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“5 things I learned about starting again – from someone who left Syria to begin a new life and career”

In partnership with Google

Posted by for Careers

Trained in pharmacology, Razan Alsous never imagined making cheese for a living, until the Syrian civil war changed the course of her life. This is how she started afresh…

When Razan Alsous and her family moved to the UK as refugees in 2012 to escape the Syrian civil war, she didn’t see herself working in the food industry. 

As a pharmacology student, she planned to return to university as soon as possible.

But after she realised that door was closed to her, Razan spotted a gap in the market for Syrian-inspired cheese made with high-quality British ingredients. 

In 2014, she founded Yorkshire Dama Cheese, making halloumi-style cheese and labneh from her new home in the north-west of England.

Here, Razan shares what she’s learnt about starting over and launching a new business — from spotting an opportunity, to better understanding your customers with data…

1. Be flexible about your dreams

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“When I arrived in the UK, I planned to continue in academia – I had previously studied pharmacology in Syria.

But soon I realised that wouldn’t be possible, due to rules that make it extremely difficult for refugees to enrol at UK universities. At first, this made me feel very depressed. But then I thought: ‘OK, that road is closed to you. What are your other options?’

I have a strong microbiological background, and I was living in Yorkshire where wonderful, high-quality milk is available locally.

I taught myself to make Syrian-style cheese using local milk, and once I started researching the British cheese market, I saw there was a gap my product could fit into.

When your circumstances change, being adaptable and flexible will enable you to be successful.

You might not be able to do the things you used to do every day; your lifestyle might be different.

That can feel like a loss. But if you are able to think outside the box and look at a problem from different angles, you will find there is still a world out there for you.” 

2. Don’t overcomplicate things

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“I was the only person in my family who had permission to work when we first moved to the UK.

I felt a huge responsibility to support them, but I didn’t know what to do to make money.

So I really followed my instincts. Before starting Yorkshire Dama Cheese, I’d never made Syrian-style cheese before; I just ate it. But I had a feeling it could be successful.

My advice for anyone looking to start a business is to do something you like.

It’s not necessary to create something new or complicated. Simplicity is not always easy, but simple ideas can be the most achievable.

And when you’re achieving progress in your plan, you will be fuelling yourself and recharging your motivation. Steady progress will encourage you to keep going forward.” 

3. Make short-term plans

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“Before I started my business, I didn’t know where I would be able to sell Syrian-style cheese in the UK, or how I’d be able to do it.

But then I realised: ‘You don’t need to think about everything now. Try and make the cheese first, and if you manage to do that, then you can figure out where and how to sell it.’

The whole project became more manageable because I hadn’t pressured myself to do everything at once.” 

4. Understand your audience and tap into trends

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“Learning about my audience has been a huge help in growing the business.

If you know whether your business is more of interest to men or women, for example, and how old they are, you can create a better business plan and marketing materials.

Recently I had some free 1-to-1 mentoring sessions with an expert Google put me in touch with where I learned how to use Google Trends.

Sometimes, I want to look beyond the daily routine tasks involved in running a business, and think about new ideas for the future — that’s where Google Trends comes in useful.

It lets me see what people are interested in and what they’re searching for, which is amazing.

My mentor also showed me how to set up a Google Business Profile, where customers can leave a review – it’s a good way to compile feedback, so I know what’s working and what isn’t.

Lots of customers have commented on how much they enjoy our yoghurt-based products, so that’s something we’re amping up.” 

5. Be brave about networking

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“I knew nothing about the British food market, or Britain itself, when we started the business.

It was especially intimidating for me because English is not my first language, and learning a language isn’t just about knowing the words; it’s also about understanding a new culture.

But I realised I needed to be active and open-minded about expanding my network.

It’s easy to think, ‘I can’t go to that trade event or workshop where I won’t know anybody’.

But I’d tell myself: ‘OK, you don’t know anyone now – but after one hour, you’ll have met at least one person. And then you’ll know more people the next time you come to one of these events.’

Sometimes, we put obstacles in our own way, but if you’re controlled by your fears, you will never progress.”

People all over the UK are learning new skills with Google to move their career or business forward, helping their communities, and the British economy, grow. Find out more about the tools and training available to you at Google

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