With her startup, Nino's Bakery, starting off as a gap year activity and ballooning into a flourishing online business that's just opened its first store in Zamalek, Suliema Benhalim chats with Valentina Primo about female entrepreneurship, work ethics, and the teenage entrepreneurial surge.
“In Europe, youth go on a gap year to have fun, then they can get serious. In America, we tell our kids: rather than rebel politically, rebel economically and get experience at a big startup,” said Ken Singer, Managing Director of the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at UC Berkeley, at the Techne Summit in Alexandria. But for 20-year-old Suliema Benhalim, the gap year was more than a chance to plan her career, as she ventured into launching a startup even before she could design a business plan.
“I took the gap year between high school and university; but since I didn't travel abroad, I decided I was not going to stay home and do nothing,” says the Lybian-Egyptian entrepreneur. Her startup, Nino’s Bakery, sold over 2,000 products and amassed an audience of nearly 10,000 followers in the three years since its inception.
“I started the business online in collaboration with my mother, as we both enjoyed baking together,” she says. “We didn't know how to make anything other than cupcakes at the beginning, but we taught ourselves through trial and error,” she says. Today, the young student not only runs a full-fledged business at 20, but also has another startup idea coming along the way.
How come did you decide to take a gap year?
When I graduated, I was bombarded with a lot of stuff. I was going to study at Kent University in the UK, but people who were already there told me that it was very different – that I really had to be ready if I was going to study there. At the end of the year, Nino’s started to pick up, so I decided not to travel and study here, but I originally never through of myself as an entrepreneur. I wanted to study economics and become a lawyer.Who inspired you to kick off a business?
My parents. There wasn't a summer where my sister and I didn't have to work; either we worked for a month or we went to camps, like CISV, which taught me to be independent. They always challenged us.
So how did you reach this point: the level of photography, the number of followers, and the success in sales?
Everything came together very spontaneously. I started with the most basic Instagram filters, but we began trying new stuff, and every time I had an order I would take a different picture of the cake. Soon we started playing with different backgrounds, and through trial and error we developed a certain concept. I mostly do the marketing and decorating, while my mother does the baking.
Are you in touch with the Egyptian entrepreneurial ecosystem?
Participating in the entrepreneurship competition at university taught me a lot, especially regarding creating a business plan and about business development. Also, there's a group of AUC entrepreneurs that I often talk to or get advice from; it's helpful when they share their stories and experiences. I also get a lot of help from my father and he's a huge inspiration. In the beginning it was very difficult for me; I started when I was 17, and was doing all the financial work at 19 – going online and researching it all, talking to other people or my father.
There is a very vibrant scene of young entrepreneurs now. What do you think is fuelling this?
I think that in Egypt there are a lot of things missing, but starting a business is not difficult as it is abroad. Yes, you are going to get busy days doing paperwork for the government, but it just takes a certain amount of money, doing the paperwork, and that's it. But I think that a lot of people are finishing university with great degrees yet they can´t find jobs, and they have big dreams. Abroad, you are going to find a lot of competition, whereas in Egypt it is lacking. For example, there are a lot of bakeries in the market, but certain segments are not available. In our case, we are launching a series where each week you are going to find a certain kind of product, which you cannot find except for that week, in that month. I believe the market is changing; entrepreneurs are starting to rise and people are starting to accept it. It´s a very good ecosystem if you know exactly what you want.
What's your biggest struggle?
One of my biggest struggles was finding people to work with – you ask employees to do something and when you come back they are doing something different; you tell them to come at 10 and they come at 12 and tell you “sorry, I slept.” And the problem is that, when I started, I was 17 and looked like a child, so for them I was not authority. In three years, I was only able to keep two employees; the turnover is ridiculous. But when you find them, they work well and they support you. Another challenge is doing it while studying; sometimes I have to choose one thing or the other and I often don't get my priorities straight.
What is harder to start this venture as a young woman?
I think the odds were against me because I was 17, I was a woman, and I look like a child, so it was a very difficult combination. It works different with different people; some people will really respect that you are a female entrepreneur, and I find that they are usually more educated. Others look at you as if they were saying: “you are not going to be my boss.” It is a very weird mixture of reactions and I think that sometimes they don’t really respect you or understand that you can take lead or take control, except when you prove them wrong. However, in other situations, they try to help you as much as possible and being a woman ends up in your favour. But in society in general, women today are leading a great deal of businesses and, yes, they face many challenges, but they succeed.
And what do you fear the most?
I have a fear of failure, and that’s my biggest challenge – this constant fear of not succeeding or doing well, or not being good enough. I always tend to not give enough credit to myself for what I do, but the more I grow and the more situations I experience, the easier it gets.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years I see myself having Nino’s as a household name with several stores, and another businesses concept which I am working on right now. I'd also like to have a master's degree in law or economics. I love challenges, otherwise I feel like I am stuck; I love the underdog trying to reach the top scenario.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
I think a lot of people are blessed with brains but not with opportunity because of the situation they are in, especially in Egypt. At the end of the day, social classes don't help you overcome it. For example, in England, the son of a Pakistani driver became the mayor of London; in Egypt, right now, this is most likely never going to happen and I think this is the thing that needs to change. I can see for myself that the less privileged people are, the harder they work. They are smart and they are a lot more disciplined and persistent, but the odds are against them, so the chances of them succeeding are slim. I think this is what needs to change, in the world and in Egypt.
Find out more on Nino's Instagram page @ninosegypt.
Phootgraphy and videography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Videographer: Taher Gamal.