By Kelly Ann Crane
Emirati businesswoman Shaima Al Shirawi is multi-tasking personified.
With a full-time job as an adjudicator at the Central Bank of the UAE, she’s also a self-made entrepreneur, wife and mother-of-one, and eight-and-a-half months pregnant.
For this go-getter, juggling work and life requires a delicate balance of determination, tenacity and the occasional desperate plea for help from friends and family.
“A support network is an absolute must,” says Al Shirawi, who is one of three sisters who started a joint venture in 2012.
An MBA graduate from the American University in Dubai and co-founder of Miyabi Sushi & Bento, Al Shirawi admits that life as an Emirati woman entrepreneur is challenging.
“Of course it’s not easy,” she says. “But nothing worth fighting for ever is. I wanted something other than my job, something to call my own.”
Inspired by a chain of the same name, Miyabi is fresh from the cosmopolitan streets of San Francisco. The casual Japanese eatery offers a wide range of menu varieties, from salads and light bites to noodles, rice and some Korean dishes.
In just three years, Al Shirawi and her two sisters have opened three locations: Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai Media City and on the Palm Jumeirah.
But while the concept translated perfectly from San Francisco to sandpit, it wasn’t an easy sell in the beginning, according to Al Shirawi.
“It took more than three months even to get an email back from the team in the U.S.,” explains Al Shirawi. “We emailed and called and wrote and had no reply. At first it was confusing and then we had a telephone call from the owner in San Francisco and we began to understand the silence.”
It turns out the owners and founders of Miyabi couldn’t understand why a trio of Emirati women would want to open a sushi shop in the middle of the desert.
“We had to fly the owner and his son to Dubai to help them understand the landscape. As you can imagine it was a matter of hours before they realised their mistake and the agreement was made.”
From an empty shell of a restaurant to three branches with more than 70 staff offering dine-in, takeaway and catering services, Miyabi soon had a loyal fan base.
“Profits have increased around 30-40 percent month-on-month, which is not a figure we expected at all,” said Al Shirawi. “It has been very encouraging, which has certainly made it feel very worthwhile.”
But it wasn’t always California sunshine wraps and Maki rainbow rolls.
In 2012, when the first store began taking shape on Sheikh Zayed Road, the difficulties far outweighed the customer compliments.
“It was very challenging at first. We faced a lot of difficulties. Recruitment, design, set up, operations, admin – you name, it, we had problems,” says the Emirati.
“We owe a great deal to my father,” she happily admits. “Whenever there was a problem he was around to offer advice, encouragement and ideas for solutions. But he always left it up to us. He would come and support, he was never going to let us give up.”
The customers were coming but the lack of paid street parking near the store proved a big problem.
“You need to be flexible in business and have the ability to adapt,” says Al Shirawi. “We didn’t realise when we chose the first store that parking was important. It was hard for customers to reach us, they would come and tell us there is no parking.”
Private parking was acquired after a meeting with building management. “You have to put your customers first, no matter what your business,” says Al Shirawi.
The next goal for the “Sushi Sisters”, as they are fast becoming lovingly known, is a fourth store later this year. The aim is seven branches by 2020 before a jump to either another emirate in the UAE or somewhere in the wider GCC.
“If you have a passion for something and you like what you do, then you’ll be fine,” says Al Shirawi. “I urge all wannabe entrepreneurs to hold that passion in their heart, never give up and have a ridiculous amount of faith in yourself.”
The Emirati believes the beginning is the hardest part and determination gets you through.
“I wanted to do something my father would be proud of and I feel we’ve managed that so far,” says Al Shirawi. “It was also important to me to do something that would have an impact, no matter how big or small, on the country that is my home. That has always inspired me to achieve.”