Run Habibti, Run!

Ankush is a journalist hailing from India, who has edited and written for publications in his home country, the UAE, US, and UK. Previously the editor of Gulf Business in Dubai and of Entrepreneur in India, Ankush is a keen student of economics, a follower of Manchester United since 1996 and a disciple of Archer.

Every year, a few hundred men and women climb a big pile of volcanic rocks in Africa. Stacked up to 4,900 meters (or 16,000 feet), this pile, collectively known as Mt. Kilimanjaro has long enthralled first-time big mountain climbers to hike up its now fast-receding snowy reaches.

Once up there, climbing that peak, an epic exercise in achievement, climbers typically either claim to have ‘found themselves’ or ‘found a purpose’ to their lives.

Qatari entrepreneurs Haya Al Ghanim and Amina Ahmadi, who prefer to be dressed according to tradition and their beliefs, found something different—discomfort.

And that discomfort started much earlier than when they came upon the mountain in Tanzania. Ahmadi recollects the time they were getting prepared for the climb in the concrete jungle that is urban Doha.

“Haya and I had to train outdoors for almost a year. We had to take long walks, a minimum of two kilometers every day. We were climbing the stairs of the highest buildings in Doha getting our fitness and strength up,” she says.

But this was an uncomfortable preparation.

Sportswear, which is both climatically and aesthetically correct for conservative societies like that in Doha, was not there in the market. “Exercising in Abayas was not an option,” Ahmadi says in a firm voice.

“And we ended up mixing and matching multiple layers of different clothes…uncomfortable and unwieldy.”

Uncomfortable is how Al Ghanim describes her attempts to get her quotas of runs in Doha, back from Boston (she did her MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management), where she would run regularly.

“Even in Boston, I did not have that functional, stylish, but appropriate apparel to run in,” she says.

“And then I moved to Doha, where running is not very common among ladies who are covered. At the same time, the heat did not help when I tried to layer up. So, I was all at sea, and I felt this pain. I also felt like I was the only one going crazy with the problem.”

The new year hike to Mt. Kilimanjaro was Ahmadi’s idea. By the time they made it to the mountain, the idea spread and the group grew, and they met many more women who were facing a similar issue.

“And that’s when we decided that once we get back, we were going to do something about it,” says Ahmadi.

Doing something about it was what resulted in Oola Sports, a Doha-based brand of modesty-inspired sportswear, aimed at a target audience of women, especially those in the Gulf, who want to be covered appropriately but at the same time, want to get out and get fit. Although Ahmadi is reluctant to say that Oola is aimed squarely at hijabi women.

“I would like to say that this is not just sportswear for hijabi women, but for women across the spectrum who have a personal preference for wearing something loose and long.”

From Brazil to Doha

Coming back to Doha from the hike, the duo got down to working out how they were going to address this problem women like them were facing. There was just one tiny problem, though. They did not know enough about apparel design and production.

Al Ghanim, now the CEO at Oola, had worked all her adult life helping entrepreneurs and startups with her roles at Qatari government-backed institutions like the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP).

Ahmadi, now the firm’s design and product development director, has a background in architecture and has worked in project management, on projects like Education City.

Al Ghanim did in this situation what everyone who has ever done an MBA does—she reached out to her network.

The wife of one of her fellow students at MIT Sloan was a fashion designer, and she contacted her asking for recommendations on people who could potentially work on a project like this, sending her their ideas.

“I would like to say that this is not just sportswear for hijabi women, but for women across the spectrum who have a personal preference for wearing something loose and long.”

But instead of names, Lilian Gabriel de Almeida Barbosa, a Brazilian citizen, and an Austrian resident, came back with multiple sketches and designs. The designs were a perfect fit, Al Ghanim tells us, and Barbosa came onboard the Oola team as its third co-founder.

“I assumed she would not be interested something like this, you know, being from Brazil,” she says. “But her designs were just perfect.”

Barbosa is first to admit that it is okay to be perplexed hearing of a Brazilian designing modest activewear for women, given that her culture and sensibilities allow for women to be way more flexible in what they can or want to wear.

“At first, I honestly could not believe that you could not find something for women like Haya in this day and age,” says Barbosa. “She told me about her struggles to find the right outfit that could fit her personal and cultural beliefs.”

Even though she comes from a culture that does not place restrictions or has traditions that require women to be covered outdoors, Barbosa says she found herself quickly identifying with their situation. “I looked at this as a problem-solving exercise,” she says, adding that if anything, this was more exciting, designing for this segment.

It was a challenge for sure, to design apparel that is not only perfect for the climate but also has the aesthetics as wished for by women native to the Gulf region. “It was a struggle to find fabric that is lightweight, suitable for extreme weather but still is not see-through,” she explains.

“The design goal was then to use this material to make sportswear that was loose, could cover appropriately, and allow women to participate easily in sports.”

For the crowd, from the crowd

Al Ghanim tells us that the team worked for a year and a half before they released the first collection, exploring the idea starting early 2015 and releasing it to the market in late 2016.

“In our first collection, we looked at things that we thought were missing,” Al Ghanim says. “We wanted to make sportswear that was technically correct for sports, and at the same time, stylish enough for me wear outdoors at a casual café with friends.”

In that sense, Oola is targeted at women looking for the experience of participating in an outdoor sport and not necessarily competition.

Ahmadi says that a lot of technical research and sessions of customer feedback occurred, including with their Kilimanjaro friends, before they hit the market. The team went through multiple iterations of designs, creating samples and introducing them in gatherings of women to take on their feedback, which was around fit, color, and function.

“The feedback was very helpful,” Al Ghanim adds. “People gave a lot of feedback regarding colors and sports that they would want such sportswear for. Many in the sampling process wanted to not even wait for the official collection and just buy the samples from us. Apart from helping us in our process, this exercise also validated our ideas and designs.”

Further validation came when the time came to look for funds to take Oola’s designs from prototype to production. Unlike what would have been expected from local entrepreneurs, they went the way of crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding is not a usual fundraising tool in the Gulf region. When the Oola team first went this way, they got bombarded with questions and calls if everything was alright, and if they needed any money.

“We crowdfunded because we wanted to see the traction of our product and wanted to know about the magnitude of the problem. People here are not used to pre-ordering something they have not seen, so this was done to check if the idea stuck,” says Al Ghanim.

Launched in October 2016, the crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo saw the firm raising $36,281, against a goal of $15,000—225% on the original target.

“We were pleasantly surprised. Seeing our local community participate and getting early backers from around the world was just the validation that we needed. It really wasn’t about raising the money.”

Oola is currently in its bootstrapping phase, having moved from prototype to production thanks to a facility in Taiwan that has manufactured its entire range.

“At first, I honestly could not believe that one could not find something for women like Haya in this day and age.”

“It took us a while and checking on many manufacturers before we arrived at this facility,” says Ahmadi.

Oola’s current range is available to ship worldwide via its website.

In addition, it is also available locally in Doha via its local partnership inked in early 2017 with Sports Corner, a multi-brand sports retail chain.

And the initial response to the range has been more than promising, according to the Oola team.

Mario Miquel, marketing manager at Sports Corner, says that they approached Oola after hearing about them through social media channels, mainly Instagram, and seeing the kind of interest they were generating there.

“We saw the uniqueness of their products and knew that they would match with our retail ambitions. We saw that they were taking care of the production process from A to Z and the quality was really good…we made the approach as soon as we could.”

According to Miquel, Sports Corner currently stocks Oola sportswear in three of their 11 stores…sales and traction in which would further dictate if they stock Oola at their other outlets in Doha. “The feedback we are getting from our customers from day one has been quite positive. The target audience, Arab women who prefer to be covered, had been waiting for this line to hit the stores,” says Miquel. “Oola has really cornered a proper niche in the sportswear market.”

Sports Corner, Miquel says, wanted to stock Oola before Qatar’s National Sports Day, around which, expectedly, the interest from customers spiked.

Removing the hurdles

The day is a national holiday in Qatar and has a primary objective of promoting a healthy and sporty lifestyle among its population. Events like the Sports Day have been pivotal in pushing the Oola story.

A big push for the brand came at this year’s Sports Day when H.H. Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser appeared in public wearing Oola Sportswear. “That was a dream come true,” gushes Al Ghanim, aware of what such a public endorsement would mean for the Oola brand locally in Qatar.

Oola is currently relying heavily on the product marketing itself through word of mouth and social media channels, says Ahmadi, as well as a blog, where the team engages readers in their journey so far.

Al Ghanim says that events, some of which they organize, have been pivotal in brand building. The team also attends trade fairs and events all the time to develop both the audience and the products. Also, organizations like the Qatar Foundation, Qatar Development Bank, and Qatar Business Incubation Center (where Oola is based out of for now), have been instrumental in helping the startup find its feet in the competitive retail market.

“And then staff has gone out of its way,” says Al Ghanim. “We all do a bit of everything. We are a small team. Having said that, we all have our strengths, and we take the lead in that.”

“Everyone gets involved in sales somehow, though,” she adds, pointing to the nature of the retail business. “For now, we are building our business model…we want to be sustainable [rather than expand].”

The immediate goal, she says, is to be ready for the summer when Oola’s second collection hits the shelves. This time, the team is going beyond running and hiking, and looking at products for triathletes, swimmers and horse riders.

But the broader goal, she states, is to make sport a part of daily life in Qatar.

“We want to make it easier for every woman to indulge in outdoor sports. Yes, a gradual cultural shift is needed. But we are here removing the hurdles.”