The first things you notice about Amina Ahmadi are the effortless elegance with which she wears her abaya and her genuine politeness. Behind this graceful façade is a strong, ambitious, perfectionist of a woman who left a secure job and invested her savings into launching a start-up in Doha. Amina tells us about her journey from full-time architect at Qatar Foundation to co-founder of Oola, Qatar’s first modest sportswear company.
Oola—the feminine form of the Arabic word for “the first” or “pioneer”—designs and sells modest sportswear in a bid to give women in hijab an alternative to women-only gyms and a chance to exercise outdoors comfortably.
Tell me a bit about your professional background
I got my bachelor degree in architecture from the American University of Sharjah, and then I joined Qatar Foundation as an architect trainee. After a Master of Science degree in advanced architectural studies in London and almost a decade on the ground at Qatar Foundation, I became a technical director there. The management and design skills I learned at Qatar Foundation helped me greatly to develop my own business—working on big projects such as Education City gave me the confidence to believe that nothing is impossible. Both Haya and I were Qatar Foundation employees for a long time and we consider it our family. The leadership and team there have shown endless kindness and support to our venture and ambition.
What inspired you to launch Oola?
A crazy adventure! My business partner, Haya Al Ghanim, a family friend and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and raised funds for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund in January 2015. On a physical level, this was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but also a unique experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life. Throughout the training we underwent in the year leading to our Kilimanjaro adventure, Haya and I, who both wear hijabs, struggled to find sportswear that would be in line with our values: we wanted comfortable, loose-fitting clothes that were not see-through and we realised then that the sportswear industry does not offer anything near what we needed. We ended up layering articles of clothing, but that didn’t prove to be efficient or comfortable. On top of that, we wore our hijabs, which we couldn’t keep on our heads. That’s when we decided we had to do something about it, and that’s how Oola came to exist.
What will define Oola’s success?
Our measure of success keeps changing as we evolve as a business. Oola soft launched in October 2016 with a crowdfunded Indiegogo campaign. It was a successful campaign—we reached our financial goal, but just as importantly, it gave us a sense of the demand for our products.
The next step is to see our garments in shops in Doha—we are currently discussing retail partnerships. This will be another important measure of success. Following that, we aim to market Oola globally as we strongly believe that many women around the world need its products.
Did your family support your idea to launch a business?
Family support was and continues to be immensely important. When I first launched Oola, I wasn’t married, but I knew that my parents and the rest of my family were entirely behind me. My parents’ prayers and encouragement have been of tremendous moral support. My brother and nephew, for example, joined me on a photo shoot we did for the Oola website. The messages I receive from my relatives and friends give me a great push all the time. Since I got married, my husband has been very understanding of the time I spend on Oola. Knowing that my family is behind me was key to reaching my professional goals. By the way, I still use some space at my parents’ house as storage for Oola!
What challenges did you encounter setting up a start-up?
When we founded Oola, my business partner Haya and I both had full-time jobs so finding time to focus on Oola and managing that time efficiently was the biggest challenge for us.
What advice would you give to women who want to start a business in Doha?
Qatar has tremendous and unique opportunities. I think that whoever starts a business here has a chance to contribute to the global market, not just the local one. If you believe in your business idea and you are passionate about it, go for it and be committed. Don’t wait until someone else does it!
How do you balance work and personal life?
I haven’t reached the balance yet! It’s an ongoing challenge, albeit a pleasant one. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and the truth is that reaching full work-life balance is not always straightforward, and sometimes it’s just not feasible. I do my best to achieve balance in my life, and I celebrate the days where I feel that I’ve juggled everything, but I’m not always successful, and that’s ok. If I had a clear, straightforward routine, there would be no excitement in my life. Having said that, keeping a healthy lifestyle is a great tool to achieve both personal and professional goals.
What motivates you to work hard every day?
The feeling that I’m doing my part, that I’m contributing to my community. With Oola, we aim to help more women experience the pleasure of exercising outdoors. That is what led me to a more balanced and happier life in the first place.
They say happiness is in the small things. What makes you happy?
Seeing my husband and children smile, my parents in good health, playing with my nephews, having a productive meeting with the Oola team—this is my definition of happiness. If you wait for a big miracle to happen, you end up overlooking the many reasons to be happy every day. When we were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, we realised the adventure was not about reaching the top. The fun we had preparing for the hike, the money we gathered for the children and the support we gave one another throughout the journey—that was the highest peak we could reach.
Tell me one thing about yourself that you would never change…
I would never change my values. Our values are also the drive behind Oola, the reason we decided to innovate rather than compromise.
… and one that you’re working to improve!
Keeping my cool, staying calm at stressful times is definitely something I am working towards. I like to think that focusing on the important things and letting go of what you cannot control becomes easier with age. Being an entrepreneur has also helped me learn to prioritise.
To learn more about Oola and their products, visit oolasports.com.