Bébhinn Kelly first came to the UAE to visit a friend during the final year of her international marketing and languages degree in Dublin. Attracted by “the sun and all that typical stuff”, she left Ireland for the Emirates soon after completing her studies, working in various jobs before starting her own website, Hellwafashion, in Dubai in 2009.
It was always her intention, she said, to turn that into a business (“I had to, I needed to live”) but the business into which it has evolved – online branding agency Digital Ape – wasn’t what she anticipated.
“I was expecting it to be web publishing,” Ms Kelly said. “There didn’t seem to be an outlet in the market where people who might not always want to shop in a mall could go to find stuff that wasn’t completely mainstream.
“Everything was the same: the media, the shops…so I thought if I set up a website to explore that side of Dubai people didn’t really know about – this was before Instagram – then with my marketing and sales experience I would be able to get clients to take part.”
And clients did take part, both on Hellwafashion and another site, the independent music-and arts-focused Triplew, set up by Paul Kelly (no relation), who is now creative director of Digital Ape. And as the media landscape started to change, so did the business.
“It was really organic,” Ms Kelly said. “As social media grew, brands didn’t really need a platform for their content anymore, they just needed the content. So we evolved, effectively, into a content company.”
Digital Ape’s initial management structure (there were four founding partners in total) was “kind of informal, we were taking joint decisions”, but as the company started to grow it was clear a more definitive set-up was required.
“By early 2012, it became apparent that Paul was more on the creative side and I was more on the business side, so those decisions would be taken by me,” Ms Kelly said.
The toughest part of running a start-up, she said with a laugh, is “everything”.
“Seriously. Everything. Because everyone is saying, ‘this isn’t a good idea,’ or ‘you’re doing it the wrong way.’ It’s difficult to filter that and keep your vision in focus.”
And, she added, it doesn’t get any easier.
She cited Net-a- Porter founder Nathalie Massenet. “She says that starting a business is the easy part. But you don’t realise that until after you’ve started it, by which time it’s too late. When you’ve got a non-established business, your job changes about every three to four months.”
You know you’ve got it right, she said, “when you see a team gelling really well together, helping each other and finding solutions that you don’t necessarily think of. That’s probably the most rewarding thing.”
The multicultural makeup of the UAE, she said, makes team building here “really difficult”. Particularly with Digital Ape’s policy of ensuring a diverse mix of gender, age and cultural background among their staff.
“First of all you’ve got a fundamental communication challenge, because people hear things differently depending on their language background,” explained Ms. Kelly. “You’ve also got different attitudes towards deadlines and time in general. You’ve got different cultural perceptions of client behaviour.
“If you don’t cultivate a multi-cultural team properly, then you will get negative behaviour. Different cultures also have different attitudes towards speaking up,” she added. “So, if the leader of the team is saying something, you’ll have some cultures where people will voice their opinion, but a lot of cultures don’t do that.
“So you, as the leader, think everyone’s in agreement and on board with it. And that could, potentially, turn into a negative situation.”
But those challenges, Ms Kelly believes, also combine to provide one of the UAE’s biggest opportunities: the creativity that arises from making the most of the country’s unique demographic makeup.
“That’s why the UAE is one of the best places to work,” she said. “I always say that if you can work here, you can work anywhere. Your career depends on how you get along with other people, and here you learn how to communicate so that all cultures work together.”
Ms Kelly feels that the Emirates is one of the best places to work as a woman in senior management too. The obstacles women face here, she said, are just the same as those they face anywhere in the world.
“If I walk into a room with a man, everyone – every single nationality – will automatically assume that the man is in charge,” she explained. “A man and a woman can do the same job, and the woman can do a better job and you’ll never hear about it. The guy will do a half-okay job and be, like, ‘Oh, did you hear what happened? I was awesome!’
“I truly don’t believe it’s harder as a woman here,” she added. “Everyone assumes, ‘Oh my god! The Middle East!’ But no. People are really adaptable here because they’re so used to change. Ironically, it can be more challenging to do business with older expat males.
“I mean in Ireland, just before I was born, if a woman joined the civil service, you had to leave when you got married. It was the law,” she revealed. “So of course you were never going to come across senior women, because they all had to drop out when they got married. So if that’s your kind of reference point, and it hasn’t really grown since coming here, that can be very challenging.
“But Gulf Arabs in particular, all they’ve ever known is change, so they don’t have that institutionalised, unconscious bias about women in the workforce that other nationalities can have.”
That adaptability fits Ms Kelly’s business philosophy.
“Within this industry, there’s a lot of reliance on what’s been done before, because it’s worked and the client’s happy,” she explained. “So I think you have to be really curious, and if someone says something’s impossible, you have to keep saying, ‘no, it’s not, let’s try this’ Just because something is done a particular way doesn’t mean that it can’t be done a completely different way in 10 minutes.”