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Stephanie Khouri: Entrepreneurship Is a Little Fire That Doesn’t Go Out (VIDEO)
Stephanie Khouri at market outside Boxpark Dubai, UAE, January 2020. (Courtesy)

Stephanie Khouri: Entrepreneurship Is a Little Fire That Doesn’t Go Out (VIDEO)

The Media Line speaks with the co-founder of Home Hub Middle East, an online e-commerce platform

Stephanie Khouri, 36, is an entrepreneur living in the United Arab Emirates. Khouri, who was born in the United States but grew up in Lagos, Nigeria and Beirut, Lebanon where her businessman father worked, has been starting new businesses in the United Arab Emirates for the last decade.

Khouri brought automated fresh food vending machines to the Middle East for the first time. She also opened the first body-piercing studio in Dubai, called Urban Steel. Her company also became the first in the UAE to sell equipment for left-handed people. She’s also the founder of several award-winning apps.

Khouri has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Kaplan University, now known as Purdue University Global.

The Media Line: Stephanie Khouri, thank you so much for joining me here today on Facing the Middle East.

Stephanie Khouri: Thank you for having me, Felice. It’s so exciting.

TML: Well, since we’re doing a Zoom interview and lots of things are on the internet, you saw a need to open up a one-stop-shop for the Middle East for home furnishings. How’d you get there? How did you think about that concept?

Khouri: I think initially what happened was that I was realizing that there were incredibly talented people, all over of course, but a lot in this region and they didn’t actually have a platform to display their work, a platform that’s going to support their growth and get them to customers that at the end of the day are looking for them. They just don’t know how to find them. And that’s where the idea came from, really. It was two things that needed to be done and I just married them.

TML: You are familiar with the West; you were born in California. So did you consider any other existing business that you gleaned this concept from?

Khouri: I’ll tell you, when Etsy started, that was something that was really interesting and exciting to me as a shopper, but then also I thought maybe one day with something that I like to dabble in, I like to paint … my mom’s a painter. My sister does these – it’s not macramé, it’s kind of a knitting sort of thing. So Etsy was a great way to discover other people out there and their talent and buy it and get it. There was also Not On The High Street, which is UK-based, just the most amazing things on there, and I love that they’re mom-and-pop stores or they’re just single girls are working mothers, they’re on there, and you get to really buy these beautiful, unique things that you just don’t find in malls. So I’ve been a shopper.

A newly born Stephanie Khouri is held by her mother, Feb. 4, 1985, Santa Monica, California. (Courtesy)

TML: What existed in the Middle East?

Khouri: In Instagram … you have the markets, so you have physical markets, which, which is all well and good, but it’s not enough. It’s not on a large scale. It’s not everyone that can take part and participate. Out here at least you do have fees to join these kinds of pop-up market things. There wasn’t really anything other than these kinds of physical markets; there wasn’t anything really online, which is why I was shopping on Etsy and on Not On The High Street.

TML: You’re a serial entrepreneur, you’ve been listed on Forbes 30, 4 Leaf Clover and Nomadic are among some of the companies that you’ve created. What gap did these companies fill?

Khouri: 4 Leaf Clover I started with my mom and my sisters. We at the time just moved to Dubai. And there wasn’t anything in terms of cutlery or stationery for left-handed people because they do have different needs. Just think about scissors: how we hold them as right-handed people and how they need to hold them as left-handed people. So we started 4 Leaf Clover primarily for left-handed people. And we were the first and only shop at the time that had that. And we also were the first to bring in body jewelry for piercing. So it was a bit strange. It’s a bit of a weird mix but it worked.

TML: Are you left-handed?

Khouri: My sister is, so [she] writes with the elbow up and just can’t cut really on a straight line with right-handed scissors. So, again, there was something missing and we just brought it.

Stephanie Khouri (center), surrounded by siblings, in Lagos, Nigeria, 1987. (Courtesy)

TML: How has the company today doing? I mean, people look at startups and young people like yourself. They want to get inspired to have their own creations, but of course, there are hit and miss in every business. Where are you today?

Khouri: Where Home Hub is?

TML: Yes.

Khouri: Home Hub is under two years old. That’s young, that’s really young. It seems like a long time. And honestly, sometimes it feels like a long time, because you kind of just want to get there and hit those goals and knock them out and come up with new ones. We are on a steady incline in terms of customers, in terms of vendors. We’re going up really nicely. Slowly but surely, we’re on our way up. And we’ve had a tough year. Everybody has, of course. Being online, that really helped us. But our vendors were very affected. A lot of them lost their jobs. They couldn’t dedicate the time it needed to joining Home Hub. So we really had to put in extra resources to jump in there and help them out and onboard them.

TML: How many companies are involved, meaning how many individual artisans?

Khouri: Between artisans and artists and SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises], we have around 70 plus, I would say.

TML: And what are your dreams?

Khouri: I want them all on board. … One of my favorite phrases is “do well by doing good.” I want to do well. That’s the goal, right? But I want them to do well. And just that we keep on kind of growing together, larger and bigger and better. But together. That’s really important to me, honestly. And I want it to be the place you go for things that you want for your home, that you want to make sure … “Oh, my neighbor doesn’t have the same table,” or “my sister doesn’t have the same couch.” We have the same furniture over here. It’s wrong, because we have different personalities. We cannot have the same furniture, the same everything. And then you go and you think about art, like original art, and you automatically think, oh, it’s going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it’s wrong.

TML: Do you feel there’s a lack of individuality?

Khouri: Absolutely. Absolutely. Homes or spaces, especially now, post-COVID, we’re all kind of locked down still. The world hasn’t returned to what it was. And our spaces, they don’t really reflect our personalities because the way it’s come to be here, is you feel that if you’re going to get unique furniture or unique art, it’s going to be expensive. That’s the mindset. You want something affordable, you go for mass-produced and it’s just not the case.

TML: What drives you to continue to create new projects, new businesses?

Khouri: I’m just not done. And I don’t know if I ever will be. I see something missing and I need it. I want to tackle it. And I’d like to … leave my little mark somewhere after I’m gone. I look at something and the wheels start turning and I can’t let it go.

TML: Take a look at the funding side and tackling that is always complex. Where do you get your funding?

Khouri: For Home Hub, we’ve been self-funded. A lot of people will tell you definitely don’t do that. But I think when you really truly believe in something and you’re ready to go, you don’t always want to, or have the luxury, because ideas are coming up every day. I needed to get in that space and market. I needed to market as mine. So you either have to be the first, the only, or the best. I’m trying to tick them all. So self-funding … I started that way. Now that we have some good traction, we’re looking to get some investment, but it started purely as a passion project, honestly.

TML: Your degree has a criminal background. Explain.

Khouri: Criminal justice with an emphasis on crime analysis. That was fun.

TML: And how did these two fields connect? Or they don’t?

Khouri: There was a lot of … I think how my degree helped me and I did it as well, online. So I was online long before the rest of the world was. I’ll tell you, I went to school online. The amount of discipline it takes to study full-time online is just unbelievable. But it has helped me pay attention to detail. Really looking at a situation at every angle and every possible outcome. Anticipating what those could be. Thinking ahead, planning ahead, but acting quickly. All of those were in criminal justice, all of them. And they’re in business as well.

TML: You are living currently in the UAE, but you lived in Lebanon. You have a parent who is Lebanese. Lebanon is in turmoil, but Lebanon also is holding some of the funds that you need access to. What is happening there?

Khouri: Every and any kind of collapse you can think of is happening back home: economical, political, the health crisis there with COVID. Everyone’s money is just kind of stuck. The local currency has just completely gone out of hand. I think it’s 15,000 now Lebanese lira to the dollar. It used to be 1,500. [You] can’t take any money out. You’re welcome to bring money in if you don’t mind it getting stuck. And as much of a struggle … I’ve had to kind of pivot a little bit because the rest of my funds were there, and I can’t access them now. So I’m going for funding sooner than I had anticipated, but compared to the situation that some of the other people are in, I’m blessed.

Stephani Khouri. (Courtesy)

TML: What is the valuation on the company at this point, and what are you looking for?

Khouri: We are looking for … around 3.2 million dirhams. So that’s under a million dollars … it’s around $700,000.

TML: Stephanie, what’s your advice to the next young entrepreneur who’s watching you now, thinking, I can do that.

Khouri: You can. … I think an entrepreneur has a little something in their belly. It’s a little fire that a nine to five job – although you learn so much from a nine to five [job] – won’t extinguish that. That little fire doesn’t go out. And go for it. Study your ideas, study the market, whatever it is. Talk to people, listen to people, listen to their advice. Don’t be the most talkative person in the room, but go for it. Absolutely.

TML: Stephanie Khouri, thank you so much for taking the time to be on Facing the Middle East and continue dreaming.

Khouri: Thank you, Felice. Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Really. I do. You’ve been amazing. Thank you.

See the latest episode of Facing the Middle East With Felice Friedson here.

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