Money & Me: ‘Financial independence drives my entrepreneurial streak’

Rana El Sakhawy, founder of MonkiBox, invested her life savings and sold Uber shares to set up the early learning start-up

Rana El Sakhawy, founder of MonkiBox, says going from being employed to launching a start-up was a financial milestone. Khushnum Bhandari /  The National

Becoming a parent inspired Rana El Sakhawy, 33, to launch MonkiBox, a subscription-based early learning start-up providing toys and activities tailored by child development research.

Initially a toy curation service, the company began designing and creating its own play-based products to become the Middle East’s first direct-to-consumer toy company.

Egyptian Ms El Sakhawy previously worked with Uber in Kuwait and Dubai and left to launch MonkiBox in 2018.

She lives with her husband, an investment banker in Al Sufouh, Dubai. They have a daughter, 5, and a son, aged 2.

Where did money figure in your childhood?

At the time, people moved to the GCC for more money and a better quality of life. In Egypt, my dad was spending a lot of time at work. He was an auditor with KPMG and not able to enjoy time with us. We moved to Qatar, where he was in the finance department at a navigation company.

We had young parents. I felt like they grew in their careers with us as they became more comfortable financially. My mum went from being a teacher to a school managerial position. This is something I really admire about them, they worked their way up.

Did you have your own cash?

I had pocket money, but always wanted more. Whenever I asked my father, he would say: “OK, how are you gonna get more?” He instilled a sense of doing something to get money – this is where my entrepreneurship gene virtually exploded.

I was obsessed with Claire’s Accessories shops when I was 12. They had a huge sale, so I took all my pocket money and spent it there. The next day I went to Egypt where there was no Claire’s and sold it all. I made maybe 10 times my pocket money and called my business Girl Power.

Every summer throughout my school years, I had some sort of business and a nice amount of money by the end. It’s not that I necessarily wanted to buy something specific, it was more just having money to spend when I wanted to.

I hate being dependent on something or somebody and hated asking for pocket money, so having independence was key. I would save a lot and buy more inventory to sell the next year.

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This company is my life savings and I take the bare minimum salary. I have three employees. I’m trying to keep it as lean as possible
Rana El Sakhawy, founder, MonkiBox

Do you recall your first salary?

My dad wanted to empower us to get into the workforce early. The company where he worked owned a travel agency. I had my first internship during my last year of high school, spent two months there and got paid about Dh1,050. Dad comes from a very entrepreneurial family and always pushed us to do our own thing.

Why did you trade salaried security for self-employment?

Uber stopped being a start-up and I realised I thrive on the hustle of trying to make things work. I had my first child and became passionate about child development to give my daughter the best start in life.

This was something I was struggling with, not only because I was a working parent but also there’s a lot of unknowns. The more I talked to other parents, I realised this is a common difficulty; this is where the idea of MonkiBox started cooking. I was researching ideas, different opportunities.

I had my daughter in 2016 and left Uber in 2018. I knew I was not going to have a salary, so I wanted to make sure I came out of being employed with as much money saved as I could.

Was this a financial milestone?

One of the main ones was taking this leap, going from being employed and secure. Another milestone was the decision to make our own products. That requires minimum order quantities, which requires huge upfront payments. The company at the time did not have cash flow to support this, so I sold half of my Uber shares. It was the right decision because it’s putting our company on the right track.

We spent a year operating on a slightly different business model and value proposition, then started designing and manufacturing products not available on the market to support child development and learning through purposeful play. We partnered with one of the world’s biggest sustainable toy manufacturers.

Rana El Sakhawy says she spends a lot less now and is thoughtful about things she buys. Photo: Khushnum Bhandari/ The National

Does this save parents money?

Our boxes are Dh350, delivered every two months. Most parents spend a lot more than that on things that are not developmental. There’s a lot of wastage, so it’s also about decreasing clutter.

Because our toys are designed with the help of experts, you see the way kids engage with them compared with other toys. We also provide parents with information and content and how to spend time with your child interacting with the toy.

How do you grow your wealth?

My savings plan, basically, is my company. Literally everything I get, I put it back in. This company is my life savings and I take the bare minimum salary. I have three employees. I’m trying to keep it as lean as possible.

I’m not an active investor but, because I was part of the early joiners at Uber, I was able to get stock options … my other savings in a way. I’m waiting for Uber’s performance to meet the number I want so I can exit and put this money into something more diversified, whether investing in real estate or something else.

How do you feel about money?

It is peace of mind, more about comfort and empowerment. Having money gives you the means to do what you want, but I wouldn’t say money is happiness.

It is motivation, but my ultimate motivation is growing this company and being able to exit. I don’t want to say “retire” because I never see myself retiring, but rather being able to have flexibility, take the money and do something that would give back somehow. I have different crazy ideas, community-driven ideas, that I would love to do but it requires time and money.

Have your spending habits evolved?

Pre-kids, I was earning good money. I’d saved some money but it wasn’t my top priority and I wish I saved earlier. The time I actually saved a lot was during my last year of being employed.

I was living my life. I spent a lot on travel, something that I will never regret and I would buy a lot of things, not necessarily expensive, but they would add up to a large amount.

Now my attitude is that I spend a lot less and I’m really thoughtful about things I spend on. I’d rather buy one thing that’s good quality than 10 cheaper things.

I’m less concerned about material items and becoming more conscious about my footprint in this world. I’m not a spontaneous spender. I do my research, especially if it’s a big-ticket item.

What luxury is important to you?

I was a little stingy when it came to working out. It just seemed super expensive. I’m barely earning money right now and trying to be cautious with what I’m spending on.

But recently, I committed to Pilates reformer classes. It’s expensive, but I feel that splurging on yourself when it comes to self-care is investing in your well-being and future self.

Updated: January 7th 2022, 5:00 AM