I like giving, but I'm no charity case

This Abu Dhabi cafe owner learned important leadership skills, as well as how to raise funds, through her constant philanthropy. These tools were handy while building her Dh5m company

United Arab Emirates - Semeih - Jan 21 - 2010 : Nafisa Salah Taha, Operation Manager of Abu Dhabi Distribution Company, pose for a portrait at his office. She is big into volunteering, and generates a lot of cash for UNICEF. ( Jaime Puebla / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  JP Nafisa Salah 02.jpg
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Money as a thing doesn't mean anything to me. You have it today, you can lose it tomorrow. You should know how to respect it, how to deal with it and how to live with and without it. All of this I've learnt through my different experiences. We should be ready for all situations. I am operations manager at Abu Dhabi Distribution Company, and run the Café de la Paix bistros at Marina Mall and Al Wahda Mall.

I also try to have three or four charity projects under way as long as I can fit it into my schedule. I am a founding member of Abu Dhabi's Terry Fox Run, a global campaign to raise money for cancer research. This year's run, which takes place on February 19, will be our fifteenth. Around 100 runners took part in the first event, and last year 15,000 took part, so there is a lot to organise. I was born in Sudan, where I did part of my elementary schooling, and I moved to the UAE in 1975.

My father came here as a professor of medicine and was head of the paediatrics department at the Abu Dhabi Military Hospital. I finished elementary school, and did most of my secondary schooling, in Abu Dhabi. I spent my last two years of high school in Saudi Arabia. When I was 17, I went to college in the UK to do a business administration degree at the New England College in Sussex and a master's degree in business at the University of Europe's London branch.

I came back to the UAE in 1987. As a young girl I lived a very protected life. In Khartoum, where I came from in Sudan, I did not see poverty. The country was rich in culture and everything was available for me. And then I moved to Abu Dhabi where everyone was friendly and hospitable. Then all of a sudden you go out into the wide world. From the age of about 10, I started getting pocket money, about Dh10 a week, which I spent mainly on sweets.

When I went away to college, in the late 1980s, my father called the schoolmistress and asked what a student who was supplied food and board should be given for pocket money. I can't recall how much it was but it wasn't a lot. And it was paid per month. My first month's pocket money was spent in less than a week, just going into town and buying cups of coffee and things. For a few months I tried to curb my spending, and then I thought about how I could make some more money.

In my second year I took a job as residential assistant, mentoring and monitoring girls. In addition to the money, the work helped prepare me for leadership positions. Again, I can't remember what I was paid but it seemed a lot, and I used it to travel all over Europe. While I was in the UK I first became aware of charity. There was the drive to help Africa and the Feed the World campaign; I took part in both, but was not involved in any of the organising efforts.

By the time I returned to Abu Dhabi from Great Britain, I was really interested in getting involved with charity in a major way. I heard UNICEF was looking for volunteers in their fund-raising department, so I went along. After about a year, they offered me a sales and marketing position in Abu Dhabi managing the Middle East arm of UNICEF's greeting card operation. It was my second paid employment ever, counting my RA job in college, and I earned about Dh10,000 a month.

I can't recall all the charities I have volunteered for since then, but for me it's a way of life. The teachings of Islam instruct us to give what we can afford - it could be money, or it could be time, but whatever you give should be a pleasure and not a duty. In 1990, UNICEF moved its operations to Saudi Arabia. I moved on to the Novotel chain of hotels, a company I thought could help me learn the skills to one day run my own business.

Even though had a master's degree, they only offered me a job as a sales representative, earning Dh3,500. There were no extras and no car, but I liked the challenge - and I thought, the day I reach the highest position I can, I am leaving. In 1997, I was appointed assistant general manager and the challenge was over. By then I was earning Dh7,500 a month. The salary was still very low, but I gained invaluable knowledge and experience.

Following through on my plan, in December 1998 I opened my first coffee shop, the Café de la Paix in the Marks and Spencer building in Abu Dhabi. At the time the capital had far fewer Western-style coffee shops. I wanted to create a place where women could meet, and a place that sold quality bread and cakes, which we couldn't get in Abu Dhabi at the time. The café cost less than Dh1 million to set up, including rent and staff costs. This money was raised through savings, a family inheritance and a bank loan. We ran a catering operation as well and built a large customer base in a short time.

Meanwhile, in 2000 I was recruited by the Abu Dhabi Distribution Company to be part of the project management team to set up its contact service centre. After it opened in 2004, I stayed on as operations manager. But the coffee shop did not always see good times. In 2006, the landlord increased our rent dramatically, and we couldn't meet his demands. The economy was down at the time and we had to fold.

Just before closing the cafe, I applied for the Emirates Business Women Award. I won it in the charity category. One of the things he Emirates Business Women's Council asks for is a three-year plan. After the restaurant closed, the plan gave me focus. I was able to look back and think, "I've done it once, I can do it again." I went away and rebranded. There were more coffee shops in Abu Dhabi now, so I knew I had to do something bigger and simple, something that could be replicated easily, as with a franchise.

Part of the new vision was opening two cafes in malls as well as a catering operation. In early 2007, our catering department opened in Khalidiya. The café at Al Wahda Mall as the mall was completed in June 2007, and our outlet at the Marina Mall became part of the recent expansion which opened in January 2008. It was a much bigger operation the second time and it cost about Dh5 million to come back. Rents in malls are very expensive, so rental costs alone were about Dh2 million.

At this time I was still paying off the banks. To get a bigger loan I had to mortgage my house. And I had to borrow from family and get help from friends on top of the bank loan. I enlisted friends with computer skills, and others to help design menus and kit out the café. A friend gave us a place to store our equipment when we had nowhere to go. Now we have 60 people employed in the restaurants and the catering side.

I don't like to talk about how much money the café makes, but we expect to pay off all the loans this year. I had thought it would take at least four years. To get a return on all the money I've invested will take five years. I have other investments, because I do not believe in putting all your eggs in one basket. I do not stick 100 per cent to sharia law, but I make sure that whatever I invest in is legal and does not clash with my values and Islamic upbringing.

Now I focus on the future. What happened to my business has taught me that nothing lasts forever. I hope I will have the will and energy to keep going and learn from every situation and turn it into money. I believe we should enjoy life if we have the money. I don't like to see people live a very poor life when they can afford better. I don't believe God would like that. I believe you balance your life and you should enjoy money but you should also share it.

* As told to Jane Williams