A rising star on business horizon

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Updated 22 May 2013
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A rising star on business horizon

Saudi businesswoman Sofana Dahlan is the CEO and founder of Tashkeil, the first Middle Eastern platform to help creatives succeed by equipping, facilitating and fostering them to reach their full potential. As a creative entrepreneur, motivational speaker and life coach, Dahlan focuses on guiding and incubating other creative entrepreneurs through the Tashkeil platform to help expand their businesses and give them the opportunities, network and know-how to help them flourish. To fulfill this mission, Dahlan has appeared in various media, such as Al-Jazeera, LBC, MBC, Al-Hayat, Al-Watan, Saudi Gazette and Arab News.
We met Dahlan at the Tashkeil office and Creative Space in Jeddah and talked about her early life and how she built her company from scratch.
Having served as a lawyer, banker, consultant and adviser throughout her professional career, she views herself as just simply Sofana. “Throughout my years I learned that by working hard and to one’s full potential is what truly builds up your self image. It is important to have pride and respect for good and honest work. There are many professionals out there that act out of self-importance or claim ethics without having a clear picture of what that means. In reality the ones that are most grounded have the clearest sense of where they want to go. This understanding came after a lot of experiences, challenges and reflections. When you really know who you are, you develop your weaknesses and build on your strengths. Then you can then start defining yourself. At this stage in my life, I define myself as a Tashkeilist.”
The essence of her experiences in life — from being exposed to various cultures, traveling, diverse careers, social life and studies — has shaped Dahlan into who she has become today.
“My parents really invested in our education. I never understood why my mother homeschooled us after our actual school hours. We learned everything from piano lessons, tennis training, martial arts, French lessons, Qur’an classes to calligraphy,” she said. “I remember when I was 12 I became rebellious and I kept asking my mother why everyone I knew only studied at school, but we had to do all these extra classes. She explained that school classes help you be a part of society. Homeschooling is to help you develop your personality and be unique.” In my later years, I understood that these side activities helped shape my personality and build it tremendously,” she added.
Dahlan decided to study Law and serve as a rolemodel for other Saudi women to actively contribute to their society. She later graduated at the Faculty of Law in Cairo University and acquired a bachelor’s degree in Law and a master’s degree in Islamic Law. She was also the first Saudi female that the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education gave permission to study law.
After graduating Dahlan pursued different corporate careers, while obtaining and MBA degree, in Lebanon and Kuwait. After six years, she moved back to Beirut and discovered Tashkeil.
When Dahlan informed her father about wanting to start her own business he told her: “I invested in a lawyer, you want to be anything else that’s your choice but you’re on your own.”
This independence was the best gift anyone could give her. “I wanted to start over and look for something new. I wanted to meet a few goals for my society and for the society that my daughters were going to live in. I made a list of all my experiences, my studies and my personal background and that’s how I got the idea to start Tashkeil. It reflected my identity and many of those around me in society,” she said.
Tashkeil started as a social enterprise that helped promote independent designers to assist them with their branding, strategic positioning, operations and legal matters. A socio-economic model was then developed that served as a sustainable goal to help designers in the Middle East develop the skills and creativity to facilitate their direct participation in the development of proper projects, which was presented at the United Nations in 2011. From the beginning, Dahlan was determined to make the business a success. “I did not have the funds to start it, so I started giving courses to designers on how to read their contracts in a very creative way because they are visual people. This is how I combined my Law and MBA experience to provide the courses,” said Dahlan. “I asked how much it would cost me to create my company and I was informed that I would need up to $ 20,000 (SR 75,000). I didn’t have that much money,” she added. Luckily, her uncle is in the coffee business and her husband’s family owned a date farm. Dahlan walked into her kitchen and found a huge number of gift baskets full of Arabic coffee and dates right before Ramadan. “I remember taking them all, loading them into my car and heading to Bahamdoun, a region in Lebanon where people from the Gulf stay. I thought it was the perfect product at the perfect time because everyone wants coffee and dates during Ramadan,” she said. “I remember making $ 5,000 (SR 18,750) from selling the gifts. To me it was the most precious money I ever made in my life.”
Dahlan discovered she was an entrepreneur, as she identified an opportunity and knew when the time was right for the product and how to sell it. “After registering the company, I moved to Saudi Arabia because I wanted to invest in my own country and discover local designers.”
As her business partner and shareholder, Yolanda Perez, a former JP Morgan investment banker, joined Tashkeil SAL in Lebanon in 2011. “It has been a great pleasure working with Sofana. She is not a conventional person and always has new ideas and thoughts to bring to the table. Coming from different cultures and professional backgrounds, allowed us to integrate radical and beneficial ideas into our consulting work to help our clients. We love the fact that we have gotten to a stage where we are able to choose which clients we want to work with, regardless of the size. This is how you differentiate true passion for a career from a job. I have seen her inspire many Saudis of different backgrounds through her approach and ability to make a difference in their lives. Some people say she is aggressive and overzealous, most probably because she is quickly becoming known as a prominent businesswoman and role model in a very short time. I say that the market is aggressive and if a business cannot run with it, then it shuts down. Others just want to be like her.”
In a span of two years, Dahlan hosted and met many international guests. In 2011, she was selected as the first Saudi Fellow for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and the same year was also chosen as one of the participants in the Harvard Executive Program for Emerging Arab Leaders, where she presented Tashkeil as a social platform for change and development. She also spoke at the closing UNAOC session in December 2011 with Sheikha Moza and the President of Austria. Dahlan is the first Middle Eastern person to be chosen for the Amsterdam School of Creative Leadership and was recently nominated as their ambassador for the region. “I joined the program with the School of Creative Leadership in 2012, because it was very beneficial to understand my different leadership styles and realize them. A manager and a leader are different, if you are a leader you can be a manager but if you are a manager you cannot be a leader and they taught me the difference,” she added.
She is also a member of the board of directors of the RSDFHD Foundation for Human Development, a foundation focused on building leadership capacity in the field of human development in the Arab World. Last year, she served as a part-time marketing lecturer at UBT College of Business Administration. “I accepted this job, because I needed to know how this new generation thinks. I wanted to learn more about our current society,” she said.
“I thought I was settling down as an entrepreneur but I discovered that my company needed a solid leader and someone who is stable and not a risk taker. We needed someone who could set policies and procedures to continuously improve on our work methods. My major role will always be a motivator among my people inside and outside the office,” she said. “My advice to young Saudis starting a business is to have confidence in yourself and not resort to copying or unethical behavior. The best thing about a market is that there is competition. This allows services to develop quicker for the wider audience. We have had many experiences where individuals and companies have used our words on their websites or modified theirs to match ours, tried to copy our work and sell them to clients, make unfounded claims against us and we even had a call from a businessman claiming he will start Tashkeil in his country whether we liked it or not. We laughed and told him to go ahead, because we realized through all our efforts, we have actually motivated people to start acting. People are speaking our language and training themselves to see like we see and we cannot ask for anything more,” she explained. “Secondly, I would warn them to be very careful about who they bring on board to give them advice. The market is full of many people claiming to be consultants with no industry experience. This can prove very detrimental to work projects, so do a thorough background check to ensure that they have sufficient industry knowledge. Trust your instincts.”
With the recent launch of the Creative Space and Design Road in May, this has proven an already hectic year. Through regional partnerships with entities such as the British Council and the Creative Dialogue Association in Spain, Dahlan and her partner have recently recruited a board of advisers from different types of industries, such as Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, CEO of Alfa International and Al Hama LLC, who has provided instrumental support and inspiration to them in the past year.
“We hope to get the public and private sectors involved to help sponsor creative people in our region, from the starting scholarships to funding their education to help them establish their own businesses and spawn a new generation of creative entrepreneurs, or as we like to call them: Tashkeilists,” said Dahlan.

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Blame it on Bieber: Iceland canyon too popular with visitors

Updated 19 May 2019
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Blame it on Bieber: Iceland canyon too popular with visitors

  • Iceland received around 2.3 million tourists last year
  • The influx of visitors can disturb the natural landscapes in the country

FJADRÁRGLJÚFUR, Iceland: A large sign warns motorists that Iceland’s Fjadrárgljúfur canyon is closed to visitors but drivers keep on coming down the narrow gravel road. A ranger at a roadblock has to explain why no one can pass: The vulnerable landscape cannot sustain more visitors.
Blame Justin Bieber, the Canadian pop star with a worldwide reach.
Bieber’s magical music video “I’ll Show You” was filmed at the canyon and seen by millions, creating overwhelming demand for the once-pristine spot. For a chance to follow in Bieber’s footsteps, his fans are not letting a few fences, signs or park rangers keep them away.

Eager visitors try to sweet-talk ranger Hanna Jóhannsdóttir into opening the gate. Some offer bribes. They should know in advance it’s not going to work.
“Food from people’s home country is the most common bribery,” said Jóhannsdóttir, who recently turned down a free trip to Dubai in exchange for looking the other way at trespassers.
The Bieber-inspired influx is one part of a larger challenge for Iceland — the North Atlantic island nation may be too spectacular and too popular for its own good.
Last year 2.3 million tourists visited Iceland, compared with just 600,000 eight years ago. The 20% annual uptick in visitors has been out of proportion with infrastructure that is needed to protect Iceland’s volcanic landscape, where soil forms slowly and erodes quickly.
Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson said it is “a bit too simplistic to blame the entire situation on Justin Bieber” but urged famous, influential visitors to consider the consequences of their actions.
“Rash behavior by one famous person can dramatically impact an entire area if the mass follows,” he told The Associated Press.
Bieber has the third-largest Twitter account at over 105 million followers, after Katy Perry and Barack Obama, according to friendorfollow.com — and he has over 112 million followers on Instagram.
In the viral video — watched over 440 million times on YouTube since 2015 — Bieber stomped on mossy vegetation, dangled his feet over a cliff and bathed in the freezing river underneath the sheer walls of the canyon.
“In Justin Bieber’s defense, the canyon did not, at the time he visited, have rope fences and designated paths to show what was allowed and what not,” Gudbrandsson said.
Over 1 million people have visited the area since the release of the video, the Environment Agency of Iceland estimates, leaving deep scars on its vegetation. After remaining closed for all but five weeks this year, it is expected to reopen again this summer only if weather conditions are dry.
Icelanders are reluctant to fault the pop star, who enjoys enormous support on the island. About 12% of Iceland’s entire population — 38,000 people — attended his two concerts in Reykjavík, the capital, a year after the video was released.
Locals underestimated the canyon’s potential as a major attraction because it’s relatively small compared to those formed by the country’s powerful glacier rivers. But unlike others, it is easily accessed and requires less than a kilometer of trekking.
The selfies and drone images have stopped — for now — but more exposure is coming. The latest season of the popular HBO drama “Game of Thrones” features scenes filmed at the canyon. The nearby Skógar waterfall and the Svínafells glacier are also backdrops in the fictional Thrones world of warriors and dragons.
Inga Palsdottir, director of the national tourism agency Visit Iceland, said a single film shot or a viral photograph has often put overlooked places on the map.
The most extreme example, she said, is the Douglas DC-3 US Navy plane that crashed on the black sand beach at Sólheimasandur in 1973. The seven Americans on board all survived but the plane wreck was never removed.
“Then someone decided to dance on it and now it’s one of the most popular places in the country,” said Palsdottir.
On a foggy Wednesday morning, ranger Jóhannsdóttir observed fresh footprints on the muddy pathway to the Fjadrárgljúfur canyon, indicating that someone had jumped the fence overnight.
She predicted that more people would trespass that afternoon when she left the roadblock to give a presentation at a community center. She was right. Less than 30 minutes passed before tourists began ignoring the fences and signs.
“We came because of Justin Timberlake,” said Mikhail Samarin, a tourist from Russia, traveling with Nadia Kazachenok and Elena Malteseva, who were quick to correct the artist’s last name to Bieber.
“It was so amazing,” said Malteseva about the Bieber video. “After that, we decided it was necessary to visit this place.”
The three took turns posing for a photograph, standing at the edge of an Icelandic cliff.