Mona Ataya, a serial entrepreneur, started early by selling chewing gum in grade school. Now, she runs the region’s largest online baby store, Mumzworld. She talks about the balancing act of being a mom and running a leading e-commerce company and how her Palestinian background contributed to her entrepreneurial spirit.
This episode was produced by Hebah Fisher and Tamara Rasamny, with editorial support by Dana Ballout and Alex Atack. Sound design and mixing by Mohamad Khreizat, fact-checking by Zeina Dowidar. The original sting for al empire was 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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DANA: I’m Dana Ballout.
HEBAH: And I’m Hebah Fisher
DANA: And you are listening to Al Empire
[AL EMPIRE STING]
HEBAH: Today… we have a founder and actually Mona is someone I met many years ago in the startup circles in Dubai, at a mentoring event for entrepreneurs — and I remember being struck when I first saw her, because we were in a room of a hundred entrepreneurs, she was one of the only female mentor there.
We’ve talked about this on the first season of Al Empire, how few female-run startups there are globally, and particularly in the Middle East. As of 2019, the number of female-run startups in the region that had raised investment for their companies was.. 5%. And Kerning Cultures is part of that 5% .
DANA: Today, we’re chatting with Mona Ataya. Mona is a serial entrepreneur, first with a company called Bayt.com back in 2000 which became the Middle East’s leading job search site, and then again in 2011 when she started running Mumzworld, the biggest online baby store in the Middle East. She’s a mom, and a badass founder.
She’s been named Forbes’ Top 10 Arab Women 2 years running, and Arabian Business’s 100 Most Powerful Arabs.
HEBAH: So I met Mona at our studio in Dubai, early one weekday morning. And we started off the way we always do, with an easy question to check volume levels.
HEBAH: Can you tell me what you had for breakfast?
MONA: This coffee you see on my left, that’s my breakfast.(laughs)
HEBAH: I have a chocolate, would you like a chocolate?
MONA: No no no thank you.
DANA: You do always have chocolate in your bag (laughs)
HEBAH: Always! Yeah.. there are these almond buttercups, it comes in a purple wrapping and I always have at least two in my backpack.
HEBAH: So, let’s start with the very beginning, can you introduce yourself please?
MONA: My name is Mona Ataya. I’m the founder and CEO of Mumzworld. Mumzworld’s the leading mother baby and child e-commerce in the Arab world. And today has the largest access to over 2.5 million mothers in the Arab world. We have been operating in the Middle East region for the past eight years.
HEBAH: That’s amazing, and what was your childhood like? You’re Palestinian originally correct? So what was it like growing up in Kuwait to Palestinian parents?
MONA: Yes, okay. So I’m the second of five children. We grew up very close that we grew up with the values that at the end of the day we were Palestinian, we were expats we had to work hard for what we wanted. We had to show that we were contributing positive members of society and these were kind of the values that we grew up with. My father was born in Palestine.
He was very young when they moved to Lebanon and he grew up in Lebanon. But he learned from a very young age how to kind of live as really an expat. My father was an entrepreneur. My grandfather was an entrepreneur and out of our five siblings four of us are entrepreneurs. So we kind of grew with these values.
The siblings till today are very close, you know, all five of us live within a block away from each other. Our children are growing up together. We do business together. So, The 5 siblings grew up with this connection that we are basically here for each other. We remain that way.
I think as Palestinians and as expat, you kind of build that own community
HEBAH: That’s my mom’s dream for us is that we all live in a compound together, but we have yet to achieve that for her (laughs), but I hope so. you mentioned as well as that your parents had to leave Palestine at a young age and your grandfather as well. And I’ve heard you speak about this history of reinvention that your family had to do. So from Palestine to then Lebanon, and then from Lebanon to Kuwait, and then you yourself had to leave Kuwait to the States. Can you talk a bit about how this history of reinvention might have affected your family and you personally?
MONA: Any uprooting is never easy. Life is about a constant evolution, experiences happen, situations occur. And it’s how you manage these experiences and how you manage these situations that determines your path forward.
So when we left Kuwait, we reinvented ourselves we started a new home and we made the best out of that opportunity and then from the US which is where we were moving to Dubai which has been our home now for you know, two decades. Dubai is home.. So situations occur for a reason. And how you grasp it determines your success or not.
My father particularly, he was never really phased. he said, you know, you’re going to get a lot of ups a lot of Downs in your life and in so far that you can really take them, not neutral.. but take them with an understanding that this is all part of your journey and just do the best you can at that moment then everything turns out for the better. So although my parents I’m sure were saddened by what happened, for them it was, okay, what’s next?
HEBAH: How did you make your first hundred dollars in life?
MONA: Okay, that’s a great question. My first hundred dollars was made behind a chewing gum called Hubba Bubba from the US, My father flew to the US, he came back with two packs each, for every child. Two packs of this amazing gum called Hubba Bubba that blows the most amazing gigantic balloons and back then in Kuwait We didn’t have any that we had, you know, Chiclets at the time. I remember opening that first box eating my first two or three and then I took them to school and I realized that my friends were super excited about it. I started selling them. So that’s how I made my first hundred.
I don’t I don’t think it was actually a hundred dollars. I think it was more like ten dollars, but that’s when I asked my father to pick up some more when he went to the states the next time. And then I realized then that I was quite resourceful in making money. That if you get something that’s exciting and that’s different and show it to the right people, that you can actually make some pocket money.
HEBAH: That’s awesome. So entrepreneurship runs deep in your family or did you always want to be an entrepreneur ever since you could remember?
MONA: I do not recall ever thinking one day. I’m going to become an entrepreneur, ever. In fact as a child I wanted to be a doctor, when I went to the United States I went in on the premise that I was going to study in a 6-year medical program, so being a doctor was that dream of mine. When I was in college I took some economics classes and finance classes, and I realized that I had another passion.
As a girl back then, the general rule of thumb, and this is perhaps terrible to say but, you know growing up in the Middle East in a traditional Middle Eastern family while my parents had a tremendous emphasis on education and contribution, you still had the mom who was saying, you know don’t go down the road of six years or eight years or 12 years of studying which is what medicine was all about. Why don’t you get a degree where you can basically hit the ground running sooner rather than later. So my passion for medicine. Was not shared in the family.
So on one side I had… not very strong endorsement to pursue that, and when you pursue something difficult and you don’t have endorsement makes it more difficult. That’s one. The second is I discovered another passion. I actually found something where I felt that I can contribute faster and that was really The Tipping Point for me.
HEBAH: Was your mom, was the thinking of by the time you graduate you’ll be 30, you need to get married sooner? Was that the thinking?
MONA: I think certainly in the Middle Eastern culture, you know, a girl eventually ending up getting married with a family is always top of mind in all cultures in the Middle Eastern culture particularly.
But again, I emphasize that our parents were always very driven by education and contributions. So never did we hear that, you know, you have to graduate and then you have to get married rather, you need to work super hard because you need to learn so you need to have a passion for learning and when you have a passion for learning you can continue to contribute to society. So this is kind of how we were raised.
HEBAH: So when you say contribute, so education was paramount in your household growing up and contribution, what is contribution?
MONA: Contribution is not being idle. Contribution is finding something you’re good at and giving back to your ecosystem. So contribution is about giving back what you know, positively.
HEBAH: Is that something you pass onto your kids?
MONA: 100%. I mean for me, the biggest point of contention with children, I have three teenagers, the two older boys are hardcore teenagers, I mean they’re 16 years old. For me seeing anybody sitting idle or dilly dallying or watching TV or playing games, all of that is taking over your time. for me that is really painful. It’s painful to watch.
HEBAH: So Mona graduates with a degree in marketing and finance, and starts her career with Procter and Gamble in the US, After, she moves to Switzerland with Johnson and Johsnon. She’s working on the marketing side of things, building global brands and really enjoying it. And then – her brother, Rabea, calls her.
HEBAH: And then in 2000 that’s when you and Rabea, your brother, started Bayt.com?
HEBAH: Can you take me back to that first conversation? How did you guys come up with the idea?
MONA: So, I was based in Zouk right outside Zurich with Johnson & Johnson and I was working on probably the best project of my career. Truly I felt that I had actually reached what I wanted out of a career. And one afternoon my brother called me. My brother is an entrepreneur and as all entrepreneurs do they’re always looking for for need gaps.
What my brother recognized is that a lot of professionals were leaving the region like me, and not coming back as they didn’t know how to connect with the right opportunities. So connecting job Seekers and employers was very very difficult. If an employer wanted to find the job Seeker they had to put an ad in the newspaper. So he wanted to solve that problem. Internet penetration back then was 2%. So people really weren’t online. There was the internet bust, so anyone who was online or had been online had lost a lot of money. So it was actually the worst time to be online.
And while the idea was super compelling and I loved it. I thought. This is a very risky thing for me to do.
I shut the phone with Rabea and I thought about it. And I thought about what I wanted for my life and I recognized that what I wanted is to always be empowered to make the decisions that were right for me.
So I realized that empowerment was something that as an entrepreneur and doing something that is a passion project. Would be greater. The other one is I asked you know, what do I want my legacy to be. Do you know if tomorrow I’m gone? What do I want people to remember me by.
Although it was very high risk, for the reasons I mentioned. I recognized that all of the financial freedoms I had as an employee would disappear. Because as an entrepreneur you don’t make money, sometimes for years, you actually burn money. And I realized that I was going to walk away from something I absolutely loved. So that was a very hard decision, but it was a decision I made and I packed my bags. I resigned, I moved back and I started my journey as an entrepreneur and I have never looked back since.
HEBAH: How did you come to that moment of clarity?
MONA: Whenever I followed my gut instinct, and my gut really does play out almost instantly. My gut was instant. The logic was not.
All the reasons not to do it far outweighed the ones to do it. I continue to weigh the pros and cons and the last Tipping Point… now this happened, maybe 3 or 4 months after that initial conversation.
I wrote down on little pieces of paper all the reasons why I should and should not go down this path and I folded this piece of paper and I put them in the little hat. It is quite comic but that is what I did and I pulled out from this hat and I said this is going to be… you know, the right answer for me is if you believe in kind of destiny or luck, this is what I’m going to do. So I put my hand into this hat and I pulled out the answer and the answer was actually a negative answer, do not do this And that was actually my turning point to do it.
you know, no one’s going to tell me even a piece of paper that I can’t do it. Whatever it was. It was the right Tipping Point for me and the rest is history.
HEBAH: Oh, yeah, why is it called bayt.com?
MONA: That’s a great question. Actually, that’s a great question. It’s called bayt.com because you’re helping a person build their life, their home. So it starts with the home and if you’re able to empower a professional to build their home and to build their life. The initial tagline of bayt on day one, which Rabea came up with was: lifestyle engineering. So you’re able to basically engineer your life through this platform.
HEBAH: So Mona, Rabea, and their founding team, launch bayt.com – which quickly became, and is still to this day, the leading job search site in the Middle East and North Africa. It was profitable within the first year. Which is a huge feat for a startup – it often takes years to become profitable as a company. Uber, for example, which has been around since 2011 as well has yet to turn a profit.
HEBAH: Did you ever remember having to separate personal and business? So like when you were together as a family did you talk about work or was there a boundary of like okay when we’re at dinner all together we go out on Friday for brunch. We can’t talk about work.
MONA: So, look…work because as an entrepreneur work is your life as well as I mean you’re building you’re not.. as an entrepreneur you are building something that you’re passionate about. So it’s part of who we are. So you do not separate really at least we don’t we don’t separate when we meet as an extended family on Fridays. For at my mother’s house for our Friday breakfast. We’re all talking about our challenges, our wins, how we can support each other, etc.
HEBAH: When did you have your three boys, at what point in the Bayt journey?
MONA: So I had… my first two boys were twins, twin boys are fraternal twins. I took two years off completely to be nothing but a mother, so I took all of my energy, all of my passion to just basically raise them for the first two years.
HEBAH: I hear that the hardest thing about stepping back from being an entrepreneur to raising your kids full-time is the intellectual stimulation. Was that ever something that and then you were really excited within two years to go back to the startup grind?
MONA: To be intellectually stimulated has to come from yourself. I am by nature always an avid learner. I love to discover and learn. On the contrary, I think the years when my children were babies were years that I was looking at the world in a different way.
I was learning or relearning… about everything. I would take them to the beach. For example, I put a towel, I’d lay them on their back and we look up at the sky and we talked about the clouds and then I would again.. they’re you know, they’re too so keep in mind. They’re still very young. They don’t understand 90% of what I’m saying, but it’s all going in.
And I would then go, and I would research. Okay. So how do clouds form? Why is the sky blue? why the clouds white? and I would be researching and learning and teaching them. So kind of relearning as a child and with the fascination of a child. I would wake up, so they were twins… so twins, you know, don’t sleep much. I didn’t sleep much. So at 5:30, 6, you’re up with your children. You need to be creative. Otherwise, it’s going to be difficult.
So I really did resort to being a little child, and that was amazing and I look at my boys today, and they have an instilled trait of curiosity and still create a trade of resourcefulness. And I really believe it goes back to these early days where we made everything from anything.
HEBAH: When Mona went back to work after taking some time off to raise her 2 boys, she started thinking about her second startup – what would become Mumzworld, the largest online baby store in the Middle East. Basically anything you need for your kid – diapers, toys, vitamins.. A community of other moms to talk to, experts to ask advice from.. That’s Mumzworld.
HEBAH: So how did we get to working at Bayt still to launching Mumzworld?
MONA: Fast forward when the boys arrived, that journey of motherhood proved to be very very difficult. So although I was loving every moment and enjoying the adventure with them. It was difficult but you recognize that whatever you do, whatever you say whatever you mirror, your children ultimately are going to absorb it like sponges and they are… they are an outcome of you. So your faults or fears as a parent ultimately are not gonna happen in a vacuum. They are going to come out in your children. So you have to be the best version of yourself. So what children really do… is children force you to become a better version of yourself. So if you are impatient, you’re forced to become patient if you shout you’re forced to be calm.
But because the risk is high. So unlike a business you know, you might fail, you fail fast. You learn then you figure it out. You may lose some money. So what? you you get it right the next time, it doesn’t matter, you know, everything can be solved in business. But with your children you make some radical mistakes, you know, it will come back to haunt you in future. That’s at least my perspective.
So this difficulty where I had to be a better version of myself and constantly teach myself and I ordered and read at least 100 books if not more… In 2011, this difficult journey did not end. I was in a constant fear state of how do I be the best mom I can be.
And.. I realized that I was missing a lot of things as a mother that were… that were preventing me from being the best version of myself. One of them is access to quality products. There wasn’t a choice in the market and the choice in the market was actually not at the level and the standard that I wanted for my children. So I was ending up searching online on global sides spending a fortune shipping them to town.
The second problem is information, you know as a mother you’re in constant search for information.
What do I do? How do I do it? When do I do it… etc and this information, the regional information did not exist. So.. and yes, while mother global Information is relevant. There has to be regional specific information and whether it’s about where to take them or about the strollers that actually fit in the sand of the desert, Etc. So information was lacking, Arabic information by the way was non-existent.
In July of 2011. I actually as an entrepreneur I put pen to paper and I said If Only… If only there was a place that I could go to as a mother that I could find the largest choice… objective choice, not something that the store or seller wants to sell me, but an objective choice where I can search I can compare and I can buy myself. Not someone pushing products on me. But I want the widest choice.
It’s no surprise that the region was much more expensive than the world. So a product that I would buy in Dubai was on average, 50, 60, sometimes up to 100 percent more than global sites.
So, I had twins… I was overwhelmed all the time. I didn’t know how to feed them together, I didn’t know if they should be sleeping on the same bed, I didn’t know if they’re fighting when they were one year old was normal or not normal. If only there was a community that I can tap into to really support me and help me that did not exist. If only I knew where to go or had what I wanted accessible at all times, so I didn’t have to try to figure it out.
And that’s really where the seed was sown for Mumzworld.
Mumzworld was conceptualized as a brand that would Empower mothers like me to make the most informed decisions for their children and give the mother control and confidence. That she feels that she’s doing the best for her children.
HEBAH: Since you had a proven track record as an entrepreneur, did that make it easier to raise money?
MONA: So I was never involved in the fundraising for Bayt. With Mumzworld, the fundraising was new, and I had to learn.
If I had any hesitation that was squashed by the fact that I was able to raise seed capital super super super fast.
I wrote the business plan. I shared it with Rabea, just as an FYI and he was excited and he said, you know, if you launch this I’ll be a seed investor and then the rest was history.
HEBAH: Mona recruited a friend to help with business development and her younger brother, another brother, joined as co founders. But while Mumzworld’s first round of fundraising was super easy for them, growing an ecommerce company requires ongoing investment, especially in its first years.
And by 2014, which is kind of a funny thing to say today looking around at all the tech companies, but even 6 years ago, investors in the Arab world were skeptical that ecommerce was a viable business to invest in. So when Mumzworld needed to raise money again, their second round was much harder.
MONA: So they were looking at the horizon thinking that they didn’t have to keep on investing, so that was not positive, they didn’t believe that e-commerce was going to continue to grow, they were questioning whether the Region’s e-commerce ecosystem would continue to expand so there are a lot of questions and perhaps me also as a woman and as a mother of three added a few questions as well, I mean, that was raised in the few of the meetings where I was asked who takes care of your children? I was asked how do you juggle being a mother and being an entrepreneur? I was asked if the customers of Mumzworld were my friends. I got all sorts of questions.
HEBAH: What would you say in response?
MONA: Yeah, so I mean these again… it comes with the territory. It’s irrelevant for me. What was relevant for me was having a business that had very very strong fundamentals that spoke for itself. But the challenge was… we found ourselves coming very very very close to, you know, being cash starved.
That was a very scary period, I remember, you know, coming home at times and telling, you know, my husband and my children that I was actually scared.
When you’re coming to a time when you’re not moving as fast as you need to be, there is fear in that.
HEBAH: How did you get through that?
MONA: Yeah, so you take each day… you take each day as it comes. And you wake up saying today, I’m going to do my best to get closer to the finish line and you figure it out, and you do things differently today than you did yesterday.
And we had many many people close the door in our face and like I said all kinds of answers, e-commerce is a trend that’s going to die, Ecommerce in the ecosystem is irrelevant, you’re a mom you won’t have time, we heard it all.
I called at the time a very renowned and respected entrepreneur who’s Fadi Ghandour, who I admire and I respect a lot and I called him for advice.
That meeting basically very quickly turned into: you have a fantastic business, I love what you’re doing and will invest. Once you have a lead investor everybody follows, so we were able to close the round at just short of eight million dollars.
HEBAH: What did you do to celebrate?
MONA: I breathed…I celebrated by breathing. SO I celebrated by breathing.
That’s how you celebrate. (laughs)
HEBAH: So, to date you’ve raised 50 million u.s. Dollars. Is that right?
MONA: So.. um, we don’t disclose how much we’ve raised because frankly. Yeah. Yeah, we don’t disclose how much we’ve raised for the same reason why I don’t disclose how much money I have sitting in my bank.
HEBAH: What is next for Mumzworld?
MONA: So Mumzworld today is in hyper growth mode. So growth is still aggressive. Expansion, regional expansion, so Saudi today is our biggest market and it’s growing at incredible speeds. But anchoring our leadership in the GCC, and moving to the North African market, and see what opportunities are in expansion beyond that as well, so that’s very important. We have over 2.5 million mothers who engage in our community, we engage with experts to support mothers.
Our choice of products, today we have over 20,000 exclusive products on Mumzworld. We have our own Brands.
I think the success of Mumzworld comes from addressing a key important relevant consumer need, and constantly driving ourselves to do that better than someone else, more uniquely and giving moms unique solutions. That’s what has attributed, to really get into the psychographics of the regional mother and understanding that mother in the yard and Hobart and demand.
What does she really want? What are the pain points of the mother in Ras Al Khaima and Fujaïrah. That’s what has been our driver of success.
HEBAH: And I’ve read I think in some other interviews, certain times you were working 365 days a year, seven days a week. What do you do to balance? Is there a balance? Can there be a balance?
MONA: I think working nonstop or working seven-day weeks, working long stretches. It’s not a good thing. It’s not… it’s not healthy mentally. It’s not healthy physically. It’s not mentally emotionally … something’s gotta give. So, I have to reconcile this balance and make sure that if I am working very long stretches, I have to be very conscious that I don’t burn out, that I pull back and do things that will support me, and give me the rest that I need.
This week for example, I am running on a thousand miles an hour at work. And that means that my focus on my time with my children this week has been compromised, it has… so I haven’t… I didn’t go to my son’s rugby game, I didn’t go to my other boy’s class talk.
I just wasn’t… I didn’t have the hours in the day to do that, yet they understand, but because I had this balance shift this week to the commitments at work, next week I have to re shift. It’s not easy. It’s not for everyone.
HEBAH: what’s your favorite thing to do with your kids?
MONA: Lots of things, we… in general love spending time together. So on the weekend, we always have a weekend evenings out where we go have dinner and we play games, you know, mind games and get-to-know-you-better games. Music is also rampant in our household. All my children play multiple instruments. I play instruments. So we always have music in the house. And this is something that we love and it inspires all of us.
HEBAH: What instruments do you play?
MONA: I play the piano, my youngest plays the piano and the trumpet, and my older plays the piano and the saxophone..
HEBAH: That’s so beautiful, I love the saxophone and the piano.
MONA: Yes, it is beautiful… the saxophone.
DANA: This episode was produced by Tamara Rasamny, Alex Atack, Hebah Fisher, and myself, Dana Ballout. Sound design by Alex Atack, and mixing by Mohamad Khreizat. // sound design and mixing by Mohamad Khreizat, and fact-checking by Zeina Dowidar. Our original sting was composed by Ramzi Bashour, and Al Empire is produced by the Kerning Cultures Network. If you’re liking Al Empire, please subscribe to the show so you’ll never miss an episode. Also leave us a rating and review on whatever podcast app you’re listening to us from. Be honest, but also give a little love. It really helps boost our rankings, so that other listeners can find out about us in the podcast libraries. And next week on Al Empire…
BERNARD KHOURY: I pull one or two all-nighters a week still, until 4, 5 or 6 in the morning in my office, which is just a couple of hundred metres away from… and I love it. I love it when at 1 or 2 in the morning, and the complete silence of this area that still has not been revived, I hear boom boom boom boom.. You know, the bass…
That’s in 1 week.
Thanks for listening guys, take care.