Five years ago, the Egyptian food industry was introduced to a whole new concept. Cupcakes. Not muffins, not cakes, but pretty, beautifully decorated cupcakes for every occasion. The brains behind this introduction was a recent Finance graduate, who had earned her degree in Montreal, Canada and had fallen in love with food in the process. She realized how much she missed the food and the Egyptian lamma (gatherings) around it.
“For me, food is indulgence. It’s a pick-me-up that makes everything better,” Sedky says, “and there wasn’t a lot of those in Montreal.”
With this newly discovered passion, Sedky knew she wanted to get in the food and restaurant business, but had no idea what it would be. None of her family was in the business and she was expected to follow in Finance and her father’s footsteps.
“I was inspired to start something that had to do with just cupcakes by New York City’s Magnolia Cupcakes. They were able to build it, make it grow and become a Fortune 500 company,” she recounts, “My father didn’t agree with me. He thought I should not pass by the opportunity of having been accepted to a Master’s program in London, but he supported me 100% in every way, including financially. He wouldn’t do anything else, though, because it was my project and I had to make it work.”
When she started, Sedky had a friend as partner, who eventually moved on. Later, Sedky’s brother would join the business and NOLA would become a full-fledged family-run business. While the first store took Sedky about seven months to start, today a new branch only takes 45 days. Five years later, NOLA has eight branches across Egypt and a factory of its own.
We talked to Laila for more on her experience of entrepreneurship as a woman, the challenges that she’s faced and what she has to say to everyone trying to make something for themselves.
How was it being a woman and starting a business on your own, especially a business that was completely new to Egypt?
I think the bigger challenge for me was my age and lack of knowledge, not being a woman. In this day and age, a woman is the one who makes herself feel empowered or insecure. I think it’s the youth’s chance now to seize opportunities and make it. It’s not going to be easy, but everyone has to fight for it, both men and women.
As for it being new in Egypt, some people keep saying we can’t do things here, and that there are better chances abroad. I don’t think that’s true. What’s the difference? We’re as well educated and we have the same, if not better, opportunities. We have much cheaper man-labor, for example. This talk is what brings us down.
What were the challenges that you faced? Did you meet resistance from those working with you?
I faced resistance because I was introducing something completely new. The chefs working with me knew Middle-Eastern desserts and they knew French pastries, but to tell them they would be working with American pastries AND on cupcakes exclusively was not very easy. However, I wasn’t looking for everyone’s approval. I knew what I wanted to be, do and achieve. We need to stop looking at what people think and start looking at what needs to be done.
How do you rise above these challenges?
I know what I want, but also it’s very important to surround yourself with support. My family’s support has been very important. You also have to create a network and make friends within the industry. I have a lot of friends from well-known and established brands and we help each other. It needs to be a good environment and we have to ally to make the industry grow together. Otherwise, we all lose. This is the new wave of youth entrepreneurship and it’s based on a different kind of thinking.
What would your advice to women be?
Being a woman has so many advantages, and we are witnessing an era of opportunities and empowerment that we have to use. If I had one short thing to say, it would be: DON’T take no for an answer. Believe in yourself, because nobody else will believe in you the same way, and do what you want.
What’s your take on nutrition, especially since you’re so passionate about food?
I think it’s very healthy to indulge, but to control portions. I’m not a health freak, but I have my own system because I believe you have to take care of yourself for your physical and mental health and to grow gracefully. I have to stay hydrated so I drink two bottles of water every morning, and I make sure I have breakfast before I leave and get a lunch break, so I don’t find myself breaking down by the late afternoon. I also work out for an hour three days a week, and when you look at those three hours, they’re a very tiny portion of your week. It’s all about managing your time and making sure you have a system in place.
We know NOLA has its own Charity Cupcake that supports different causes; what cause are you supporting now, and when do they change?
Currently, we’re supporting the Ahl Masr Foundation, which supports victims of burns and supports awareness about them. Charities we support change every four months, but we also have awareness initiatives around important issues. In October, for example, we raise awareness about breast cancer, March is autism month etc.