Nivin El-Gamal: From Sheikh's Wife to Design Entrepreneur

Nivin El-Gamal is the former wife of Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum and founder of Galaxy Stars. The bespoke interior design firm that works with individuals such as foreign dignitaries, pop stars and VIPs as well as with organisations working across a number of high-end London projects.

Nivin founded the firm in 2006, with the business name derived from her childhood love of Galaxy chocolate. Since formation, the company has grown to 25 employees, servicing wealthy clients around the world.  

Here she tells The NextWomen how she managed to launch and successfully grow her business.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Galaxy Stars and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

NE-G: I've always been passionate about interior design and studied the subject both in Egypt and the UK. I had already helped many of my friends and family with interior ideas, all of which got great feedback, and so I decided to use my practical experience and education to launch my own interior design business. 

I knew it would be different designing for the general public rather than people I know, but design is something close to my heart and I was keen to make a career out of doing something I loved as soon as possible.

TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?

NE-G: Galaxy Stars has 25 employees and we work for clients all over the world, yet regardless of the project, whether it be a luxury Dubai apartment or a South London Spa, I will always oversee it personally.

Another thing which I think sets us apart from many other interior design firms is that we focus on what the client needs, not what we want to do. It may sound simple but we hear many reports of people who have ended up with something to cater to their designer’s ego rather than their vision.

TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

NE-G: The first thing to say is that it’s essential to understand that the success of your business will often be down to others as much as it is yourself, so spend time seeking out the very best people you can. 

I look for like-minded people to myself, who specifically have a natural flair for colour and style. 

In addition to their creative skills, I seek out people who are good listeners and can fully understand what their customer wants, before developing a plan of how to deliver it. 

I would say this is a key business skill for any employee to have, regardless of which industry they work in.

TNW: Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them?

NE-G: My first customers actually came through recommendations from friends and family who had seen my design work at a young age and passed on recommendations. Interior design is a very personal business, the customer lets you into their private space and lets you transform it, therefore I’ve always found a significant number of clients come through recommendations. People are always happier to deal with people they have some knowledge of. 

TNW: Who are your customers and partners now?

NE-G: 

Galaxy Stars is a truly international business and we have customers all over the world. Key markets for us include Arabia, Russia, China, India and of course the UK. 

My partners are both from Pakistan, Mr Mohsin Waraich and his wife Mrs Beenish Khan.

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

NE-G: My approach to new business is different from many firms in that I mainly source new clients through personal recommendations.

I ask each client to pass on my details to three people and this has provided a steady stream of new business.

I also like to attend networking events including clients’ dinner parties as well as exhibitions such as the Ideal Home Show and Grand Designs Live.

TNW: What is next for your company?

NE-G: We’ve got a lot of interesting projects in the pipeline, both in the UK and abroad, including working in partnership with housing developers to design show homes for high-end housing developments.

I am also launching a charity to combat Mannose-binding lectin deficiency (MBLD), a genetic disorder which weakens the immune system and increases susceptibility to repeat infections. The Sheikh Saeed bin Ahmed Al-Maktoum Charity is named after my four year old son who suffers from the disorder. It’s an issue extremely close to my heart and we’re hoping to raise a significant amount of money in order to fund further research.

My son may be unwell but his strength and determination each day drive me on and inspire me to try and help, encourage and support as many others in his position as I possibly can.

TNW: Have you come across any other exciting startups recently and what is it about them that appeals to you?

NE-G: Due to working with a wide range of people from all over the globe I do come across many interesting business ideas. One of the most recent was a woman I met who plans on designing luxury adjustable beds to the public sector, it’ll be interesting to see how she gets on.

TNW: What are the advantages of gender diversity in a startup? Are there any disadvantages?

NE-G: I believe gender diversity is important when interacting with clients. For example, some men prefer dealing with other men, whilst many people prefer interacting with the opposite sex. Having a mixture of men and women in a team is also useful when generating a range of new ideas, with people coming from a whole range of different viewpoints.

What I would say, however, is that in my experience, if you’re good at what you do and understand your clients, gender becomes immaterial.

TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures? 

NE-G: You have to constantly seek out ways in which you can improve; even if things seem to be going well you can always take things up a notch. 

I think many people hoping to launch a business simply spend too much time planning and nowhere near enough time doing. It is easy to get stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’ and if you want to make strides forward you should act and not be afraid to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them.

Another important thing to get your head around is what activities you should devote time to.

I try and spend time on tasks that will drive the business forward, rather than making changes which add very little value. 

If you analyse what things bring results for your company you can avoid wasting time and energy on things which won’t bring the business success or you, happiness.

It’s also essential to have the confidence to delegate to others to ensure work gets done. Over time it’s not just you who will determine how well your business performs, it’s those around you, and you have to be prepared to let go and let others work their magic, if you want your business to continue to grow.

TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs? 

NE-G: Know your industry inside out, particularly who you’re competitors are, before you enter the market.

You need to find a properly unique USP, ideally one which isn’t imitable, and once you have, be sure to tell everybody you know about it.

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