Dubai: From helicopter mechanic to fashion designer-entrepreneur
Maureen Hall reveals her inspiring story to City Times.
Let’s start by shattering stereotypes, shall we? Girls can play soccer, boys can make pasta. A female can dream of and be a helicopter mechanic, an entrepreneur, a fashion designer, or well, all of it as well. It’s not every day that you meet a woman who has done it all and walked off the beaten track. So, as we engage in a conversation with Maureen Hall, once a helicopter mechanic in the Canadian Air Force and now the founder and CEO of COÉGA Sunwear, Dubai, we’re curious to know more. “I grew up in a middle-class family of nine children (six boys and three girls) on the east coast of Canada.
“My parents instilled many values which I have carried with me through my life and I have passed them onto my two sons. Honesty, integrity, giving back to the community and everyone doing their part was a big part of my childhood. There was no gender bias, we all took our turns mowing the lawn, shovelling snow from the driveway, helping in the kitchen and to this day, most of us own and know how to use a sewing machine,” says Hall. Today, Hall is the heart and soul behind COÉGA Sunwear and has designed her way into more than 100 leading retailers, eight waterparks and 13 e-commerce platforms across the Middle East.
But does she feel that in 2021 too, certain divides exist when it comes to career choices and freedoms? “Yes, divides still exist, however, it is each and everyone’s responsibility to teach children at a young age that there are no specific gender roles. We can all cook, bake, play sports and use power tools. It needs to start in the home and in schools. We all need to ‘walk the walk and not just ‘talk the talk’. We need to lead by example. It’s okay if someone disagrees. Inch by inch its synch…yard by yard, it’s hard,” she adds. No wonder, she shares how she loved working with her dad in his workshop, “He was very handy, and I even helped build a six-foot fence around our backyard when I was 16. He would give me instructions in the morning before he headed off to work and then check-in after he came home to see the progress.”
Hall is a firm believer in strong values whether it comes to personal life or running a business. As she speaks fondly about the never-ending support of her husband and calls her sons her biggest cheerleaders on the sidelines, she shares with us her journey.
Helicopter mechanic to fashion designing? It must have been quite a journey. How, why and when did you decide to make that switch?
The switch came at the end of my military service; I joined the Canadian Air Force in 1981 as an aircraft technician and enjoyed over 12 years of service. When our son was born in ‘93, we decided to have two parents in the military, who could be deployed at a moment’s notice was not how we wanted to start our family, so I left the Air Force. I had been accepted to re-enlist as a part-time reservist in the military when we decided to move to Dubai in ‘99. Wishing to only work part-time so I could be there for our young family did not open many opportunities in aviation in Dubai.
The one thing about your ‘past career life’ that you miss the most.
Fixing things and working with my hands. I have all my own tools and take every opportunity to use them. I installed a three-port automatic sprinkler system on my outside terrace with each of the 24 plants having its own dripper. While I did not get much of an opportunity to use my tools, figuring out the configuration of the system while keeping it aesthetically pleasing was fun.
Lessons learnt from being in the Air Force would include…
Keeping things organised and structured. Clutter is not my friend; and policies, procedures, checklists and templates help with this. Time management is another lesson.
The importance of physical activity for your mental and physical well-being, how to work as a team for a common goal even when you are in times of stress, being able to do a variety of different tasks, to keep going even when the going gets tough, not to give up, and be ready to switch up the plan as new information becomes available. I’ve carried all these through to my personal life and how I run my business.
So, you have been making clothes since...
I’d been making my own clothes since I was 15, and even made a number of military ceremonial tuxedos for friends, when I was in my 20s. While not having any formal education in design, I just tried things, read books and asked people questions to figure out different techniques in clothing construction. My elder brother gave me The Complete Book of Sewing by Reader’s Digest for Christmas when I was 18. I still have the book and refer to it now and again!
And you decided to jump straight into the pool, with COÉGA?
On moving to Dubai, with two small children and spending a lot of time at the pool and beach it was obvious I needed to make some UV protective swimwear for my family. I also wanted shoes for them, which could protect them from the severe heat and slipping around on wet surfaces. When I got asked by friends and strangers alike, where I got our outfits, I realised there was a gap in the market for such items. And so COÉGA was born in 2004, and with it were the ‘pool shoes’, followed by other products.
An entrepreneurial lesson you want to share with future entrepreneurs.
Keep your business lean. It’s easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour when things are going well and the cash is flowing in. However, when times get tough, which they surely will at some point, staying lean will help you ride out the lows to come back stronger.
What are the pluses and minuses nobody tells us about running a ‘clothes’ business?
As a designer, I’m fascinated by different colour combinations which I see when I am out and about and also have the freedom to use my creative ideas to design new collections while building a quality brand is very satisfying.
I am filled with pride when I see people wearing our brand, knowing that a great team has made it possible. The minuses would be the length of the cash flow cycle and holding inventory. And also, there’s always someone out there who will make it cheaper; not better, however, in the age of fast fashion, cheaper is better for some.
What’s one fashion trend you wish would make a comeback?
I’m not a big follower of the trends, I’m a very practical person. I know what I like and often it’s not necessarily trending. I feel trends come and go too fast and I prefer to have clothes which are made to last. I wish built-to-last fashion came back in fashion.
You’ve been running the business in a pandemic, what do you predict lies ahead?
The future will always be uncertain; ensure you have resources in reserve to handle unexpected events that may last for a year or more. Be ready to downsize/cut back to survive or innovate to add new products and services to your mix to keep the cash flow positive. Don’t lock yourself into extravagant marketing campaigns that may or may not work — take it step-by-step and maintain the flexibility to stop a campaign if things are not going as expected. Concentrate on the product, not the expensive window dressing.
I am glad my business is in the UAE as it seems we are rebounding from the pandemic at a quicker pace than many other countries.