Joy Ajlouny: Cofounder, Fetchr

Joy talks about building three companies from the ground up: from signing a $10,000 lease at the age of 23 to raising $56M across her ventures. She also talks about how she always challenged the status quo, even as a child.

This episode was produced by Hebah Fisher and Dana Ballout, with editorial support by Percia Verlin and Alex Atack. Sound design by Mohamad Khreizat, and fact-checking by Zeina Dowidar. Original sting composed by Ramzi Bashour. al empire is a Kerning Cultures Network production. Search ‘Kerning Cultures Network’ to hear other podcasts like this one, and follow @kerningcultures on Instagram to stay in touch!

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Transcript

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[AD BREAK]

[AL EMPIRE STING]

DANA: Hi, this is Dana Ballout.

HEBAH: And I’m Hebah Fisher.

DANA: And this is Al Empire. 

Today, 

JOY: I think the number was like, 2.7% of all women have ever been able to raise money from venture capitalists and I’ve done it twice.

HEBAH: It’s actually even less than that. 2.2% of all women have ever raised investment for their companies from venture capitalists Let alone an Arab woman raising investment, like Joy has — twice.

JOY: So, I’m Joy Aljouny, one of the founders of Fetcher and I am a CMO at Fetcher. 

HEBAH: CMO means chief marketing officer. And Fetchr is a Dubai-based delivery logistics company that raised $53M. It’s Joy’s third company — previously, she founded an e-commerce fashion company called Bonfaire that got acquired by Moda Operandi, and before that, she had a chain of fashion stores called Joy’s.

So I called Joy one evening. She had just come back home after the workday, and we started by talking about her childhood. 

JOY: I was born in New York, actually born and raised in New York, spent my childhood there. So, it gave me that New York City edge, that everybody talks about when they know that you’re from New York. My childhood was basically, you know, the typical one which is, you know, super conservative Palestinian family. I kind of had the interesting mix of being, you know, very American and patriotic and then the other side which is very Palestinian and very true to my Palestinian roots. So I kind of always tell everybody my, my brain and my personality is American but my spirit and my soul and my heart is Palestinian.

HEBAH: What, what did your parents do?

JOY: My dad’s a… engineer by trade, went to University of Kentucky, but he’s a real estate developer and my mom went to French boarding schools in Jerusalem. She came from a very aristocratic family and was a refugee so, she married my dad he had an American passport, which was you know, gold back then so she came in and he’s like I got a passport and my mother was like, “okay, I’m a refugee, I’m in.” And they came to the United States. So my mom has a two years college which is kind of rare because my parents are 85 years old. I come from a family that’s pretty educated. Both my brothers are super educated. My brother went to med school and law school and the other one is an engineer and a lawyer. So we grew up very serious, you know, we talked about politics. I remember growing up with the newspaper. Like, you know, my family’s pretty quiet — all of them are quiet and conservative — and I’m the boisterous talkative one and we would sit around the table and our assignment would be to read an article and then we would sit around and discuss what we read, and the topics were always politics and business.

So I grew up in a family that really put a lot of pressure on education and being, you know, being true to being Palestinian, right? So we were always about what was right and what was wrong and a moral compass of you know, do the right thing in life, and the right thing will come back to you. So, conservative with a very serious moral compass

HEBAH: And what kind of child were you so if your mom had to describe you at the age of 12. What would she say about you?

JOY: Extremely, extremely a rule breaker… didn’t follow the norm, always asked why. You know, most people were like just do as you’re told and I never had the personality to do as you’re told. I’ve always been a disruptor. You know, my mom would try to potty train me and they put me on the potty for hours and they’d be like, you know, you have to you know potty and I’m like nope, and then they’d find me outside — literally, under a tree — going to the bathroom pulling my pants down under a tree and they just I mean forget pooping in your pants but pooping outside on trees. So, my mom was always like, this child is, you know, not the norm.

HEBAH: I love that. What did you want to be when you grow up, Joy? And how did that manifest? Did you always want to be your own boss and be an entrepreneur?

JOY: You know, I wanted to be married with 20 kids. I wanted to fulfill my parents dream of finding the right guy and fulfilling their expectations. I think that was really kind of the pressure. I mean my whole life was like, oh my God, I got to get married, I got to get married. It definitely took its toll on me, for sure and it was something that was expected and I felt the pressure of that but that was my whole goal. My whole goal was to get married and have a family and, you know, the pressures of every Arab girl, which is the success story… is get married and, you know, find a nice, nice educated guy. 

And I remember the funny stories when I was growing up their like, you need to find yourself a Palestinian Christian guy and then, you know, I turned a certain age and they’re like, you know, he doesn’t have to be Palestinian, he could be Lebanese, but as long as he’s Christian, right then they would switch it to you know what? There are a lot of nice Muslim people out there, as long as he’s Arab, that’s the most important thing and then you know, they switch it to you know, there are a lot of nice American boys out there. So my parents were always like, pushing to get me married and that was their dream — to find an educated guy and for someone to take care of me, that was kind of indoctrinated in my brain.

HEBAH: How, how did you make your first hundred dollars in life?

JOY: So, I think the first hundred dollars I made I was working at a pastry shop in high school. I think I was 16 years old. I was making cannolis at an Italian pastry shop where I put on 20 pounds really fast — one for the customer one for me, you know — so I was making cannolis and I remember the thrill of making my own money. I don’t forget that. I don’t forget those paychecks. They were exciting. I remember the feeling I had of independence, of earning my own money.

HEBAH: Do you, does this mean you’re an excellent baker at home?

JOY: No, it just means that I’m good at stuffing my face at bakeries. But no, I don’t cook and I don’t make anything. I… I don’t really have the patience to sit in the kitchen. It’s kind of not my thing.

HEBAH: And, so you went to George Washington University in Washington DC, and you studied finance and economics — is that correct?

JOY: I did, yeah. 

HEBAH: What made you choose that major?

JOY: My parents thought it was best. My dad thought a business degree was the way to go. So of course like a good, good Arab daughter I… I listened to my father and I listened to my mother. My parents are very conservative. So they did not want me to go away to college, but in the defiant nature that I was my dad was away on a business trip, I applied for a college, I got accepted and when he was away I said, hey I got accepted, and I am leaving and he’s like, “what?” And, I’m like, yep. I applied and I said, I need a check for the tuition. So I literally took a check out of his checkbook and I went to GW and I said I’m going it’s something I need to do. And, I went and nobody dropped me off to college. I took the plane down and checked myself in.

HEBAH: Was Fox’s your first job out of University?

JOY: It was. I used to shop there and I just went in and I applied for a job and I started off, you know changing rooms and I worked my way up and I was vacuuming the floors and worked my way up into being a junior buyer and then a senior buyer and then I was head buyer, overseeing, and we just expanded like crazy and that was… I was making crazy money on commission and I remember having so many checks, that I was so busy and passionate about working that I forgot to cash them. Then I remember the accountant and the company came to me and he’s like, “Joy you’ve got like 12 checks you haven’t cashed. You need to cash your checks.” 

HEBAH: You said you were vacuum cleaning and I think I read — working in the changing rooms of one of the stores. What did you learn in those from that experience, and walk me through the story of how you got the job in the first place?

JOY: I… let it be known that I was hungry. And that I was driven and ambitious and I would do whatever it took and so the owner took me buying and I was just good at it and I just worked my way up, working six, seven days a week, literally — and I loved it. It kind of set the ground for me because I kind of realized that I was good at something and I was passionate about it. So, it… it helped me get to where I am today. 

HEBAH: So you went from Fox’s and you worked your way up, and then you founded your first company, Joy’s, a local chain for women’s off-price designer clothing. 

JOY: Yeah, and then I left and opened up my own store. I signed the lease to that my first store, personally, and I remember my father looked at me and he said, “You got guts kid.” The rent was $10,000 a month and I was 23 years old and my dad said, “You got guts.” I personally signed it.

HEBAH: And how did the business work? So, designer Brands would give you over stock or out of season clothes — like how does that all work?

JOY: Well, I would go to the warehouses in New Jersey and I would negotiate deals on leftover inventory. And this is what I was doing for Fox’s. So, it wasn’t like I was doing something that I didn’t already learn. I learned that from Fox’s. I went in and I just saw was left over and I negotiated, how many you got left? I’ll take it all. I need this much discount. I would figure out what it is that I needed to sell it where I needed to be on a price point and I would just negotiate you know, is it last season’s? This is old, let me pay you for it. And, I just negotiated on the deal. You know, that’s the good part of my Arabic genes. I would haggle them, no this is too expensive! I can’t, you know, so the Arab genes came in and I just haggled them down and that’s how I got the best price. 

HEBAH: But this was the late ‘90s, and the way we shopped was changing fast – 

JOY: Brick and mortar was becoming a thing of the past. And, even today, there’s a problem with brick and mortar, right? Everybody’s trying to figure out how to get the malls in the United States still running because everyone’s buying online. 

HEBAH: Things were kind of puttering along for Joy at this point in her life. 

JOY: But then I was engaged to a very wealthy guy, he came equipped with the 10 karat engagement ring and the, the, the 25,000 square foot home with the ballroom. I don’t know how many people have ballrooms in their houses. But — and you know, at the end of the day, you know, I was ecstatic because I was like, okay. Look, my success story: I got the rich guy, right? And my parents were thrilled. But at the end of the day, you know, I started looking at myself and thinking to myself, wait a minute. I haven’t accomplished anything. What am I? And I started feeling insecure about myself and and bad about myself and, you know, what’s interesting about a relationship with someone is that when you start feeling bad about yourself, the other person’s senses it, you know? And, it destroys a relationship and it destroyed mine because I was so busy hanging my hat on him that he was looking at me saying, “Wait a minute. She’s not all that great, because she doesn’t think she’s that great” and I didn’t at the time because the only thing that was great about me it was that I landed him.

So, of course, our relationship was over. And you know, he started looking at me like, well wait a minute. Why don’t you have this and why didn’t you accomplish this? So I… I, I’ve hit rock bottom in my life, where I went through all these trials and tribulations, where I was self-loathing and didn’t think very much of myself. And, I think I got to this point today because of that and it’s funny enough I, we’re really good friends and I thank him because had I not hit that rock bottom of like, who am I, and what am I if I’m not somebody’s wife? I don’t think I would ever be here today. You’ve got to accomplish things in your life that you’re proud of. It doesn’t — you don’t need to be a founder of a company — but you need to set goals for yourself and you need to achieve them because if you’re not whole as a person, you’re never going to make somebody else happy and I think that’s the lesson that I’ve learned.

HEBAH: How old were you when you hit rock bottom?

JOY: How old was I when I hit rock bottom? Probably like, oh God… 37, 38.

HEBAH: And how did you — how did you come back from that?

JOY: The usual. Locked myself in the room, hated myself. My engagement was over. I was a failure. I didn’t please my parents. I didn’t, you know, I, the usual crying self-loathing feeling bad about myself. I’m not good enough. Took me a long time to get out of that darkness. It wasn’t something that was easy for me. But, I got to a point in my life where I just… just literally didn’t want to leave the room. And it was… it was not about a broken heart, more than it was, than it was more like, I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. I, I was completely lost, didn’t know who I… who Joy was and I just woke up one morning, and I remember very clearly, I looked in the mirror and I said, do you want to live or do you want to die? And I looked in the mirror that day. I remember it really clearly and I said I want to live. And, I never looked back and then from that day forward I made a conscious decision to really look at myself and understand what I had to offer the world and to… to live in authenticity and no fear. And no fear is… is my biggest saying I don’t believe in fear. Fear is about worrying about something that hasn’t hasn’t happened yet and I think a lot of us block our potential living in fear. Fear of rejection. And, and that’s the secret of my sauce, right? Who cares if you’re rejected. Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. And that was Eleanor Roosevelt’s favorite saying, and it’s one of mine. 

HEBAH: Tell us some tell us the story of founding your own e-commerce platform. And what was the name of it?

JOY: It was called Bonfaire. And yeah… so, I went into e-commerce.

HEBAH: And how did you… how did you learn about how to launch what we would now call like, a more typical sort of tech startup. 

JOY: Well, I didn’t. I partnered with somebody — my partner — with somebody who’s already done it, so I had the e-commerce experience and he had the tech experience. So, he was actually, I was more of a marketing side and he was a CTO. His name was Kieran. So, we got together and we raised money for Bonfaire and we made it happen. And that’s what you want in partners, whenever you’re doing a start-up is somebody who has opposite skills of you.

HEBAH: How… how much money did you raise for Bonfaire?

JOY: All together, I think we raised in our series — we had a seed funding and then series A — I think our series A was about 2.5 million.

HEBAH: And, what was the process of pitching to investors like? Like, how did the whole process go?

JOY: Well you go. You go to Sandhill Road and Silicon Valley, and you do your homework. You go and you look to see who’s in the retail space. And you pitch people who are in the retail space. I learned a lot. And, you don’t go and pitch somebody who’s in you know, biotech. And you basically do a networking thing, which is, you call everyone, you know, when you try to set up meetings. And Silicon Valley Works amazing that way like it’s a very open door policy where people want to meet you. Investors are always wanting to hear like, what the next greatest thing is because they have FOMO, right? Fear of missing out. Just sheer pounding down people’s doors and not taking no for an answer. They be like, “this is a stupid idea.” I’m like, okay, thank you! And then I’d go to the next one. I basically, you know, just was relentless. I kept pitching and pitching and pitching and we had Trinity partner take our lead. And we closed, we closed our round of funding.

HEBAH: When you closed your seed round, the first injection of capital that you had, what did you do to celebrate?

JOY: What did I do to celebrate? Screamed. Out the window. Because, I could not believe that I did it. Because everyone was like, “oh you can’t do it. No way, you know, you don’t have a background.” Because, at the time before this I was engaged right? So, this is this is the trigger that caused me to do Bonfaire is the engagement because afterward I was like, I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this.

HEBAH: Were there moments where you felt your woman-ness, like did it help? Or did it make things harder to be a female tech entrepreneur either with investors or customers or suppliers?

JOY: Without a question, harder. It’s tough because you know, you have to understand something as a woman, it’s not easy because, not only you’re fighting the competition and you’re fighting to raise money and you’re fighting for the company, but on top of all that, you know, you’re fighting for your rights to be heard and you’re fighting for your, your, your, your vision and you’re fighting for your views and you know, it’s… it’s the double… double bind, right? If you if you speak too much you’re aggressive if you speak too little, you know, you conform, but you’re not heard. So, it’s definitely the double bind that exists. Absolutely.

HEBAH: So you exited two years after you started Bonfaire — 

JOY: We were acquired in an acquisition by Moda Operandi. Which is — I don’t know if you’re familiar with Moda Operandi — but they’re probably one of the top two most luxurious eCommerce sites, Net-A-Porter and Moda Operandi.

HEBAH: What brought you to Dubai?

JOY: I was actually in Silicon Valley after my company got sold, Bonfaire, and they asked me to come in and mentor a bunch of Arab companies that were coming there looking for funding and they’re like, “you’re Arab and you exited your company and you raised money. Do you want to come and listen to the pitches and be a mentor?” And I said sure, why not? So I went and I was listening to all the pitches and then I heard this one particular pitch on stage, which was my partner, and I loved it. So, I went up to him and I said I love this idea love it, love it, love it. And, it was the the- idea of solving the problem of no addresses in emerging markets, which is something that I experienced myself with Bonfaire because part of my marketing strategy was to reach Emerging Markets with my products, so I spent a lot of marketing dollars to do so. And what… what I did come to realize was that a lot of the packages came back with… can’t find the address.

So when I heard my partner on stage speaking about solving the problem of no addresses. I went up to him I said have you had any luck raising money? His name is Idriss. He said “no, it’s very difficult for startups in the Middle East to raise money in Silicon Valley”, because they’ve got so much talent in Silicon Valley raising money that they didn’t need, you know you’re coming in from Dubai, they’re like, who are you, right? So I said well, look, listen. I had a track record and I have a history and I know all the investors and I’m from the Valley. Are you looking for a partner? And he’s like, “Yeah!” So, we got together and we’re trying to solve the problem of no addresses and we’re a shipping company.

HEBAH: And what was the transition like when you moved to Dubai after being in the US for so long?

JOY: I literally packed up with two suitcases and I came here and I moved into a rental apartment with furniture and I’m still in this apartment. So yeah, I transitioned. It was shocking and really difficult coming from Northern California and I’m a little bit of a hippie, you know, I go to work every day and my cutoff shorts and my sneakers. So… I’m living in a glamorous Dubai. It’s filled with great restaurants and everybody dressed and fashion. So it’s kind of not my DNA. So, I felt like a fish out of water. 

HEBAH: After she sold Bonfaire, Joy co founded her third company, Fetchr, which is based in Dubai. Fetchr is a delivery logistics company. 

JOY: So, we’re a little bit like Uber meets FedEx, if you were… if you were to describe us. We kind of eliminate the need for a formal address. It’s a huge issue because imagine there’s no address like in America you put a stamp on an envelope and you put 25 Elm Street, right? And then it shows up at your door, right? Mailmen. There are no mailmen here. There are no mailmen and, there’s no mail boxes. So the way you get packages is somebody calls you and they say, “Hi Where do you live?” And they sit on the phone and you literally direct them to your house through landmarks make a left at the 7-Eleven make a right at this building and its really annoying because every time you get a package, you’ve got to get on the phone and give directions and it’s usually somebody who’s from a foreign country and there’s a language barrier.

And it’s… it’s, it’s a frustrating experience. So, we use your telephone number and we deliver to your cell phone. So, wherever you are — it’s kind of like Uber technology where you press a button and you don’t need an address for the driver to pick you up — we kind of use a very similar system for package delivery, where you don’t need to be an address because the world is mobile now, right? Nobody needs to be sitting home for 12 hours a day. You could be at Starbucks and we can, you know, you press a button and we’ll know to be able to deliver the package to you at Starbucks. And that’s really what we’ve been doing. 

We raised 11 million dollars in funding in our series A. And without a question, he could not do that without me. So I was very proud of the fact that you know, he… he needed an anchor. He needed somebody that gave him credibility — and I had that. Which is unheard of, because very few women raise money. So that probably puts me in the 1% which I’m proud of and I’m glad that we met, and I’m glad that we were able to do it. So we raised a Series A for 11 million and then we raised a Series B for 42 million. And, I remember he was like, “well, I’m going to, I’m going to ask for 5”, and I was like 5? I’m like no, no, no… don’t put that into the universe. I’m like… we’re going to ask for 10 and, you know what? We’re going to close more than 10. And we did it. So that was one of the happiest days of my life.  

I wanted Fetcher to be a brand that was about the people like, because I’m that kind of person. So, I wanted it to like, be part of who I am and what I stand for. I think we’ve got something like 60 nationalities working at the company and I wanted it to be a brand that related to the everyday person. I didn’t want it to be glamorous. Because, in Dubai everything is about platinum and gold and triple luxury and exclusive and VIP and I was like, yeah, no, no, no… we’re none of those things. We’re about the everyday people and I came up with the line that we ship happiness. And, I wanted to have an energy behind the brand because all great brands don’t sell the brand, they have to sell an emotion. Like Nike is not selling sneakers, you know? “Just do it” is selling empowerment, right? So, Fetcher is about opening happiness. That’s what we have — where you open the package, it says, open happiness — and that’s kind of been about the brand. Like, we’re in six countries. We’re in Bahrain, we’re in the UAE, we’re in Egypt, we’re in Saudi Arabia, we’re in Jordan, we’re in Oman. Oh, yeah, we have about 5,000 employees now. And, I’ve been at the company for almost five years.

HEBAH: What’s the strangest place you’ve ever delivered a parcel?

JOY: In the desert. We’ve delivered, you know, somebody forgot something and they needed a parcel delivered in the desert. That was unusual [laughs]. We’ve delivered passports to airports. I mean, that’s always fun. I love the, “oh my God. I forgot my passport.” That’s the fun one.

HEBAH: How are you managing work and personal life, Joy? So is there a balance and what is, have you come up with any tricks for maintaining a balance?

JOY: That’s really funny. I have no personal life. I’ve put everything on hold for Fetcher, Fetcher’s my whole life. It’s my baby. I have not managed to figure out how to get a personal life. I don’t, I don’t really have time to date. I don’t have time to meet people. I’m so focused on Fetcher all the time. I think I’ve got so many days left over in vacation time that I haven’t taken that I think my company’s like, “Joy you need to take the vacation time because it lapses.” But again, I just… I’m on a mission, right? I’m very type A. I’m focused.

HEBAH: What would be the first two lines of your obituary? 

JOY: Oh God… You’re going to get me to start crying. It goes with the emotions. I think it would be… that I am a woman who made the impossible possible. And, I think that I would probably say that I would like to be known as a woman with a huge heart. And probably… a lot of guts. And I think I want somebody to say that I’m a dichotomy. I’m a dichotomy of a really loyal, passionate, huge hearted woman who at the same time has the relentless, unyielding balls of a powerful CEO. And yet I have taken the beatings of life and I have still stood up on my own feet and been able to still get up in the morning and smile, and to get up every day and still have gratitude. 

 You know, it took a long time for me to get to know who I am as a person, and as a woman. And it took a long time, right? Of trying to figure out who I am, and what I wanted, what makes me happy, and who I am. I’m the underdog. I wasn’t supposed to succeed. I’m not supposed to be here. And here I am. And, I don’t have a degree from Harvard and I wasn’t the top of my class. I was just a woman who decided to not take no for an answer.

I am insanely determined. And if you wake up every morning and you change your thoughts you can change your reality. So, I have kind of forced myself to change my thoughts and in doing so I’ve changed my reality, as I have with rejection, right? As I have with the saying that says, you know, nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

 If you think these things about yourself then they become your reality and you are what your thoughts are and, and that… that’s something that I live by.

We recorded this conversation with Joy in November of 2018. As of May 2019, Joy exited Fetchr, after she had been working with the company for 6 years. She spends her time now between California and the Middle East, working on her next startup. 

DANA: This episode was produced by Hebah Fisher, and myself, Dana Ballout, with editorial support by Percia Verlin, and Alex Atack. Sound design by Mohamad Khreizat, and fact checking by Zeina Dowidar. Our original sting is composed by Ramzi Bashour, and Al Empire is produced by the Kerning Cultures Network. A huge thank you, of course, to Joy, for allowing us her time for this interview. All of our guests are super busy people, and so it means the world to us that they trusted us with their time. Thank you, Joy.  

And next week on Al Empire…  

BASSEM Youssef: I was in the hospital and we were getting ready for a day of surgery and then the head doctor cancelled the list because we, on television, we saw the attack on Tahrir Square. That is what actually started all of this journey for me. 

DANA: That’s in one week.

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Have a beautiful day, and thanks for listening.

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