This is an edited crosspost from Nuwait.
Kuwaiti Noor Al-Qatami was chosen as one of the 100 most powerful Arab women in 2016 this March.
She is the founder and CEO of Saveco, an offline mega market in Kuwait. Saveco launched its first store in 2014 and now boasts three large stores complete with restaurants, cafes, international chains, toy stores and other products, and 650 employees.
Al-Qatami’s journey as an entrepreneur started at Bentley University while she was studying for a degree in team management. She used to buy products from Bath & Body Works before they were available in the market and resell them at exhibitions, she told Nuwait.
After graduating in 2007, she cofounded a company in Boston named Business Expansion International, focused on connecting mega brands abroad with family businesses in Kuwait. Her founding partners were Robert Grayson and George Naddaf.
“Unfortunately, the company did not succeed as these brands were not fond of having a mediator represent them,” Al Qatami said. “We shifted the company's mission and sector to being one that expands smaller companies to go nationwide [in the US].”
They started their new mission with Prep Cosmetics, a small makeup and cosmetics store. They decided to expand it to Newport Beach in California, a summer tourist location. “As fate had it, that summer renovations were done for the whole area and the main road where our store was located was completely blocked,” she said. “All stores on that street went bankrupt including our own.”
Learning the hard way
After this defeat, Al Qatami questioned whether she had the entrepreneurial gene and reluctantly returned to Kuwait in 2007 to work at her father's business, Al Qatami Steel, a company that imports steel products. He was grooming her to become his successor.
A year into her job as a director of the steel company, she realized that merely signing papers and going through the bureaucratic motions of the company was not challenging enough for her. “I felt my brain cells were degenerating in slow motion every time I went to work and I lacked any sense of accomplishment,” Al Qatami clarified. “My dad had built a fantastic company that would run with or without my presence."
Having lived in Boston, she noticed that supermarkets in Kuwait did not provide a good customer experience and she missed the grocery shopping experience in the US.
"I did not think they were [bad], but rather in my critical eyes I saw them as having low standards compared to those in Western countries, due to lack of organization, lack of merchandising, neglect towards cleanliness, and most importantly they lacked aesthetics."
Thus Saveco was born. “That was the moment of epiphany or enlightenment where I realized exactly what I should do,” she said.
While the company is mainly offline, their online grocery business is offered as an added service. People find it more convenient than taking time out of their busy lives to shop.
“We [now] offer online payment as well as cash on delivery to our customers,” she said.
Bureaucracy was one of her biggest obstacles she faced in Kuwait. In the US or in the UAE, it takes about 30 minutes to issue a trading license, according to Al Qatami, while in Kuwait it can take months or even years.
“The government has been trying to act as a catalyst to grow SMEs in order to stimulate the economy, but unfortunately it is the amount of signatures needed to get a license that is making the public sector much more attractive than the private sector,” she said.
Saveco may no longer be characterized as an SME, but she thinks that bureaucratic changes need to be made particularly in the Municipality and Commerce ministries.
“When an entrepreneur spends more than half of their time concentrating on going from one ministry to another for required and redundant paperwork, this causes problems,” she explains. “[They] won't have the time to concentrate on their business.”
Al-Qatami believes that the government is not yet encouraging people to shift to the private sector. “There is a reason why 92 percent of employees work in the government section."
Tips for entrepreneurs
Al-Qatami shared three main lessons she learned throughout her long journey:
1. Persistence, patience and ethics should be your best friends. “Never compromise your values no matter how tempting it is to take the easy route.”
2. Your employees are your most valuable assets and should be treated as family members rather than workers. “If your employees are happy they will most certainly make your customers happy.” Here, she gave the example of a dear team member who passed away. Saveco pledged to pay his children's tuition and dedicated a certain amount of money to his wife.
3. “Failure is not a synonym for loss, because the lessons gained make up for the negative experience.”