Sandra Ramses, owner of YallaYoga, shares how her mentoring relationship through the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women with Jennifer Hurd, Bank of America Business Support Manager, was critical to the success of her business
Sandra, a woman entrepreneur who started her business, YallaYoga, in Egypt at the young age of 25, soon realized that she needed not only strategic counsel but also a sympathetic listener who understood the difficulties of founding and running a business. Through the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Mentoring Program, Sandra was paired with Jennifer Hurd, Business Support Manager at Bank of America. Jennifer had joined the program to share knowledge in the management, sales and marketing fields, and enhance her communications skills. With a shared passion for yoga, Jennifer and Sandra realized an overall beneficial. Jennifer’s guidance proved instrumental in helping Sandra to complete her business plan including raising the profile of her yoga classes and workshops. Additionally, Jennifer reports that she, too, has greatly benefitted from the relationship: In addition to gaining a better understanding of how the same passion can be translated very differently based on geographic location, Jennifer was able to adapt some of her mentee’s ideas as useful tools into her every day work life.
In the following, Sandra details her experience as a young entrepreneur and how support from her mentor, Jennifer, was critical to helping her grow her confidence and her business.
Sandra, how did you decide to start your business?
I grew up in Egypt, but was living in Canada when I found out that my mother was very sick—she had cancer and was told that she had 6 months to live. I felt very well-integrated in Canada—I had a partner at the time and I did not want to go back to Egypt. But I went back for my mother. She relied on me a lot during her illness and I needed an outlet for my excess energy, so a friend suggested that I look into yoga. There were no yoga studios in Egypt at the time, so I found an online site (www.yogatoday.com) and began practicing all the time—I took it with me everywhere. When my mother passed away, I kept my yoga practice going strong and when my friends encouraged me to teach yoga, I could not turn them down. A year later, I decided to go to the Kundalini Research Institute in New Mexico (USA) to get certified as a Kundalini yoga instructor. Upon my return, I had gained a lot more confidence and a clearer picture of what I wanted to do. So, I quit my previous 9-to-5 job and started my center, YallaYoga, not only fulfilling a personal need, but also a need that I saw in my community.
Why did you decide to start your business in Egypt?
I saw much more opportunity in Egypt—in Canada and the U.S., yoga studios are everywhere. There are a few in ex-pat communities in Cairo, like in Zamalek and Maadi, but overall classes were very limited. I first started teaching classes in Zamalek, which required a 45-minute commute from my home. One day – when I showed up late to class – I realized that all of my students were also late for the same reason. We were all commuting from my hometown (Heliopolis) to Zamalek for the class! Realizing this, there was no going back. I had to start a center in Heliopolis.
What were some of the challenges that you faced with your business and how did your mentor help you?
I was only 25 when I started my business and I had no experience whatsoever in business management aside from taking business management theory classes in school. I was so grateful to be paired with Jennifer, who had actual experience in running a business and had a similar passion for yoga. As I got started, I wanted to offer a schedule with as many different types of yoga as possible, but I didn’t fully understand what that meant in terms of costs, profits and satisfying demand. This was a challenge for sustaining my business and Jennifer reminded me that I had to make sure my current classes were full before adding a new class to the schedule. I was operating on a packed schedule but had only 1-2 people per class, which was not efficient. I also noticed that my classes did not have a high retention rate. So I began to ask my students what they were looking for in a yoga class, and I learned that many of them are looking for a beginner level class to learn the basics. Because many people in Egypt do not exercise regularly, they have stiff shoulders, necks and legs, preventing them from performing some of the more advanced poses. In addition to being intimidated by the classes, many students are also confused by some of the chanting that is typical to yoga—Egypt has a very religious population, and they were concerned that the phrases used in a typical yoga class are in some way unfitting for their belief system. I started offering beginners programs and called them Yoga 101, Yoga 102, etc. By organizing the sessions that way, students better understand the basics necessary for a successful practice.
Has this helped increase retention rate?
Absolutely. Working with Jennifer helped me understand that I had to really consider my students and the level of demand when developing my business model. Many people in Egypt are very group-oriented and do not have the strongest sense of commitment to a fitness regime—many of them come to class because of a doctor’s recommendation. In order to increase class retention rate, I had to not only create a beginner’s program, but also structure it so that people were committing to paying up front as well as committing to being at the center 3-5 days a week.
Are there other ways that your relationship with Jennifer helped improve your business?
Yes, our mentoring relationship has brought about so many improvements to my business in the last few years. My business has grown and my confidence has grown, and I’ve seen changes in the way I hire and manage my finances. I had an extra room in my center that I didn’t know what to do with, and Jennifer gave me ideas of things that were done in other centers, like offering spa services, massages, healing practices, etc. She also helped me figure out the cost structure for paying the therapists I worked with. When I was considering developing a workshop, Jennifer asked me: Are you creating a workshop to increase students in your classes, or is there a demand for these workshops? I was going about things somewhat haphazardly without considering the goal of holding workshops. Just being able to express my frustration with challenges and problems and to hear potential solutions or ways around the problem has been extremely replenishing and rejuvenating.
Is there anything about being a woman business owner in Egypt that makes it difficult to be successful?
I was lucky to have support for the parts of the business that were problematic for me. My family has done business for a long time in Egypt and they have lawyers and finance experts, and so I knew where to go to get answers to many of my questions. My family hasn’t always understood my goals fully, but they’ve been supportive in other ways—by providing me with these connections to help me secure loans and financing. My challenges were not related to gender but to religion. Many religious establishments in the country do not understand yoga’s purpose or benefits to health and well-being. Some are afraid that it will force you to reject your religion and become more disobedient. The opposite is true. Yoga enables you to gain tools that help conquer animosity and anger, and find internal peace.
Do you still speak with your mentor?
I am trying to bring Jennifer to Egypt—I want to meet her in person! I am coordinating a retreat for my teachers and would love for her to come and visit Cairo and maybe teach a class at the retreat. It would be so great to meet Jennifer and thank her for all the advice she has given me over the years.
This interview originally appeared in the Justmeans blog here. Content was produced by outside parties not affiliated with Bank of America. Opinions or ideas expressed are not necessarily those of Bank of America, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, U.S. Trust or Bank of America Merrill Lynch, nor do they reflect their views or endorsement. These materials are for informational purposes only. Bank of America, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, U.S. Trust and Bank of America Merrill Lynch do not assume liability for any loss or damage resulting from anyone's reliance on the information provided.