A Discussion with Omar Itani and Elie Nasr.
Business owners are coming to terms with the reality that business will be anything but normal over the coming months as the impact of multiple crises continues to escalate. How can we not just survive this tumultuous time in Lebanon and the world, but also help everybody thrive through it all?
On March 4th, I joined the LGA community for an open-hearted discussion with business owners from Lebanon, who shared their insights on how they are working to respond to one of the most challenging times of the century. Elie Nasr from FOO and Omar Itani from FabricAID generously shared their insights on how they’ve been dealing with the local, regional and global situation in the past year.
Elie Nasr is an entrepreneur and the co-founder of FOO, a fintech company that invests in research and development through a dedicated agile team working continuously on product implementation and different roadmap innovation features. FOO leads solution providers in the region with its proximity to customers in the Gulf region and its multi-lingual developers.
FOO was based in Beirut, and after facing different challenges, including political instability and the Beirut blast of August 4, they cut their losses and built an offshore team, while continuously recruiting in Lebanon. They moved their holding structure to the UAE as part of their continuity plans.
Omar Itani is the general manager of FabricAID. FabricAID is a social enterprise that collects, sorts, and redistributes clothes to disadvantaged communities at microprices. They collect second hand clothes from Non-Governmental organisations, academic institutions and businesses. Their goal is to deliver good quality clothing into the hands of people who need them while reducing fabric waste, and to ensure that everyone gets a dignified shopping experience, with items that they can browse through, try on in a changing room, see if they fit and are to their liking, and buy at a very affordable price.
FabricAID’s sustainability is ensured by SecondBase, Souk Okaz and mainly donations. Second Base is a local vintage shop that sells great quality pieces at a higher margin to sustain operations, while Souk Okaz is a place where people can buy and sell second hand clothes from reputable fast fashion brands at good prices. They also have second-hand shops located in marginalized areas in Lebanon, called Souk L Khlanj, that are booming at the moment due to the current economic situation.
They established their holding company in UAE to protect themselves from the turbulence, although they are increasing the size of their operations in Lebanon and Jordan.
Q: If you are an enterprise that has been operating in Lebanon, and you want to explore working outside of Lebanon, but have no experience. How would you approach that? Any quick tips for opening markets abroad, and hopefully keeping operations and markets in Lebanon as well?
If you don’t have the means, think about partnering. In the beginning, you can partner up with someone, and by doing that you have a minimal investment in leaving Lebanon. When you have the funds, you need to assess each market, they’re all different.
I’m a huge believer that doing a business in Lebanon can be sustainable, helpful and quite competitive in certain fields/industries. The tax rate is lower, the rent is much more affordable. It would make sense for these industries to manufacture certain products in Lebanon. When it comes to expanding, in my experience, I would focus on the ease of establishing the company in that country, so choose markets that allow you to go in easier. An extra tip would be to have active investors, too. Saying their names will give you credibility.
Q: Are there any mistakes you made that you would have wished to have done differently?
Lebanon isn’t a hub where you can test your product and then export it to the region. When we get involved in other countries in the region, you get differences in terms of technology, market needs, market readiness for certain technologies. It’s not a good place to check the product market fit, especially that it’s a small country, a small scale.
You’re making a big mistake if you think you’re only protecting your employees by only paying them decent salaries. FabricAID is doing everything to engage the team and its morale. More volunteering, society, efforts in Human Resources to keep the team motivated. It needs a conscious effort.
Q: You both work with tech in very non-tech sectors.
Elie, what is the importance of tech in agriculture?
Elie: By using technology you can control different variables that ensure that you have healthy produce and the fastest time to market. We’re controlling the quality, temperature, humidity, sunlight intake, and different variables. We make sure to avoid any issues, for example, making sure we don’t need to use any pesticides. In that way, we deliver something close to organic / clean.
Omar, you work in fashion and clothing, what’s the importance of tech in your work?
Omar: We have 150,000 clothing items. Through technologies that we developed in-house, we know how many white socks we have, for example. Without having full control over inventory and inventory technology, we could have never operated the way we do today.
Q: Is networking as important for tech products as for other industries?
Elie: Big time, exposure!
Omar: Yes, definitely.
Q: What are some of the most critical skills that you and your employees need to adapt in this critical time?
Elie: I would say culture, reading a lot. Being open to change.
Omar: Listening skills. Listening to feedback, to others, to themselves.
Q: What are some critical ways to make sure your team is mentally positive and focused?
We try to bring in projects that are interesting for the team, projects of big caliber that would make them look forward to working. We make sure that all employees are capable of covering their costs and saving money. We want them to get engaged, interested, to keep their minds busy and their standards high.
We go on team trips, make a lot of space for bonding experiences. We give appropriate salaries to make sure that everyone is at ease, and would even give small loans to our team members. On top of that, we include social and psychological support, and have a team member specialized in that to ensure that everyone is going in the right direction, towards self-love and happiness.
Q: With all of these changes in the world, if you were to launch in a new market/sector, what is very promising?
Omar: Circular fashion!
Looks like Omar and Elie wouldn’t change anything for the world! I love leaving an event with a sense of hope for the future. If you feel the same way, or have interesting information or answers to the questions we asked, let us know in the comments or by DM on social media!
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