Nargish Khambatta, Principal, GEMS Modern Academy
They say education is a calling… but in my case I stumbled into it. In the exuberance of youth, I wanted to be a doctor, a police officer, an athlete... But I always enjoyed explaining things to my friends, so when I didn’t get through my medical entrance exam, I followed the herd instinct and studied what everyone else seemed to be studying — microbiology. After my Master’s degree I was inspired by my sister who was an excellent teacher (now principal of her own preparatory school). She narrated such powerful stories. I started out teaching at college level, and when I came to Dubai I veered towards school teaching as you had to have a doctorate to be able to teach in a university here.
I come from Deolali, near Nasik in India. I’m the eighth child in a family of nine and my wonder years were spent in the countryside, with fond memories of my school and the time we spent on our farm. It was a content, happy childhood — not an affluent one, but filled with lots of laughter. My parents insisted on the family having dinner together and conversations at the dining table were stimulating and fascinating — I think all my aspirations stemmed from there, listening to my family discuss the mundane and the profound and everything in between. [Indian spiritual leader] Swami Vivekananda’s gardener analogy is one I picked up over a plate of steaming white rice and curry: the potential to grow lies in a seed and not with the farmer. And as an educator I find that very powerful — like the gardener, parents and teachers need to create a conducive and wholesome environment for children to blossom.
My gender didn’t hold me back as a teacher... but as the leadership positions came my way, whispers of “why her, aren’t we good enough to do the job?” were murmured by men. But I’ve never experienced a blatant “she can’t do it”. If anything, in my 33 years of being in education, I’ve really enjoyed my friendships even with male colleagues, with there always being mutual respect, and we have always worked as one unit.
You can either age gracefully... or try and remain young forever. Now, I’m more sure of myself, my relationships, what I stand for, and I’m not afraid to speak up. I have been described as an iron fist in a velvet glove. I’m tough when I need to be, but I always have the sensibility to carry people with me and understand their problems and concerns. I’m enjoying the space I am in. When I got to 40, many people cautioned me, but the minor insecurities I had sort of vanished. In my 50s now I’m almost in Zen state. To all the women out there — ageing is a beautiful phenomenon, embrace it.
Do we really need Women’s Day in today’s day and age? It’s always wonderful to celebrate women and their achievements and I think the age where Women’s Day was needed is behind us. Every day women are celebrated. Men don’t need a day to remind anyone of their contributions, so why do women? It would be more relevant in countries where women are not emancipated, but certainly not in this part of the world.
A quandary I face now... is how to fulfil my wanderlust — I love travelling. I’d like to just take off for six months — not to do regular touristy things but more off-the-beaten track in the countries of my choice.
Growing up I had some insecurities. I was painfully shy (though people find it difficult to believe that now), and I always thought I was not good enough! I hated to be in the spotlight — every time I was called to speak, my heart would thump out my chest. Now I’m not the life and soul of a party, but enjoy being with friends and family. Life has taught me that it’s OK to have moments of anxiety, it’s OK to not be able to do everything perfectly, as long as you can rationally think things through, and come to terms with it. I tell my daughter; ‘acceptance is the greatest liberator. Once you accept something, it stops being a bother!’
Do I have a work-life balance? Yes, and no. I like things just so — the Goldilocks effect! I seek excellence. I’m not a workaholic, but enjoy my work so much that sometimes I neglect things on the home front. When I ask to go to the beach, my husband knows I need the space and haven’t been getting enough me-time. I love to read, being with kids, going for long walks on different routes and gardening.
The best way to make an impact… is really by creating a ripple effect. As an individual, your realm of influence is limited, but when you empower people, they go on to empower others. That’s my leadership philosophy. We encourage our children to question things, not to be ‘yes people’. It’s about teaching kids not what to think, but how to think.
I always wonder... what legacy I am going to leave behind. I often have these discussions with my son, who is 29 and working in Toronto, and my daughter, 26, who works in Dubai. I’ve always dreamt of a school with a difference… and educating the girl child is important for me and my family. So I want my future to be for those who don’t have access to quality education.
Melanie Manansala, Supernanny and winner of 2017’s ‘Best Nanny in the UAE’ award
I came from the Philippines when I was 20... after our father left us. I had to help my mum and brothers and sisters — I was the eldest of five siblings. I got a job as housemaid in Dubai — my cousin who was working here recommended me to a family. Along the way you need to take care of children of the families you work with, so I became a nanny.
At the beginning… I was very sad to leave behind my family. I was so homesick and could only visit the Philippines every two years. Everytime I saw a plane, I would start crying wanting to return home. But then I’d remember why I was here. I didn’t want my family to starve, and that drove me on. I initially planned to be here for just two years; now I’ve been here 25 years. I’m so much more relaxed here and feel safer here than back home.
The hardest part about being a nanny… is letting go of the kids. You love them like your own children. I’m more attached with them now than with my own nephews and nieces. Seeing them happy makes me so happy. I’m single but when I’m with those kids it’s as if I have my own family, and they give me so much of love. They say what’s in their heart — if they’re mad at me they say it, unlike grownups who smile through anger. I like being around their genuine love. I influence them, they influence me. We learn from each other. You could do be a nanny for years and kids will still find a way to surprise you and teach you new things. I’m so much more patient now than I was when I started. I’ve also learnt to adapt to different families and honed my working techniques over the years working for four families here.
Winning the Best Nanny award in 2017 was brilliant… But for me the fact that my employer nominated me was in itself like winning an award. I felt so appreciated. Now my kids go around saying ‘my nanny is the best in the UAE’! They are so proud. I didn’t know anything about kids when I first started — I learnt everything from the Lebanese family I worked with for 12 years, including cooking and cleaning. I learned from my mistakes and all the ups and downs along the way.
Disciplining kids… can be tricky. Different employers have different methods of discipline, and as they are your employers, you have to learn to adapt. Earlier, I used to be really scared thinking I couldn’t argue with the people who paid me, and I would do just as told. Now I’m much more vocal, and sometimes I’ll put my foot down, and speak up to the parents if I think something is wrong. And they’ll almost always understand. My employers now give me more freedom — they let me discipline the kids. If I say they must make their bed, they must. If I say they must stop watching TV and go play outdoors, they have to.
I never thought of starting my own family… because my focus was on my mother and siblings. By the time I did think of it, I was too old. I didn’t want my children to live alone, to not have an education, to work as maids. So I’m happy with my decision — and I chose it, not my siblings.
I’m motivated now… to save money for my retirement — I want to retire at 50. All those years of work have left me quite tired. I want to stay in Dubai for five more years… then I want to open a grocery back home with my mum, and raise money for my retirement. I don’t have my own family, and I don’t want to be a burden on my siblings as they have their own families to take care of.
I think my greatest achievement… has been to just survive, and to help my siblings survive. Sometimes when I wake up at night with a nightmare about going back to when I had nothing, I have to take a deep breath and remember that we are OK. That journey from having nothing to now has been an emotional one.
I now aim to travel… and enjoy my life and do things I couldn’t when I was young. I want to take my mum to see places too. The Dutch family I work for treats me like part of the family. My boss often says ‘Lanie, you need to relax.’ I can’t stop working. I tidy up on my days off, and she says to me to stop and relax a bit. I work five days a week. Before I would just have half a day off. Now I go out on Fridays, talk to my family, then relax at home on Saturday. I pamper myself once in a while, go to the salon, go shopping. I like to read and learn new words. I couldn’t speak English properly before, now I can communicate well. Filipinos are always thinking about sending money back home, and I always tell them they need to take care of themselves too.
Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything… If I do it’s not me anymore. I learnt from all the experiences, be they painful or enjoyable ones. I actually didn’t even think about my journey until I won the nanny award. At that time, when I was interviewed by media was the first time I looked back. And I cried thinking of my story, of survival.
Dr Monikaa Chawla, Reproductive Endocrinologist & Fertility Consultant
When I was 6, Louise Brown, the first IVF baby was born. It was 1978, and it was all over the papers, and I remember being so fascinated about this miracle of nature. Fast forward many years: when I went to the UK after my basic medical graduation, someone mentioned assisted conception as a field. I had always wanted to become a doctor, but I didn’t consider specialising in infertility at that time. But now it was as though destiny was prodding me to pick up this field. I’d started thinking about it a lot so it was like a secret wish coming true. [As a GP] you treat diseases and conditions, but here you are creating something; it’s like a harmony of science and nature, it’s like no other speciality.
My dad has been the most influential person in my life. I have a sister and my parents both worked. I imbibed everything — from hard work to honesty — from my dad. A government officer, he used to work hard and with integrity, and those qualities percolated into my life.
I graduated from Delhi… went to the UK for further studies, then moved to the Middle East to experience this part of the world. Initially I did not intend to spend a long time here and thought I’d return to India soon. Now I’ve been here more than a decade. And it’s been a very fruitful journey.
A tough decision I had to make… was going to the UK when my kids were very young. But I didn’t think about it twice; I knew I had to do it. So for a few years I only saw my kids a few times. I was pursuing a degree, working long hard hours, but I had a great support system thanks to my family. Leaving the UK and coming to Dubai was another challenge; IVF was quite new here a decade ago. Now the region has flourished very quickly in health care.
People don’t realise women can place work as top priority and still balance family. I think being a woman was an advantage in my journey from gynaecologist to IVF consultant, then taking up fertility. It’s when you take up leadership roles that you have to push yourself a little more, as men think you might not prioritise your work, that you’ll take breaks and go on maternity leave, you’ll have to take care of children… But women are better multitaskers, I feel.
Women’s Day is about… celebrating women in all walks of life. All my achievements are thanks to a lot of women around me. Without them I’m nothing. It’s a team thing — my nurses, support staff, my maid. They gave me the push to be at the forefront while they work in the background.
There’s been a change in the way fertility is viewed. If once there was a stigma attached to infertility, things have changed and more men are coming to understand it’s not just a women’s problem. Now men are coming to accept that a third of the problem rests with them. So there’s more and more acceptance. Earlier I used to insist that women bring their husbands to consultations. Now they’re coming on their own, and they try to understand the process and support the woman in a journey that can be difficult. Also what has changed is couples are now increasingly sharing their stories. There are more support groups here. It’s becoming like other medical issues that you can discuss openly. It’s all about not letting a couple be isolated in society.
We often take the birth of our kids for granted. But motherhood is truly a miracle that every woman deserves to have if she chooses to. Helping people achieve that is most satisfying. You become a part of the couple’s lives when you bring their baby into this world. I feel women should always have control over her fertility. With techniques like egg freezing, she can conceive when she wants to. These options give women control over their bodies.
I get too emotionally involved with my patients… and I think that can be a weakness. I play the role of friend, confidant and counsellor apart from medical doctor — it can be draining. I often lose sleep if they fall ill or are facing some issues. Failures too can be draining, but then the rewards are such bliss. You do have to draw a line between empathising and keeping a professional distance. I try my best to achieve that balance.
My most treasured possessions… are the hundreds of handwritten notes my patients have given me over the years. Those notes as well as voice messages and baby pictures are what give me strength to overcome failures.
Winning the distinguished physician award in the UAE last year was fantastic. It was so fulfilling to see my work being acknowledged; it was such a surprise.
I don’t have a perfect work-life balance… but now am consciously working towards it. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You have to make sacrifices.
I’m trying to incorporate exercise and meditation into my daily life. I’m also trying to give more time to my kids. My daughter is in Stanford, and my son is leaving this year for higher studies. When I get time, I love writing and reciting poetry.
Women face guilt… and though I always stretched myself to do more than what a man would have done, I felt I could have done more. But it’s important to have a support system who will say “no you’re doing fine.” My kids have seen me working hard and recently my daughter said “mum, you are my role model”. I think my kids have learnt to be more independent because of my attitude to hard work.
Currently I run free education campaigns on social media, and free consultations; it’s my way of giving back. I want to help those who can’t afford it.
Rosalind Parsk, Executive Chef, Courtyard by Marriott & Marriott Executive Apartments
I fell into a career with food. I used to cook a lot when younger with my grandmother, baking, making dinners for the family, and I really enjoyed it. So when it came to choosing a career, I did some work experience and loved it. So I went off to college to learn all about it.
I’m from Surrey in England… and part of a big family — seven siblings, six girls and one boy. I’ve been in Dubai for 10 years now. I’ve had role models change over the years, from Delia Smith whose cookbooks grandma used to cook out of, and Mary Berry, who has become big again in the last five years in the UK. Then there’s Gordon Ramsay, and so many contemporary chefs I admire and look up to.
If you don’t love being a chef… you can’t do it. Hospitality hours are notoriously long and not sociable. You need to work on all the big occasions, Christmas, Ramadan New Year, Valentine’s... you work weekends. It takes acclimatising to standing on your feet — you won’t believe how much we stand in the kitchen, peeling asparagus for thousands of people can take hours. It’s high-pressured, the food needs to be quick, hot and perfect. So if you don’t have passion, it’s difficult to face those challenges.
I’ve built my career in a male-dominated industry. I worked for Gordon Ramsay under Angela Hartnett for three years, which was a great, rare experience under a female chef. I worked for Marco Pierre White before that; I was part of a TV programme and went to work for one of his restaurants. That was my first time in a proper fine dining restaurant.
It’s easier for a man in the industry. So you just have to work harder, smarter faster. Once you’ve proved yourself — and I do think there’s an element of proving yourself – it’ll be fine. I haven’t had any awful experiences. I get along great with the men I work with, and once they know your expectations it’s like working with anyone else. But yes, on Day 1 you have to prove that you are not going to run home crying after an hour.
Once you’ve gone up the ranks, and they know I’ve been in the industry for so many years, my CV does the talking. I’ve got a lot more to bring to the table, so people now respect me more. There’s now a lot more women in my industry — previously you could go decades without a female chef, now they are filtering through.
I am inspired by Women’s Day… because of the amazing stories you get to hear. One day of a year, to celebrate shining stars in our community or the world is pretty amazing.
When I stand back and think I’m the first female executive chef in the UAE… I’m so proud of it. I’ve driven my career over the years, I’m 33 years old, and feel I’ve done a lot in a short space of time. I’m a very self-driven person. I don’t like to do things half-heartedly, be it small or big goals. I put everything into it, and I find things to do if I get complacent with life, I like pushing myself and keeping things fresh and moving, keep my mind moving.
I got married last year in Sardinia in Italy… over an amazing few days. I’m lucky that my husband is also from the industry, and he also works long hours. I don’t have kids yet and when that time comes there will have to be changes in our life and lifestyle. You live a semi-selfish life when you don’t have kids, taking care of only yourselves, and that will change.
No, you don’t have to be single and childless to be a chef… The answer to ‘Can you have it all?’ is ‘Yes, you can’. It’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be a lot of balancing and trial and error. There’re sacrifices on a few levels and you might need help at home and at work. But it’s doable.
No, being a chef is not as glamorous as you see on TV. I’m usually sweating in kitchen heat, it’s a loud, large area so you’re shouting to be heard — again not very glam. But for anyone who is a chef or in a kitchen space, the adrenaline of a good service is the reward. When you see people happy eating what you’ve plated up, it gives you a buzz.
My biggest strength is that I am very passionate. On the flip side, a weakness of mine is I probably could be a better listener — life is so fast paced, sometimes I feel I must sit back and listen and appreciate things a bit more.
A lesson I’ve learnt over the years... is not to take anything for granted, because it can be taken away very quickly. I do try and enjoy life as much as I can as you never know what can happen next week.
Work-life balance can be a struggle. It’s about prioritising and you have to be strong with yourself. You have to still bother to see friends or you’ll just lose them, and you have to spend enough time with your husband and family, or that’s where the cracks start to form. You can’t bring stress home — that remains in the kitchen.
Looking back… I wouldn’t change anything in my life. I believe things happen for a reason and the bad and good build you as a person, build up a strong personality. I plan to keep loving work and keep developing myself — and mainly just try to be happy. Life’s too short not to be happy.