Ogunte: Where does your story begin?
Josline Kholy: My husband and I started this together. We were always seeking new things and shared a real love for the arts. We also loved travelling across Egypt. Every governorate has its own unique heritage, so we enjoyed meeting the local people and learning about the diversity of food, architecture, arts, accents and handicrafts.
We discovered that there were beautifully embroidered items around Egypt, each piece different and done locally by women through their own tradition of craft. They would put a lot of effort and thought into these pieces, and sometimes go and sell their products in Cairo. We started spotting their work in smaller areas and shops around the country. It showed us that fashion and dress serves an important function in marking special occasions and preserving cultural heritage.
Ogunte: What were your first thoughts when you started spotting these products?
Josline Kholy: Well from the quality of materials, to the design execution, to the pricing or marketing, there was always something missing. The women were undeniably talented and passionate about their craft, but the lack of knowledge and resource made what they wanted to sell impractical for the market. They wanted to better represent themselves in the market, and showcase their talents and craft, so started asking for our ideas and support to help them go further with their products.
Ogunte: Seeing some people struggle to do something that other people might find easier to do got you thinking about how you could help?
Josline Kholy: Exactly. I used to work in a multinational company, and I was starting to gain success in my work and becoming recognised for it. But I didn’t feel as though I was making a difference. I could see that there was this knowledge inequity between myself and others in the world and it was something I wanted to try to address. So at first, I started to work with NGOs, but I saw the restrictions and limitations in their ways of doing things, until I realized that maybe I just needed to take the initiative myself.
Ogunte: When did you launch your first collection?
Josline Kholy: We launched in 2014, but it took us two and a half years to understand the process behind a fashion collection. Producing even one piece often has many stages: starting from sourcing the fabrics, to the production, and then getting these pieces embroidered (which in itself takes a lot of logistics), and then taking those products back to our stores or putting them online…
Ogunte: What was the reaction from your customers when you first launched?
Josline Kholy: It took us some time to build awareness around the message and mission, but we grew a strong and loyal customer base that love what we do. Our designs are practical and for everyday fashion; pieces that people can enjoy wearing whenever and wherever they want. The local customers really love that.
Other than in Egypt, we also have a good base in the Gulf, GCC and Jordan. We tried with Europe and the US - but the shipping logistics are not that easy. When tourists come to Egypt, they do appreciate and buy our pieces. So they become our champions around the world.
Ogunte: What’s the difference between your online and offline channels?
Josline Kholy: So we have two shops: one on the Eastside of Cairo and the other on the Westside of Cairo. In this day and age, if you are not tech aware, you fall behind, so our online store is for people who cannot get to either of these very easily. Having said that, sometimes people go to our online store and then come directly into our stores to buy there. It depends.
We try to keep our prices accessible to avoid the friction of buying a product, in other words, to keep the price away from the thinking equation. That’s why we’re not in mega malls at this stage, because the cost is huge; it would make our prices sky rocket.
Ogunte: What were your initial barriers to wider customer adoption of your products?
Josline Kholy: Unfortunately, the local market has a bad perception of local handmade products; they prefer international brands. We wanted to raise awareness and shift opinions on the value of locally made things. I remember about 5 years ago, there was an emerging conversation about sustainability and conscious fashion - people asking where do my clothes come from? Who made them?
Many environmentally sustainable brands and upcycling projects began to emerge – they helped to change consumer perceptions and preferences by at least exposing them to alternative choices.
Ogunte: I see the parallels between our food choices and fashion choices.
Josline Kholy: Right. People should know the story behind the things they consume. We print cards that share the story of how these consumers have come to get this product - the hands that this material passed through, the environments that these products were produced in. Handmade and locally produced things will never be cheaper, but we pay for the value of the human touch.
Ogunte: Why do people prefer international brands even if these products are not ethical and sometimes not even good quality?
Josline Kholy: Because it’s fashionable, because the ads follow you wherever you go. What you see first will always be what’s in your mind. Unless you want to do something different, and you’re the kind of person that wants to buy something that makes you feel unique… Those were the types of customers that came to us.
Trust and quality of relationships is a strong impact indicator for us.
Ogunte: What would you say is your primary objective at Jozee Boutique?
Josline Kholy: Since the start, we have always had the same objectives. We wanted to help these women make a living. We aspire to preserve our history and heritage as Egyptians, especially because our market is so badly affected by mass produced products - it’s sad. Our desire is to make a good impression on local consumers and international consumers; to persuade them into different purchasing behaviours.
Ogunte: What ideas do you have to catalyse this kind of behaviour change?
Josline Kholy: If you want to change behaviours, you have to start with daily life. And by doing that, you have to go through the same touch points that they go through every day. Understand the way they see the world around them, how they interact with the things that feel familiar to them. When you start to appear and be visible at most of the places customers go to, they will start to feel a sense of familiarity and identification towards your products.
Ogunte: How do you measure your impact?
Josline Kholy: The number of artisans that we work with now - we started with 5 or 6 artisans, and now we work with hundreds of women across Siwa, St. Katherine and Upper Egypt. The fact we work with women and men is an indicator that we’re working across levels of society. 80% of our artisans are women, but we work with men who help us in sourcing the fabrics, the loom, and weaving. In the early stages, it was a challenge to gain the artisans’ trust - to get to know them and make them feel that we can and want to do something with them. But every area has a leader, so now we visit the leaders in these locations to check on progress and keep our trust and relationships strong. Trust and quality of relationships is a strong impact indicator for us also.
Ogunte: Where do you draw your energy from?
Josline Kholy: I can feel the work I’m doing is meaningful and impactful. It feels impossible to stop doing what we’re doing when I see the women we work with so happy and proud. Since day one, every woman is allowed to work at her own pace. We prefer that they work in their homes rather than a workshop. We don’t want to disrupt their lifestyles and way of life and it's important for us to provide them with a means to do what they want to do and love to do, and that they gain out of doing it.
Ogunte: Do you ever collaborate with other companies? Or try new things inside your own company?
Josline Kholy: Yes! We often look for interesting collaborations, so we sometimes invite other brands to offer a selection of their own products that complement our clothing line. And then we share marketing. It’s a good model. We’ve just partnered with a local NGO who has connected us to women who live in less fortunate parts of Cairo. That’s how I can see that we’re growing because people want to be a part of it.
We’re also trying to have zero waste in our fashion production process - by taking the patches that are leftover and giving them to women who help us produce smaller objects and get trained in professional production.
Ogunte: How has it been to share work with the person you also share life with?
Josline Kholy: That’s an interesting question! My husband was a great support. He was my first champion really. We used to work in the telecom sector together - him in technology and me in marketing. When we started Jozee Boutique, at first we shared all tasks, but as time went on, we differentiated our tasks across technical, digital and operational stuff for him, and more creative and stakeholder engagement work for me.
Ogunte: I wonder if there is a similar relationship between the women you work with and their husbands?
Josline Kholy: Of course - they have the support of their husbands too; it could not work without their husbands by their sides in fact. But the context is different. We work in conservative areas, so often I am the only one allowed to work with the women; my husband cannot. In fact, in some areas, women do not interact directly with strangers at all - even other women! Any interaction outside of the family has to come through another relative.
In Siwa, women there do not often use mobiles, so their husbands liaise with us for that. We do the transactions through their husbands, but this helps to involve them in the work of their wives and create a sense of pride… A man has to be there, marriage isn’t a choice in a lot of parts of Egypt, so women feel blessed when they find a partner who is supportive and understanding.
Ogunte: Do you feel that it’s important to highlight the role of men in how we approach women empowerment?
Josline Kholy: Yes. The problem with feminist or women empowerment rhetoric is to suggest that women can and should do everything alone, but women are getting tired of this - we want the support of men, they are our allies, they are our partners and family members. We don’t want to do this alone!
Ogunte: What advice would you give other women in social enterprise / to your younger self?
Josline Kholy: Never question what you believe is right, is something I would say to myself. Even if it seems illogical - especially when I quit my job, there were so many doubts after consulting with friends and family because everyone had their different opinions. If you believe something is right for you, I don’t think it’s always useful to ask others about it. If you believe you can handle it, go and do it.
I’d also say that everything you’ve been through, every decision you made, and everyone you met, has helped to forge the path that you’re currently on. Everything will be used. Nothing goes to waste.
Ogunte: What are three valuable things you’ve learned so far?
Josline Kholy: Dedication, persistence and passion are the keys that can take anyone to places beyond their imagination. Of course, these qualities are not easy to show all the time. I believe that if you’re really into something, if you have your heart in it, coming back to the ‘why’ is easier to do when you face challenges. I believe that by doing the most that you can for the thing you want to do, something will always happen.
Ogunte: What is the biggest challenge of the work that you do? Are there areas of business you still feel you still need a specific skill set for?
Josline Kholy: I have lots of small challenges, ranging from cash management, production on a bigger scale, talent recruitment and creating and maintaining a good company culture. Also, if I want to start franchising in my industry, each and every shop has its own motifs and patterns. We cannot expand with the same pieces everywhere. Growth and international expansion would need a lot of preparation and know-how. Franchising is the model I want to pursue, but logistically it could be a big challenge.
Ogunte: What does the work you do look like in 2030?
Josline Kholy: The most challenging thing is my ambition. I always look five to ten steps ahead, so what I want in ten years is a platform, an international hub, for great designers working on handmade products in partnership with local artisans all around the world. I want a franchise. But I don’t know yet if these are feasible.
Making our brand an international brand - I’m not sure if we can do this all alone. We’ve already passed many stages together, but we need to prepare our brand and our business for something like that.
Alongside the platform creation and brand expansion, what I really want to see is a mindset shift in consumer preferences and perceptions around these products. That’s the key.
Ogunte: Can you give u the name of three women in social enterprise that inspire you.
Josline Kholy: The first is a woman I met at a big event in Egypt called Craffiti (an international exhibition which mixes crafts and graffiti together and promotes Egyptian handicrafts locally and internationally. This woman came to our booth and introduced
herself as Yasmeen Abu Yousef, the founder of Tawasol, an NGO which works with women and children in Establ Antar, a very poor area in Cairo. For over 20 years they have been producing a diverse range of beautiful embroidered items, like dolls made of wood and cloth.
Also, although I have never met this woman before, I find her work inspiring: Nevin Altmann - she is a German woman who started work in Siwa to produce only leather bags and shawls using the embroidery of Siwa. She sells very high quality products and has made a name for herself around Europe for her leather products. Her daughter Tamara took over the business and brand.
Azza Fahmy - She is the founder of a jewellery brand which she started from scratch 20-25 years ago at a tiny store, and then built it into a well known brand for unique designs on silver and gold internationally. She has her own school for jewellery-making. She is teaching designers, from the first phases to actually being able to teach jewellery-making themselves. She works with a lot of artisans in the jewellery industry. She inspired the whole market with new, artisanal products and designers.
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