Adding the X-factor

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It won’t be an exaggeration calling her ‘master of many trades’. After successfully trying her luck in various fields, Dubai-based businesswoman Jelena, 36, is not ready to settle on one. Juggling between the demanding careers of a model and a fashion designer, Jelena has taken the Emirati fashion corridors with a storm and her bespoke designs are creating ripples globally.
It was through modelling that Jelena got her first stint with business, with the tough competitive nature of the industry instilling her with the invaluable skills of negotiation, organisation and the determination to succeed. After 15 years in the industry, Jelena developed a desire for a new challenge — to become an entrepreneur — using the extensive insider knowledge of the fashion industry as her key.
With her new life in the East a direct contrast to her Western roots, Jelena soon found a niche in the fashion industry for beautiful bespoke gowns that transcended both cultures — ultimately leading to the launch of her own fashion label, ‘Jelena Bin Drai’.

Excerpts from the interview

Yours is an interesting story, from a model you became a businesswoman. How do you look back?
I believe that all things in life happen for a reason and also progressively as you develop as a person. Things seem to happen in their own time with a reason of why and when. I have grown with my brands and it’s been a very personal journey. I always knew what I wanted to do at the back of my head.
From a businesswoman’s point-of-view, I always want to do more and make things a lot better and growth for my business.

UAE is home to millions of expats. What role would you say UAE is playing in ensuring the success of entrepreneurs?
I think we are lucky to be in the UAE because the region is so open to new businesses and embracing entrepreneurs. Starting out can be difficult financially and I would recommend exploring the possibility of getting a business partner on board if this is the case. I am lucky in that as I have always felt at home in the UAE and have been warmly embraced by this region.
For me personally, I don’t think gender differences really exist here. Women are supported just as much as men in the UAE and speaking from personal experience, I have always felt very supported here. There is a very strong campaign going around here, which supports women with their professional career.

As a female entering the world of business, how did you decide upon UAE as your base?
I first came to Dubai on a two-week trip in 2001 when I was booked from Milan to do a modelling shot for Paris Gallery, along with some Arabesque editorial shoots. It was supposed to be for a short period but turned into more than 15 years.
I just fell in love with Dubai, the Arabian traditional attire and the romantic qualities found in Eastern ladies’ fashion. The UAE is such a wonderful place and destination to raise my family and to set up a great base for businesses.

What were the initial challenges you faced when you set up the business here?
Every new business has its challenges and hardships and this was certainly no different with my ventures. As with any business start-up, you continue to grow and develop throughout the process. Obstacles will always come along but it’s finding ways around these obstacles that ultimately define you as an entrepreneur. Finding good tailors for my fashion label is something that was, and still continues to be, a challenge. I am very particular about how each of my dresses are constructed and I always want each design to be finished to the highest standard. This is a strong part of my work ethos, not just as a designer but also as a businesswoman.
Establishing each of my businesses has been time-consuming, from sourcing the best products to finding the perfect location and best staff. I would rather spend time making sure that everything is done and meets the highest standards possible.

Rare mix of East and West, your fashion label is now a known name. How do you feel about that?
Being European and having lived in both the West and the East, I understand the styles and tastes women are looking for and this is something that I think is reflected through my capsule collection. I travelled around the world during my modeling years and this has certainly helped with the ‘in between’ category.
These influences play a key role in my designs and are what differentiate me from other designers in the region. Additionally, half of my family is now Arabic so I understand the needs of these women, (who like me, have fallen in the ‘middle’) and are looking for beautiful pieces that are completely glamorous, yet still appropriate for the region. I love challenging myself everytime.

How important do you think is it to have more women capable of doing effective business in any economy?
Women make up half the population of the country. They are the main spenders. In order to maintain that, women should do well and learn more from our surroundings. That is also good for the ecosystem. I have always been my own boss, because I run my own business and am in the fashion business.

What all businesses are you into? Are there any expansion plans for this year?
I initially branched into beauty salons, a five-star nursery and a multispecialty medical clinic, and then launched my very own fashion label. During my modelling days, I got the first taste of business and was always surrounded by a tough competitive field.
This prompted a desire for a new challenge — to become an entrepreneur.

Revenue wise how well is your business doing in UAE?
Every business has its challenges and competitions but we learn day by day. At the end of the day, all I want is to provide our clients the absolute best and make them happy. Clients have been
contacting me from different parts from the Middle East. I wouldn’t have reached the place where I am without the dedicated support and work of my employees and managers. Success doesn’t have to be determined by how many companies you own, but by how well you do your job and how happy you are while doing it. The businesswoman in me feels invigorated when our numbers go up and our strategies work. As long as I am challenging myself in the business space, I am excited.

How do you think women can contribute towards the substantial rise in the economy of the country?
Quoting Diane von Furstenberg, ‘If you empower woman, you change the world’. I think that it is not just a women’s issue. Equality will benefit everyone. It’s all about inspiring and being inspired. We have come a long way but we still have a long way to go.

At a grass-root level what is that one modification that would help in enhancing the future of women in business?
I would say education. Women should educate themselves. If every woman showed their strengths and what they are capable of, amazing things would happen. My mother was my strongest role model. She taught me that fear is not an
option. When I was young, my parents instilled strong educational values within my brother and me. Despite the Serbia-Bosnia-Croatia war, I still channeled my energy into education and later made something of myself. This applies to not only to women but to everyone.

How can women make themselves stand out in the business sector?

It’s all about speaking your mind and fighting for what you want. If women want to empower and inspire other genders, they should just go for it. You fall, you again stand.
Based on my views in the fashion industry, women are leaders because we know other women’s needs and styles. It’s important to remember when it comes to business we should be respecting people for their business acumen rather than assumptions based on their gender.

Where do you see yourself ten years down the line?
I see myself in the future just doing what I love to do and hopefully expand my businesses internationally. My family is and will always be my main inspiration for all my businesses, no doubt about that. In terms of fashion, I love the style of women who opt for timeless pieces. Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and the ladies from Old Hollywood have impeccable style. Queen Rania of Jordan is another fashion maven whose wardrobe seems to be filled with gorgeous pieces. She manages to look dignified yet feminine all at once.

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