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Women in Small Business: 5 Questions with Dahlia Shaaban

Name: Dahlia Shaaban

Anyone who follows Dahlia on instagram (handle: @heydahls), has seen her beautiful plates of nourishing food bursting with flavor and adhering to her healthy and delicious formula. Dahlia makes fresh food exciting, while educating clients on how to shift behavior to live healthier lives. Throughout her professional journey she has worn many hats, and is continuing to grow and expand her offerings. Her answers to my five questions are personal, passionate and a testament to the fact that we all hold the power to turn our lives around and do great things.

1. What led you to owning your own business?

After graduation, I began my career in Middle East conflict resolution, working for five years in the policy think tank scene in DC at the height of the Iraq War.

Mission-driven in focus and seeking to create impact, I became increasingly frustrated in that industry. Between the horror stories we regularly received from our partners in the field and the frustrations of working in an obtuse bureaucracy, I felt powerless. I lost faith and purpose. And grew tired of navigating the identity politics of the industry as a woman of Middle Eastern descent.

Meanwhile, I got into a major slump with my health. I carried about 20, maybe 30 extra pounds of weight and experienced painful digestive dysfunction that interfered with my quality of life and relationships. But it wasn’t just my physical health. My gut health was very much the barometer, a subconscious voice rising, for everything else in my life that was just not working.

I settled into a long term relationship with an alcoholic that was becoming increasingly volatile. I was buried in this place of suffering and didn’t even have the language to articulate or ability to envision what getting out and moving forward would look like. I knew I couldn’t live like this for the rest of my life.

After honest reflection, I made space in my life to take control of my health. I radically transformed the way I ate and created rituals in the way I took care of myself. And that journey proved transformative.

My chronic digestive pain gave way to ease and rhythm. Then natural stores of energy unlocked in my body and I experienced renewed vitality. Then the excess weight started coming off, organically, almost effortlessly.

For so much of my life I felt like I was fighting against myself to be thinner - or more worthy, or whatever - and was never moving forward. Finally I was in a place where I found joy in taking care of myself and my body sighed in gratitude. Results organically, incrementally built on one another.

Once I healed my gut and took control of my health I was able to take on the other parts that weren’t working and forge a path forward. I was able to leave behind that job and the daily existential crisis in my cubicle. I made the leap to pursue the work I love, the work that gave me purpose.

Eventually I was able to make my way out of that abusive relationship too.

Informed by my own experience and training, I developed Live Deliciously as a methodology, a practical system with tools designed to empower clients in tangibly improving the quality of their lives through creative meal planning and healthy behavior modification.

In over 8 years of health entrepreneurship, I have worked with over 150 individual clients, 20 corporate clients, and have partnered with workplaces, wellness centers, and markets in Washington, DC and in the Middle East to implement healthy lifestyle programs for their customers.

2. What is your business philosophy?

Relationships are critical. With mentors. With clients. With strategic partners. With virtually anyone you meet. More than anything, it is important to cultivate and leverage relationships. You never know which contacts will provide you with your next business lead, strategic or functional expertise for growth, or simply be a supportive ally for leveraging your brand.

Build community. Deliberately. Authentically. Generously. Cultivate a network. You’ll be surprised where you find inspiration and support.

3. What have you learned about yourself by owning your own business?

After eight years as a solo entrepreneur in a truly saturated health & wellness industry in a fiercely competitive city, I’ve learned just how flexible, resilient, and resourceful I can be.

For three of those years, I partnered with an integrative health clinic during a critical period of growth from 1 to 12 practitioners in downtown DC. As my mentor established her bricks-and-mortar practice, I helped her with everything from laying down hardwood floors, upholstering furniture, front-desk reception and inventory, until ultimately I took over management of the clinic's communications strategy. I represented the clinic in external communications with local businesses, government, and nonprofit organizations to build strategic referral partnerships and executed digital marketing campaigns with an editorial calendar across various platforms. I also helped the clinic win $80,000 in capital improvement funds from the District.

From there, I partnered with a UX Design mentor for over two years and channeled the power of client personas, information architecture, and storytelling in brand communications to connect with diverse audiences, earn trust, and captivate attention to deliver innovative, accessible adult learning opportunities and healthy eating programs. Through that mentoring experience, I developed the Live Deliciously Formula, a tool that empowered my online audience - from Beirut to Bangalore, Cairo to Cape Town, and the District of Columbia to Dallas - to intuitively plan and prepare healthy, exciting plant-based meals without recipes and proudly share their stories.

Reflecting upon my own experience, I am grateful for all hats I’ve worn, all the professional and social circles I’ve navigated, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. My time owning my own business has in many ways been a testament to my grit and hustle. I’ve also learned that I can be stubbornly mission-driven, sometimes beyond capacity.

In the entrepreneurial space, we often talk about failing fast, failing forward. Innovate. Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.

Looking back, I can honestly admit that I persisted in a challenging business model as a coach and solo entrepreneur that was ultimately difficult to bring to scale and sustain. But hey, I took a chance and did what most folks only dream of and fully explored my vision to create my own nutrition & lifestyle business. For eight years! Moving forward, I am gearing up for my next transition, exploring opportunities for growth in health and biotech spaces. Stay tuned.

4. What has been the most surprising thing for you?

Hmmm. To be honest, I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur until I had my own business. All I knew is that I had to follow my passion and build my vision in this one life I have.

I have been blessed with mentors, opportunities, and clients along the journey that came into my life exactly when I needed them. And only after I took the leap. Trusting into the winds of fruition. To that end, I have been incredibly fortunate.

5. What advice would you give to a woman starting a new business endeavor?

If you’re a creative entrepreneur, chances are you’re the sensitive type. I chuckle as I recall Erykah Badu debuting a new song to a live audience, “I’m an artist! And I’m sensitive about my shit!”

Sensitivity and emotional intelligence are strengths that will only propel you in building authentic relationships needed in your venture. That said, it it critical to build internal resilience and tools for integrating feedback - the good, the bad and the ugly.

Do your best not to take setbacks or criticism personally. I say this from experience, as a sensitive creative entrepreneur who has taken entirely too much too personally. I can look back at all the setbacks, all the criticism, as teaching moments that have ultimately empowered personal and professional growth. It is all about framing and perspective. And humility.

Oh, and speaking of humility, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Nobody is a lone wolf.

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