For mogul mums, starting families launched their careers

Cover Having a baby could be the beginning of your career as opposed to the end of it. M talks to the mogul mums who built up businesses to fill the gaps in the market they discovered after starting families.

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Having a baby could be the beginning of your career as opposed to the end of it. Alice Haine talks to the mogul mums who have built up businesses to fill gaps in the market that they discovered after starting families.

When Jo Shaban moved to Abu Dhabi with her family in 2003, she planned to be a stay-at-home mother and focus all her energy on her children. Within four years, however, she had opened two nurseries, catering to 300 children, and was managing 50 staff. "I never imagined I'd be running a business in the Middle East," says Shaban, who trained as a primary and secondary school teacher in her native Australia, "but I'm incredibly proud of what I've achieved when I see happy children and happy parents. That's a great reward for all the hard work." Shaban's story is not unique. As with many successful career women, having children changed her focus and she preferred to stay at home with her family.

But while having a child can spell the end of a career for some women, to others it can act as a springboard for a new one. The problems one comes up against being a mother often inspire great business ideas, and dozens of UAE mothers have drawn on their newly acquired experience to launch child-friendly enterprises. Why? In part, because there is no better formula for running a successful business than doing something you know about.

"It's a no-brainer," says Claire Malcolm, a committee member of the International Business Women's Group Dubai. "Mothers know what works and what doesn't from first-hand experience. They've looked for that useful gadget or tried to source a particular activity that they know of from back home, and have not been able to find it. So they take a gem of an idea, add a little business know-how and it's a good starting point from which to develop a fledgling enterprise."

For Shaban, the idea to open her own nursery came after she had difficulty finding adequate pre-school care for her daughter Isobel. But taking a great idea and turning it into a business did not come easily. Her priority was her children and she knew that if she opened a nursery it would take over a large chunk of her time. While her vision was driven by a desire to provide quality childcare for young children, other mothers have a more pressing need to launch a child-friendly business that they can manage around their family.

"The credit crunch has a huge role to play," says Zareen Khan, founding partner of Woman2Woman, an event management company that provides support for professional women in the UAE. "The economic situation has made families reassess their goals as they can no longer survive on one income. Therefore a lot of mums are following their passions and we've seen a big increase in women's start-ups in recent years."

Launching a business is one thing, but surviving in the current climate is another. It takes more than a good idea to make an enterprise work, and mothers need to ensure they actually know how to run a successful business. "Whether you're running a major multinational or supplying clowns for kids birthday parties, it's all about having a sustainable business model," says Malcolm. "You need to have a product or service that fills a gap in the market and for which there will be ongoing demand. You also need to have a long-term strategic plan in place, the finances to get it up and running, the necessary stamps and signatures, and a fair bit of marketing flair.

"But women are fabulous networkers and sharing ideas and pointing friends in the direction of unique services/products is a normal occurrence, whether it be word-of-mouth, an online forum, a networking event, or just chatting over coffee." But while launching a business can fulfil financial needs for new mothers, it can also satisfy a personal desire to create something of their own. MMagazine has tracked down four of the UAE's mogul mums to find out what motivated each of them to start their business and what they get out of it.

Briton Jenny Haddad, 32, is mother to Maya, two, and seven-month-old Max and managing director of, an online baby shop, and, an online social community. Jenny, a former PA and flight attendant, met her husband, a hotelier, in Dubai after moving to the UAE in 2003 for work. Her company has an annual turnover of between Dh800,000 and Dh1 million. I launched DubaiBabies in June 2006 before becoming a mother myself because I could see its potential. All my friends were having children and it was hard to find gifts to take to hospital. So I started selling baby baskets, hampers loaded with toys, clothes and organic toiletries, for people like me who didn't have much time and didn't feel inclined to go to baby shops.

It was a hobby at first, something I did on the side, but when I was pregnant myself I started to take it more seriously. After my daughter was born, I quit my job in corporate training because I was lucky enough to be able to make that choice. But as much as I love being a mummy, I knew I couldn't be a full-time mum, I'd drive my children crazy. So I focused my energy on the business, selling more individual products as well as the baskets to meet customer demand. The next step was opening a kiosk in Mercato Mall, which made it a much bigger entity. That's when I hired sales and office staff, as well as a driver.

It was a huge leap because I was out of the bedroom and into the big wide world and, while websites are great businesses, when you see your name in lights, even if it's only on the side of a mall kiosk, that's when it really hits home that you've created something. The second kiosk opened in Dubai Mall soon after it opened, but it was too quiet so we closed again. It was a similar story at Mall of the Emirates. Funnily enough, I was actually in hospital giving birth to my son Max when we launched there in November last year. I'd waited ages for a spot, so when the opportunity came I relied on friends to manage the launch.

Even though we closed six months later, being there boosted the business by increasing awareness of the website. I now have 40 brands and more than 200 products and I plan to expand into Abu Dhabi and the GCC with separate websites by September. My latest venture was launching DubaiMumsClub a year ago. It now has more than 3,000 members and gets an average 30,000 hits a month, about the same as DubaiBabies, which is pretty good for a boutique business.

I don't like to think how much I've invested in the business. There have been a lot of mistakes along the way and we lost money with the Dubai Mall kiosk. People forget how expensive it is to set up a business here. There's the licence, visas for staff and offices, which are part of the licence agreement. Two years ago, I paid Dh80,000 for an office I never set foot in because I always preferred working from home.

The other difficult element has been managing the business around my family. I can't remember the last time I cooked a meal in the evening and, though I try and get everything finished in the morning to spend the afternoons with the kids, life's not like that. I end up playing games with one hand, and typing with the other. It's not possible to be the "do everything mum"; something has to give - so it means I hand over a lot of the childcare responsibility to my nanny. But I tell myself I'm doing it all for them. One thing's for sure, being a mother has definitely improved my business, I didn't have a clue before. It's helped me understand what the clients want."

Australian Emma Riedel, 32, is the mother of Riley, three, and one-year-old twins Amani and Noor. She is managing director of party planning service me&riley. Emma, who used to work in the retail industry, moved to Dubai in 2006 with her husband, an engineer. Her company has an annual turnover of Dh500,000 to Dh600,000 a year.

When we moved to Dubai, I was ready for something new. But at first I continued with my retail career working as a store manager for a fashion brand, even going back to work after my son Riley was born in February 2007. When he was seven months old, I quit because he had reached an age at which he was responding more and I felt like I was missing out. Soon after, I started planning his first birthday party and things snowballed from there. I wanted to have a teddy bear cocktail party but I couldn't find anything I wanted in Dubai and ended up buying the invitations, gifts, balloons and lanterns during a holiday in New York.

At the party, friends made really positive comments and, at the time, I was trying to think of something I could do with Riley, and running a party business fitted into that. I spent the next few months sourcing products, having cushion covers, tablecloths and tents made, as I wanted all my parties to be very contemporary with lots of colourful fabric used in the table settings. I invested about Dh250,000 of my own money buying things as I went along, but I had no idea if it was going to work.

My first party was in May 2008 and I charged Dh5,000 for the table setting, getting cupcakes delivered to the class the week before, a bouncy castle, party bags and pink helium balloons in the garden. Within months the business had kicked off and I was very busy. At first I took Riley everywhere with me, but as he grew older and more demanding, I hired a nanny. This year I've held about 80 parties and I'll probably hit 150 by the end of the year. I've hired six casual staff, many mums themselves, and my husband helps out too. It's his second job really. He goes and sets up a party if I'm busy or want to look after the kids.

I think my concept has caught on because I don't use cartoon characters and avoid bouncy castles as much as possible. My parties aren't cheap - they cost anywhere from Dh850 to hire a party setting, to Dh30,000 for a full event - but they are very professional and stylish. My next plan is to expand into Australia. I've already licensed my business there but it won't be a franchise, as I want to retain control. Because I'm Australian, it's easier to navigate the market and I have a few other projects there already.

My husband and I have invested A$3 million (Dh9.7 million) in property and I recently bought a 12-bedroom boutique hotel on the beach in Adelaide for more than A$1 million (Dh3.2 million). I like travelling and staying in nice hotels, so I decided I wanted one myself. We're having it gutted and renovated at the moment and plan to open it as a hotel in a year's time. In the middle of all this, I gave birth to twins in August last year. I kept working all the way through and only discovered, when I was having an emergency caesarean six weeks early, that I was suffering from pre-eclampsia. Ten days after the birth I held my the first party. I even managed to breastfeed for 12 weeks. I don't like the term "supermum". I'm very motivated and determined and I just get on with the work. Sometimes I'm amazed how far I've come, but then I see what other people have achieved and that drives me even more.

Briton Emma Brimson, 38, is mother to Isabella, six, and three-year-old Will and the managing director of Boogie Babies - a company that runs music and dance classes for babies and toddlers. Emma, who used to work as a flight attendant, moved to Dubai in 2002 with her husband, a construction project director.

I found I was pregnant soon after arriving in Dubai and decided to be a stay-at-home mum for the first couple of years. But I wanted to do something with my time, so I started formulating ideas that would work around my kids rather than finding a full-time job. By then I was pregnant with my son and I thought it would be nice to go to a music group with him, but there was nothing here I liked. That's what led me to launch Boogie Babies in December 2006. At first I led the classes myself, but within months I'd hired qualified teachers instead as I didn't think I was very good.

Together, we came up with a Boogie Babies formula, or lesson plan, for each class so they were pretty consistent wherever you went. I invested in lots of equipment such as instruments, flashing lights, and bubble machines - all things we could work in with the music. I have six teachers now, and everyone brings something different to the class, so they take each other's ideas on board to make Boogie Babies what it is now.

I started off with one class at The Lakes Club in Emirates Hills, quickly expanded to two and suddenly we had six. From there we launched at Mall of the Emirates and soon got requests to expand. Now we have eight locations around Dubai with each class charging around Dh50. I honestly don't know what I've invested in the business, but I think the biggest cost has been labour and room hire, which is extortionate out here. The UAE may be a tax-free nation, but, because you pay for the trade licence and sponsorship in advance, it's a bit like income tax in reverse.

I didn't start the business for the money, but I certainly earn it. If I ever worked out how much I was paid an hour, it would probably be a pittance. When it comes to business skills, it's just common sense. I've never attended any workshops or training courses, I just did it. I think you've either got that kind of personality where you force yourself to do things, or you haven't. I would like to expand further and sell franchises to other areas in the Middle East, as it is a good way for mums to earn money.

My friends back home think it's hilarious that I've ended up doing this, but I love the flexibility and I've made some great friends along the way. There was an emotional cost in the first couple of years when I took on too much and ended up getting stressed. My plan to run the company around my children didn't pan out, and I ended up working morning, noon and night trying to keep up with all the phone calls and e-mails.

Work and home life merged into one and I found myself getting irritated with the children because I couldn't get things done. So about a year ago, I limited the amount of time I put in and outsourced more of the work. I handed over the Boogie Babies phone, which had never stopped ringing, to someone else and I made a deal with my children that I would get all the work done in the morning and spend the afternoon with them. Otherwise what was the point of it all? While there wasn't a financial need for me to start the business, I don't think I would have been completely fulfilled if I'd always stayed at home with the children. That's not enough for women of our generation. And, because my husband works in construction, a rather insecure industry at the moment, it's nice to know that extra income is there.

Australian Jo Shaban, 41, is mother to Isobel, 11, and Aden, nine, and is managing director of Bright Beginnings Nursery, which has two sites in Abu Dhabi. Jo, who worked as a teacher in Australia, moved to Abu Dhabi for the second time in 2003 with her husband, Gasan, 40, who works in finance.

"When my husband and I moved to Abu Dhabi in 2003 I wasn't planning to work. When we lived here before, I'd worked at a couple of nurseries but this time I had two small children and was looking forward to being at home. It didn't work out that way because when I looked for a nursery for my daughter I couldn't find anything with a play-led curriculum. In Australia, the emphasis is on children learning through play, but here everything seemed very serious with lots of worksheets and TV being played.

I was discussing this with my husband and my father-in-law joined in the conversation and said, "Why don't you start something." The idea frightened me at first because I'm a bit of a perfectionist and knew if I was going to do it, it was going to be all-consuming. My family talked me round and, before I knew it, I was getting excited about it and looking at villas to renovate. I wanted lots of outdoor and indoor space for children to run around, so it took a while to find the right villa, and it needed to be completely renovated to make it safe for a nursery.

With the work under way I made an agreement with my husband that one of us needed to be at home with the children, so we worked around our jobs to make that happen. We opened in January 2005 in Al Merhaba with nine classrooms, five staff and only three children which was pretty scary. Me being the pessimist that I am, I said: "We're going to have to live upstairs and have the nursery downstairs to keep it going", but by September we were full with 150 children despite doing no formal advertising - it was all word of mouth.

While my father-in-law handled the financial side of things, as director I sorted out the day-to-day running of the nursery. I worked long hours doing everything from hiring and training new staff, showing parents around and teaching if someone was sick, to paying salaries and buying new equipment. I'd spend the afternoons after school with my children but once they were in bed I was working again.

We decided to launch a second nursery in Al Mushrif in January 2007 because our waiting list was so long and by then we had built a name for ourselves. Of course the pessimist in me thought we'd never fill another one, but we did. I then decided it was time to shift the balance back in my favour so I appointed a director for each nursery and made myself managing director. I now work from home two days a week and have Thursdays off, but what's really important is that I have a weekend. In the past I'd work every night and on the weekend, too, but I needed to change that for my own sanity. You can only do so much.

When I step back and look at everything I've achieved, I feel really proud, but I have the most amazing staff who are passionate about what they do. One of the best moments was when the Ministry told me that I was one of their A-List nurseries in Abu Dhabi - that was a big pat on the back for the whole team. The downside is the overwhelming sense of responsibility. I have 50 staff and I suppose that's where I'm not a real businesswoman because they're like my family and I try and help in whatever way I can. Not only that, there are 300 children and 600 parents and it's a 24-hour, seven-day a week responsibility that sits on my shoulders.

The only time I ever truly relaxed was when I went away for the whole summer and handed over to my directors - but I had to leave the country to do that. People talk about us opening a third nursery, but I'm tired and want to enjoy what we've got, though there are a few other projects in the pipeline. What's great is that I have a very supportive family. My husband's parents and sister are here, and my mother works in Abu Dhabi too.

When we moved back to the UAE, I told my husband I wanted to stay at home, live in a villa, have a dishwasher and some help in the home. I got the villa, the help and the dishwasher - but I'm running a business!"