HAZEM ALJESR’S INTERVIEW | Insights Into His Successful Journey As An Art & Design Entrepreneur In The Middle East
When Hazem Aljesr decided to open the first Cities Design Art & Lifestyle store in Riyadh, his aim was beyond merely adding a new boutique for home accessories and décor items to the market. Instead, his desire was to create a new approach into the design world in the Middle East, for not only the customers would benefit, but also the artists and designers behing those creations.
As the Owner and Founding Managing Director of Cities Design & Lifestyle Store with locations in Dubai, UAE and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Hazem Aljesr has a dynamic background that makes him uniquely qualified to create and run Cities, the premier art, design and home décor boutique in the region.
Hazem Aljser received his undergraduate University education in America, and graduated with Bachelor’s degrees in Graphic Communication and Advertising. He then moved on to London, where he earned a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Huron University.
His professional career began at Tom Dixon Design Studios in the UK, where he gained extensive knowledge in the world of high-end design. Upon his return to Saudi Arabia in 2006, Hazem opened Zoom Creative, an award-winning branding, web and design firm. Despite the success of Zoom Creative, Hazem felt compelled to pursue his passion for design and in 2008, he founded Cities Design, Art & Lifestyle store in Riyadh.
After a successful start in Centria Mall, Cities soon expanded and gained a prominent space in the Harvey Nichols department store. Today, Cities can be found in its own free-standing location which opened in September 2015 on Tahlia Street in central Riyadh. A second Cities location was opened in 2014 in Dubai at the Galleria Mall in Jumeirah 1, which recently moved on the Lower Ground level of the Dubai Mall, near the waterfall.
- Who is Hazem Aljesr? Please, briefly introduce yourself.
I’m the Owner and Founding Managing Director of Cities with locations in Riyadh and Dubai. I’m also someone who has been extremely lucky to have been able to pursue my passion and make my dreams come true.
- You have a very international background; Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, USA, UK…How do you think that fact has influenced the person you are today?
I’m really who I am today because of the experiences that I have had and the different places that I have lived. I think we all are the sum of our experiences, and living in such vastly different places, with such diverse cultures and people and ways of life has informed many of my choices along the way. I think that I have absorbed different lessons from each place where I’ve lived and my individual perspective on life and business is the result of all those experiences.
- When and how did you discover your passion for art and design?
I was drawn to design from a young age. I remember visiting Paris as a child and admiring the Metro; this idea that something that could be visually appealing and functional made an impression on me, and I think that I have been pulled towards that duality of function and beauty for most of my life. Of course, as I got older and realized that art and design were viable paths for a profession, then there was no turning back, and I’ve been pretty devoted to the world of art and design ever since.
- What motivated you to set up Cities and what is the philosophy behind the concept?
I was inspired to create Cities when I moved back to Riyadh in 2006. I wanted to decorate my own house, but found that there wasn’t much on the market that matched my own individual style. So, I created Cities to be the kind of store that I would want to shop at. In establishing Cities, our goal was to provide a new source for diverse art, design and décor, and encourage a movement away from the traditional and classical styles that had dominated the region for so long. Instead, Cities offers a fusion of styles that is more eclectic and more inclusive.
- What is the criteria and process behind the selection of each product, art piece to be sold/exposed at Cities?
When we are searching for new creations, we really want to find items that are representative of Cities as a concept. We look for art, design and décor that is unique and unusual, but we also try to find pieces that offer something more. We aren’t interested in simple trends, instead we want to share creations that tell a story or have meaning. We want Cities’s customers to feel connected to the designs on display.
- Cities stores are currently in Riyadh, where you first opened, and Dubai. What do these cities offer you personally and professionally?
Both of these cities are quite meaningful to me from a personal and professional standpoint. Riyadh is very dear to my heart because it was one of the cities of my childhood, and then I returned as an adult and established my first business there, so my ties to Riyadh are quite strong. In comparison, I chose Dubai when I decided to expand Cities to additional locations, and now I consider Dubai to be my main city of residence. Cities has found success in Dubai, and I find myself to be equally happy in such a thriving, cosmopolitan city.
- In your opinion, what role do art and design play in people’s life?
Art and design are integral parts of our lives, although most people may not realize to what extent we rely on them on a day-to-day basis. Art exists as a source of beauty, but it also provides stimulus for thought and can evoke emotions. In comparison, we encounter design almost every moment of our lives. The shape and flow of water out of the tap, the placement of the buttons in the elevator, how traffic is directed down a busy road: all of those happen because of design. So, we truly cannot live without it.
- How do you envisage the future of the art and design industry in the Middle East? Who do you believe are the main players on this progress?
I feel like we are on the cusp of something big. We’ve made so much progress in the design sector in the last few years. In terms of broad support, Dubai in particular has offered a great deal of encouragement to designers and those in the industry. There are so many initiatives taking place such as design fairs, exhibitions, and education programs and so many entities are contributing to the design industry that it’s truly amazing. It’s an exciting time to be involved in the art and design sector in the Middle East. We’ve made so much headway in sharing the importance of design and exposing people to this world and why it is important, that I think that art and design will only continue to gain in importance and influence throughout the region.
It’s really interesting because in different parts of the region, we can see the different levels of progress. In Beirut, we see a lot of cutting-edge, conceptual design and a lot of communal support between designers, whereas in Dubai, we have so many programs and supported fairs and events, while in Riyadh, we are also starting down the path with fairs, programs, and exposure. So it seems that we are all at different parts of the process, and we are all moving forward. The key players are all of the people who keep supporting design and art and keep trying to bring it more attention: From fair directors and bloggers and design fans, to artists and designers who keep creating because they love it so much and feel compelled to continue.
- What has been your biggest challenge throughout your career as an entrepreneur?
I don’t think that there was one defining moment that I can look back on and say that it was the most difficult or challenging event that occurred. I think the biggest challenge in any career is continuing in the face of adversity. It’s the build-up of never-ending day-to-day little quibbles and issues that eventually feel like they are going to break you. I think the challenge is in continuing to move forward, to keep facing the same endless issues and problems that arise. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.
- What do you believe are the key points to become a successful entrepreneur?
I think that it is vital to have a good idea, and to have the necessary resources and support to try and make your idea a reality. Usually, successful entrepreneurs are characterized by their devotion, their relentlessness and their dedication in the face of adversity. But they also need to have a good support system and a good team. The best entrepreneurs delegate, because you learn pretty fast that no one can make it without a good support team and no one can do everything on their own.
- Managing the business and working on its development must take most of your time. How do you balance your professional and personal life?
My approach is probably not the best one, but I generally end up combining a lot of things. Many of my closest friends are also in the design industry, so we often socialize together and mix in a bit of business as well. I try to travel as often as I can to take a break from the day-to-day responsibilities, but then I’m always on the lookout for new creations to add to the Cities’ inventory during my travels, so I guess rather than balance, it’s more of a combination approach.
- What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I enjoy listening to music or watching a good movie, and I love to travel.
- Could you describe what success means to you?
I think that success is a highly personal thing in most instances. Of course, one can look at the gold medal winners of a sporting event and say that they are successful, but for most of us, success is not that clean-cut or so easily defined. Often times, we reach a goal and think that we must be successful now, but there is no way to measure and often nothing to compare to. For me, success means reaching a goal that you’ve set for yourself. Long-term, I guess I see success as being happy with your job, being able to support yourself, and looking forward to achieving other goals in the future. I see it as a sliding scale without an end; if we ever reach the epitome of what we consider success to be, what reason would we have to wake up the next morning and continue? The best success is the elusive goal that we keep striving to reach.
- Do you consider yourself a successful individual?
I guess I consider myself to be moderately successful. I’m more like to define myself as striving, or working towards something. I’m satisfied with what I have achieved so far, but I think I can do more, and I want to.
- What are your thoughts on the following: “You can be, do and have anything you want”?
I agree for the most part that any of us can be, do or have anything we want. Of course there are always limitations and exceptions if we are thinking about it from a literal point of view. But I think as inspiration and aspirations go, we can do almost anything we set our minds to, we can be anything we want to be, and we can have anything that we are willing to work hard to get. We have to be dedicated and willing to put our hearts and minds into working towards our goals, and we can achieve anything.