Today we’re talking about a business that’s celebrating its 17th birthday, and the parents couldn’t be prouder. Belle Femme – a ridiculously popular chain of hair salons here in Dubai was the brainchild of a 19-year-old college student, Bodour Al Hilali who set out to change the way in which women experienced their typical monthly visits to the hair salon – whether it be to get their nails done, dye their hair, or even indulge in more sophisticated beauty treatments. Through Belle Femme, Bodour wanted to create a social space that was interactive, relaxing, and a place that you can enjoy with your sisters, mom, or friends.
Let’s get to know the founder of Belle Femme – Bodour Al Hilali and her partner since 2011, Zeina Alami better.
DM: Where were you guys born and raised?
Bodour: I was born and raised here in Dubai.
Zeina: Me too
DM: It’s been 17 years since you first started Belle Femme. Tell me what it was like. What have you learned? What were the challenges you faced? How did you grow to become a household name in beauty here in Dubai?
Bodour: I was 19 years old when I first put on my entrepreneurial cap, and approached my father to invest in a business idea I had. Having commenced my long-term relationship with beauty and salons from the ripe ol’ age of 14, I started frequenting them on a monthly basis, and I actually loved the experience of getting dolled up and grooming myself.
But over the years I started to realize that Dubai had a lot of room for growth within the beauty industry. Salons could afford to become more sophisticated and luxurious outside of the ones that existed within 5 star hotel properties. Stand-alone salons are where I wanted to see an evolution. But at the same time, the setup needed to encourage a social and relaxing atmosphere – a beauty getaway for women if you will.
Having conducted feasibility studies as part of an independent university project, I knew I was sitting on something that could potentially become quite big. My dad agreed to invest in me, and that’s when I started. The first 2 years were incredibly challenging because I was learning the ropes of what it meant to deal with suppliers like L’Oreal or Kérastase who initially put me to the test due to my age and lack of experience. I had to understand how to hire the right team of hairdressers, and provide the type and quality of services I had envisioned. We made our mistakes just like anyone does, but we learned quickly and adjusted right away, which is why I think we acquired success quite early on.
Zeina: Today, Bodour has also founded an academy (Hair Creators) here in Dubai that trains beauticians and staff to our international standards and that’s how we ensure to continue bringing in the right group of people to provide the best quality services.
DM: Did you run a focus group, or have friends/ family that would frequent the salon during the early days to give feedback?
Bodour & Zeina: Absolutely. We have friends and family whom we trust immensely to give honest constructive feedback. Our desire to constantly better our services was highly dependent on people testing what we were offering on a consistent basis and then improving.
DM: Have you guys known each other for 17 years then?
Zeina: Yup. We’ve been friends for years, but I didn’t join the business until a lot later, when we came up with the idea of starting a specialized home service aspect to Belle Femme’s operations.
Bodour: We had already successfully opened our Jumeirah and JBR branches before Zeina joined 6 years ago, and we conjured the idea of expanding into home services.
Zeina: And it didn’t stop there. We wanted to continue expanding in various parts of Dubai to make sure we were accessible without comprising what we were providing to our clients. So 2 years ago, together we launched our Bay Square branch.
DM: That’s where I go! It’s so convenient, and great. Definitely thankful you guys made that decision, as I presume it services the DIFC and downtown areas quite well.
DM: What was the turning point of your business? When did Belle Femme go from being a small budding business to a respectable household name?
Bodour: It was our JBR branch that really did it for us. We positioned it as our flagship, but also as the Kérastase flagship, and started offering a number of services that were exclusive to us. We became a luxury name in beauty salons and started bringing in celebrity stylists like Jen Atkin to Dubai to cater to our VIP clientele.
DM: How early on did you guys start to see fiscal profits? For any young entrepreneur, I think the thing that makes us most anxious is when are we going to start making money.
Bodour & Zeina: Honestly we didn’t see profits for a while because of how much I had to learn and course correct. During the early years of Belle Femme, we didn’t really have business strategists or consultants guiding us. It really was trial and error. With that being said, it took us 4 years to breakeven and finally be profitable.
DM: When you and Zeina joined forces, what was that conversation like?
Zeina: I was working for the Dubai Film Festival 6 years ago for about 10 years. It had been a long run and I was ready to turn to something else. I needed a break and a change all in one. I quit my job, hopped on a flight to Miami to attend a friend’s bachelorette party. I came back and was ready to start something with Bodour. She wanted Belle Femme to continue growing and I think we just happened to have the conversation at the right time. We started the home service aspect of the business when our competitors weren’t really doing it. The challenges of figuring out logistics, and how we would manage this successfully were my tasks, and I’m so glad we did it.
We learned a whole new curve, but it only further solidified our position in the market.
DM: How does Belle Femme decide that they’re going to introduce a new service, or product, or want to work with celebrity stylists?
Bodour: 8 years ago we noticed several of our clients mentioning celebrity hairstylists, and their desire to be cut and colored by them. The demand was steadfast. Admittedly we weren’t the first to invite to the UAE heavyweight stylists from Hollywood, but we wanted to jump on that bandwagon fast, and do it very well too. So we targeted a different set of stylists who to date exclusively visit our salons in the UAE like Jen Atkin, George Papanikolas, and Tracey Cunningham. Today because of this special relationship between us, these stylists have garnered a very loyal clientele in Dubai and the GCC at large.
Zeina: With regards to bringing new services on board or catering to new trends, we frequently have our clients communicate their wish lists to us, and of course we’re constantly researching new offerings too. The key though for us is to understand feasibility. We obviously want to offer as much as we can, but the question we often times ask ourselves is, “Is it feasible? Will enough people want to do it? What are the logistical and financial requirements to provide this product or service at Belle Femme? Is there ideal local distribution?” Answering these key questions usually determines whether we’ll proceed or not.
DM: How has your friendship either hurt or helped your business?
Bodour & Zeina: It’s comfortable. We’re such good and honest friends that we’ve faced the day-to-day challenges of running a business together quite well. I also think the one thing that truly sets us apart as business partners is that we maintain an extremely transparent and open line of communication with one another, whether its during a more heated discussion about budgets or taking on new services or just having lunch at our local café. The difficult conversations never span more than 5 minutes and we instantly go back to being best friends once that conversation is over. We’re great at switching things on and off. Having been friends for almost 2 decades surely does help too.
DM: What are some of your favorite beauty treatments to indulge in on a regular basis:
Bodour: I absolutely love getting massages. They are totally my thing.
Zeina: I love getting my hair done. You’ll usually never see me without my hair at least blown out. I guess I also love getting my nails done. Chipped nail polish is not cool. I just feel way more confident with a fresh manicure. Somehow I feel more put together.
DM: What is Belle Femme particularly proud of looking back on the 17 years you’ve been in existence?
Bodour & Zeina: We’ve become really damn good at doing hair. Whether it’s cuts or color, or even just blowouts, we’ve really become revered for any hair related services we offer.
I also think our growth has been phenomenal over the years, and we’ve expanded so much in what we do, and what we provide.
DM: Fun facts about you two no one knows:
Zeina: Damn! I’m an open book. Oh wait, no actually when I’m about to cry I have to announce that the tears are about to flow. Not sure why, but it’s something I do.
Bodour: I drink about 8 cups of coffee a day. I can’t be spoken to when hungry. And it turns out I’ve seen everything on Apple TV and Netflix… People actually call me up for viewing advice.