forbes magazine

Breathing Easy

With Pilates her inspiration, Asthma Lootah is honing an all-encompassing wellness experience for Dubai residents.

A warm January morning in Dubai brings with it a breeze that sweeps up a small side street in Jumeirah, where The Hundred Wellness Center sits. With young, hot pink bougainvillea along its fences and swaying palm trees, the Pilates studio is a haven for the fit and healthy, the stressed and overweight and everyone in between. Though it certainly looks the part glossy magazine-perfect its Emirati owner, Asma Lootah, is doing all she can to make sure it actuallydoes the part, too in other words, inspiring wellness. Preparing to open a juice bar in reception and branch out into cardio and nutrition classes, as well as finding time to complete her own Pilates teacher training course, Lootah is practicing what she preaches.

Sweeping into the garden in a black lace-embellished abaya, she brings with her both her apologies for being late and the scent of lemongrass from the diffuser that puffs away in reception. To say she is talkative is a gross understatement naturally going off on unsignposted tangents, she appears to speak without pausing for breath, like a rolling stream of consciousness. The Hundred Wellness Center the ‘hundred’ comes from one of the classic Pilates moves involving taking 100 breaths was established in 2008 and has a cozy staff of 14, including Lootah herself. She now plans to move into wellness more wholly the recent name change from The Hundred Pilates Studio is a nod to the shift in focus.

“Pilates was the stem,” Lootah says, as she outlines plans to open the new cardio studio later this year the equipment is already in place, including an elaborate contraption called the Gyrotonic that bears more than a passing resemblance to a medieval torture device. The studio will also offer dedicated homeopathic and nutrition services as well as physiotherapy, all designed to get people to move safely.

Having been introduced to Pilates by her sister, who by coincidence is just finishing up a session indoors, a career in the corporate world was never to be in a former life she worked in the engineering and marketing departments at Etisalat. “It was like a spark when you light a match,” says Lootah, who practices Pilates three times a week. Having briefly flirted with the idea of opening a nail bar, she found herself searching for “something to feed my soul”. With her brother suggesting a Pilates studio perfect timing, given the studio she attended was closing down she says that the biggest challenge of setting up shop alone was the financial burden.

Although she prefers not to divulge specific financials, Lootah says that she spent around AED4 million ($1.1 million) on constructing the new building that stands today in affluent Jumeirah, and quotes a client base of 1,000-plus. “To make things happen, I had to ask my family to help and also sold some personal stuff,” says the owner, who graduated in business administration with a minor in fine arts from George Washington University in 2000. By “personal stuff”, she refers partly to her marital jewelry that, having divorced in 2008, she no longer wanted.

Lootah’s father offered his determined daughter a plot of land in Jumeirah in 2011 on which she coul demolish the crumbling villa and build a new one. She smiles coyly as she pre-empts any jumping to conclusions that may tiptoe around nepotism: “Yes, my father helped me but don’t stereotype; it wasn’t as easy as that… I still have debts I owe my family, although interest-free.” She was also granted a loan from the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development for the interior of the building and was later featured on Dubai SME 100, a ranking of the city’s most inspiring small medium enterprises.

“When Asma applied to the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, we were impressed with her passion and full knowledge of her business idea. The business idea was new and unique to the UAE market,” says Yousuf Al Marshoodi, Actinf Director of the Fund’s Entrepreneurship Development Department, citing the lack of professional trainers and the population’s increasing interest in obtaining a healthy lifestyle as drivers behind such a business. Highlighting her commitment to the venture, Al Marshoodi notes: “She understands the depth of the market and customers’ needs and she is always trying to meet the increasing [demand]. All of this makes her the ideal potential entrepreneur.”

Adbul Baset Al Janahi, CEO, Dubai SME, notes that for many aspiring youths in the UAE and for the national economy, entrepreneurial drive is a major enabler of success and prosperity. “Diversity is an important feature of the thriving entrepreneurial culture in Dubai and the UAE in general. We are proud to have worked with Asma Lootah and delighted to see The Hundred Wellness [Center] making a noteworthy addition to the infinite lifestyle choices Dubai offers as a residential and tourism destination.”

While her business is making an impact now, the path to success hasn’t been straightforward. Looking back at the financially-fraught beginning, Lootah is grateful when she reflects on how far she’s come. She laughs that her old boss at Etisalat “freaked out” and her father, who had never heard of Pilates, was not enamored with the idea when she first announced plans to resign from the grey world of office life and go down the Pilates route. In a celebratory mood, she is in the throes of planning an official opening of her Jumeirah premises this year. The fact that her father turned up one day to participate in a Pilates class counts among her biggest achievements. She laughs: “It was big news! He was a bit grumpy but he came and he was very proud.”

Emboldened, with her family now firm fans, and flanked by a dedicated following of Pilates aficionados Mohammed Harib, creator of cult Emirati cartoon, Freej, among them she is looking ahead, with typical verve, at potential plans to twin her love of wellness with her love of travel. She casually mentions a marathon due to take place on the Great Wall of China in June by way of example of what she might look into next. But time is ticking.

Lootah looks at her watch aware that she is running late for a Pilates class, she is still keen to offer a whistle stop tour of her studio. Bathed in mid-morning sunshine with impossibly toned and healthy-looking trainers striding purposefully about, The Hundred Wellness Center has a spa-like quality and does inspire a need to pull on some Lycra there are some fashionable leggings and tops stocked in reception should a sudden urge arise. With a friendly word for all her staff and clients she is on first name terms with everyone that passes through the door Asma Lootah rushes off amid the swishing folds of her abaya. Calm reigns as lemongrass lingers in the garden.

Download the PDF