Diana Rayyan the founder of the project “Kees Chic”, was trained as a pharmacist and her first job had her attending every event related to ‘Green Environment’ in Jeddah. One day, a speaker held up a plastic bag and spoke of the enormous harm a single piece of plastic can cause. He showed images of a turtle that his organization had been following that had died because part of a plastic bag had blocked her stomach. Diana went back to her colleagues, with this story. Each of them came from different parts of the world, but they were all aware of the problem and of government or private ventures back home who were addressing it. Diana felt upset and guilty that she was not told of this issue before and of her complicity in it.
She started to research the solutions out there for recycling plastic bags and what people were doing to come up with an idea. She decided to try the crochet idea. First, the plastic bags needed to be made into threads so Diana researched how, tried and did it! Then she attempted crochet and just couldn’t do it, so she looked for someone who could. Initially, the women would say yes but when they found out that the raw material was plastic thread, they would refuse. Then she found a mechanical engineer from South East Asia who accepted the challenge and made a few samples. Diana wanted to involve women from shelters so they could have extra income. So, from late 2012, she and the mechanical engineer began to train these women.
When Diana initially began asking people about the idea, and if it was feasible back in 2009, she was discouraged from it. What changed in 2012 was that crochet came into vogue. Women were signing up for crochet classes in Jeddah and buying crocheted items. Seeing this trend, Diana decided to create an event showcasing the items her ladies had made from recycled plastic to see people’s reactions. Their intention was simply to spread awareness, but 200 people showed up! To her amazement, people had not only come to see the pieces but were also asking for prices and colors.
The months after that went into exploring the process. The initial team of women Diana had begun to work with to gather the plastic bags were not Arab, so it was very difficult for her to communicate with them. Eventually, after a great deal of searching, they found ilhajjeh Halima who sort of spoke Arabic and showed her the bag. She didn’t take them seriously at first, surprised that anyone would ask for plastic bags. But then, as they were consistent, she started to bring more women together to do the work with her. There was an additional issue of how to pay for the plastic bags that were being collected, as they were from the streets and initially the team didn’t know how to value them. Mohamad Afzal, the driver who was helping Diana move around helped with that and introduced her to a scale that could be used to weigh the bags, and ta-da, Diana had her system. They figured out a price point and were all set to pay the women.
Cleaning the bags was another adventure. They were being cleaned in a pail, one by one, using Fairy liquid! So someone suggested using the old-style washing machine and it worked. After that, it was about figuring out the number of cycles so the bags were cleaned properly. Then someone suggested that they use a dryer instead of a clothesline. They just needed to place them in mesh bags. After the dryer, the bags would be placed in the sun to dry fully.
All this was done haphazardly by volunteers, whoever was free came to help. The women at the shelters had the choice to either make the bags into thread or turn the thread into crochet, depending on their skill set.
Then Harvard Arab Weekend happened. It was about social impact. The criteria spoke of startups and business plans. Diana had none of that, but she sent an email anyway. She was encouraged warmly to apply and found that the deadline was a day away! They were shortlisted and Diana got scared as she started to hear words like ‘pitch’ and ‘judges’ and realized everything was serious. So, she asked those around her to share their knowledge and go deeply into his or her area of expertise. Then, she sat with herself and decided that she loved stories from childhood so she turned her vision into a story. And they won, first place! The 30,000 dollars really helped and the visit to Silicon Valley was an eye-opener. It would have been more helpful if she was based in the U.S. as they are supportive, but true gems are rarely formed the easy way!
Now it was time to consider what this venture could be as a formal entity. She decided to be a profitable social enterprise. She agreed with a local Saudi volunteer to set up the license in Saudi Arabia, as Diana isn’t Saudi and needed a local partner. She learned about setting up a business by sitting with different experts in her network. By the end of 2014, a problem occurred with her partner and they split, Diana lost everything including the brand and its name.
Looking for what to do next, Diana identified that she wanted a career in public health yet not as a pharmacist. That field of study was not available without going abroad so Diana decided to continue with a job she loved and applied for the King Abdullah of Jordan Prize for Creative Initiatives. Brave Diana applied and wrote everything that she had done as if it was still happening, and then at the end in between brackets she wrote (previously). To her delight, she was shortlisted and notified that a representative was coming to audit the project. Everything was documented and she sat with him and told him the context again. She told him to go onto Youtube and see the videos about her and her project.
Diana’s plan was to register in Dubai and to start from the beginning, gathering the women and so on. She had lost it all. One of the jurists was Mona Sulaiman, a known media figure from Saudi Arabia and she knew Diana and her project. She was the witness God sent Diana to speak of her achievements and support the project. Diana's project won first place yet again ma sha Allah!
It was frustrating for Diana that she couldn’t do crochet as she liked to be able to do every step of her projects herself. But Diana being Diana, she found a way. One day, she was visiting the home of an older Egyptian nurse who she was volunteering with, and she found a napkin case that was done with an embroidery technique. She shared her thoughts about wanting to learn crochet and the lady encouraged her, showing her more items that she had done with the same technique. Diana flew to the bookstore and bought the exact same type of canvas and started experimenting. She still couldn’t figure out where to go next with this rectangular sheet of canvas. But, then she saw a link on Facebook that someone sent her. It was a project in Morocco where bags were made using palm leaves. She loved the bags as they looked really elegant. So she decided to make a crocheted bag. She finally figured it out, and then it was a question of how to add the inner lining. The normal sewing machine couldn’t do it as the needle was too thin. Someone suggested the machine used for sewing leather seats for cars. Again, the reaction of the people through Instagram was overwhelmingly positive and with that they had their product; a bag. The process of restarting took about two years which takes us to 2016. And another year passed while they figured out the styles, dimensions, and accessories. Then the Kees Chic brand was born and they started selling in the concept store “Homegrown” in Jeddah.
Diana got a scholarship in September of 2017 to get an MBA. This was a great opportunity and she was also privileged with many benefits that were very helpful. They had a free office. They also had access to a business license that allowed for low-cost, hundred percent ownership of a business by a non-Saudi or member of the Gulf countries. When she graduated, she made a green curriculum powered by Mohammad Bin Salman College to empower green thinking to be taught in colleges and schools as an after-school program.
So Diana’s work has continued to grow, with volunteers and impact ambassadors who take on the cause, spread the news about the problem, and explain how Kees Chic is addressing it. One other change is that Diana is no longer focused solely on recruiting women from shelters. She discovered that women living in neighborhoods may also be in the same kind of need, or more, but because of their circumstances, their plight may remain hidden from possible donors. So they go to the Quran centers of the neighborhoods and ask them about the women in need and they give them employment.
This is an incredible story of answering the call of consciousness, being brave, ingenious and adaptive and of having a good opinion of God, and of people and reaching out to ask for help, as well as offering it. I Loved Diana’s spiritedness, sense of directness and honesty, intelligent care and sense of humor. Those qualities showed up time and time again in what got her this far, ma sha Allah. Diana is a beautiful example of someone who cared enough and called herself, and the society around her, out about a wrong she was an unknowing participant in.
One way of helping Kees Chic is to aid them in opening more sales channels. Also by identifying other centers of operation that may already be producing other products and which could also add a Kees Chic line. Another way is to contact Kees Chic and start a Kees Chic club as an after-school activity and to support them in their development of the green curriculum project that they have started.
I am so glad I thought to ask Diana about the lessons she learned from her journey. She shared her realization that she doesn’t even own her own body, let alone a brand. Who put this idea in her head was God, it is His idea, not hers. He Chose her to lead it so she just needed to do it. If it works or doesn’t work that is up to God the Owner of this project. She realized that we get attached to so much around us. So just let go. Diana plans and consults with other people but she has learned to consult God more as this is His work. Her relationship with Him has deepened and strengthened. We are all vicegerents of this Earth, we have a mission towards the environment. It is our responsibility to keep it clean. It is a must!
Amazing Diana, best of luck and may God Ease your path to super success on every level and may you have more champions such as Noor Fityani who steps up and supports you in every way, a living word from God that you are not alone and the battle you are fighting and the beauty you are adding to the world is well worth striving for.
DISCOVER Kees Chic
Kees Chic creates crocheted bean bag chairs, beach bags, scuba dive bags, sturdy yoga mats, and stress balls from recycled plastic bags. These stylish, eco-friendly and socially supportive pieces are produced and sold in the coastal city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
EXPLORE Home Grown Market, Jeddah
To Mona for the contribution of images