Emerging leaders

Wafa Al Obaidat on mentorship and cultural boundaries

As a writer and entrepreneur, Wafa Al Obaidat had to “break down walls” and cross-cultural boundaries to discover her passion. After writing for several fashion publications (and establishing one too) in the Middle East, Obaidat transitioned her fashion skills into the world of PR, by launching Obai & Hill, a creative agency in her native Bahrain. Through her agency, Obaidat’s work included London projects such as designing pop-up spaces on Carnaby Street and the Clothes Show Expo in Earl’s Court. In Bahrain, her client portfolio includes brands like McDonalds and Vapiano, as well as local brands, such as Bahrain Flour Mill and Green Diamond.

In her interview with W Insight, Obaidat emphasized the importance of mentorship and having a solid role model.

What inspired you to start your career in the fashion business?

I grew up and studied in Bahrain and went on to study Interior Design at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London. I worked for two years while I was a student with designer Liza Bruce which literally changed my life. I applied to work with almost 100 designers. Liza Bruce was the first company I called – and they booked me for an interview. Working with Liza Bruce was phenomenal. I got to learn the ins and outs of running a fashion business in London – from sales, PR, purchasing, window display to designing. Liza and her husband really mentored me and taught me everything I needed to know about the fashion and art industry. After I graduated I worked with the creative platform ON/OFF, Marko Matysik of Big/Show Magazine and Vogue Nippon. Following these experiences, I started writing for my blog, Fashion Ambitions and became a fashion journalist reporting to High Life Dubai, Borderline and Prim Magazine in NY.

Wafa Al Obaidat
Wafa Al Obaidat, the founder of Obai & Hill

One of your projects is Sketchbook Magazine, an online guide to design and illustration. How did you come up with the concept of this portal and how did it lead you to the place that you are now in?

I started Sketchbook Magazine in January 2009 while living in London because I realized I was looking for something in the market that I just couldn’t find anywhere. I wanted a publication rich in illustrations, drawings, and where the characters of my favorite bloggers and designers were being explored. I was constantly looking for raw scratchy magazines that resembled my own sketchbooks and notebooks – something not so glossy and which I could be rough with (tear, add post its etc); so I went about creating the concept of Sketchbook.

After the Sketchbook success and working at a few other magazines, I decided to launch my own agency Obai & Hill, offering bespoke creative services and solutions in the areas of design, PR, marketing and digital.

What were some of the major challenges of working in Bahrain and launching Obay and Hill?

Culture shock. Despite Obai & Hill’s success in London, one of the world’s most competitive cities, moving back to Bahrain was not that straightforward. It took me one whole year to get familiar with the organizations, the business culture, how things worked, and who’s who. It taught me that if I were to expand to another city or country I would need time to really understand the market.

In London, I could work from my studio apartment and not have to deal with registrations or fees to start up — all I needed was some space and a laptop. I was devastated to discover that if I wanted to publish a magazine in Bahrain, I needed to show the Ministry of Commerce BD 50,000 (more than $132,000 USD) in my account and have five Bahraini partners. Unfortunately, some of our laws are outdated and hinder productivity and innovation.

So how did you overcome these challenges?

I surrounded myself with like-minded people who were able to mentor me and give me advice on how to proceed with my career.

What advice and best practices would you share with women considering an entrepreneurial career in the creative marketing industry?

We grow up in the Middle East thinking that we have very few options and tend to just copy what everyone else is doing instead of taking the risk to try something new. But you must take the time to discover your passions and make the passions your career so you never have to work a day in your life. When your passion becomes your career, it doesn’t feel like work. Ask yourself: what do I enjoy doing? Write a list, test each idea out, until you know which one is right for you. Try your best not to settle in life and start problem-solving your way forward. Be supportive of others and they will be supportive of you.

In life, you have an end-goal. You will probably face many brick walls before you get to the end; just find a way to break each wall and move forward. Be the wall-breaker.

Find a mentor. Someone to support you unconditionally, who will reflect with you, will listen to you, and inspire you.

Your agency is the organizer of the Women Power Summit (WPS) in Bahrain. How did you come up with the idea to create this kind of event?

I strongly believe that gathering women of different colors, races, and religions under one roof can be powerful. I wanted to showcase that, no matter where you are or what you are going through, you can still overcome all the barriers and achieve your dreams. Most importantly, even though the times have changed, women are still facing difficulties.

Many of the participants of WPS were able to voice their stories, as they were not able to on a regular basis. This, in turn, led to influencing all women to connect with each other, empowering them to speak up. Women shouldn’t hold themselves back regardless of their financial capability, stability or lack of motivation. It’s never too late to start. Everything is possible.

What would you say to your younger self about starting a new business?

Don’t start listing why you can’t do something. That is the easiest thing a person can do. We are raised in a culture of fear – and people are always ready to tell you that your ideas are not realistic. But I think you need to be unrealistic to pursue what you want. If you have no passion for anything, start exploring – find your path, don’t just be stuck in a rut, or nothing will ever come to you; you must go and find what makes you happy and make it your career.

Do you have a role model?

My mother is my number one inspiration. She mentored me from a very young age on how to think big and have a large vision for my life. She also supports all my crazy projects and a hundred or so ludicrous failed attempts before Sketchbook. She is my number one fan and she has always invested in my love for the arts. I spend hours with her on the phone discussing my work, my relationships and conversations, and all my ideas. She is a great listener and together we reflect on how we can make things happen creatively. She is the most ambitious person I have ever known.

Interview for W Insight by Joanna Kwietniewska

Edited by: Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka

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