If versatility were a person, it would be Maryam Hassani.
Maryam Hassani, Founder & CEO of Zealous
As she admits herself, Hassani took her first corporate job in 2018 because she had too many different interests to choose just one and thus picked one that would allow her to keep exploring: strategy consultant with Ernst & Young. “I didn’t quite know where I fit, [so] I gravitated towards management consulting where I would get the chance to try out a lot of different things,” she explains. And that curiosity was nothing new; it drove her to graduate from NYU Abu Dhabi in political science with three different minors - legal studies, film, and new media.
Curiosity may also be the reason why, during her time as a consultant, she quickly became fascinated with the entrepreneurial ecosystem and its constant questioning of how to do things differently, and better. Never one to stand still on the sidelines, she quickly had two realisations: one was that, to understand and advise entrepreneurs in meaningful ways, she needed to experience entrepreneurship herself. “How can I be in this position or take this very important role to nurture this ecosystem without having myself been through it and had that practical experience in the founders’ shoes?” she says.
The other was that tech people struggle to network, connect, and talk to each other. Indeed, her desire to go deeper backstage led her to make acute observations about the UAE tech ecosystem and its challenges, in particular the gap in networking and communication. “I’m in Hub 71 right now and the energy of innovation is palpable in the co-working space. But when you walk in and around, funnily enough, everyone’s minding their own business and wear headphones. You start to think, they’re here but it’s hard to approach them,” she says.
Hassani struggled with this contradiction - co-working spaces where the “co” seems reduced to sharing an office. “People who join co-working spaces underline that their core need is actually to meet people; but people need to see their connections through data not just in person,” she says.
On the other hand, networking events can be overwhelming and disorganised, prioritising quantity over quality. Interestingly, Hassani found that in this context, “everyone’s basically trying to make certain analog systems work for them, like selfies with business cards. There wasn’t an optimised way to find, meet, and stay connected with the community.”
Putting two and two together, Hassani came up with the Zealous concept: a platform leveraging data to streamline networking and eliminate the hassle, ambiguity, and awkwardness often associated with traditional methods. “We want to simplify this system [...] so that individuals can really focus on making a meaningful connection with someone and not be roped up in the admin work or the busyness,” she explains.
Making connections more intentional and purposeful
Zealous’s unique value proposition is that it operates beyond the constraints of time and place, allowing users to find, meet, and stay connected with their community on the go, unlike traditional events and programmes. For example, around a conference, “everyone in that event is grouped on the backend of Zealous and they’re actually connected before, during, and months and years after the event itself,” says Hassani who explains that, as a result, users never miss out on valuable connections and don’t have to worry about constantly checking in on people or relying on serendipity. “If you never had the opportunity to meet the right person, you haven’t lost that opportunity. We alert you when they’re nearby and we tell you when is the right time to connect with them,” she says.
The app is also very simple to use, requiring users to only provide basic information such as their name, role, and LinkedIn profile. Referrals play a crucial role in maintaining the quality of the community, ensuring that members are a good fit for the platform. An internal feedback system serves to enhance user experience.
Hassani initially pursued Zealous as a passion project alongside her other responsibilities. This was the perfect opportunity for her to help the ecosystem and understand the needs of start-ups, while gaining firsthand experience. But in June 2022, the company soft launched in Dubai and has since formed partnerships with notable organisations such as Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center, and Creative Zone. In June, the app was showcased at Orbit Startups Demo Day where it gained traction within the start-up community. “Around 45 people were in attendance and 36 signed up on Zealous and used it from that event,” says Hassani.
In fact, Zealous’s growth strategy relies in part on attending events in the UAE, to tap into the substantial number of attendees, including travelling entrepreneurs and ecosystem members. “We’re kind of banking on the fact that they’re gonna go back to their home country [...] I just got a notification from my friend in London that there are potential profiles around him there,” says Hassani.
While Zealous is still in its infancy with 220 followers, the growing team of six passionate employees is actively working on making it profitable, continuously curating their services in preparation for the official hard launch.