Success in the city… Dubai’s entrepreneurs share their stories

Dubai has always brimmed with a spirit of entrepreneurship. Some of the emirate's self-starters share their stories with Vision

Property developer Nadia Zaal

Emirati Nadia Zaal spent her childhood around a kitchen table brimming not just with richly flavoured Middle Eastern dishes but with vessels of entrepreneurial zeal, dreams and ideas. “My grandfather, owning a building in Deira, was one of Dubai’s first landlords in the fifties and sixties and my father followed suit,” explains Nadia.

A combination of this entrepreneurial family background and the inherent openness to new ideas and concepts prevalent in Dubai made its mark on Zaal from an early age and has stayed with her.

She spent her childhood in Dubai before returning to the UK to study Government Economics and then taking a job in the Abu Dhabi Government as a financial analyst. Aged 23 she was responsible for negotiating multi-billion-dollar deals. Hardly surprising then that before she hit 30 her real estate company Zaya was heading up an ambitious property development, the exclusive private island of Nurai, in the Emirates.

This location marks the realisation of Nadia Zaal’s entrepreneurial dreams. Dubbed by Newsweek as the “Most luxurious project in the world”, Nurai is an uber-opulent community of limited-edition beachfront estates and water villas set off the Abu Dhabi coast.


Home furnishing retailer Thomas Lundgren

“Because we don’t believe the world needs another retailer, THE One aims to be both magical and meaningful,” explains Swede Thomas Lundgren, founder of this imaginative Dubai-based furniture brand.

This energetic fortysomething believes his brand aims are ultimately achievable because THE One doesn’t sell just furniture and accessories, but feelings too. “It’s not what you buy that’s important, it’s how you feel after you’ve bought it,” argues Lundgren. “We see our stores as theatres where our audience is entertained by a cast of employees.”

THE One sells “Home Fashion”. A sleek urban table serves to free up conversation in a dining room and a woven lampshade brings warmth to a calm, white living room. Underpinning it all is Lundgren’s wish to “save the world” from anodyne interiors.

In 1997 he decided Dubai was the perfect place to realise his ambitions, so following his first store launch in Abu Dhabi, he opened an outlet in the smart Jumeirah Beach district and, subsequently, four more locations in the emirate.

Lundgren’s vision is set to expand globally, with a target of 99 stores by 2020.


Luxury bag designer Zufi Alexander

Luxe bag designer Zufi Alexander has found a fan base among such fashionable red carpet walkers as Cate Blanchett, Sienna Miller, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé.

After a university education that combined the US with the ivory towers of Oxford, she cut her business teeth at one of London’s most established auction houses. “I love art and vintage jewellery and have always been good at drawing,” she says. “A role at Christie’s fitted the bill perfectly.”

It soon became clear that the surroundings – and perhaps the sale of the odd vintage Chanel clutch – were inspiring her own artistic aspirations as a handbag designer.

Zufi Alexander’s eponymous label now sells more than 10,000 bags a year to women across the world. Married to an Englishman and living between London and Dubai, she personifies the international woman she designs for.

“Dubai is a land of opportunity and that opportunity is not tied to a particular bracket or class of people,” she says. “At the same time, I love it because I get to experience all different types of people and culture.”

That vow has been superseded by her love of what she has achieved: “It’s all worthwhile when I see a confident woman walking down the street clutching one of my bags.”


Social networking site founders Sim Whatley
and JC Butler

Degrees in international economics and finance took US citizens Sim Whatley and JC Butler on a journey from Europe to the Middle East before, both at the tender age of 28, they decided their corporate jobs no longer held interest for them.

In 2005, the pair found themselves in Dubai scanning local newspapers and supermarket noticeboards before they hit upon the opportunity right under their noses: a social networking site with a comprehensive array of local classifieds, job forums, housing ads, personals and local community and event listings for the burgeoning expat community. The site’s name? Dubizzle.

Similar to online networking leviathan Craigslist,  Dubizzle charges users for what they choose to list, whether that is job opportunities, houses to rent, second-hand furniture or sports coaching.

When the pair first conceived the site, all the obvious domain names were taken, and they didn’t have money to go out and buy a ‘premium’ URL. “We came up with a catchy nonsense word ‘dubizzle’, and built it into a brand,” says Butler. “Dubizzle is a play on the phrase ‘do business’, but really has just become its own verb.” And, as one major internet player will attest, when your brand name becomes a verb, you know you’ve arrived...


Photographer Charlotte Simpson

UK-born Charlotte Simpson’s photography business Hot Shots grew out of her experience in the advertising industry and the commercial nous to realise she could provide the same service, or better, than the people she was hiring for shoots.

Initially, Simpson put small adverts in supermarkets to see what sort of response she would get. Specialising in children’s photography, she soon had a lucrative client base from the expat families based in the city.

Hot Shots has grown out of the initial base of children’s photography to encompass wedding and corporate work. Recent jobs have included the wedding of golfer Henrik Stenson, and the New Zealand Rugby Sevens, while local corporate clients she can mention include travel management group DNATA and Grand Hyatt Hotel.

Now at the helm of a bigger operation that employs three other photographers, Charlotte hasn’t forgotten the pleasure that led her to start a business around her personal passion. “I love the positive feedback, the creativity I get to express and the incredible diversity of the people that I work with.”


Chocolatiers Assem and Dina Hamzeh

As a certain Hollywood blockbuster would have us believe, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get”. With a healthy curiosity for the unknown, Lebanese couple Dina and Assem Hamzeh moved to Dubai in 2004 and raised the bar on what one could reasonably expect from a combination of cocoa beans, butter, sugar and milk.

Drawing upon Assem’s experience as an executive in the Middle Eastern chocolate industry, the husband-and-wife team left behind an unstable economic climate in their native Lebanon and chose Dubai as the place in which to curate their own future.

ChoCo’a has two shops in Dubai and opened a third in 2010 in Abu Dhabi. The brand exports to myriad countries including Morocco, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and Lebanon.

“Just being in Dubai is international. It was and still is the hub of all the region – even the world,” insists Dina. “It is easier for us to go international from Dubai than anywhere else.”

ChoCo’a finds itself in a sweet position.


Purveyor of luxury leather goods
Nicole Silvertand

Nicole Silvertand, founder of luxury leather marque Complete, grew up every inch the sophisticated lady. Nurturing an appreciation of elegant, quality product, her craftsman father spoilt her generously with one-off handbags and shoes he made especially for her.

Inspired by the vibrant business culture of Dubai, Silvertand took the plunge in 2002 and set about launching her own leather business. Complete’s range of leather goods are made bespoke for key movers and shakers of the region including Armani Dubai, Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa and Burj Al Arab.

Silvertand offers clients a range of 12 leather colours from black and brown to vibrant turquoise, orange and silver. All of the items are made to order so everything can be uniquely branded and personalised.

“Because of spending so much time in my father’s atelier while I was growing up, with education, age and experience I became aware of the vast opportunities for a company providing commercial organisations, government departments and five-star hotels with beautifully designed leather goods,” says Silvertand. “The word ‘Complete’ perfectly summarises that sense of entirety; of being able to satisfy all clients’ needs.”