Saturday,21 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)
Saturday,21 April, 2018
Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Saying hello to life

There are failures on the path to every success, and the best course of action is to get up and start again, Syrian businesswoman Hala Shash tells Niveen Wahish

Hala Shash

Syrian businesswoman Hala Shash has not had it easy. But every time she was faced with a calamity she did not surrender, but got up and started again.

Shash is in the business of manufacturing and selling women’s casual and business wear in Egypt and Syria. In 2012, the factory of her trading partner and supplier was bombed. She did not know what to do, especially since her employees and their families depended on the factory for their livelihoods. She decided to move the factory and set up shop in Egypt.

It was not an easy move to make, as it would mean relocating the staff and their families and covering housing and school expenses as well as the expenses of the factory. Four years later, Shash still produces for the Egyptian and Syrian market, but now she does so from Egypt and not from Syria. Not only has she established wholly owned stores in Cairo to sell her merchandise, but she has also franchised out her brand in several other governorates such as Mansoura, Sohag, Tanta, Alexandria and Assiut.

Shash, whose first name Hala is the Arabic for “hello”, was taught to take mishaps in her stride by her father. She remembers when in 1982 her father, a veteran Damascus merchant, had converted a large sum of US dollars into Lebanese lira in order to pay for a transaction in Beirut. The next day the Lebanese currency was devalued, and the money now only bought a “couple of pairs of shoes”, she says. But her father was very calm about it, and he told his daughter to go out to buy a nice pair of shoes.

“Put your hand on your heart and pray this may bring calm and peace,” he told her. “When misfortune strikes, there is no use moaning about it. Instead, you need to calm down so you can think about what to do next.”

Shash suffered a similar situation last year when her partner called her while she was in Damascus to tell her that the company warehouse had been robbed. It had contained all the material for the new season’s collection. She repeated her father’s phrase to her partner and asked him to take his wife out to dinner.

“If I had blamed him, he would have had a heart attack. What good would that have done,” she asks. They eventually sourced new local materials for their new collection and cut down on their exports to Syria, preferring to satisfy the Egyptian market first. Egypt was where they were working to strengthen the brand and the shops could not be left empty.

The robbery taught Shash that she needed to have better surveillance at the factory and to make sure that the insurance was up to date, something she had overlooked when concentrating on getting the business on its feet.

To her, every problem is an opportunity. For example, while the depreciation of the Egyptian currency has pushed prices through the roof, Shash sees it as an opportunity to grow domestic production. “It is an opportunity to improve quality and encourage Egyptians to consume Egyptian-made goods,” she comments. When the pound was strong, it was cheaper to buy imported goods.

Hala Shash

The business world came naturally to Shash as she had worked with her father from a young age. However, she is also a business administration professor at the Arab International University in Damascus, a private institution offering degrees in various specialisations, a job she has kept even after she came to Egypt.

Today, she still divides her time between Damascus and Cairo. She could have left Damascus for good, but she feels a strong sense of duty towards the young people of her country in particular. “If everyone leaves, what will be left,” she asks. She remarks on the perseverance of the Syrian people, especially the youth. One day there was a bombing in the street in front of the university. Though her classroom was on the fourth floor of the building, there was still a lot of damage, and many people were injured. Shash thought that none of the students would come to class the next day because of the shock of what had happened. However, all of them came to class, as “they want to learn and move on,” she says.

The Syrians have adapted to the situation they have found themselves in and they carry on with their lives, though with difficulty, she adds. “Even when I am down, I put on a good face and teach my classes because young people need hope,” she comments. When she is teaching, she still comes to Egypt to oversee her business and see her mother who lives in Cairo between semesters or for a weekend if there is an urgent matter.

While getting her employees into Egypt was not difficult when she first established her company because there were no visa requirements at that time, now she is having a difficult time legalising them. Syrians are not granted visas easily. Those who live in Egypt often acquire residency rights because of their children’s education, and this was the case with the Syrians working in Shash’s factory. She still has to process work permits for them, however, and these are not easily attained. Only five of her original Syrian employees are still in Egypt as a result, and the rest have left for Europe.

Shash comments that there is a gap between what is said about welcoming investment into Egypt and the actual facts on the ground. “The officials themselves sometimes do not know what the procedures are and have us running from one authority to another,” Shash says. She describes one Syrian investor who has a factory making wooden kitchens and closets who has not been granted residency rights for security reasons.

“But why was he able to complete all the other steps and why has he now been advised to stay on a tourist visa,” she asks.

Shash could have set up her business in the United Arab Emirates or in Turkey where she says the laws are clearer and better enforced, but she still chose Egypt. Every market has its own problems, she says, explaining that in the UAE the market has been overtaken by large investors who own international brands. Her brand would have been swallowed up as a result, she adds. In Turkey there is a language barrier, as the Turks do not usually speak Arabic.

For Shash, Egypt now feels like home. It is where she received her doctorate, from Ain Shams University, and where she feels safest. She even allows herself to doze off during taxi rides because compared to Damascus the distances in Cairo are long. Friends have warned her about falling asleep in taxis ― and “every taxi-driver, young or old, I have ever driven with gives me the same advice,” she says, laughing.

Shash has blond hair and blue eyes, and family friends warned her father that leaving his daughter in Cairo to complete her studies could mean some guy would steal her heart. But her father assured them that he knew his daughter and that he was not worried about her.

Today, Shash is a strong advocate of women’s rights. She laments that businesswomen often face more difficulties than businessmen in the Arab world. For example, an association for Syrian businessmen in Egypt does not include a single woman. “The men choose to ignore businesswomen, which leads to the loss of many opportunities. This must change,” Shash says.

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