Riyadh: In Saudi Arabia, women who get to work in a field they are passionate about are very lucky.
Societal restrictions, including not being able to drive, have hindered the movement and ambitions of Saudi and expatriate women alike. But despite the barriers, many determined women have been able to carve out successful businesses from the comfort of their own homes.
Courtesy: Nazreen Fazal
Nadia feels lucky she is doing something she is passionate about.
Nadia, a computer science graduate from Karachi, Pakistan, spent her early childhood in Jeddah, before moving back home.
She worked as a software engineer and project manager in Karachi until she got married and followed her husband back to Saudi Arabia.
She was able to find work in her field, but when she had a baby, she decided to leave her company due to the long working hours.
Nadia had always loved baking since she was in the 6th grade, but it wasn’t until four years after moving to Riyadh that she began toying with the idea of baking professionally.
Like many expatriate women, Nadia felt she needed something to occupy her time while raising her daughter at home.
She decided to take intensive baking courses in Dubai and Riyadh to polish her skills and in 2009, Nadia started BakeFresh making custom-made artisanal cakes.
Through blogging, Facebook and Instagram, she was able to push her product and gain exposure.
While her first customers were family and friends, her BakeFresh blog is now ranked by FeedSpot as one of the top 100 blogs in the country.
During her journey, Nadia faced some obstacles.
Raw materials were at first hard to come by. The inability to drive in Saudi Arabia also limited her mobility.
“It was an obstacle at first, but now I have a couple of trusted taxi and private drivers that I rely on. Also, new services like Uber and Easy Taxi have emerged, giving me many options to get around,” she said.
“My husband always comes to my rescue as well, if I have to pick up something urgently.
“He is a major strength. He has proven to be a rock I can lean on,” she says.
Another challenge Nadia faced was confronting people’s preconceived notions about home-based businesses.
“We are living in very brand-conscious times,” she said. “Often people think the more expensive the product, the better the quality or taste.”
Since customised cakes were a relatively new concept, it took a few years for people to warm up to buying her cakes and referring others. On average, it takes Nadia between one to five hours to make one cake, depending on the request and details needed. The cost, which starts at 300 Saudi riyals, also varies depending on size and details required.
She averages between five to 12 orders monthly, which allows her to earn a pretty penny for her part-time passion.
With her orders increasing as she gains more exposure, she says she would love to expand her business. But in Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf countries, labour laws do not let expatriates own their own businesses without a sponsor.
“This means I cannot hire workers or rent industrial tools, which are needed to expand,” she says.
But for now, Nadia feels lucky that she is doing something she is passionate about. She also appreciates the flexibility her home-based business affords her.
“I do the intensive work like baking and decorating in the morning. Then I spend time with my kids and at night when they sleep, I blog and read baking books,” she says.
But, despite her success, she says she wants to keep learning and perfecting her skill.
She recently got a diploma in pastry arts from the renowned UK-based City and Guilds Institute. She also did a summer course on entrepreneurship at IBA Karachi, a leading business school in Pakistan.
— Nazreen Fazal is a freelance journalist based in Riyadh