Monica Arango is the founder of UAE interior design studio C’est Ici. Born in Colombia, she spent time in the UK before arriving in Dubai.
After working as a lawyer, Ms Arango followed in her mother’s entrepreneurial footsteps by setting up a business. Now 36, she lives with her husband, a strategy consultant, and their two sons in Dubai’s Jumeirah Golf Estates.
Where did money feature in your upbringing?
I was raised in Bogota until 16, when I moved to the UK to study. My parents were lawyers and left law firms to build their own practice. So, we have that entrepreneurial drive in the family.
My upbringing was quite blessed. I had access to great education; they spoiled us in certain things but were cautious about money, not to waste it and conscious about its value. My dad is a much bigger spender than my mum, who is completely business-orientated. My sisters and I take after her.
Did you earn cash growing up?
When I was a child, I had little businesses selling chocolates and bracelets and I had to do well in my studies to earn things. Even when we graduated from school, it was like “off you go” … we needed to grow from nothing to something.
That made a huge difference in our career development because we did not always have (financial) support from our parents. Mum encouraged us to pursue our careers and dreams without that kind of help.
Did you work early on?
I was a waiter in a London coffee shop during my university years. I had a monthly allowance but got the job because I was invited on nice holidays and needed extra money. I worked six months for maybe £7 (Dh35) an hour, saved and went to Greece and Italy. Then I started doing internships until I found my first job. I did not earn but that played a huge role (in discovering the) value of who you are.
Why did you move to the UAE?
I met my husband when I was studying law. I finished my degree, we married and I was about to start a contract in London while his company in the UK was opening an office in Dubai. I qualified here and started in dispute resolution within the construction industry. Thirteen years later, here I am.
Why swap law for interior design?
Corporate life is a choice. I had my second son and it was just not working. At that time, we made an investment in France, a flat to rent out and for holidays. My husband told me: “You are amazing at interiors, why don’t you do this project?” So, I did it around 2016, then started doing my colleagues’ rooms and houses and it escalated.
It is difficult to leave that security, especially when you earn a really nice salary, but once I got a bit of confidence, I quit. I was fortunate I had the support of my husband who has a very stable job. We were not just like: “Let us live in the clouds and see what happens.”
How do you grow your wealth?
We have invested mainly in property in Colombia, in France and last year, shortly before Covid-19, we bought our house in Jumeirah Golf Estates.
We are not in the stock market. We like tangible stuff. We bought our London flat when we lived in the UK back in 2005. It has been rented out since. That is a very important asset for us and for our boys to live in when they go to university.
Have your spending and saving habits evolved?
I wish my parents had incentivised me more in my saving ways. For me, it was you earn, you spend as if there is no tomorrow; a very Columbian way of thinking. I was working as a lawyer, did not have a lot of responsibilities and used to spend on clothes and shoes. In the moment, it makes you happy but it is unnecessary.
My husband kind of structured me, so I have improved. I saved some money from my law career and invested most of it in C’est Ici. Maybe I should have saved more, but I do not regret anything. The way I have progressed with managing money is a learning curve that comes with years. You see the good and the bad in it. Everyone should go through that phase.
Are your design clients big spenders?
We can sell them our design and then they do everything. We have always had that option, especially for people abroad or in Dubai who are happy with our aesthetic and direction but did not have the budget to hire us all through the project.
Our big scope projects, when clients have bought their dream villa and want an interior designer to do it A to Z … that is the typical client. We have more medium to high-end residential projects where clients have a big budget. Our clients are all around the region.
Is this a good use of money?
You are a little amazed about the capacity of some clients to acquire things. Furniture can be very expensive but from a design aspect, I will say it is worth it. I have practical clients, I also have clients into design and art and willing to (spend) … exactly as someone is into cars or clothes.
But we love to mix and match, so we might have a feature piece that is expensive, a piece next to it from Zara Home, a rug that is locally made, and then a light from Italy, maybe a blanket handmade in Spain.
How do you feel spending other people’s cash?
My main aim is to make my client happy. We are building something they are going to live with every day. In these Covid times, people have realised how important home is and place more emphasis on their surroundings, maybe spending on a very nice bedroom where you rest or their children’s play area … [so they spend] less time on an iPad.
They want a nice space to come back to from their hectic lives, a kind of sanctuary. That is the main thing we sell. It comes at a price but it is the experiences around it and that is money well spent because of memories you are going to have with friends, with your children. I do not feel guilty spending other people’s money because it is worth it. The effect on your day to day is greater than anything.
Do you have a cherished purchase?
My West Highland terrier, Mimosa. We bought her from Hungary for Dh9,000. She is 12 years old now and the best money we have spent. She is part of the family and has brought us so much happiness.
What is your philosophy on money?
I do not believe money brings you happiness. Through my job and my personal life, I have met a lot of people who have money, come from unbelievable backgrounds and when you look at their lives … nothing fulfils them. Money gives security and peace of mind but that is not happiness. Happiness comes within your surroundings and who you are with.
What are your future financial goals?
Education for my children is a big priority. And I do not believe in retirement; people become bored. You can work less, but I see myself always doing something. Hopefully, C’est Ici will continue with me, wherever in the world. I do not particularly work for the monetary side. It is part of the job but I do it because I love it. Why would I stop that?
I am doing things such as pension schemes but I also think life is to be lived. Covid-19 has taught us things can end anytime. So, be careful with what you have and invest in the most important things in your life.