Nicole Rodrigues is in a hurry. She’s just returned from a business trip to London and in less than 24 hours she will be off to Lahore. In the time in between, she has separate meetings scheduled with the heads of the five businesses she owns and yet she’s anything but frazzled.
As Nicole is walking around her Dubai office and briefing her secretary, she stops to get updates from her 68 staff while being interviewed by Friday. The mother of two and serial entrepreneur takes multitasking to the max. “I can juggle so many things at one go because I prioritise,” she says. “I just love my work, so nothing is a hardship. I am a lists person, so I almost never slip up.”
Nicole packs a lot of diverse tasks into a single minute, juggling them with an adeptness and guile that would charm even her toughest critics. A client waiting to meet her is given a smile, while a friend who has dropped in gets a kiss blown across her swanky open-plan office. She even managed to scout the best boarding school for her children, Victoria, 10, and Victor, seven, during her trip to London.
At 40, she has a model agency – she’s a former model – called Diva Modelling and Events that she launched in 2003. She branched out into real estate in 2004 with Diva Holdings when she realised there was a killing to be made in that field when she bought her first home.
The problems she faced launching her businesses gave her ideas – such as providing accounting services to small businesses in 2010 through NM Investments. Her beauty salons – she opened her Diva Salon business in 2011 – were an adjunct of the modelling business. And when she moved to a new neighbourhood and found it lacking in services, this gave her the idea for Diva Laundry in 2011.
The portfolio may seem diverse, but one business organically led to the other. And by anyone’s standards Nicole has been successful. Shuaa Capital, a Dubai-based investment bank, has valued Nicole’s businesses at more than Dh100 million. Diva Modelling alone has been valued at Dh20 million. She was also the winner of the people’s choice award of the SME Advisor Stars of Business 2011 given by business magazine SME Advisor Middle East.
“It’s important to find out what ignites your passion, and to seize an opportunity when it is presented,’’ she says. “Anybody can start a business. But one reason many people fail is they create their own fears and manifest them into reality. Diva was not built to just make money, but as a platform for people to be able to develop themselves. I believe if you go for the chase, dream the dream, your reward will come. The idea is to have fun with what you are doing. It’s important not to focus on the goal, but on the journey. Otherwise there is no enjoyment.”
Single-minded and determined
The fire in her was ignited at the age 16 in Mumbai, India, when Nicole, who hails from a conservative family in Kerala, decided she wanted to walk the ramp. “Being a model was pretty much unheard of in my family at that time,” she says. “Most members of the family were professionals – my father is an engineer, my uncles are lawyers, doctors... So there was a lot of conflict at home when I decided to become a model. But that didn’t stop me. I just went out and became a model. I wanted the glamour, the trappings that went with it.”
Nicole participated in inter-college fashion shows where she was spotted by noted Indian designer Vikram Phadnis. “I did fashion shows with him, and then modelled for magazine covers like Femina and Health and Nutrition, among others,” she says. “I remember in 1994 I was on the covers of 12 magazines in one month!”
But she wasn’t just another pretty face – she studied maths in college. “I have a great head for numbers,” she says. After graduating, she moved on to work as airline cabin crew. “I wanted to travel, and for free!” Nicole smiles.
In 1995 she landed a job with Gulf Air and moved to Bahrain. There she met her husband Henrik Larsen, who works in construction. When her first child was born, Nicole quit her job and they moved to her husband’s native Copenhagen in 2001.
“Denmark was like moving to another planet for me,” she says. “Everyone’s equal, everyone gets the same rights, and the people are really nice. I learnt some valuable lessons including that everyone has both negatives and positives, and one needs to focus on the positive side instead of dwelling on the cons.”
Nicole and Henrik moved to Dubai in 2003, to “test waters. We had been here on a holiday, liked what we saw and decided to move”.
At first, she started working with a PR firm as a business development executive. “But my personality is geared to being a leader, so I developed my own business plan for a modelling agency in 2003, and managed to attract investors willing to put in Dh50,000,” she says. “After opening my office I realised I had very little money to roll on, so I ended up being the manager, business development person, accountant, producer and receptionist. I worked nearly 20 hours a day, following a timetable I created for different duties. It was hectic, but I loved it.”
It paid off. Diva today has 14,000 models on its rolls and was named one of the top 100 small businesses in 2011 by Dubai SME, a Dubai government agency.
Spotting opportunities is winning half the battle in business, according to Nicole. “Acting on them is the other half,” she says. Her real estate foray is a typical example. Nicole was interested when The Springs development was launched in 2004. “My husband and I had Dh60,000 in savings, and I wanted to buy a house, as I felt it’s better to own than rent,” she says. “The very next month I found that my investment of Dh60,000 was worth Dh100,000. That’s when I decided to get into real estate seriously and launched Diva Holdings. Today we own 28 properties worldwide – in London, Boston, Rio De Janeiro, Atlanta, Denmark, Dubai and India.”
But Nicole is very clear that her core business is Diva Modelling. “The key is not to spread oneself too thin,” she says.
She has a very conservative mind. “My principles and ethics are old-fashioned. While my friends were splurging on high-end luxury cars I preferred to invest my money in business ventures. You have to get your priorities right.
“It’s easy to make a million and spend it on a car. Or you can invest it in a good business and work on making the next million. I’d rather buy a second-hand car than a brand new one that will start depreciating the moment you start driving it.”
Nicole’s formula for success is simple. “Planning is everything,” she says. “If you plan well, you can do anything. The problem is people don’t want to plan. For instance, in the real estate scene, if you have the fundamentals right, and plan it well, real estate can work for anybody. The important thing though is to never overstretch your finances... never borrow more than 10 to 15 per cent from the market if you have to.’’
Nicole has plenty of advice for prospective entrepreneurs. “You have to define your goals. You need to be clear what you want to be, where you want to go and what you will be doing five years from now. You can’t just jump into the market and expect to get lucky.
“For instance, if you are setting up an office where you expect 50 people to be working in five years but have only 10 now, build one that can house 50 people. Otherwise there will be a lot of wastage and cost escalation when you move or expand to a new office and that will bring your profits down.”
You must always keep learning
Keeping abreast of developments is paramount, says Nicole. “You have to keep educating yourself as you expand into new fields. Otherwise you are setting yourself up for failure.”
Expansion is inevitable if you succeed in business, according to Nicole. “In business while expanding there are two options: you either do ‘same product different markets’ or ‘different products same market’,” she says. “I chose the latter – entering real estate, beauty salons and services sectors. After having established that, I’ve switched to the former – expanding Diva Modelling in Doha, Bahrain, Kuwait and Turkey. I will soon be entering India and Pakistan.”
One of her most important lessons in business is to “align yourself with strong people. Don’t feel threatened. Weak people may make you feel good temporarily. But being surrounded by strong people can make you grow. You become stronger too.”
Being a good leader is equally important. “A good leader will always listen,” she says. “And observe. They see and hear things that others miss. While many people can see only one side; a good leader can give you the composite picture. In fact, that’s my cardinal rule in life – observe, listen, learn.”
Despite her hectic schedule, Nicole says she is very good at prioritising. “I’m great at making lists,” she says. “My family tops the list, because they are the ones I’m doing it all for. I believe in working smart at the office and going home to spend quality time with family.”