Thursday, 01 July 2021
When Sabina Ali set up bridalwear brand Sabina Motasem in 2007 she wanted to redefine the wedding dress with her sleek Art Deco and art nouveau-inspired silhouettes. Named Best Contemporary Global Bridal Designer for 2020 she also recently won the Good Brand Award 2020 in recognition of her environmental sustainability including a new vegan line of dresses made from plant-based material. She discusses her daily focus on ethical business and how she’s reframed her ADHD diagnosis as a ‘superpower’.
What in your routine is essential for success?
I take time to free-write three pages of thoughts every morning or evening in my journal, something I’ve been doing since I was 17. I always had so much going in my head that I felt I needed to keep writing it down to get everything out. This practice allows me to take a step back and take a good look at my life: what I feel and think and what I’m doing. It’s a key way I can support myself — and if I’m feeling negative I can put it all down on the page and free my mind up again. We’re all always so busy with the everyday stuff and it’s impossible to really grow and achieve goals if you don’t give yourself the time to reflect. You’ll just end up going round in circles and feel stuck on some level if you don’t.
Where or from whom did you get your entrepreneurial spirit — and what did they teach you?
My dad came over from Bangladesh in the 1960s in search of a better future for his family, setting up a successful Indian restaurant and getting involved with local politics. He was so enterprising and such a ‘people person’ and I thought that was a real skill. Business relies on relationships — when you run a business you’ve got to invigorate everyone all the time and look out for them. Dad had such an aura; he was able to connect with people quickly and he was also such an eloquent public speaker. I grew up watching him and wanting to do the same thing and importantly thinking that was an option — they don’t teach you that kind of thing at school. I am the eldest of five sisters and my mum also always drilled into us that we could do anything we wanted to do as long as we just focused.
How do you stay focused?
Having said that, staying focused has always been a bit of a challenge for me. I’d always suspected that there was something amiss, so when I got a place on the New Entrepreneurship Scholarship programme training 15 years ago, I decided to get myself tested — I wanted to find out all my strengths and weaknesses so I could make the most of the opportunity. I then found out that I was mildly ADHD. I’d implemented coping strategies instinctively for myself all my life, like colour-coding lists, writing the daily journal and taking regular exercise. But suddenly it made so much sense to me why it was sometimes a little difficult to focus on things. I had really believed that there was something wrong with me. I’ve since re-assessed it in my head and now I think of my ADHD as having a unique ‘superpower’ — which is a much more positive way of accepting who I am. It makes me very dynamic, and I get loads done as long as I can compartmentalise things in my head. I love using the Asana app for this purpose.
What’s your top tip for staying on top of finances, practically, emotionally or strategically?
Managing your finances is like maintaining good health with food and exercise in that it’s all emotionally driven. Don’t run away from your finances and look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves, as they say. People never tell you how hard it is at the beginning of a start-up and that it will take a long time before you’re able to take a salary from it. So keep in mind that you might need a part-time job in the early days and be prepared to put in the extra hours. It’s also easy to over-spend, so try to keep your outgoings under your incomings and ensure you have enough profit margin to cover all your operating costs. You’ll thank yourself when you need cash to develop new products and expand, and you can do that without the need to borrow.
What is the most effective change you have made in response to the challenges of the pandemic — how have you flexed or pivoted?
I could see early on that this pandemic would end up making us all change our priorities. During the first lockdown, most of our brides postponed their nuptials to 2022. I needed to keep myself busy, so we switched to helping the NHS by making scrubs and ended up making around 1,400 for 20 hospitals, care homes, and medical centres. It brought the pandemic into focus for me. I think in ten years’ time, every business will need to evolve and adapt to have sustainability at its heart, and every consumer will expect this too. I also realised that it’s not governments that really change the world; it’s people and entrepreneurial businesses. We closed our physical retail shop in Islington, moving everything to a digital service and launched a new eco-friendly range this year. I don’t like how our modern lifestyles are having a detrimental effect on our planet. I’d like to do my bit to help prevent that. We’ve also recently partnered with a women’s refuge to convert our leftover fabrics into items we can donate to women in need.
What makes you feel out of your comfort zone and how do you handle that?
Public speaking has always scared me, but it’s a great thing to challenge yourself to do and grow. I believe that every time you do something that is out of your comfort zone you become stronger and better for it. With public speaking I’ve found if you can engage with the audience a bit at the beginning it can help calm your nerves, especially when you see them nodding and smiling. Generally, I’d say don’t be afraid to jump because the net will always appear and no matter how many times you fall down, just keep on getting up. My sisters have nicknamed me Mike Myers, the character from the Halloween films, because I’ve had knocks over the years, but I keep getting up and going forward. I think that is what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
What sacrifices have you had to make to become a successful entrepreneur?
I missed out on a lot of family stuff such as birthdays in the early days — I even lost touch with my sisters for a while because I was so busy. And I didn’t go on holiday for several years because I couldn’t afford it. I also think that perhaps I sacrificed having children too, although it’s never been my priority. Even so, when I turned 40, I suddenly wondered, ‘am I going to regret it if I don’t try?’ As a woman you can feel that society keeps telling you that you need to prioritise having your own children, although that is changing, I think and there is less pressure now on women to fulfil these roles that they might not want to inhabit. All in all, though, I think the sacrifices I’ve made for my business have been worth it though: I never wanted to depend on anybody.