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Meet Sahar, the Dubai-based philanthropist who could win $1m

Sahar Wahbeh, a Dubai-based philanthropist, is one of 16 finalists with a chance to win $1m as an investment for her business Dumyé

Published: Updated:

Meet Sahar Wahbeh, the 34-year-old U.S.-born Lebanese-Palestinian on a mission to change the lives of orphans in the region and beyond. Just over three years ago, the Dubai-based mother of one left her fulltime job in consulting to start Dumyé, an online social enterprise that sells personalized dolls. Customers choose the style and personalize the look, and for every doll purchased Dumyé donates another doll to one of the world’s 153 million orphaned children.

She has never had any support or investment other than her own savings. However, Dumyé is one of 16 finalists - the only one from the Middle East and North Africa - with a chance to win $1 million in a new global competition called The Venture, which takes place in the United States in July.

Finalists will pitch for the funds in front of an expert global judging panel. The public can help finalists win $250,000 of the total prize money through the click of a button. Until June 14, anyone can log on to theventure.com to cast their vote. The remaining $750,000 will go to one lucky winner chosen by the judges this summer. Al Arabiya News met Wahbeh to find out more.

Where did the idea for your business come from?
I started making dolls because I wanted to gift my daughter something really special for the holidays, something I had hoped would one day become synonymous with her childhood. Disappointed with what I found available in the market, I decided to create a doll of my own. I realized Dumyé was an opportunity to not only share with my daughter what I valued in life, but to actually live by it.

Things like respecting mother nature – our dolls are made with a mixture of organic, sustainable and mostly natural materials – and having compassion for our fellow women, which is why we commission an NGO in one of the poorest states of India to handle elements of our production. This allows us to empower women in their community to be self-sufficient, while they use their proceeds to educate the next generation of girls.

Today our dolls live in more than 15 countries. Ultimately, it is my hope that when our generation passes the reigns to my daughter / our children, we will be leaving them to a world better than the one we were born to.

What or who inspired you to become a social entrepreneur?
I did not choose social entrepreneurship, it chose me. I have always been inspired by the power of design to shape our culture, which is why when I could not find a doll that captured the values and aesthetics I was looking for, I went about creating my own in a way that contributed to making our world a better place.

What has been the most important moment of your business career so far?
The workshops we recently held in Lebanon with 250 refugee orphans. It was one of the most exciting and humbling moments of my life. We had one boy who covered his doll in bullet holes. The volunteer working with him encouraged him to dress the doll but he refused. He left the room, but a few minutes later the same volunteer went after the boy to gently encourage him once again to let her help him make the doll clothing.

Eventually he agreed, and there was something really symbolic about his decision to dignify the wounded doll with clothing. I later found that same boy on the streets of the refugee camp, laughing and playing with his friends and the new dolls they had made. It was the best feeling ever.

Why is this project so important to you?
Dr Seuss said it best: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Although there will always be a place for governmental aid and regulation, the world’s most ailing issues will be resolved by those who make it their ‘business’ to do so. We need a shift in consciousness, especially in business. Social entrepreneurship plays a vital role in realizing that.

Who or what personally inspires you?
My parents. Their early life was riddled with challenges like war and poverty. but their unselfish determination to give my brother and I a life more privileged then their own is nothing short of inspiring, and they succeeded.

You have been selected as a finalist for The Venture. What difference would it make to Dumyé?
Everything. The funding on the table will completely transform Dumyé’s ability to bring love and light to not only our children, but the children who have not been spoken for. In five years’ time, I would like to see us gifting our 1 millionth doll to an orphan in need.

What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
Identify exactly what has inspired your business idea, craft that story beautifully, and share it with unadulterated passion.