‘To manage a team you need to be positive’
Leena Parwani, managing director, LPH Insurance Brokers
I’ve always loved... numbers. I never thought of accountancy as boring. So I found the perfect mix of numbers and creativity and a sense of care — insurance.
I cherish… the fact that I started work in a firm so I could gain experience for setting up a company. It helps you learn what kind of staff to look for and helps you set goals because you’ve done work from scratch. You know how to fix mistakes. But at one point you feel you need the freedom to work for yourself, to help people. If I was in a firm I’d just be following rules. To make a difference, you do want to sell a product, but you also want to offer the right product to the client.
I was fired 3 times… despite being a workaholic and a top performer due to management changes. It was painful and depressing and it took me some time to recover. That’s when I decided to do something where no one could fire me again. Now, I’m earning my own salary, writing my own cheques. What I was always doing for others, I started doing for myself. Today I realise if I didn’t get that ‘push’ I wouldn’t be living this lifestyle now with complete control.
I’m very positive… and optimistic. To manage a team you have to be positive so you can spread the right vibe. I’m a very happy person and like to be surrounded by happy people. I think of being the best version of myself, and not being like somebody. I borrow influences, pick up good habits from those around me and from those who’ve succeeded in the industry.
I couldn’t dream big… back in my home in India. I come from a conservative family. My goal from childhood was to work hard, be an entrepreneur and make a mark for myself. At the start of my career in 2004, it was very difficult. My daughter is a special needs child and needed extra care. It was also very tough to prove myself every single day, especially when you are a woman, a newcomer and in a male-dominated sector. But overcoming all those challenges make you stronger and soon you don’t care about what people think about you. I knew I had to keep on going. Keep making a difference, and being above others. Now there are more women in the industry. It’s an open market, a place of opportunities. When your company is new and you’re a newcomer, it is difficult to build trust. Nothing comes easy, you have to pursue and be determined to succeed.
I invest… in personal development, updating my knowledge with business studies, new ways of doing things, keeping up with what’s happening internationally. I sharpen my skills every day. My busy days help me be happier. I miss out on... socialising, but this is the price you pay for being different. Those are small sacrifices which don’t really matter. I want to give my kids a lifestyle that I didn’t have.
My happiest moment was… when my son was born. My daughter was born early in my marriage, when I wasn’t prepared to be a mum. So I had to face a lot of challenges. I didn’t even feel like a mother. But now seeing my daughter independent makes me feel happy. All the invested good time in raising her was not for nothing.
It’s a huge challenge… finding the right talent for your company. You don’t want people to come in just for an 8-5 job. They’ve to have a can-do attitude, you want them to be enthusiastic. I look for lots of energy, the right vibe and the skills to be a team player. We do a test when we hire them, and I give them a job based on their personality. If an employee is very outgoing, it’ll be a waste of time and skills to make them sit inside the office.
What upsets me... is if someone lies to me. I like transparency. I want honest employees; if you can’t do something, seek help.
My biggest strengths are… the capacity to care for people, and make things happen. I’ve always been resourceful. I’ve never said no to anything. And I let go of things very fast, I don’t crave, think or mourn. I just want to move onto something else.
My weakness is… I’m an emotional and caring businesswoman, but you have to keep your emotions under control when you’re running a company. My fellow businesswomen advise me to do that. I’m getting better at it.
What I dislike the most… is excuses and negativity. My employees know there’s no room in Leena’s office for excuses. If you don’t have a burning reason to do things, there’ll only be excuses. I tell my staff, be transparent to clients too, and don’t overcommit.
What drives me… is the desire to make every day the best day, meaningful day, in my life. If I can get out of bed and meet one person whom I can help, that one person will make my day. If I just sit in the office all day it’s my poorest day ever. I want to add value every day to someone so as not to have a meaningless life.
I don’t have short-term goals… I see 5 or 10 years down the line. Time passes so fast.
The most important lesson I’ve learnt… is that life is an amazing ride and to make it exhilarating you have to do something different from others, above and beyond others. You jump in the pool and you’ll learn to swim. If you wait for the right day it never comes. Even now I just dive, I don’t wait for perfect conditions to do so.
I make sure to… divide my time very well with a window for everything – business, personal, spiritual and fitness goals. When I started I was doing anything and everything at every time, and I realised it was not going to work that way. I travel a lot, but I’ve seen so many places it doesn’t excite me anymore. I enjoy it but I’m happy to be in Dubai. Now I meditate, I’ll sit with my kids, I’ll exercise, pamper myself, recharge. I have focus days, free days. This is my lifestyle now, and I make sure all the pieces fit in well.
‘Taking over social was an achievement’
Mai Cheblak, vice-president, group media and social, Emirates NBD
Working in the banking sector… was not something I planned for. After graduating in business studies from the University of Florida, I joined the Al Tayer group as a media executive. I was — and still am — extremely passionate about media marketing, and in four years became media planning and buying manager. I was proud that the management believed in my capabilities and helped me scale the corporate ladder.
I had my second child… while working at Al Tayer. Realising my child needed a little more attention from me and being a perfectionist, I found it a struggle to manage work and the needs of my second child. So I resigned my job – a tough decision particularly because I’ve been working from a young age. Once my two children started school, I felt ready to return to my career. At just that time, Emirates NBD was looking for a senior person to manage their media responsibilities and I fit the bill. Now, 10 years with the organisation putting media marketing and communication plans, and working with our partners closely, I’m enjoying the role.
Emirates NBD launched the social media channels in 2012. We were one of the early adapters. It was a critical decision because we knew that once we are on social media we have to be on par with the sector internationally.
Handling social media... is an extremely responsible job. It is a space that is constantly changing; so rapidly that we are unable to put a strategy in place for more than six months.
The challenges are many... Emirates NBD is a leader and we want to continue holding that position.
Succeeding as a mother… is as important as succeeding as a career woman. One is not less important than the other. I believe that being a successful career woman will have an impact in that I will be a role model for my kids. Seeing how hard their parents are working will make them want to work hard and be achievers. If it wasn’t for the support I had from my family, my mother in particular, I wouldn’t have reached where I am today both on the career front as well as with raising my own family.
I’m very conservative… when it comes to my kids. I wouldn’t want nannies to do things for them; I prefer doing that myself.
I’m proud that… my three children are excellent swimmers, horse riders and tennis players. My daughter is a pianist as well.
I am tough on my kids... and want them to achieve success in whatever they do.
Staying up to date is critical… especially in the space of digital and social. Emirates NBD is very hungry to keep learning. We constantly keep pushing ourselves and our teams to do even better and learn more. To that end, we organise networking events for the team, attend courses, conferences and workshops.
To be successful… I need to equip myself with a strong and knowledgeable team that I can take along with me. When I was requested to look into attracting and growing the calibre of Emiratis at my organisation, I had to put in place a process which included grooming candidates for success – a plan to attract, retain and mentor UAE talent.
When recruiting, I look at… the candidate’s interests, strengths, presentation skills, education background, skill sets, experience and personality, among other things. During the orientation process, the candidate is aligned on his role, his objectives, responsibilities and what is required of them over three months, six months and so on. Regular mentoring, coaching and feedback is provided to the candidates so they know what they are good at and what areas need to be focussed upon.
We believe that… because we spend more of our waking hours at work than with our families in home, offices need to be inspiring so workers are creative, comfortable, hungry to learn, productive and efficient. To that end we are creating invigorating work areas.
What makes me sad… is if year on year I’ve not been learning and achieving on the personal and career fronts. It means I did not go outside my comfort zone. Similarly, I’ll be sad if I don’t see progress in my kids’ development.
I’m happy… when I see a low performer who joined my team going on to become a top performer. I’m also happy to see that my husband, a doctor, has done well in his career. I encouraged him to give up a permanent position in a hospital and set up his dream neo paediatric centre in Dubai Healthcare City.
I’m convinced… everyone has a skill. Finding and developing that will lead to success.
My strength is… I’m positive. I learn from mistakes and move on. If I’ve set a goal, I’ll not allow anything to come in the way and prevent me from achieving it.
My weakness… is that I am very emotional. I try hard not to become emotional at the workplace, but I guess that’s part of being a woman. Another weakness is that I’m a multitasker. When you juggle a lot of things, there is less focus on the tasks.
A trait I dislike in others… is lack of honesty.
My greatest achievement… on the personal front is having three healthy kids. I’m also proud that my husband is doing well in his career. My learning in the bank is also an achievement – it shaped my personality. Taking over social was another success for me and a huge achievement.
A lesson I’ve learnt in life… is to never underestimate your capabilities.
My dream… is for this world to become a better place full of love and happiness. On the personal front, to see my kids turn out to be good people in thought and deed, do well academically and be in leading positions and give back to the community.
I relax… when I’m with my family listening to their stories.
‘I just go with the flow’
Nasrah Hussain Mukhtar, managing partner, Collage Boutique
Finance is my forte… Fashion came much later. It has always been properties and investments for me. I’ve been working since the age of 19 with my father in our 45-year-old family-run tobacco business — Hassan Mukhtar and Brothers — until the family split in 2000. My father’s office was my playground, so it was just natural that I would join him in the business. For 12 years, I handled the finance side of his business and he groomed me in investments and stock markets. By my early thirties, I was a pro.
He meant the world to me… When I lost my father, Hussain Mukhtar Al Yousuf, in 2013, I went into a deep depression. So, the business I’d started with my husband Samir Hussain Sajwani took a backseat. I didn’t want to do anything as any new venture would remind me of my father. Two years after my father passed away, my husband bought a 50 per cent share in Collage Boutique in 2015 from relatives of ours who’d put it up on the market as they were leaving the UAE. He felt it’d be a way to get me out of depression and rekindle my interest for business. He was right.
Collage revived the business woman in me… Within two months I’d bought the entire company out as I wanted to run it my way. Today, it’s one of our businesses that helps us make new friends, travel and it’s a business that helps us to relax.
Moving from finance to fashion... has made me more outgoing. In the previous businesses, you always tend to work in the shadows; investments and real estate don’t give you glamour and I was happy in that environment as I’m an introvert by nature. But with the fashion business you need to socialise. Suddenly I found myself having [hosting] events. I love entertaining, that’s fun. It has exposed me to a different world.
I believe... in studying the market before making any investments. Even with Collage, I took my time deciding whether I wanted to expand and to build and establish contacts with new designers. I did my research to see what kind of demands existed. I took three years to bring the business to where we are now because I had to rebuild, rebrand and understand the market.
I like... to treat my different businesses like my children. I don’t compare them, as they all have their own characteristics and need to be treated differently. I’ve partnered with my husband on a number of businesses before Collage — we ran an interiors business called Maison Objet Interiors in Al Quoz and a factory in Sharjah called Zahra furnitures, in collaboration with renowned Indian interior designer Sita Nanda. Some of the other businesses my husband and I have launched together include Delmon Elevations, Lan &Wan technologies, Smartlite.
I just go with the flow... I don’t have a plan for two or three years from now. I know I want to steer the company towards sustained growth but I do it through short-term goals that target the next quarter or six months. At a very young age, I realised that if you have a strategy that you are tied to and things change, it’s difficult to adapt to the change. But if you go with the flow, come what may, you’re always prepared to make quick decisions and work around the constant changes that you face in a business. That is my success.
The advantage of working with your spouse... is it brings you closer. Samir and I come from families that have done business for generations (his family businesses are Zahra Securities and Zahra Technology), so we’re used to talking business at the dinner table. It also has its ups and downs when you don’t see eye-to-eye on a certain point, but that’s just a matter of debating it out like you would with any business partner.
My daughter is a reflection of me… we’re grooming her and my three sons to join the business, but my daughter, who is now 21, is well aware of what is happening with Collage although she’s studying aviation management. She sees the business the way I see it — from a consumer point of view. I see a lot of me in her. However, at the end it’s her choice, we will never dump any business on any of the kids.
I’m grateful for my family’s support… it is the backbone of a successful female entrepreneur because, at the end of the day, if the family is unhappy that you’re not around or that your work demands a certain amount of time from you, you can’t be successful because you’re always stressed. I’m thankful and blessed that it was my father who trained me to be a businesswoman and now my husband is equally supportive and wants me to work rather than stay at home. He’d rather talk to me about work than hear me complain about the cook and the maid. And the children are supportive too.
An important lesson my father taught me... is that your staff is your asset. If you have someone who’s helping you grow your business, then you as the employee have to help them grow too. So, in all our businesses we have partners or a partner who was a staff that helped the business grow. You have to give them responsibilities, a pat on their back and recognise their work. Tomorrow, if your business ceases to exist, your staff’s reputation in the market should easily get them a job. For me, it’s a compliment when competitors offer my staff jobs. I don’t go to Collage every day because my team handles the operations.
A dream come true… was the day we opened the Collage store in Jumeirah in April last year. We got Indian designer Rajdeep Ranwat on board our advisory panel and together we finalised both Collage Boutique and his store-within-a-store concept in just four days without an interior designer. Today, it is considered one of the best high-end stores for multi-labels by people who represent designers. That’s a big compliment. It gives me a high.
I don’t believe in following trends… At Collage, the stock we have is slightly different from what you see in Mumbai or Delhi. I tweak Tarun Tahiliani’s, Rohit Bal’s collections, even Rajdeep’s, because I know what the clientele here need. Fashion for me is constantly changing. I appreciate a woman who doesn’t follow the trends to the T but incorporates them into her own style and isn’t a slave to fashion. Only then can you can have elegance and class.
Diversifying is the key to survival… which is why we’re also going to rope in international, European designers and Emirati designers in 2019. Indian and Pakistani designers have a saturated market here now due to various exhibitions and online business. So as a retail store the only way to survive is to bring in various designers. Moreover, I think it is my responsibility to encourage and offer young Emirati designers a platform.
In the future... I want to start looking into different aspects besides fashion and branch out into homeware and lifestyle as I see a lot of designers launching their own homeware and lifestyle lines, so there’s a demand for it. I’m also interested in the restaurant business and am looking at opportunities that will allow me to incorporate everything and bring it under one umbrella.
‘I only take on things I like to do’
Nisha Jagtiani, group director, Landmark
Getting into business... was not a priority for me, while growing up. But I remember going on a buying trip at 15 with my mother and Raza Beig, the CEO of Splash. That was when I realised, how much I love fashion and the business of it. Just after I graduated in business from King’s College in London, Landmark was setting up the franchise business with Reiss, Koton and others, and I started working on that. The learning experience in fashion was great.
My parents raised us... to be independent individuals. None of us could enter management positions without first understanding the business from the bottom up. We worked in the warehouse, stores, in buying, and planning; I’ve worked in nearly every core area of the business before I came into management.I worked for about a year at New Look in London too, before returning to our Group. I felt it was important to have exposure outside the family business. I am glad I did that because you get to see things in a different light when you work in someone else’s business as opposed to working in your family business.
I picked up... several lessons there. I worked in buying, learnt how New Look plans options and considers different store bases, researched different customer segments, how they clustered each of their areas, and how they bought differently for each category. They had 570 stores then. So yes, I learnt how to scale a business and those lessons help me to date.
I joined Splash in 2007... and spent two years with Raza. I call it my MBA. I was trained on how to run a fashion business; from buying to visual merchandising to marketing and everything in between.
There are three qualities, I inculcated from my father... It’s quite amazing to see how all the Group companies were created with his vision. He travelled around the world, discovered concepts, then built entire projects in his mind. He would write down his ideas and concepts in a yellow note pad that he carried around. He could talk to you in detail about the concepts even before it came to fruition. That’s one quality I learnt from him. I am a very visual person and have a clear idea of a plan in my mind before it is realised. Even with Iconic, I could ‘see’ the store before it even happened. I had visualised it entirely.
The second learning from him, was how to ‘walk’ retail — something he did exceptionally well and a lot of us in Landmark have learnt the ropes walking stores with him. A lot of people go into a shop and start nit-picking; he would take a step back and see the non-obvious. He had the knack of looking at it from a bird’s eye view. When I opened Iconic, he did the store walk with me and I remember him giving me feedback about things I didn’t see at that time. He taught me how important it is to step back and look at stores in a very different way.
Thirdly, I love how amazing he is with people and feel I have learnt a lot from him. Every person who meets him, falls in love with him and wants to work with him. That, I think, in business, is an amazing quality.
I trust my instincts... while predicting trends One of the first things I do is visit all the big players in the market. Second, I meet partners and suppliers. And lastly, I do a lot of research, mapping out every single store, every single place.
I always follow... my gut. Whilst research is important, it can only tell you so much. For the rest, I rely on my gut and my learning from my experience in the region.
Today, because of e-commerce... and the easy availability of products, things are trending much faster. The need now is to understand what’s happening on social media regarding beauty and fashion trends and move as fast to stay relevant to your customer.
One of the biggest changes... we have brought about at Landmark Group is in recruitment. I started looking at HR in 2017 and realised that if we can get recruitment right then everything else will fall into place. Because retail is ever-changing, the skill sets you need are rapidly changing too. So, the first thing I look for in a person I’m interviewing for a position is their hunger for success. Second, is their value system, third is their expertise and fourth, their ability to think. However, hunger to achieve is a non-negotiable quality for me.
The future looks bright... I’ve been working with Centrepoint to build a Store of the Future. With technology and customer convenience taking centerstage in the retail industry, we believe building a smart store would be a huge step towards further enhancing the shopping experience. We also plan to introduce several new features like taking better care of mothers visiting our stores to offering styling tips to customers.
Yet another important aspect we are working on is HR. We are currently working on a technological transformation, which will take our current systems to the next level.
In the past two years... one of my main focus in the business has been the people within our organisation. I am proud of all the work my team has put into ensuring people are happy and are contributing productively to the business. We have developed and launched the Landmark Happiness Movement in May 2017, bringing over 55,000 employees together as one. This made a huge difference to the lives of our people and the community.
Over the last two years, our teams have taken ownership to build a culture at Landmark Group where Happiness is an integral part of our workplace and processes. It connected employees across the office, retail, and the warehouse across countries, creating a sense of oneness among all.
I remember my discussions with Ohoud Bint Khalfan Al Roumi, Minister of State for Happiness and Well-being in the UAE. We discussed the UAE leaders’ vision to make the nation a happy place. Our organisation shares the same viewpoint, and my team has worked hard in making our best people-centric ideas come to life. Over the last two years, our teams have taken ownership to build a culture at Landmark Group where Happiness is an integral part of our workplace and processes. It connected employees across the office, retail, and the warehouse across countries, creating a sense of oneness among all.
This journey has just begun.
The two life lessons... I’ve learnt is to be able to forgive, and to be responsible for my own happiness. As you grow older, you realise that you trap yourself in situations, if you don’t know how to forgive. Learning to forgive is something that has given me a lot of peace.
What makes me happy... is my family, friends, and the work I do.
My strength is... that I only take on things that I like to do. I like to drive it in a way that comes from my heart.
My weakness is... that I can get impatient easily.
One trait I dislike... in people are those who complain all the time.
‘I find travel to be the most enlightening’
Nissa Nensey, CEO, Al Huzaifa Furniture
My husband and I... both have furniture in our genes — each of us has a parent whose family has been in the trade for over a hundred years. However, Al Huzaifa is a business we have brought to life with a vision all its own.
I spent my early years... in teaching, which I loved, while my husband made a foray into furniture trading in the UAE in 1976. He built the foundational strengths of this business. Being with him at every step and looking into the aesthetic side of things, I realised my life’s work awaited me here.
The secret of Al Huzaifa Furniture’s success... is the fact that it’s been around for four decades. So is there a secret sauce? I’d prefer to call it a secret source. It’s an instinct one develops and refines with time; the ability to understand your customers and evolve with them. It’s about empathy; the ability to learn and unlearn; to love your work but not fall in love with it. Our secret is that we’ve kept evolving. Stocking the latest trends in the most elegant textures and colours, frequenting design fairs in Italy and Spain.
Gut instinct or research when choosing products... There’s no ‘or’; only a big ‘and’. It’s instinct and homework; observation and conversation; gut and guts. Creative decisions are about risk taking — at scale, in our case. Observation informs your gut feel, while the research process compels you to shape your guesses into hypotheses and test them. The Al Huzaifa take is: Why predict market trends when you can create them? Why follow when you can lead and inspire?
The fusion of form and function... is what great design is. At Al Huzaifa, that’s just the starting point. The overarching goal remains the ownership experience. What should that be? Is it about peace of mind? Without doubt. Pride of ownership? Absolutely so. And yet there’s something more: a relationship of extraordinary intensity. We set the bar high saying, “You don’t possess it, it possesses you.” Does a product possess this quality? Only then can it qualify to represent the brand.
Some qualities I look for when hiring staff are... instinct, initiative, innovativeness, the ability to execute no matter what and the inability to make excuses even to themselves. To draw on cricket, a sport I follow avidly, every team needs its coach, star batsmen and a skipper who can get out there when the going gets tough and play the captain’s knock. Character is everything. Qualifications may be abundant, but it’s loyalty, honesty and passion for design that tilt the scales for me. As for the most important bit, what makes for success at scale, season after season, year upon year, is organisational culture. A passion for getting it just right. The ability to evolve. Every individual on the team brings their own instincts and ideas.
How I stay updated... When you eat, drink, breathe and live the business you love, you evolve with it, you imbibe every nuance and yet exercise objectivity — taking what matters and leaving out the rest. My team and I learn from customers as we listen to them.
What I find most enlightening at a personal level — and this is something I cannot overstate — is travel. Watch. Wonder. Observe. My favourite quip — Oxford Street is a great place to see the world go buy.
I’m blessed with... a family that’s understood my obsession with work. We work as a team where we respect each other’s roles and the overarching goal.
My husband — my partner in business and in life — has... always backed me unconditionally with total faith in my judgement and capabilities. As does our son who’s the third pillar of this business and is taking it into the future. You feel invincible when the most important people in your life believe in you.
My favourite way to unwind is by going bottom fishing. It’s wonderful to be on a boat, feeling the lilt of the water under the open sky, letting the working week wash away as I watch the float and focus on nothing else but the next bite.
Other than design... my passion is reading to my grandson. His expressions are priceless.
I’m happiest... at this point in my journey in life. What better than being able to look back and feel deeply grateful that it all worked out so beautifully. Being on this journey with amazing people makes me feel so blessed.
What makes me sad... is any form of injustice.
My strength is... first, my belief that in my life there are only two footprints in the sand. Second, my family - husband Hussain, son Saif, daughter-in-law Tannu and grandson Aayan.
My weakness is... my loved ones. They’re my source of strength but also my weakness.
One guest... I’d like to have at my dream dinner party is Rumi.
My greatest achievement... would be to have lived life doing the best I could in every situation, accepting my destiny and being able to look back on the years honestly knowing I never hurt or harmed intentionally.
What keeps me awake at night... are thoughts about the mystery of life. And my current magnificent obsession – the new Al Huzaifa showroom opening in Al Wasl, this month.
The most important lesson life has taught me... is to give of yourself with love and kindness, and be honest in every relationship. To believe that God is with you in every situation and to be able to leave everything to Him with implicit trust.
What is on top of my bucket list now... is to swirl with the Sufi dervishes. The swing in the middle of the ocean calls out to me from Male.
When growing up... I wanted to be a writer. Still hope I have the courage one day.
If I weren’t in this business I would want to be... a whirling Dervish perhaps.
‘It’s a joy to see education transform lives’
Poonam Bhojani, CEO, Innoventures Education
I got into the education sector… in the early 2000s from a parent perspective as I wanted the very best for my two young sons. I felt they could be far more challenged and that their education could have a more international perspective. My two sons have been my inspiration in every way. At that point, much of the education in Dubai was either British, American or Indian. The international aspect of education was not so pronounced and that was what I felt was missing. With some research I discovered that the International Baccalaureate was offering not just a Diploma Programme but also programmes for children from the age of 3. Innoventures Education was established in 2004 to provide world-class education to Dubai. At that stage, Dubai was opening up with new business models. While I may have had the passion to get into education, the credit for translating this into a viable business entity goes solely to my husband as well as our share-holders. We are truly grateful to Mohammad Alabbar who showed confidence in our vision and thus granted us our first project in Dubai International Academy, Emirates Hills.
There were many challenges I faced… Even completing the school building in time was a challenge. Other challenges included finding IB trained staff and educating parents on the new concepts in education as DIA was the first school to get authorised by the IB for its continuum of programmes. For instance, a teacher would teach not just what was in the textbook but would educate children through the process of inquiry and this was a difficult concept to explain to parents at that time. Parents needed to understand this way of learning and much energy was invested by school leaders and teachers to enable the same.
A major shift for me was… moving from a highflying career in banking technology to education. I got into it because I was passionate about education. I was driven by the desire to achieve the best possible education for a child that was rigorous, holistic and international.
I take pride in… the fact that we work very hard to offer world class education measuring ourselves against the highest internationally recognised benchmark standards of education in not just academics but also in music, sports, arts, extra-curricular activities and we focus on inculcating values of global citizenship in our students.
I believe… education should be holistic, international and rigorous, and empower students with 21st century skills preparing them for success in an ever changing world. I believe that every child is gifted and the role of educators is to identify and enable the talents of all children.
What gives me great joy is… seeing how education can transform lives. I will never forget one particular student — an extremely shy Iranian boy who could barely speak English when he enrolled in our school as he came from a totally different system in his home country. This boy went on to deliver the valedictorian speech two years later and is now a successful entrepreneur after being educated on a scholarship from a top university. There have been many other such true stories. The joy of seeing young minds blossom is infinite. Such moments make me feel that we have achieved something and it has all been worthwhile.
What makes me proud is… when I see a student recognise his or her talents and blossom into a fine citizen ready to take on the world in their chosen field. The fact that the education they received at our schools had a role to play in their achievements gladdens the hearts of not just their parents but all educators who have seen their metamorphosis and in some measure, have been a part of it.
When recruiting staff, I look for... positive attitude and personal passion towards enabling the success of students. We also try to match their personal aspirations with the vision and mission of the school so that we can offer growth careers and not just jobs. While skill sets such as subject knowledge, experience, technology skills are important, it is their attitude and drive that make all the difference in the achievement levels of their students. While skills are important, if a science teacher can also coach students in say theatre or music or football, it is valuable.
A favourite line is… In the words of His Highness Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Mnister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, “In the race for excellence, there is no finish line”. I also believe that attitude determines altitude. Passion, persistence and attitude are irreplaceable attributes. With these anything can be achieved. Another favourite line is that persistence pays.
My strength is… my ability to work very hard when I set my mind to any goal. I also think that I can work well with people from all walks of life and bring out the best in them. I have learnt that success is about enabling everyone around you to be successful. I believe that if you genuinely invest in the success of your people then everything works well. Also, I never give up. With grit and resilience even most challenging goals can be achieved. It may take time but the trick is to never give up.
My weakness is… I think I often set very high expectations. That can be a weakness because I get sad and disappointed when I am unable to achieve them. But then, if I fall down anytime, I can pick myself up, dust my knees and start running again.
What makes me happy… is seeing our students develop into life-long learners and enable their development. It’s also important for me to ensure that the people around me are doing well. I savour the sweet taste of achieving goals. On a personal note, it has been joyful for me to see how well my own children have grown.
What makes me sad... are missed opportunities. Sometimes, not being quick enough to respond to some things can leave me regretful.
My favourite word is… collaboration. In fact it’s a word we use in all things relating to our schools. The staff collaborates with each other, with students and with parents, and vice versa.
A life lesson I learnt is… how fortunate I am to come from a loving family, to work with the most wonderful colleagues and some of the finest minds and to have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. And… to never give up. Working with integrity and passion can enable a lot.
What drives me is the belief that… nothing is impossible within the realm of realism. This is all the more so if you live in Dubai where truly nothing is impossible. If you look at the visions of the Rulers of this amazing country we all call home, you will be convinced anything can be achieved if you put your mind to it and work hard with integrity.
‘My vision is to build a business legacy’
Sahar Vakil, head of brand development, Marina Home
I feel privileged... to be a part of the Marina Home family legacy that has built a reputation based on authenticity and quality. As second generation, we share immense respect and admiration for the journey our founders have had to create the brand from humble beginnings and evolve to its current identity organically.
My vision is... to shape the business into a sustainable model and develop a diversified retail portfolio for our future-facing holding group, Marina Retail Corporation. To stay true to our innovation-led heritage and expand our home proposition to global customers. Remain committed to always live up to our role as ‘inspirators’ through our brand and never lose sight of experiential authenticity.
Working in advertising taught me… about grit. Driving through challenges creatively. The art of managing people. The pursuit of substance. The advertising industry, in its glory days, offered an incredible platform for aspiring frontrunners to shine. The endless experience it gave us, built our vision to nurture brands in every category.
I worked every university summer. Although I was the only girl in the family, my father raised me to be strong and daring (aka ‘rough and tough’ in his astute words). He didn’t see the wisdom in offering us ready-made opportunities and rather, encouraged me to find my own ground. He believed in the importance of experiencing the world, and learning through travel. We’ve always been an adventurous family who remained grounded in our culture and values. And so, in my quest to be independent, I will never forget my novice excitement to land my first summer job. I remember how I didn’t care how glamorous the role would be, I just wanted to get started. I worked one summer as a receptionist at a small wholesale jewellery packaging operation in Deira Gold Souk; the next summer I was the youngest sales rep of the Intercontinental Deira’s Priviledge card sales team, making cold calls from their offices. These were humbling experiences that helped me absorb the discipline and commitment to work ethic. How to go the extra mile and put in hard work.
The decision was not planned. As far as I can remember, the desire to be independent was my ultimate driver. Independent in ideas, principles, and standing. Daughter to a self-made man, I too wanted to find my personal path and make my parents proud. I wanted to step into my own career opportunities and experiences and learn as much as possible. I began agency life in 2003, back when the Marina Home brand was deepening its roots in the hearts and homes of expatriate communities. Determining the future of the brand as a family business was still premature. However, by the end of 2013, at the peak of its growth opportunity, I reassessed my career direction. I was ready to steer my contribution towards the success of our legacy, our home-grown brand.
Is it easy to balance? Sometimes I feel guilty for making it inadvertently look as though its easy for other women. The reality is that it is hard work. As a working mom, there is a constant guilt-factor that we learn to come to terms with. Guilty for not doing more in every role. Although it is physically and emotionally draining, being able to drive a career while raising your children is liberating, gratifying and personally rewarding; knowing that you can give a part of your life journey to building something for yourself. It’s a personal choice that in today’s age, we have the right to make. It’s a commitment to a stretched routine that would never be possible without the help of a loving support network. In my large household, revolving around my precious three daughters, I am blessed to have a support system I can trust, that enables me to pursue my dreams.
I admire my parents... for the difference they have made in so many lives. They always believed that the greatest rewards come from giving. It’s about bettering the lives of others, being a part of something bigger than yourself and making a positive difference. Forty years ago, they started hand-in-hand and built everything from scratch through sweat and tears, on values that have remained important in our lives till date. They didn’t have the safety net that we do today. They dedicated themselves to giving us that.
My husband is my anchor... My safe harbour. We balance each other out. We’re a team. He is my constant pillar of strength who reminds me that I can achieve anything. From two very different worlds, we met 15 years ago at our first agency job and knew soon enough that we were meant for each other. We grew independently in our careers in the same creative industry. The most incredible father to our daughters and son to my parents, he understands me; my quirks, value system, goals and above all, shares my vision of building a business legacy whilst being a devoted mum, daughter, sister, and more.
Working with family... Just because we grew up together doesn’t mean we step in effortlessly. We put conscious efforts to build new relationships at work, establish professional trust and get to know each other again in light of our roles — how each of us perceive things, strategise and communicate. The roles of a father and uncles don’t apply in the framework of corporate directives and measures. We each invest in accountability to safeguard our harmonious partnership. The future awaits the second generation and we must manage the pace of change. It is a matter of building up the right momentum; if you go too fast people can’t adapt, let alone follow.
Lessons to pass on... In the exciting possibilities that await our children, we would want nothing more than for our daughters to find their individual passion and calling. The business world may or may not be their preference, but as parents, it is our responsibility to pass on life lessons to shape the women they will be and the difference they can make. We try and teach them to enjoy the simple things in life and hold value for experiences over objects. We want them to cherish the relationships in their lives through respect, humility and generosity. We want them to be bold in the face of adversity yet compassionate and considerate of others first. We want them to learn from mistakes and find creativity in trials. To work hard for their dreams through sincerity and dedication.
The entrepreneurial bone... It was in my teenage years when I recall the entrepreneurial spark had lit. An amateur desire to create something out of nothing and present it to the world. Through it, I wanted to explore my capabilities and leave a mark. It was the profound high school entrepreneurial programme that empowered me and allowed me to realise my leadership skills. It was a priceless experience that played an instrumental role in the academic direction I then chose for my undergrad.
‘I believe that patience is the key to success’
Salma Khan, fashion designer and founder, Salma Khan Fashion House
I think being daring and rebellious works sometimes… it’s how I realised fashion is my passion. I was always interested in fashion as a kid and always wanted to be a designer. I loved fashion and would constantly ask my father to bring me fashion magazines and attempt to dress differently from my friends. This involved cutting up my uniforms adding ribbons to it and eventually having the principal call in my mother. We come from a conservative Pathan family and my mother couldn’t understand my obsession with fashion, she just wanted me to be like younger sister who’s very simple and proper. My mum is still furious with me for being in fashion and doesn’t watch my fashion shows.
The UAE is a place where you can achieve your dreams and goals… not to say that you can’t do the same in any other part of the world but you aim something in the UAE and you can achieve that goal. The UAE will always be my home. I was born and raised in Bastakiya, Dubai, then we moved to Sharjah for a bit and we also lived in Ras Al Khaimah for a couple of years. We speak Arabic, live like Arabs and I’ve had Arab friends all my life before I started making friends with Indians and Pakistanis. Sometimes, I think I’m more Emirati than Pakistani.
Competition is essential for success… otherwise you get complacent. It keeps you on your toes and you push yourself to be on the same level as others. For example, when we started, magazines and newspapers were the main means of reaching out to people. But now, new businesses are tech savvy and it’s all about Instagram and Facebook and snapchat; it’s easier now to make people aware of your designs. So, that’s a huge change but it’s a good change and we’ve adapted to it.
What makes our brand different… is that we don’t repeat designs. If a gown is made for a bride, it’s a bespoke creation that no one else will have. It is why people from as far as Saudi Arabia come to us.
Creativity and practicality must go hand in hand… our speciality is gowns and the reason I chose gowns is they bring in more money — haute couture is big margin and big budget. I did do a couple of pret-a-porter lines as well but when you’re a business you do have to look at profit, and wedding and evening gowns are highly profitable.
I respect the opinions of my staff… I’m the designer but that doesn’t mean I’m the boss or have the final say. They give me advice on what can and won’t work and I respect that and sometimes we squabble and have fights — Kauser, my master cutter from Bangladesh has been with me from the start and is the backbone of Salma Khan Fashions. I started the business with one master cutter, two tailors and an embroiderer. Now we have 25 skilled staff from all parts of the world split between a set-up outside and the studio in Jumeirah. Salma Khan Fashions holds my name but without these people it’s just a name.
I’m still waiting… for my greatest achievement to happen I’m a greedy person! Alhamdullilah, I’ve had a lot of success, I’ve done a lot of fashion shows in London, in Paris, and in Oman but I feel that I still have a lot to accomplish.
Balance has been the key to our survival as a business… We’ve never gone over the board. Of course, we’ve grown — I was at Al Rigga running the business out of two attached apartments. Now we’re in Jumeirah in a villa. There are ups and downs and they are a part of life, not just Dubai or business. Life can’t always be a smooth road. If you have the capability to go big, yes go for it, don’t stop or limit yourself, but also don’t stretch yourself too thin to a point that you have to close down the business.
I’ve been able to overcome challenges because I’m flexible… there are off seasons, especially during summer. During the summer I have local clients who want to travel a lot and want summer clothes, so while we specialise in gowns, I make them different collections of jackets, jumpers according to their demands so we have work to keep us going and we’re not limiting ourselves. It’s about maintaining a balance between creativity and also doing what needs to be done because at the end of the day this is a business and it needs to be sustained. It’s about diversification.
I take pride in being a single working mother… I’ve always tried to be there for my kids, from taking them with me to London for short periods while I was studying fashion there, to trying and making it for all their special moments. But it has been hard doing it all on my own and I regret not being there for milestone events like my son’s graduation because I had a bride to attend to and then got stuck in traffic. However, they’ve understood over the years that all of it has been for them. My kids think I’m a superwoman.
Multitasking is one of my strengths… I had no choice but to simultaneously raise three kids as well as run a successful business. Fashion was both my bread and butter and passion, and when you are responsible for three boys, you need to ensure survival. When I started my business, I couldn’t afford a nanny or a driver, so I’d ferry my kids from their extracurricular activities and juggle that with the client appointments I had, shuttling between Jumeirah and Al Rigga. Occasionally, I’d rope in friends to help me.
I believe that patience, patience and patience alone is the key to success… my advice to aspiring female entrepreneurs is start with very minimal finance. Start slow but keep at it and don’t give up on your dreams and be patience. I’m not saying you’ll be a Dior or a Valentino but you will reach somewhere. You need patience — you can’t open a boutique and succeed overnight. Like a baby, you have to allow a business the time to grow too.
I value my relationships with customers… When a lady comes to me to design engagement or wedding outfits, we have few meetings before I start work and we spend a lot of time getting together and it’s not just about choosing the right fabric and embroidering but also about getting to know each other. You build a relationship of a family member or friend with them and understand how she wants to look on her big day. These clients then recommend their sisters or friends to me by word of mouth, especially the Arab and that is how my business grows.
In the future, I see myself… opening up a boutique in Karachi in one of the malls and a branch of Salma Khan Fashions in Abu Dhabi but only in the next two years. Besides being a designer I’m a good cook and I bake really well so in a year and a half I plan to open a coffee shop with different kinds of cupcakes and design cakes and the café will have elements of a fashion store in it too.
‘People skills are important in our business’
Sima Ved, vice-chairperson and founder, Apparel Group
Retail has always been in my blood… While growing up I spent a lot of time with my father, Lal Ganwani, who was involved at one point with Choithrams supermarket and then with Al Maya Lals. On weekends, he used to take us to the supermarkets where we would walk around with him, watching him check goods on shelves, screen products for expiry dates, check cashier transactions, visual merchandising... I remember it was one of those Fridays and I was eight years old and I said to myself, ‘this is what I want to do’. I knew I was going to be in business and I knew it would be retail.
I learnt early in life... that humility and kindness go hand in hand, both of which I have seen in my father. Another lesson I learnt is in risk taking. If it goes well, great. But even if it doesn’t, you learn something from it.
The idea for Apparel took shape… in June 1994. Nilesh and I married when we were very young — I was 22, he 23. I started Apparel with a sub-franchise from my father with the Bossini store in BurJuman. Nilesh was still with his family business — they were into gold bullion and wholesale food stuffs. A couple of months later he left it to join me. Retail was an alien concept for him. For me, it was in my blood. That’s all I knew. We tried and tested a couple of concepts after that. A diamond jewellery store that didn’t do too well, a children’s-wear brand that didn’t do too well either and so on, till we stumbled upon Nine West, our first big international brand in 1999. I think we hit our luck with it. Today we have 75 plus international brands and over 1,750 stores across 14 countries.
When I started... I actually sold off all the gold I got for my wedding and raised the seed capital of Dh47,000 for our business. My father supported me with contacts, a great network and great payment terms when I sub franchised Bossini from him. I have often been called a spoilt brat. I know I have come from money, but I definitely didn’t take that while on this journey.
Nilesh and I... have distinct management styles and have very clear roles and responsibilities. We both understand each other’s working styles, so we don’t battle each other. While I take the lead on human resources, marketing and philanthropic and CSR activities for Apparel, Nilesh focuses on important factors like leasing and locations.
We have always believed... in updating, upgrading and in speed. Without this we couldn’t become market leaders that we are. Just recently our website 6thstreet.com had a phenomenal Black Friday sale. The numbers spoke for themselves and we know that online shopping is the only way going forward. And because of the kind of brands we have, we are selling on other online sites such as Souq and Namshi. Similarly we have other brands on 6thstreet outside the Apparel family. This kind of collaboration is important now.
The brands we choose... have to be in the top three in their genre of merchandise in their home country. It’s also important that international business is a long-term strategy for them and they are serious about the commitment. There have been cases where you take on a brand and they are excited about it, but after a year they forget about their commitments.
People make a business… For Nilesh and me, it is very important that someone we work with shows the right attitude. Honesty and intelligence is vital. It is also important for us that people in senior management roles know how to manage people. People skills are very important in an industry like ours. Our resource is primarily our sales staff, so if you don’t treat them right, you have no place in Apparel. We also mentor our staff often sending them overseas for leadership training or getting professors from foreign universities to train our employees. We take care of our staff of 14,000.
Our key pillars of sustenance are... a hands on and an open door policy. We are in constant touch with our customers.
We spend most weekends... visiting the stores with our kids. Nilesh believes all the answers are on the floor. So it’s important for us to have a finger on the pulse and know what the customer wants. Speed is also vital for us.
We know the market changes... very fast here, so our decision making is quick. If it’s good for business, it’s good for us. Also, we have no pride, or ego. If a brand doesn’t do well, we will shut it down. We learn something from it, but we move on.
From the beginning... it has been a blessing to have our extended families here; that has been helpful. But we also make it a policy to take the kids to work. I have two daughters, Selina, 21, at university in Canada, and Sarisha, 13, who goes to school in Dubai. I also have a five-year-old son Nayaan. Sarisha will often sit in on a lot of marketing meetings with me. I think it’s important for us to get our kids immersed in hard work because life isn’t about supervising. You have to get your hands dirty. I love having my children around — that’s how I manage.
I think... Nilesh has also been totally supporting. He’s a good dad, very thoughtful and constantly involved with the kids. He has a very can-do attitude. Nothing is a no for him. I admire him because he gives us that freedom.
‘We are raising future leaders’
Dr Vandana Gandhi, CEO and founder, British Orchard Nursery
Since I was a child… I yearned to be a medical practitioner. But I started my career in wealth management.
I moved from banking to education… but it’s such a fine line. I was handling people’s money, looking after wealth — and now I look after children, who are the biggest wealth for parents. So the honesty, integrity, compliance, risks, customer service and hard work required are the same, as is ethos and the high standards of quality required.
I think... childcare is such a hardworking industry because you are handling children. So you have to be very strict yourself in regulations and compliance.
I decided to... enter the area of education seeing the UAE growing economically, and the vast potential that was available. I was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. A few of my close family and friends were running schools and medical centres overseas too, and that got me thinking.
What changed my life… was my father’s passing on. Dad used to talk to me about raising the benchmark of the UAE in the education sector. He gave me that can-do attitude. I honour him for his vision and impetus – he said ‘go into something you believe in and don’t look back’ and gave me the passion and courage to go for the stars.
I wanted to enter a sector… that was a win-win situation. One that would satisfy my entrepreneurial dreams and benefit society at the same time.
One of the biggest assets of an entrepreneur... is the ability to take calculated risks. Since I come from a family of business owners, I guess that ability was in my blood, so I decided to venture into a new field. I had a clear vision and mission from day one.
The UAE has… such a conducive environment for women entrepreneurs. The happiness index is at an all-time high. Women feel respected and safe and are welcomed in every government department. The culture of hospitality here helps so much. Plus the regulatory environment of the UAE is excellent for childcare. The UAE takes the lead in Asia for this. In the long run it supports all stakeholders.
My days starts with… yoga, and ends with a long walk to wind down. In between I’m in service of children, looking after my women workforce, looking after the mums that arrive at my centre to pick or drop their children. My day is itself healing and empowering. They say the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. Childcare is community service.
I love... studying and learning, and recently completed my doctoral degree in nursery education. My research was in the nursery field of the UAE, on how to help children develop better, to ensure the 0-5 age — which is such an important age — should be the best experience for a child. People say to me, “oh it’s just a toddler, curriculum doesn’t matter.” That is not true. A child’s brain is the most malleable at that age, and neurons and pathways are created at 0-5, when there is stimulating environment. Research now says children who have been at quality educational institutes at a very early age, at nursery level, have higher incomes as adults.
I look for... values over skills when hiring staff. Skills can be supported through learning, but your value system is your foundation, built from your childhood. Integrity, diversity, innovation, responsibility… I look for all of that.
I think my weakness and strength is… my multitasking habit. I may work on two projects simultaneously. I am constantly innovating. My platter is full. A lot of my wellwishers say I should take a break but I say there are no breaks in life.
What drives me… is the huge trust that expats with nuclear families and who don’t have the support they’d have back home, place in us regarding their children. It’s a very big task. These children are very young and can’t express much. We have to do our best.
A trait I dislike is… complacency. I believe we are all given inherent skills and an equal amount of time. It irritates me if people don’t make use of that. I believe it’s an equal playing field out there.
I look after... everyone’s children and the universe looks after mine. Shivali and Krishiv are in their 20s now, and studying in London. I am proud of them for leading independent lives.
I aspire to… deliver quality childcare, continue my research and education, publish my work in international magazines and psychology journals and get more rewards for my work.
My mantra is… keep moving forward. Never give up. You can’t achieve 100 per cent success in everything. But it’s important to keep striving for it; taking one step each time forward. Not trying is as good as failure.
At the top of my bucket list now… are personal goals more than professional. To improve and support my fitness, yoga, meditation. I want to now look inwards, explore the huge world within. Probably go on a yoga retreat.
If it was not childcare… I would want to support an all-round development programme for women.
A dream project of mine… is a special needs school. Special needs inclusion is very important to me. Our nurseries support children from all strata of society.