Golden Apples. The self-help writer Rhonda Byrne's book, The Secret, she says, planted the idea that if one really thinks of something or believes in something, it would come true. She says it coincided with the Islamic notion that if someone takes one step, God will make things move 10 steps forward. "It all sort of made sense altogether, whether it was scientifically, whether it was a religious point of view, whether it was real life, because obviously the more effort you put in anything, it's more likely to come true," she says.
When it comes to her art, Fadel continues drawing inspiration from living in Egypt, where in the bustling streets she can talk to people across social classes, feel alive and hold her tools, and most of all, experiment. She foresees moving beyond home accessories in the future. As a new mother, she's finding out how to manage her varying responsibilities. She says people used to call her Joud, or thought she had a child with the name. Now with her daughter as the embodiment, Fadel jokes the little girl might be upset when she grows up to find that the business wasn't named after her, but vice versa.
"But I loved the name so much. I was worried that it would have negative connotations because sometimes I'm really sort of, you know, choked from my work. But at the end of the day, work is not work for me. It's a passion. It's love. It's what I really enjoy doing." Fadel likes the connection with her daughter, and who knows, maybe baby Joud will become an artist, too. "I think she's going to grow to have this business for her... I think she might be one of the youngest businesswomen around," the mother says, with a laugh.