From Lebanon to Georgia: Nathalie Rahal’s Shisha Empire

Nathalie Rahal is widely recognised in the Middle East due to her five businesses focused on event planning, including ICE Events, and Cube Productions. She is known for her knack for organising large-scale events in various fields such as fashion, art, and architecture. Rahal’s portfolio includes working with famous artists like Shakira, Jessy J, Andrea Bocelli, and Imagine Dragons, among others. The list does not stop here, and neither do Rahal’s innovative ventures. Her latest business project, H Hookah, came to life when Rahal noticed a dip in the events industry due to the pandemic. Rahal chose to venture into the shisha production business, establishing a factory in Georgia. Her aim is to produce and launch premium shisha tobacco molasses in Georgia, planning to export them to more than 160 countries around the world.

In this interview, we delve into the captivating narrative of Rahal, who generously shares the story of her initial professional endeavours, the chronicle of her previous ventures, her tactics for expanding her business portfolio, and her ambitious blueprint for future business initiatives in Georgia.

Photo Credits to Natia Asanidze / Forbes Woman Georgia

Could we circle back to the starting point of your professional path? Can you share your early goals and dreams?

In my youth, my mind was not focused on my future profession due to the circumstances in my home country Lebanon. With so many distractions, it was a struggle to think beyond the present. Eventually, I chose to study economics in university, which is quite divergent from my current profession. Nevertheless, the knowledge and skills I picked up remain beneficial to my current job.

Once I left university, I took up the role of a researcher and economist at the Central Bank of Lebanon. My key responsibility was undertaking viability assessments for an array of proposed macroeconomic projects. Concurrently, I was working towards my MBA. Half a decade later, I found myself yearning for a distinct career path.

What influenced your decision to shift your gears professionally and become an entrepreneur?

There was a desire in me to take a more adventurous path, and mould my job into my real passion. The aim was to give birth to a brand reflecting my own distinctiveness and personality.

In 1999, I laid the foundation stone for my very first venture, Amareyn, with which I dived into the wonderful world of planning wedding ceremonies. Subsequently, I embarked on other entrepreneurial journeys and established Cube Productions and ICE Events, both operating in the realm of event production. Our forte lies in curating memorable events for clients across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, with our portfolio spanning concerts, festivals, exhibitions, and corporate events. We also have the privilege of working with renowned artists. About 8 years back, we unveiled a massive venue – a site steeped in history, capable of hosting a diverse sorts of events. Presently, ICE Events has expanded its footprints to Riyadh and Los Angeles as well.

Every couple of years, I find joy in bringing a fresh concept to life. It is truly gratifying to see the fruits of my labour flourish into a thriving enterprise. Each success story reinforces my conviction that I have cultivated a unique concept blending various cultures. The final result fuels my drive to repeat the process over and over again.

How did the pandemic impact your event management businesses, and what led to the creation of H Hookah?

When the pandemic first hit, the world of events froze. All our ventures that were tied to this industry ceased operation for two years. We quickly realised that our core business, which revolved around bringing people together, was incompatible with the new health guidelines. This led us to reassess and develop a new business strategy.

We embarked on comprehensive feasibility studies, contemplating a novel project to diversify our business model. Our key targets included – shifting focus to manufacturing in a non-Middle Eastern country, and branching into sectors beyond the service industry. Our research into global markets revealed that the hookah industry was one of the few sectors that remained prosperous.

Photo Credits to Natia Asanidze / Forbes Woman Georgia

How did you end up in Georgia?

As we were in search of the perfect spot, we had a chance to explore numerous countries. But, Georgia won our hearts. Both personal and professional aspects influenced our choice. Personally, my business partner and I felt an immediate connection to Georgia from day one. The culture felt like home as it reminded us of Lebanon. We faced a bit of a hurdle with the language, but we embraced the challenge and started learning Georgian.

From a business perspective, Georgia appeared to be very welcoming towards new ventures. It is easy to get a business up and running in Georgia. The bureaucratic process is streamlined – you can finish all the legalities in one place at the Justice Hall. We felt well-supported by Enterprise Georgia and TBC Bank, both of which saw the potential in our project and helped us achieve our goals. H Hookah, our company, was launched with their assistance.

Our journey started two years back when we set up a lab in Lebanon, followed by initiating paperwork and the construction of our factory in Georgia. We experimented with various top-tier raw materials to develop unique flavours. After conducting numerous blind taste tests with professionals, we selected the flavours that stood out the most. Now, we offer a diverse palette of 70 high-quality flavours to our customers.

What are the future plans of H Hookah?

H Hookah is one of the first shisha companies established in Georgia. We plan to expand the business. We have already registered H Hookah in 160 countries, and aim to export our products to these countries. We are finalising the data from each country, and seeking distributors who are interested in the product, and have technical and logistical capabilities of taking our brand exclusively to a specific country.

Currently, we have 21 employees, all Georgian. We plan to reach an average of 75 employers within 2 years. We produce a high-quality Georgian product from a Georgian factory, which changes the whole shisha experience.

We are also developing the concept of the H Hookah cafe, which will be launched in a few months. The cafe will offer unique experiences to our guests. The H Hookah cafe franchise will be sold in other countries too.

What is the unique appeal of the hookah tradition?

I had previously thought hookah was purely a Middle Eastern thing. But when I checked out the global scene, I was surprised to find hookah enjoyment booming around the world – even in places like Europe, USA, Brazil, and China. In fact, the Middle East does not even make the top five!

Hookah brings with it a rich cultural experience. It is all about sharing moments, savouring life. You can eat while enjoying hookah, or dance and puff on hookah in a nightclub. It is more than just a habit; it is a communal activity that brings people together. Today, the act of smoking hookah transcends borders, bringing together diverse cultures, ethnicities, and nations.

Photo Credits to Natia Asanidze / Forbes Woman Georgia

You are also actively involved in community service. How important is it for modern businesses to be aware of and contribute to the social impact?

In my view, life without community service is unfulfilled – it is a duty for all of us to contribute back to the community, regardless of our careers. I have been volunteering with nonprofits for 18 years. One such organisation is Enfants de Lumière, where 20 women strive to support needy families in Lebanon. We began with 18 families and now, we’re able to financially assist 300 families every month.

Following the devastating Beirut Blast in 2020,  we chose to close our office and concentrate our efforts on aiding the vulnerable. Together with our team, we went to work for three months, healing the wounded, and listening to their stories. We offered food, medicine, and took up cleaning streets and homes.  People from countries like Lebanon and Georgia are very empathetic, valuing social work.

As a female entrepreneur from the Middle East, Nathalie Rahal has faced innumerable challenges. Yet, this never stopped, but rather, motivated her. The key to Nathalie’s success is being faithful in her inner self. “Liberate yourself from the weight on your shoulders , and believe in your abilities” is Nathalie’s advice to all young women.