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Flying the coop with Rasha Khawaja

By Michael Finnigan

A flash of inspiration during a conference on entrepreneurship led second-generation Rasha Khawaja, daughter of Syrian businessman and philanthropist Wafic Saïd, to her first venture. Toucan is an online portal where creatives can safely pitch their ideas and gain advice from industry professionals.

My relationship with the family business started when I was about 16. At that age, you don't really realise why you're working, but it quickly becomes part of your DNA. We'd regularly sit down at the dinner table and discuss business at Saïd Holdings, the investment company my father founded more than a quarter of a century ago. Yet my father made the wise decision not to push my brother and me into the family business, and allowed us some creative freedom to develop our own interests. I think his decision will ultimately allow us to bring fresh skills to the family business and at the same time maintain what he has created.

I completed my undergraduate degree at Brown University in the US, where I studied psychiatry and cognitive science. Then I came back to England and continued my studies in business at Cambridge and Oxford. I'd worked at a number of investment and asset management firms during my time in the US, but my first postgraduate role was at the inner-city children's charity Kids Company in London. That is where I did most of the concept work on Toucan.

The idea for Toucan itself came about five years ago when I attended a financial conference in Switzerland. I watched two entrepreneurs talk about the difficulties they'd had taking their hobby business to the next level. Suddenly my idea was born. Toucan would be a sounding board for entrepreneurs, helping creative individuals pitch their ideas and connect with industry leaders for advice. In exchange, Toucan would take between 2-7% equity, alongside a finder's fee when we successfully introduce individuals to investors. In exchange, entrepreneurs gain practical start-up advice and access to some of the country's leading businesspeople. This includes Josh Berger, the president of Warner Bros UK, and Julian Metcalf [OBE], the founder of Itsu, to name just a few.

It's a very exciting time at Toucan at the moment, considering the amount of investment we are securing for our entrepreneurs. We also seem to be getting much more interest from individuals wishing to be mentors. With regards to evolution of the company, I like to look at the team and judge our success by how much they are enjoying what they're doing. We're now a team of five people. My employees are the beating heart of the company and without them Toucan wouldn't be able to grow.

My family has always supported my aspirations, but there was some trepidation at first given that Toucan is an intangible business. The internet can be scary and daunting, and it's rarely understood properly, but once my father attended a dinner we had arranged for the mentors he saw that everything was falling into place. That brought the intangible back to reality. Suffice to say, he was very proud and has been immensely supportive. Every single bit of this business is because of my family. They drive me forward, intellectually and creatively.

Philanthropy is an important part of my family's DNA and I hope to continue the tradition with Toucan. I currently sit on the board of the Saïd Foundation as well as mental health awareness charity BasicNeeds. So I'm definitely planning for charity in Toucan's future. I've already registered the domain for the Toucan Foundation and we would like the company to support as many charities as it can.

The best advice I can give for other next gens looking to start up a business is simply bounce ideas off people. The more I did that with Toucan, the more viable and well-constructed the business became. It's because of feedback that Toucan is where it is today. Other people make a business come to life, but ultimately you will decide what advice to take. Speaking to people also helps you build up your professional network and that is the key to any good business.

What's the future for Toucan? World domination! I would love to be a sounding board for entrepreneurs here in England, because we are a great nation, with great policies on entrepreneurship. I'd love to give back to the English economy and culture. That's the ultimate goal for me.