Elsa Aoun, 37, is a multifaceted entrepreneur. She is the co-founder of Arabic-speaking website Ounousa targeting women in the Middle East, as well as several other web platforms. Elsa’s journey has taken her from content production to e-commerce, in a path of perpetual search for innovation. Here is her story.
“My dad was a role model for me. He had this incredible curiosity for everything. He was keen on discovering new things and was always following the latest trends in Silicon Valley. I learned through him to always be curious and to never be afraid to innovate,” says Elsa Aoun. And innovate she did.
The first online Arabic-speaking magazine for women
She started back in 2006 when she was still studying for a master’s in management at HEC in France. Her friend Wassim, whom she later married, was at the time doing his master’s in e-commerce at HEC as well. There, he met numbers of entrepreneurs from the emerging internet bubble in Europe through talks organized by the university. “After attending one of these events, he told me that we really needed to create something, they were doing great things out there.” So, we sat for a while trying to brainstorm how we could innovate and identified a huge lack of Arabic-speaking content on the web and decided to tackle the problem.
The most convenient kind of content we could write, given our limited resources at the time, was the one targeting women: we could work with freelancers on ‘slow content’, we didn’t need to have someone full-time. That’s how Ounousa was born as the first online Arabic-speaking magazine for women.”
It was the very beginning of the social media craze. “We were there right on time. The world was still discovering social media. After we created the Facebook page, Ounousa went through a real boom. A community was born. The page now has 17 million subscribers, and most of the growth happened in the first years.”
In 2009, Elsa, her husband, and her best friend officially registered Ounousa as an LLC. In 2010, things started to get serious when an ad agency approached them. They offered to sell advertising on Ounousa’s website and suggested they renovate it to make it more attractive to announcers. “We built a team of 4 people, with freelancers, and started to write daily. Today, our team writes around 20 articles per day. We also developed a content strategy to expand our audience to the Gulf countries, where most of the announcers are. This was a turning point.”
In 2011, Elsa and her husband decided to come back to Lebanon, where she worked in a consultancy agency. At that time, they both had full-time jobs while Ounousa was steadily growing.
Entrepreneur: a full-time job
“I did not really choose to be an entrepreneur. It happened progressively while I was living the experience without labeling it. But I love the process of creating it requires, it drives me,” says Elsa. She decided to entirely focus on Ounousa in 2013 after she gave birth to her first child. “It became very hard to juggle between the travels that my old job required and childcare. Ounousa offered me the flexibility I needed. So, I went full-time, and it worked out great.”
That’s when she seized the second opportunity to innovate. “In 2013, we had the idea with two friends of mine to combine our experiences, mine and Wassim’s in the digital world and theirs in the medical field, to create Sohati.” The website offers medical content in Arabic for patients. “Sohati was filling the gap on the medical front the same way Ounousa did with online women’s magazine.”
In 2014, the third opportunity came along with Loolia, which she co-funded with her husband and a group of former colleagues in consulting. Loolia is a YouTube channel offering beauty and fashion content for young women. Its creation addresses the growing demand in video content, which is now competing with written content. “We knew that the MENA region was a huge user of social media and consumer of video content. For instance, in 2018 Saudi Arabia had among the largest number of YouTube users.”
Once again Elsa was careful not to miss the boat, developing a third aspect of her business project.
Fundraising and scaling up
2014 was another turning year. The Circular 331, a financial decree by the Central Bank of Lebanon, which has permitted Lebanese banks and financial institutions to invest in Lebanese startups, allowed Elsa and her team to think big. “We met with Berytech, and thanks to our very good results they decided to invest $1.5 million USD in Ounousa.”
“We invested in the team,” says Paul Chucrallah, Managing Director of Berytech Fund II. “They know their stuff, they are continuously learning about and analyzing their market. They have both the needed creativity and the rigor in management that allows them to overcome all the challenges they face.”
Elsa and her husband also managed to raise funds for Sohati through BLC Bank and for Loolia through Cedar Mundi. “In total, we raised around US$4 million. I would have never imagined that things would turn out this way when we first started back in the day.”
But Elsa’s appetite for innovation did not stop there. She couldn’t miss the booming of the e-commerce sector; so, at the beginning of 2018, she co-founded Sohati Care, an online para-pharmacy platform. In September 2018, Loolia Closet was born, a platform featuring beauty products and fashion items from Internet influencers. Last but not least, Ounousa Reviews, a review platform of beauty products was launched at the end of 2018.
“I think we will stop here,” a promise, she acknowledges, that will be hard to keep. After all, her own father could never stay idle: “After his retirement, he kept working as a consultant. He was always telling me to get some rest, but he was the one always working !” she said. And just like him, Elsa has never managed to stay idle. She lives her life at a hectic pace, always careful not to miss any opportunities that our rapidly changing world may offer. “You have to be very attentive because if you don’t pay enough attention you could easily be superseded by newcomers, especially when you see how fast technology is evolving these days.
Today, Elsa is working with a team of 25 full-timers and a few freelancers reaching a vast audience across the MENA region, with 17 million followers on Facebook for the Ounousa page, 10 million for the Sohati page and 1.5 million subscribers to Loolia’s YouTube channel.
Ounousa is currently looking to expand abroad with the opening of new offices in the region.