Interview with Deem Al Bassam, Founder of Switch Restaurant

When you walk into Switch restaurant, you momentarily forget that you are in Dubai Mall. The س- shaped walls and the Arabic design lighted with bright neon colours take you into a different world, and quite literally ‘switches’ the atmosphere. The guests, a blend of young Arabs, Dubai tourists, and business people, are engaged in conversation over the delicious international cuisine that is served by and even more international staff.

I am sitting opposite a slender, young Saudi woman, who’s determination can be read in her eyes. ‘We did this in two years!’ Deem Al Bassam says as she waves her arm along the length of Switch restaurant. ‘We could have taken 10 years instead, but we did it in one.’ Anyone who meets Deem does not need to ask why. Indeed, barely graduated from her marketing studies, Deem jumped into the deep end of the pool by not only starting in the family business but also launching her own venture; the recently opened Switch restaurant in Dubai Mall. ‘Ever since I took a retailing course at University, I have a had a particular passion for that part of management, and more so for the food and beverages industry.’ Deem declares and smiles.

The idea of Switch restaurant stems from a combination of Deem’s passion for the food and beverages industry, her entrepreneurial drive, and her determination to create an Arab brand. ‚ We walk through our malls and everything we see comes from abroad. There are very few Arab brands that made it into the spotlight, which is just wrong.’ Indeed, surrounded by brands such as Gallery Lafayette, Timberland and the Apple Store, it seems unlikely that Switch stems from an Arab initiative. While customers are clearly absorbed by the food in a first instance, you can see some of them stealing glances at the ceilings of Switch, decorated with Arabic writing and calligraphy.

‘In order to promote Arab identity, we took a marketing approach. Marketing is the key element in changing people’s perceptions about what we in the Arab world can do!’ Deem states.

She had started her working life by getting involved in a possible franchise acquisition by another family business. The project never came to pass but Deem learnt a lot from it. With the acquired experience her determination grew to start something of her own. The idea of Switch restaurant was born in 2007. In 2008 the project was planned out; in 2009 it became reality. ‘Convincing Dubai Mall was difficult. I understood why they had their reservations, but I emphasised the needed for something that was an Arab creation.’

Manager of the Al Bassam Group in Dubai, involved in real estate and with small activities in other industries, Deem, 24 years old, is now the fully dedicated Director of Switch restaurant. ‘I am involved with the family business in minor things. I am assisting them in the Dubai branch. We are only controlling 5% over here; 95% is based in Saudi Arabia.’ Deem sustains strong ties to the family business and travels to Saudi Arabia regularly for family gatherings.

Saleh Mohammed Al Bassam, Deem’s father, supported his daughter from the very start and encouraged her to venture out and realise her ambitions, while keeping her talents applied to the family business at the same time. ‚My father is a real entrepreneur. I do not know whether that trait is genetic but I know that he is my role-model and he is my true inspiration in all I do, and that I took to this life style almost immediately after I graduated.’ The Al Bassam family business backed Deem’s idea financially and opened up doors for her. Letting his daughter take a ‘trial and error’ approach, Deem’s father watched her throughout the process of becoming a fully-fledged entrepreneur. And with impressive results: ‘I understand the need of surrounding myself with people who are smarter and more experienced than me. Without consulting others and working as a team, you cannot be successful.’ Says Deem with a maturity clearly gained from her recent experiences.

The family business was an important ingredient in Deem’s success, and having the family’s backing was a significant emotional and business support. ‘I have failed and made mistakes many times along the way.’ Deem smiles ‚What really only matters, is how quickly you get back up on your feet. I often wondered why my father did not warn me in advance when I took a wrong turning. Today, I understand that he knew that I needed to make my own mistakes in order to fully grasp the extent of my responsibilities and live up to them. It is the positive thinking that counts.’

When I ask Deem what her next move is, she smiles and a playful expression appears on her face. Undoubtedly, even greater things await; however, her current focus is on growing Switch restaurant and making it a sustainable venture. ‘I hope I am an inspiration for young Arabs. You never know what it is like when you start out your own. I would have wished to have a place where I could have gone to and to ask for advice. I want to create a community for entrepreneurs so that young Arabs have a point of reference.’ To realise this ambition, Deem organises various events in Switch restaurant, ranging from charities to actual workshops for students. The aim is to establish Switch as a ‘creative piazza’ where young creative talents meet and learn how to implement their dreams and ideas. Deem hopes to encourage young people with ambitions and believes strongly in there being a need for an entrepreneurial next generation that creates a strong sense of Arab identity.

‘For the rest of my life I want to do things that are interesting and inspiring.’ says Deem and judging from her recent success, one can have little doubt that she will.

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 6, 2010