With International Women’s Day around the corner, we interviewed Joy Ajlouny, Dubai-based professional who co-founded a unique app-based package delivery service. Joy speaks of her inspiring entrepreneurial journey and the role of Arab women in societies today.
Joy Ajlouny’s journey in the e-commerce industry is an atypical transition from fashion to logistics. Symbolically – and by societal narrative – it is also emblematic of a transition from a woman-dominated industry to that of a predominantly male one. Joy’s views on the potential of women in the Middle East are guided by her own experiences which, far from the cushions of a dream, are in fact peppered with some unpleasant realities. Not too lucky with the kind of love commonly defined, Joy found refuge in the encouragement of her mother – a Palestinian refugee – and an unfettered passion for meaningful work that she believes is dormant in all women.
Joy tells us, rather candidly, about the emerging trends in fashion, her takeaway from the recent Global Women’s Forum, and her message to young women across the globe. But first, we asked her about her entrepreneurial journey to founding Fetchr –
Joy – My journey was actually very logical from a career perspective. At Bonfaire, part of my marketing strategy was to reach the Middle Eastern market, as I knew it was filled with highly fashion-driven women looking for undiscovered brands, and I also believed it would be highly profitable. My strategy paid off as we successfully marketed to the Middle East, and we received an unbelievable number of orders.
But frustratingly, most of my shipments would be returned to the USA with a note saying could not find the address. Of course, I thought there must be some mistake on the delivery company’s part. But upon further investigation, I discovered that the problem was that there were no addresses in the Middle East. Coming from the USA, this baffled me! So I started to look into how businesses are able to deliver packages. The answer surprised me—it happened through a series of annoying calls asking for directions through landmarks. As a company offering exclusive products from curated designers, I hated that this was part of our customers’ experience with our brand. I knew there had to be a better way. I wanted to solve this problem, especially being an Arab myself.
And thus, Fetchr was born. Fetchr is an app that allows you to use your cell phone number as your address, and therefore, delivers packages to your phone. We have a patent for using a smartphone’s GPS location as an address. No more annoying phone calls with language barriers, asking where you live, and for landmarks and directions. A simple tap tells our drivers exactly where you are, and you can track your package coming to you.”
Joy’s idea for Fetchr arose out of frustration from failure in delivering packages accurately. The app now has a patent to use the phone’s GPS location as the address.
AG – What are your observations on the nature of women participation in the tech markets such as Silicon Valley vis-a-vis women in the Arab World?
Joy – Since moving to Dubai, I have become extremely frustrated with what I call Kim Kardashian generation. The endless posting of women taking pictures of themselves posing on social media is annoying and saddening to me. I want our women to recognize themselves a strong, smart, and capable. We need to start valuing substance over appearance. Why do we idolize modified faces, pouting lips, and revealing clothing? Why don’t we idolize women who dare to make a difference in the world, and pioneer the path for other women?
I believe that the world is changing—but we as Arab women are taking a step back not forward with this behaviour. I think that we are more than just our good looks, and Arab women are incredibly strong, dedicated, intelligent, and passionate. Let’s show the world what we’ve got!
Since moving to Dubai, I have become extremely frustrated with what I call Kim Kardashian generation. The endless posting of women taking pictures of themselves posing on social media is annoying and saddening.
AG – As someone who’s worked extensively in the fashion industry, what are some of the trends that herald a new awakening for women in the Arab World? To a foreign eye, usually, Arab women are synonymous only with hijab and veils.
Joy – I think that there has been a trend recently to make the hijab very fashionable and more mainstream. Dolce and Gabbana recently did and entire campaign around hijab and their marketing material and billboards all displayed beautiful outfits that all involved hijab and abayas. I think there’s a movement to embrace it as a cultural symbol and a choice to be modest, as opposed to the fixation on the hijab and the veil as a symbol of oppression. Why not create fashionable abayas that can appeal to a woman’s sense of creativity and yet be respectful of traditions?
AG – What were some of your key takeaways from the recent Global Women’s Forum in Dubai?
Joy – Queen Rania of Jordan had a quote that I loved, saying: “We have to break the moulds that shape women and girls from the moment they are born. Moulds that have been passed on through generations, undermining women’s talent and ambition.”
This really sums up what must be done. Mothers must teach their girls that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to. There are no limits they can achieve greatness that there must be more to accomplish in life than looking pretty and marrying the right man. Arab women are smart, and we should show the world what we can accomplish. I do believe that this must be embedded in mothers first to teach the next generation to start breaking the pattern that has existed for generations.
My message to girls is — dream big; beyond the constraints of what your family or society has brought you up to think.
AG – Is there a female personality who inspires you – – both in your personal and professional pursuits?
Joy – That’s easy, that would be my mom. My mom is a Palestinian refugee, who has not only supported me when it came to following my dreams but encouraged me. She always pushed me to reach my potential, telling me “Joy, if you can dream it you can accomplish it.”
She told me it’s okay to fail because failure is part of what makes you stronger. She has always encouraged me to get back on my feet and try again. She has also always told me to make my own money because relying on only yourself gives you self-worth. My mom is my role model and my mentor.
Mothers must teach their girls that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to. There are no limits they can achieve greatness that there must be more to accomplish in life than looking pretty and marrying the right man.
AG – You credit travel for contributing to your personal style. What are some of those travel experiences that have defined your style and taste in fashion?
Joy – My style comes down to one word: comfort. I travel a lot and I am a believer that being comfortable makes you more productive. Standing around in high heels is sexy, but definitely not practical if you’re running around all day. My trick is to wear ballet flats and have high heels in my handbag. I would describe my style as classic-preppy. My “uniform” is ‘ballet flats, jeans, and a button down shirt’. My favourite store to shop at is J-Crew.
AG – What is your message to the everyday girl student – in classrooms of UAE & KSA, and emerging markets such as India & Ethiopia – to think beyond the conventions of society and author her own success story?
Joy – My message to girls is — dream big; beyond the constraints of what your family or society has brought you up to think. I thought that I had “made it” by snagging the perfect fiancée, a successful and very wealthy man, and I started to define myself in relation to him. I lost touch with what made me awesome, and lost confidence as the relationship went on. We ended breaking up, and I didn’t know who I was anymore without him.
It was at my darkest moment that I thought of the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I realized I was letting other people define me, and I was allowing myself to feel inferior. I swore to stop living in fear and to never let anyone ever define me again. From that point on, I have defined myself.
I had a natural business sense and a knack for discovering new and fresh designers. I took all the negative energy that had been accumulating inside me and channelled it into my dreams and myself. I decided to start an e-commerce company called Bonfaire—a site that focused on exclusive sales for undiscovered brands. My company grew and took on a life of its own, and more importantly, the more I focused on my dreams and accomplishing them, the happier I became.
It was at my darkest moment that I thought of the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
I was kicking ass, building a great team and an awesome product. I was working with customers who loved the carefully curated designs. I had a sense of self-worth that no one could take from me. In the world of venture capital, only 2% of all funding goes to women founders, but as a female founder, I raised millions of dollars for my company (and later, in Dubai, with Fetchr). After a few successful years, my company Bonfaire was acquired by Moda Operandi, a fashion giant in the LVMH family. It was an amazing ride!