What were you doing before you started your company?
In Syria, I studied medicine, but I came to the US before graduating (I had one final exam left). That was five years ago and when I was pregnant with my first son. I had him here in the US and then went back to Syria to finish my degree and graduate. I have not practiced medicine though. After having my first child, it was harder to go into a residency program and do all of the requirements I needed, so I immediately launched Layali and started working from home.
How did you get the idea for Layali?
The idea actually came to me when I moved to the US from Syria. When you come from your homeland to a new culture, you miss a lot of things and I really missed the food I was used to back home. When I tried to find it, it often took me two hours to drive to the nearest food store that carried the kind of traditional food I was looking for. I saw there was a clear problem with the lack of traditional food and wanted to solve it.
How did people react when you told them you were going to stop pursuing medicine to launch a food startup?
I had a lot of people come up to me and ask me what I was doing. I got a lot of: “What are you doing? You are a doctor -- you should be practicing medicine, not cooking at home and selling sweets!” It was a big challenge to prove to my family and people around me that this is something I love and I really want to do. I love solving a problem and serving a community. That’s what I’m doing now and that’s something that I’ve had to prove to others.
It’s helped that there’s been no challenge on the customer side of the business. My first shipment of products sold out in five days. This helped my prove that there was a need.
What’s been the greatest challenge building your business?
The greatest challenge has been understanding the real need of the customers. I assumed I knew what they wanted--I was the customer. But I learned that when you try to grow something and reach more people, you find out that not everyone is exactly like you and that they don’t all have the same interests and needs.
For example, I thought people were mostly looking for sweets, so I was focusing on building a sweets shop. I learned pretty quickly that they were also interested in other products, so I started bringing those over one by one and found that these new products were actually selling better than the sweets. Understanding this and trying to pick products for my customers has been a big challenge and it took me some time to understand that.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned while founding your company?
Most of my expectations were actually low. For instance, I didn’t think I would be able to do all of the importing of products, including handling the terms, working with the FDA, US Custom, and other shipping agencies. It was scary and I wasn’t sure I would learn all of the moving parts, but here I am!
Really, everyday I’m learning more about the business itself. My background is in medicine, and in medicine, there’s a guideline or a definite answer to a specific question; you follow certain procedures to get an expected result. In the startup world, it can be very messy and there aren’t really any clear guidelines or definite answers.
You have to figure it out on your own to get the answers you are looking for.
What do you think is the #1 skill founders need to succeed?
Flexibility and being able to pivot, while at the same time, sticking with it. I changed the company product a lot. I wanted to create a sweets store until I figured out people wanted more than sweets, and was able to adjust.
It’s not enough to build a good product; you have to go to the customers and knock on their doors and ask them to come in. Founders need to be able to listen and learn from their customers and peers -- this will allow you to be flexible with your business.
Why did you decide to integrate social impact into your business model?
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to dedicate a part of my company to education. Being Syrian, I feel like I have to do something for my community and my people, and I think education is the most important thing that change things for the better.
When people hear that I donate a percentage of my sales to education nonprofits, I get a lot of support.
I have had some investors ask me why I need to do this. They think it’s a marketing strategy or something, but really I just want to do it. It’s one of the reasons I started this business; I wanted to give back and for this to be a way for people to help the situation in Syria. My experience living in Syria has taught me that you need power to survive in this world and I want to give power to these kids through education.
What is your superpower?
I’m a fast learner and I’m open to change. People are really surprised when they learn that I handle the importing. Some companies take years to master this and to deal with the government agencies and all of the logistics. I learned this pretty quickly.
I’ve also learned about the e-commerce side of the business, along with how to ship food to customers and how to market the company. I’m learning everything from zero.
What’s your kryptonite?
Being a doctor and not having a business background. That’s really something that’s been hard to get over. I’ve never worked for a company before, so I didn’t know how it works from the inside. Medicine was a completely different world and I’ve had to learn a lot of things from scratch.
Do you have any gadgets you can’t live without?
My favorite is my wireless earbuds. I’m always having something else to do while talking on the phone, especially with two kids in the house (one being just 8 months old). This is a very good tool.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do?
I like to cook. This is related to the business and is what moved me to find the products that I need to cook meals for my family. I love making sweets, in particular, baklava. This is one of my highest selling products and I like to make it whenever I have time.
What’s been your experience as a female founder and a mom?
Being a mom has taught me a lot of time management, focus, and how to enjoy my time with my kids while also working. My kids are one of the main reasons that’s keeping me going. I want them to grow up and look back and see that I didn’t waste my time. I also never want to blame them one day or say I gave them all my time and therefore did nothing for myself. I want them to be proud of me and think that I’ve done something and learned to use the time as much as possible so they can see there’s nothing to stop them from going forward.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice 5 years ago, what would it be?
I never expected to be doing this. I knew that I would be working on something that serves the community and I knew I wanted to work for a company that has an impact, but I never thought it would be through food importing and selling goods online.
My advice is to my past self would be to not think so much about the past at home. Sometimes I get caught thinking about my past and how I could have changed things before. This kind of thinking can stop you from going forward. The important thing is to do something in the future, and so if an opportunity comes to change things or have an impact, be ready. Just keep thinking about the future.