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Purpose, Execution and Building a Successful Business – Ghizlan Guenez


Ghizlan Guenez is the Founder and CEO of The Modist, the world’s first global e-commerce platform where luxury fashion brands are curated for women who dress modestly. The need to empower women through choice of attire stemmed from Ghizlan’s own needs: working 14 years in private equity, she had to dress conservatively for years, but often struggled to find clothing that was also fashionable and contemporary. A market estimated at $260B. Enter The Modist.

Originally from Algeria, Ghizlan lived most of her life in Dubai and the Middle East and holds first-class degree from the London School of Economics. While in private equity, she cultivated expertise in emerging markets. In 2018, The Business of Fashion, the leading digital authority on the global fashion industry, named Guenez one of the 500 people who are “shaping the global fashion industry”.

We talked about lessons from the corporate world, living your big crazy dream and how to switch off when overwhelmed. We discussed the true business case for modest fashion and how it fits into our daily lives. Hint: choice, purpose, empowerment.

If you’re on Instagram, you can follow Ghizlan here, and The Modist too.

Please do get in touch and let us know what you think of the episode or the show. By email, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn. Thank you!

Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas: (00:00)
Hello everybody, hope you’re well. I thought this week we could continue with the theme of last week because I’m really curious about when people make massive changes to their trajectory, whether their personal life or professional life, what drives them to do that and what lessons they learn along the way. What challenges do they face? And how do they overcome them? Last week, we heard from a lady who started her life as a consultant, went into the family business, became an entrepreneur and now is an investor and her biggest learning was how to tell a story. And today’s episode is along those lines. Ghizlan Guenez worked in private equity for 14 years and she needed to dress conservatively, which was appropriate to her finance environment. But she also wanted to be fashionable and she really struggled to find clothes that would fit the bell. She couldn’t find any platform online that catered to modest dress. And so when she ended up leaving financial services, she set up The Modist, which is the first global luxury e-commerce platform that curates fashion for women who dress modestly. And so I asked her about this industry and asked her if it’s a fad or if it’s here to stay. The Modist market is estimated at $260 billion. The Modist is on its second round of funding and Ghizlan last year was named one of the 500 people who are shaping the global fashion industry. So let’s get into it.

Rana Nawas: (01:46)
Thank you so much for coming on When Women Win, I am so happy to have this time with you!

Ghizlan Guenez: (01:52)
Thank you so much for having me. Excited to be here!

Rana Nawas: (01:55)
I’ve always wondered if you work in fashion, how stressful it is to get ready every day for work? Like do you feel the need to look immaculate every day? Because I know that when I knew I was going to see you today, I wore heels. I never wear heels.

Ghizlan Guenez: (02:13)
You look super cool! I don’t think so. I mean I think if you’re running a business then you’ve got much more stresses than what to wear in the morning. But no, you know, I’ve always loved fashion and even back when I worked in finance, I loved dressing up or taking that moment in the morning to look after myself. So that to me is more than, you know, what is it that I’m wearing and more about, this is my hour, this is a time where I really kind of focus on me and it reflects on how I feel. So oftentimes, my team will tell you, that when I’ve had like 2-3 hours of sleep, I’d be with a full face of makeup in the morning and hair done. It just helps me feel better.

Rana Nawas: (02:52)
You mentioned your career in finance. You left a flashy well-paid job with a private equity firm to start an online fashion business.

Ghizlan Guenez: (03:00)
So I had been in the business, in that firm for about 14 years. I started as one of the first employees and my role really evolved over the years and it was an incredible business, super dynamic, very high growth, and had really reached quite the success. After 13-14 years, I felt that I had reached a place where there wasn’t much more that I could give there. And that if I had stayed longer in that space, I would probably not perform as well as I did. The fire that I had in my belly was just not as strong as it always was and I wasn’t going to go and get employed anywhere else because that was the best place to be.

Rana Nawas: (03:50)
Yeah, biggest private equity firm in the region.

Ghizlan Guenez: (03:52)
Certainly. Exactly. And super dynamic. It was a great place and I loved being there. And so it was kind of that moment of, “okay, I want to leave at a time when I’m at my peak, when I’m doing really, really well.” And I want to, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, be as passionate and as driven as I’ve always been. And so it was kind of a moment to take some time off and think and consider what was the next step. And I had this idea in my mind for a while. It was just the right time. It was, you know, kind of this is what needs to happen now.

Rana Nawas: (04:27)
You spotted a gap in the markets, can you tell us more about that gap?

Ghizlan Guenez: (04:30)
So I mean I live in a family of women who dress modestly for various reasons. I’ve done it because I worked in finance for many years and this became my style…We’ve always experienced a frustrating and time consuming shopping experience. So for you to find an outfit that respects the nuances and considerations of modesty is quite time consuming and alienating because fashion does not necessarily speak to these woman in a meaningful way. So, at a practical level you’d have to go through tons of stores or go through hundreds of products for you to put an outfit together that gives you long sleeves, long ham, covered neckline and opaque fabric and so on. And there are millions of women across the world, whether it’s in America, the Middle East, Europe of Asia, who dress this way, again for various reasons. And yet there wasn’t one platform that spoke to them in a manner that understood their lifestyle, that gave them the curation of the product, that gave them fashion, that gave them style, inspiration and content. And that’s what we set out to do on The Modist.

Rana Nawas: (05:33)
Because when I think of fashion and especially e-commerce fashion, I think of it as a really competitive landscape. But you’re saying this was white space, like there was nothing there in the area of modesty.

Ghizlan Guenez: (05:46)
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And that’s why it wasn’t a challenge looking at the competitive space because the problem that we solve for woman isn’t solved by others in this space. I was that woman and I shopped across all of these platforms. I know that what they’re offering is not necessarily speaking to me or this particular customer.

Rana Nawas: (06:07)
Your Business is “unfundable,” is what one investor I guess told you?

Ghizlan Guenez: (06:14)
A potential investor.

Rana Nawas: (06:16)
So this is why you were fundraising for The Modist. Tell us about that conversation.

Ghizlan Guenez: (06:21)
You hear all sorts of opinions from everyone, even people who know nothing about your industry, your business and what you’re doing. And these kinds of comments and responses to your business only do one thing, in my perspective, which is help you develop a thick skin. If you believe in what you’re doing and if you are solving a problem for your customers and I think the customer has to be in the center of what you’re doing all the time and you have that conviction, then you have to keep going. It’s part of the journey. But yeah, that was one of the comments. I mean, we continued the journey and we had very successful rounds of fundraising. The most recent included, as you know, Farfetch and Bulgari family. But you come across this all the time.

Rana Nawas: (07:06)
I’d like to spend a little longer on the fundraising aspect because this is something that all entrepreneurs really struggle with. You came up with the idea for The Modist in early 2016 and launched on March, 2017, so that was your seed funding. And then in 2018, you went through your Series A, so your big sort of initial fundraising from the markets if you like, and now you’re going through Series B. What has that process been like? What can you share with listeners about fundraising for your startup?

Ghizlan Guenez: (07:40)
Yeah. I mean probably out of everything that I have done, starting this business was the biggest learning and that is because it teaches you everything from understanding your business better to developing character, a stronger character, because the truth is no matter how incredible your business is, and all the successful businesses today will tell you, their fundraising journey in the early days was never easy. You’re never going to be everybody’s cup of tea and everyone is going to have an opinion about your business and so out of the many investors you will meet, there will only be a handful of who will like your business, believe in you as a founder and invest in your business. I think my learnings are that you really need to understand your business and you need to deliver that vision that you have to the investors. Because I find that most of the time, investors invest in founders, especially at an early age, where you still have not had a chance to really showcase, from a number’s perspective, the potential of your business. And so you need to be able to kind of translate that passion and that vision that you have to the investor who’s sitting across the table from you.

Rana Nawas: (08:53)
And I think, occasion then is key.

Ghizlan Guenez: (08:56)
Completely, completely. And practice or pitch, are important. And I think the other thing is to develop thick skin, to keep going and to pitch and speak about your business every single time with the same enthusiasm and excitement. Even if it’s investor number 100, it needs to feel like it’s your first pitch and you’re just as excited about it.

Rana Nawas: (09:19)
Yeah. Thank you. The Modist is going great now, congratulations! What would you have done if it had not succeeded? Do you have a backup plan?

Ghizlan Guenez: (09:30)
No, I don’t believe in backup plans when it comes to starting up a business, at least for me personally. Every ounce of my energy is put into making this business a success. There’s no space for the energy to go anywhere else, on a backup plan. And if I am to make my team give in 100% and believe in it wholeheartedly, then I need to be in it, as we say. So I have zero backup plans and it’s all about making it the success. You see, the statement that now that The Modist is successful, I don’t think you can ever kind of get to a point where you say, this business is successful. Thank you. I’m going on vacation. You know, it’s never the case. There are businesses that are 10 years old, 20 years old, that are still trying to maintain that success. There are new businesses coming up every day. There are so many circumstances and challenges that happen every single day for whether you’re an established business or a startup, that it’s complacent to think that you’re kind of there.

Rana Nawas: (10:30)
That you’ve achieved.

Ghizlan Guenez: (10:30)
Exactly. You’re never there. It’s a journey. There are milestones where you have to look at success in a different way and celebrate milestones across the journey. But you’re never there. You’re constantly thinking about where it’s going next. What are you doing next? If you feel that you’ve achieved a certain milestone, then how do you maintain that? How do you take it to the next level?

Rana Nawas: (10:54)
Well, give us an example cause this is sounding exhausting. We build a business and we never get to success. So let’s talk about these mini successes. What are one or two examples?

Ghizlan Guenez: (11:05)
You know, I think it’s actually the opposite, is what I’m saying. I think that what’s exhausting, if you think your success is in 6 years time and that until you get there, you’re still working at it. I think that small wins, whether it is for us, for example, something as silly as, “oh, we’ve got a customer who bought from Japan today and we don’t even market there,” or Farfetch and Bulgaria has invested with us. This is incredible. Or we’ve hit all our targets this year. So whatever that may be, I think there are celebrations and little moments to kind of take, to think about your achievements because it’s a journey.

Rana Nawas: (11:43)
And how big is your team today?

Ghizlan Guenez: (11:45)
55 people.

Rana Nawas: (11:46)
Wow!

Ghizlan Guenez: (11:47)
Between Dubai and London.

Rana Nawas: (11:48)
Wow! Yeah. You said you spent 13-14 years in private equity in the corporate world. What lessons did you learn there that you’ve used in entrepreneurship?

Ghizlan Guenez: (11:58)
I think specifically in the business that I was in prior to starting The Modist, they had a global vision, but they had a very strong understanding of the markets that they weren’t in: the local markets, it was emerging markets, it was private equity firm. And I think that’s one of the thing that I took that I feel is so useful in our business; we serve two big markets, the US and the GCC, and they’re very different customers and you cannot speak to them in the same way. And so that balance between keeping a global vision that speaks to your brand at a global level, but at the same time understanding that a customer in our region requires a very different way of communication than a customer in the US. This has been something that I took from there. I think also the importance of execution has been something very important. I think we give so much value to ideas and we treat them in such a precious kind of way. But the truth, I believe the smaller part of the bigger picture, which is execution. So I think that execution has been something that I learned there, to really execute to the best that you can.

Rana Nawas: (13:09)
Yeah, it’s great that you can think it. Now, you need to really do it.

Ghizlan Guenez: (13:12)
Exactly. Absolutely. Yeah.

Rana Nawas: (13:13)
Can I just go back to what you talked about; how the customers in the GCC are different to the customers in the US. What are specific differences that you’ve found in your business?

Ghizlan Guenez: (13:19)
You’re talking about regions that are so different in terms of e-commerce development and industry. The US is where e-commerce started first and in this part of the world, we’re at 2% penetration when it comes to e-commerce, so people are actually not shopping online. If you think about this part of the world still…

Rana Nawas: (13:46)
Even with souq.com and all of that?

Ghizlan Guenez: (13:46)
Everything. We are at 2% penetration of e-commerce. You can imagine the opportunity, but you can also understand the dynamics. But that is coupled with spending the most amount of time in this part of the world, the highest Internet penetration, credit card penetration and the ability to buy purchasing power.

Rana Nawas: (14:06)
So all the elements are there to explode…

Ghizlan Guenez: (14:09)
For it to explode, exactly! But it also means that this woman is on the beginning of her journey to start shopping online. She needs to trust you. She needs to, you know, be comfortable. The American customer will buy after maybe one touch point. She sees you in an ad or she sees you on the newspaper and she’s done. She knows what a comfortable shopping experience looks like. She knows how to trust and she’ll just go for it. In our part of the world, you need about five touchpoints here. She sees about you from her friend, who sees you in an ad, maybe on TV, or in an event somewhere. And then, you know, she’s building that trust and that’s other than know the differences in their fashion and aesthetics and all that. But it’s such an exciting space to be in, especially that we’re one of the first luxury platforms in this part of the world. So it’s at the beginning of that…

Rana Nawas: (15:03)
…and it’s an inflection point.

Ghizlan Guenez: (15:05)
Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Rana Nawas: (15:06)
I think it’s really exciting that you talk about trust being your relationship with your customer because I mean, even for me, in aircraft leasing, trust is fundamental, whether you’re selling a dress online or you’re leasing an aircraft in real life.

Ghizlan Guenez: (15:21)
Completely, completely.

Rana Nawas: (15:22)
I’ll tell you one of my issues with online shopping is my fear of the not fit, what a hassle it’s going to be to return and to get my money back. Am I being unreasonable?

Ghizlan Guenez: (15:36)
No, you’re not. It’s probably the main reason why a lot of people don’t make that step or experience it or try to experience it. This is where businesses like us come in to make the return process super easy, very flexible, fast and all of that. But I can tell you from someone who used to be an offline shopper through and through, once you get into it, you can’t go back. It’s the easiest thing. You’re in bed at night, you’re shopping. We don’t have time today, that’s the thing. I think the most precious thing is to give someone more time or to allow them just more time in their day and so it’s convenient and it’s fun.

Rana Nawas: (16:15)
Yeah. I’m there with groceries. One step at a time.

Ghizlan Guenez: (16:20)
Exactly. Exactly.

Rana Nawas: (16:21)
All right, so apart from fundraising, which we spoke about extensively, what other lessons has entrepreneurship taught you?

Ghizlan Guenez: (16:27)
I think it’s been the best and the harshest teacher. If I were to think about building a business, I think it teaches you strength because there’s no way that you get through it without persistence, resilience, being strong and forging through. Sometimes it teaches you that you underestimate yourself and that you could do it, if you set your mind to it. And I think most of us have these barriers and these perceptions about ourselves that I can’t do it and it’s too much or…

Rana Nawas: (16:55)
…limiting beliefs, right?

Ghizlan Guenez: (16:57)
100%. Limiting belief are the exact words to describe it. And that people who start a business is a certain breed or has superpowers. But the truth is that if you raise a family, you have just as much strength. So it’s about passion and it’s about the mindset of wanting to make something happen. But I think that persistence, resilience, troubleshooting, you’re constantly solving and positivity because if you’re not positive as an entrepreneur, you don’t make it. There’s no way. Like the odds are against you, you know, you’re looking at the glass half full.

Rana Nawas: (17:38)
Yeah. I mean it’s a crazy statistic: 90% of start-ups fail within…

Ghizlan Guenez: (17:43)
It’s around 98%, I think…

Rana Nawas: (17:43)
Oh 98%? There you go…within the first few years. First three years or something?

Ghizlan Guenez: (17:48)
Yeah. Yeah.

Rana Nawas: (17:49)
I think most rational people look at those odds and think, “not for me!”

Ghizlan Guenez: (17:52)
True, yeah.

Rana Nawas: (17:54)
So we all have a bit of craziness.

Ghizlan Guenez: (17:55)
Well, you have to.

Rana Nawas: (17:57)
Is modesty just a fad or is it here to stay?

Ghizlan Guenez: (18:01)
It’s definitely here to stay. And I’m not talking about modesty that you see on runways as a macro trend in fashion. I’m talking about the women that we speak to, a woman who has chosen to make this a lifestyle of hers. So she is not necessarily wearing a long dress because it’s trendy versus a miniskirt she’s wearing it next season because this is her choice. This is the way she lives her life, whether it’s work appropriate, this is how she dresses for work, whether she’s a certain age and she thinks that a long sleeve is where she feels comfortable and the list goes on. So it’s a lifestyle for the women that we address and that we speak to. And so it’s definitely something that’s been practiced for centuries and will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future, forever.

Rana Nawas: (18:51)
You mentioned that a lot of people interested in The Modist come at it from a work appropriate angle. So what tips do you have for ladies who want to dress, you know, say they work in a management consultants or any company, it doesn’t matter? What tips do you have for them on how to dress?

Ghizlan Guenez: (19:08)
I mean I’d say, to repeat your word, being appropriate is always relevant and appropriate is around the industry that you’re in. So if you’re in finance for example, then it’s a more conservative industry. And so toning down the fashion side, you know,, whether it’s a suit or a shirt and a skirt or whatever that may be. And if you’re in a creative industry, then you’ve got more room to express yourself. So I think it’s always about contextualizing where you work and making it appropriate to that. But I think probably the one common thing is to make the effort to look well put together, wherever you are. You know, the effort that you put into how you look and the space that you’re going to work. I mean this is how I would think about it.

Rana Nawas: (19:53)
Yeah. It’s funny because I never wore makeup to work. I don’t wear it on a daily basis. I wear it when I go out at night. For me, it was never appropriate to my time. I just didn’t want to invest that time.

Ghizlan Guenez: (20:04)
That make sense. And you know, it’s all about you and what makes you feel comfortable and what makes you feel good at the end of the day.

Rana Nawas: (20:12)
Yeah. I mean, for me, five extra minutes in bed makes me feel better.

Ghizlan Guenez: (20:15)
There you go.

Rana Nawas: (20:16)
Alright. Ghizlan, what’s your big crazy dream?

Ghizlan Guenez: (20:21)
Oh Wow! Big crazy dream? I’m living it right now. This is my big crazy dream. Yeah. I’ve never ever thought that I would be running a business that I’m so in love with, having a team of people that I love walking into the office and seeing every morning and speaking to women like you about what I do. This is exactly it.

Rana Nawas: (20:43)
Wonderful! Is there anything that I can do in one minute to help you on your journey?

Ghizlan Guenez: (20:50)
Yes. Talk to more inspiring women who could inspire people like me. So the women that you interview, what you’re doing is exactly what people like me need at a time when you’re pushing through and trying to make things happen and grow a business and a tiny little, you know, inspiration in the day, makes all the difference between you having that surge of energy to keep going or deciding that this is not working, you know? So I think what you’re doing is precisely what women like me need.

Rana Nawas: (21:23)
Well, that’s a great fit then.

Ghizlan Guenez: (21:27)
It’s the truth.

Rana Nawas: (21:27)
I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, brilliant! How do you switch off when you feel overwhelmed?

Ghizlan Guenez: (21:33)
Recently in the last few months, I’ve learned how to meditate, thanks to a wonderful friend and someone who’s amazing in this space. And this is coming from someone who never believed in meditation. I tried it once and my leg was numb and it just didn’t work for me, but I actually learned it and it’s been the most incredible thing that I have ever tried. So that has been a beautiful kind of refuge, sanctuary and a way to kind of really isolate my thoughts from the madness of every day.

Rana Nawas: (22:07)
How often do you do it?

Ghizlan Guenez: (22:09)
I mean, I do it every day on my own and I do it a couple times a week with her. Yeah. It’s a daily thing for me now.

Rana Nawas: (22:18)
Amazing! So this is my 2019 goal, actually, my personal goal.

Ghizlan Guenez: (22:21)
I can hook you up.

Rana Nawas: (22:23)
My personal goal is to make meditation a daily habit.

Ghizlan Guenez: (22:26)
Yeah, it’s such an incredible and powerful thing.

Rana Nawas: (22:31)
I mean the research is irrefutable.

Ghizlan Guenez: (22:33)
It really is. And again, I was such a cynic about meditation that for it to work for me, I feel that I’m kind of like now out there telling everyone to meditate. I’m also very big on family. I live with my mother and my siblings and my Fridays and my family time is super important. I feel that that’s kind of my refuel, if you will.

Rana Nawas: (22:54)
Makes sense.

Ghizlan Guenez: (22:56)
But I think on taking time off and all that, what you do when you’re switched off is really such a personal thing and subjective. I have colleagues who used to say that spending time with the kids. like as mad as that time is, it completely helps you switch off from work.

Rana Nawas: (23:12)
Because it’s active meditation. When you’re with kids, you can’t think of anything else, they just won’t let you. What is a book you’ve recently gifted someone?

Ghizlan Guenez: (23:21)
“Grit.”

Rana Nawas: (23:21)
Angela Duckworth?

Ghizlan Guenez: (23:25)
Angela Duckworth. Yeah. I love to gift that. I also was reading “Bad Blood” recently.

Rana Nawas: (23:30)
I’ve heard of it, haven’t read it.

Ghizlan Guenez: (23:32)
Page turner! You wouldn’t be able to put it down, but that also was a good one. I didn’t gift it, I shared it with someone.

Rana Nawas: (23:41)
That’s okay. Who’s a woman that’s influenced you greatly?

Ghizlan Guenez: (23:47)
I think there are, there are a number of women. I think my mother would have to be the one that left or continues to leave the most influence on me. I’m also very inspired by women who are doing amazing things. I was reading yesterday the story of Huda and Muna Kattan and I mean it’s so inspiring. Not that I hadn’t known the story; I’ve followed her since before Instagram days. I’ve always found her to be very credible with a lot of integrity when she recommends things and all that. But again, building something like that from scratch is incredible. So, I think there’s a lot of inspiration within women around us.

Rana Nawas: (24:28)
Yeah. Hence, When Women Win.

Ghizlan Guenez: (24:30)
Exactly.

Rana Nawas: (24:31)
Lots of women win. Brilliant. Thank you so much. Where can listeners find you?

Ghizlan Guenez: (24:36)
They can find me on Instagram @Ghizlan_Guenez or themodist.com.

Rana Nawas: (24:42)
Excellent, and we’ll put all these links in the show notes.

Ghizlan Guenez: (24:44)
Thank you!

(24:45)
Rana Nawas: Thank you so much for coming!

Ghizlan Guenez: (24:46)
Thank you so much for having me and for doing an incredible job with this podcast!

Rana Nawas: (24:50)
Thank you! I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. I’d love to hear from you, so please head over to whenwomenwinpodcast.com to give feedback. While you’re there, you can find all episodes and show notes and sign up for our monthly newsletter. Wherever you’re listening right now, do remember to hit the subscribe button to be notified of future episodes and please write a review when you can, to let others know what to expect. Thanks, and have a great day!

End Of Transcript