Jumana Al Darwish, Co-Founder and Chief Happiness Officer of The Happy box on why it’s important to stay positive during testing times.
Jumana Al Darwish took the leap to create her own company in 2014 when she launched The Happy Box and the Happy Studio. Initially started as a mail delivery service bringing boxes of “happiness” to the lives of her customers. As the daughter of a Jordanian UN diplomat, Jumana grew up all over the world, studying at Oxford University, before working at Queen Rania of Jordan’s office in international affairs. When she moved to Dubai Jumana worked at Dubai Cares, a philanthropic organisation founded by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
It was in 2014 after the birth of her daughter Ayla that the idea for The Happy Box came to light. After being inspired by her daughter, Jumana decided to create activity packs for kids that would bring them happiness but also education and engagement. The whole ethos of her company was bright, colourful and well, happy and this followed through with the opening of The Happy Studio in Dubai – home to events, kids parties and more. Of course with the global pandemic things have slowed down when it comes to social gatherings, but Jumana was lucky enough to take things back to basics, continuing with the mail-order services that first started the company. We find out more about how this entrepreneur has navigated through these times and what there is to be happy about looking forward into the future.
This year has been a strange year for all – how have you spent these past few months and have you changed any part of your business moving forward?
I am a firm believer that there is great beauty in chaos and in the unknown. When the pandemic hit, I looked for the silver lining. As with uncertainty, great things are bound to happen and they did. For the first time in a long time, I paused and began to reassess every facet of my life. Going “back to basics” was truly liberating. Personally, this retro-perspective enabled me to recognise my priorities from family and friends, to health, safety and security. Everything else was secondary. Additionally, I began to realise the importance of self-care and finding moments of realignment throughout my day. Balance is key.
On a professional basis, I, like many owners of self-funded businesses, wasn’t prepared for a market play overnight. Getting through this pandemic, required me to take a step back and gain a better understanding of what my business’ X-factor was. By doing this, I was able to capitalise on it, re-strategize and make my organisation leaner to ensure further systematic growth and sustainability.
What is a lesson you have learnt from this time?
For someone who strives for excellence and has contingency plans in place for almost everything, the greatest and most difficult lesson of all was learning to let go. There are so many externalities we simply do not have control over. The key is to build inner resilience, be open to change and keep one’s outlook positive. Every day is an opportunity for growth and development.
What can you tell us about the latest news for The Happy Box?
I have always been in awe of our mandate, our values and the incredible team I built. This pandemic made me realize how strong our brand and outreach is, how resilient we are as a company but also as people. The long hours and sleepless nights over the years working hard to build a strong foundation, building partnerships and a loyal client base proved to be in our benefit. We have a story; we weren’t built overnight and hence no matter how strong the external currents may be, we remain firmly rooted.
The pandemic surely proved to be challenging on the operational front of our business given that our portfolio consists of both product development and curated services. As restrictions on interactions have been put into effect and social distancing measures in place for our safety and clients’ safety, I opted to go back to our initial business model of sole product development of educational happy boxes until restrictions ease. If we can’t deliver happiness through our curated services, then we will surely deliver our happy boxes to our clients’ homes.
What can we expect to see from The Happy Box moving into 2021?
The year of 2020, was a year of restructuring and learnings. Next year, will be about implementing these learnings and remaining true to our core mandate of spreading happiness. We will be investing heavily in tech infrastructure and strengthening our e-commerce arm, thus enabling us to have a more prominent global imprint. We have additional plans of expansion but we will be monitoring the pandemic before further investments are made. Delays of this sort do not hinder our growth, but rather enable us to stay focused on the areas that we have the means to control.
Can you tell us a little about the work you are doing with Happy Hearts Global and what you are hoping to achieve with this?
Central to the belief that happiness should be universal to all children, “The Happy Box” under its CSR arm has gifted thousands of happy kits to disadvantaged children in Egypt, India, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Nepal and Syrian Refugees at Zaatari Camp. My lifelong dream has always been to establish a private family foundation and hence I proceeded with the registration of “Happy Hearts Global” as a CIO under the UK Charity Commission of which we hope to be completed in 2021. Happy Hearts Global will aim to provide children and in particular girls, with access to primary education and art therapeutic and rehabilitation programs globally. In my opinion, hearts that give are truly the happiest.
This issue is about success – in your own words, how would you define success?
Over the last year, my definition of success changed. Initially, I used to measure it through the attainment of my life goals, which were quite ambitious and long-term requiring energy, commitment, time and patience. In 2020, when plans were delayed due to externalities outside of my control, I found myself feeling frustrated and uneasy. For someone who has always thought big and is driven, I had to find a way to stay motivated. I worked with a business coach when I was restructuring The Happy Box and she gave me an insightful perspective on the measure of success. By dividing my macro-goals into micro-deliverables that could be measurable monthly and even quarterly, I was able to witness progress and thus success became a continuum and not an end factor.
With your line of work it’s important to be perceived as being a happy person – how do you manage this expectation even at times when you’re feeling down?
I am an optimist and tend to see beauty with everything that I am presented with. Every challenge carries a set of opportunities. This outlook has enabled me to be comfortable with my own feelings and has given me the ability to recognise when I need a moment to recharge. My business persona is “happy” but I am human at the end of the day and when I feel that I am not upbeat, I take a moment to ‘just be’. I listen greatly to my mind and body and when they are aligned, I know that I have been kind to myself and I know I am a better version of myself.
What is your secret to success?
Building a dream requires grit and patience. Dreams are not built overnight. There isn’t a single formula, but a combination of key qualities. I have found that if you have maintained an optimistic outlook, shown gratitude for all that comes your way big or small, have a hunger for growth, a strong work ethic, are innovative and solution-centric, whilst embracing challenges that may come your way and learning from them, you are destined to succeed.
We know that your daughter is one of your greatest sources of inspiration – what is something you can tell us about her and what would tell us about her mum?
Ayla, in Turkish, means a ‘halo of light around the moon’ and she is precisely that. She embodies light, love and empathy. We have a beautiful relationship and in her eyes and words she proclaims that her “mama is sweet, smart, she likes to dream and loves unicorns. She always says ‘you live once.’ She is not bossy but knows she is the boss. She is brave and has a voice. She loves to travel.”
You were also very close to your father – how has he inspired you in what you do?
My father has always been my inspiration in life and probably more so now with his passing. He was a visionary, believed in the power of using one’s voice to create change and was a profound philanthropist, impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and mothers globally through his humanitarian efforts.
He valued education greatly and was a feminist. He always believed that being female was is in fact, my greatest weapon in life. When I lost him in June 2019, I felt a massive part of my heart passed with him. Grief took over me and a cloud of sadness filled my world. For someone who runs a happy business, this juxtaposed dynamic was hard to take on. I spent some time away from The Happy Box and took care of myself. I rode the waves of grief as they came and understood throughout the process that grief is in fact love. The massive load of grief I was feeling was actually my profound love for him. I see him in butterflies and white feathers; he remains with me every day. I am his legacy.
What is your biggest achievement so far?
Aside from being blessed with Ayla and embarking on the wonderful journey of motherhood, I would have to say watching my social entrepreneurial dream come true. One night in 2014, I felt I could move mountains and had this incredible courage to embark on change. Plunging into the deep end with no background in entrepreneurship, I worked hard and watched that dream unfold over the years. I am very proud of the organisation I built with my team and social values we stand firmly for.
What would you still like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
I would like to delve deeper into my poetry. I come from a long line of poets, with many of my family members sharing a passion for this art; including my father and paternal grandmother. I would love to publish my work one day.
What advice would you give to anyone afraid to chase his or her dreams?
What is the worst thing that can happen? Fear is something we impose on ourselves. Eliminating fear gives us the freedom to move to unchartered territories, to try new things and experience all the wonders of life. Why limit yourself when you can experience so much more. Life is meant to be lived and celebrated!
We know you wear many hats – how do you manage your time and have a good work/life balance?
Motherhood taught me that there is no such thing in life as a balance. There will be days where you can progress more professionally than personally and other days where it is the complete opposite. I take each day as it comes and try to fulfil as many of my daily goals as I can and aim to try harder the very next day. I have a sense of daily contentment and gratitude that gives me the balance I need.
What is a challenge you have faced throughout your journey and how did you overcome it?
There isn’t one challenge but a series of daily challenges that an entrepreneur is presented with. It comes with the territory and hence, you address them as they come and you learn as you go. I tend to reach out to my mentors and fellow entrepreneurs for their insight when faced with challenges. Camaraderie of this nature is incredibly beneficial in the business arena.
If you could look back, what is something that you would tell your younger self?
Your voice is your all. I used to shy away from using it. Little did I know how powerful it could be. For years I preferred to be the foot soldier, always in the back. That dynamic changed when I started my own enterprises and was forced to be in the frontline. I had to promote our mandate, our story and portfolio of offerings. To do that and to soar to greater heights, I worked hard to overcome my fear by being true to myself.
What would you say to those at the beginning of their business journey?
Your journey will not be easy and you will be tested on many levels. You will want to quit at times and at other times, you will ask yourself “why am I doing this?” In the end, you will find that your passion, that little spark in your eyes as you speak about your enterprise, transcends all difficult circumstances and the greatest treasure of all will be your learning.
The key is to have faith and believe in your capabilities. Work hard and smart, don’t just think of increasing your financial rewards but also look at the social values that you are creating to better your community and while you are at it – the global community at large. Expand your networks and learn the art of delegating early on. Entrust your team but remain on top of your game no matter what and never lose sight of your end goal.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Keep your eye on the ball” would have to be the best piece of advice I ever received. The moment you lose sight of your end goal is the moment that you get distracted and are thrown off course. You are in this for the long haul, so hold the reigns and keep moving forward.
We love your fashion style – how would you describe it?
I love fashion and have an eye for detail. I believe that simplicity is the essence of elegance and grace, with a dash of sparkle of course. I think I have two fashion personas; one in line with my brand that is more colourful, playful, loud and happy. The other more relevant to my personal life; simple, grand and chic.
What is the life motto you live by?
“Be grateful for this moment, this moment is your life” by Persian philosopher Omar Khayyam. Every moment we have on this earth is a blessing and it is important we take a moment to be present. Presence is bliss for the mind and soul. We’ll never have that moment again.