The sweet smell of cookies baking; your grandmother’s perfume; the familiar smell of home: for many, these scents and more trigger fond memories and have immense power over our mood. But where smells begin and end for most of us, they’re always top of mind for Azza Gallab.
Rooted in her Sudanese background where fragrances play a huge role in many of life’s milestones, Azza’s passion for aromatic experiences goes beyond her fondness for her mother’s perfume and the candles in her own home — it influenced her to launch her own business, Haremesque.
After making scented candles as a hobby, Azza quickly fell in love with the process as well as the freedom that self-employment offered, and she hasn’t looked back since. Today, Azza (who already opened up in a more personal way through her Comfort Zone feature) is sharing more about the influence of her Sudanese background on her business, the struggles of wearing many hats, and the poetic quotes that inspire her. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
Honestly, I didn’t start off thinking I was “starting my own business.” It all really happened by accident. I’ve lived in New York about eight years now and have freelanced as an experience architect (interior design, event design and production, styling) on and off for a few years. I’m still very much so an experience architect, but the majority of my time and energy now goes to Haremesque. I like the freedom of being my own boss and being able to work from anywhere. That, and I also have a problem with authority, haha. But freedom is the key word here. I’m a free spirit and love the spontaneity that comes with being an entrepreneur.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?
My grandfather was a very successful entrepreneur in Sudan. He founded one of the leading henna retailers in Sudan and parts of the Arab world. In addition to henna, they sell perfumes, oils, and bakhoor. Many people are unaware of Sudan’s very rich aromatic culture and the country’s substantial role in the fragrance trade. Nearly all of the feminine rituals in Sudan include specific scented ingredients such as sandalwood, frankincense, musk and myrrh. Certain beauty treatments are reserved specifically for brides and married women. One treatment includes a woman sitting in a sauna-like smoke bath of aromatic taleh (acacia wood) called dukhan for a few hours a day, for several days at a time. The fragrant smoke cleanses the skin while producing a gorgeous glow as well as perfuming women for many days. When I was a little girl, this all seemed very magical. I loved, and still love, the captivating scent of all the women in my family, particularly my mother. Who, to me, is the best smelling woman on planet earth! Hence, I’m REALLY into fragrances.
I’ve always concocted my own fragrance “potions” with different oils and perfumes I’ve picked up throughout my travels and have received a lot of compliments from many people. Initially, I had wanted to apply to perfumery school in Paris. However, thinking of the monotonous application process quickly deterred me. So, I decided that I’d teach myself how to make scented candles for fun by mixing classic Sudanese fragrances with other captivating scents I’ve fallen in love with throughout my travels. I thought, easy breezy… can’t be that hard, right? WRONG. Becoming a candle artisan has been one of the most challenging, exciting, messy, yet surprisingly therapeutic journeys I have ever been on. I instantly fell in love. Like, crazy love. Super obsessive. I never wanted to leave my apartment, and even when I did, all I could think/talk about were my candles. At that point, I knew, Haremesque was the one.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” –Rumi
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Having the courage to launch! The unknown/uncertainty. Although this is one of the most exciting entrepreneurial stages, it’s also terrifying! Taking myself completely out of my comfort zone was tough.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Patience. I’m a very patient person outside of work. However, as an entrepreneur it’s easy to get caught up on the end goal and forget that there’s a process in achieving that goal. Haremesque is less than a year old — nothing happens overnight. I’ve learned to set realistic expectations and deadlines and to breathe and just be patient. I’m still learning (and I’ll always be learning).
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
During the beginning stages of Haremesque, I was dead-set on how my candle containers should look. They could only look a certain way. Unfortunately, that “look” was not cost-effective and didn’t make much sense at the time, but I was stubborn and didn’t want to settle for anything less than what I had in mind. It took me a while, and I lost a lot of time, but I finally let it go. One day, I was roaming the city for inspiration and came up with the idea of using cement. It took me less than 24 hours to come up with a new container idea. I wasted so much time being stubborn, and I learned that sometimes you just have to let things go and, by letting go, you’re not always settling for less. I’m so in love with my cement containers and can’t imagine my candles looking any other way. It’s an essential part of my brand.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Oh, I make magical potions that give me far more than three hours additional hours per day. I can’t really reveal more than that. But, if you’d like to make that magic a reality, try one of my potions, thank me later.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
FREE TIME. And, yes, I started my own business for the freedom — such a catch-22, right? I do nearly everything myself so it’s very time-consuming, but I love it. For the most part, it doesn’t really feel like work, honestly.
An entrepreneur friend and I started our own “business hours” for the two of us and other lady friends who don’t have conventional jobs. We meet up a few times a week — either at one of our homes or public workspaces — to work, go over our project goals, bounce ideas and stay on top [of] one another to execute those goals. So, even though I don’t always have the free time to hang out whenever I please, I do make time to see my fellow entrepreneurial friends, which is really motivating.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
Having the courage to put myself out there! I can be very shy and have a tendency to talk myself out of a lot of things. Many of the ideas I have stay in my head. I have a lot of support from family and friends, and they really pushed me to keep going with Haremesque. Haremesque is a reflection of me, and I am a reflection of all the incredible, positive, loving, inspiring people in my life. My family and friends are my greatest success. They keep me grounded, they encourage me, they challenge and push me to be the greatest version of me. And for that, I am infinitely thankful and proud.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
It really depends on the individual and what works best for them. Knowing yourself and what inspires you is crucial. I would say to definitely have a mentor or a person/people you can seek guidance from. I have a few people that I talk to regularly and it’s extremely helpful. Mood boards are also a vital part of my creative process. For Haremesque, my bedroom acts as my mood board. Every item in my room inspires me in some way or another. It’s where I formulate most of my ideas, concoct potions, test-burn candles, etc. I also read: #Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull and Zero to One by Blake Masters and Peter Thiel before I even knew I wanted to start a business — and they are all excellent reads. I also find the words of the poet Rumi to be motivating and quote him quite frequently.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
Definitely! I love this quote by Morihei Ueshiba: “Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something.”
I made so many mistakes when I first started learning how to make candles. I didn’t know what I was doing and I couldn’t really afford to take any courses. The first mistake I made was purchasing materials before doing any real research. I didn’t understand the science behind candle making. I thought I could just go to the arts and crafts store, buy a candle kit and be on my way. That’s like going to France without speaking French and expecting to be fluent within a day. Not happening. I wasted a lot of time and money and the result were some weird-looking, unscented candles. FAIL! After several botched attempts, I went on to do some extensive research and reached out to a couple experts. There are so many complicated elements in candle making. I had no clue! I learned to be very, very patient and it was a long, grueling process, but so worth it.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. How comfortable are you with the unknown? Does it excite you?
2. Are you a self-starter/go-getter? Do you have the ambition to be your own boss?
3. How comfortable are you with failure and moving on when things don’t go as planned?
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
I make tea and breakfast. While eating, I check my text messages, emails and usually my Instagram. I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram and am currently attempting to “detox” unless it’s work-related. It’s been hard!
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Juggling all the different positions at the same time. It can get really overwhelming. Sometimes you only want to be a creative, that’s the fun stuff! But, unfortunately, that’s impossible when you work for yourself. I keep saying this, but [I’m] learning how to be patient and just take everything one step at a time.