Monica Gallant is the president and chief executive of the College of Fashion Design (CFD), a college based in Dubai’s Business Bay where students learn practical business skills as well as fashion expertise. Ms Gallant, 55, from Canada, began her career as a chartered accountant, and moved to Dubai over 20 years ago to teach management and accountancy at the Higher Colleges of Technology. In 2015, Ms Gallant moved over to the fashion side of Dubai’s higher education sector, becoming dean of the French Fashion Institute Esmod Fashion before joining CFD in December. She lives in Dubai with her husband, who also works in education. The couple have a son, 30 and daughter, 28, who both study overseas.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
I’m the daughter of Dutch immigrants who moved to Canada when they first got married. They lived through the Second World War and because of their experiences, they were very thrifty. It was ingrained in me from an early age that you should work hard and only spend very wisely. I had two loves as a child – one was reading, so I was always happy to spend money on books, and the other was stuffed toys, so I’d save my money for that too. When I was 13, I started babysitting for Canadian $1 (Dh3) an hour.
What sparked your passion for fashion?
My interest in fashion started at 17 when I was a school student. I got a job as a part-time sales assistant in a jeans store where I learned about the differences in styles, the importance of getting the right fit and customer service skills, all of which has carried me forwards in my current job. The pay was the minimum wage, but I didn’t spend much in those days. I was required to buy clothes from the store itself to show off what we were selling. Luckily, we received a discount.
How much did you earn in your first full time job?
After I finished my business degree, my first job was as an accounting and audit junior at Deloitte, for which I was paid C$15,000 a year. It didn’t seem like a lot at the time; students graduating from other business majors got a much higher initial salary, but all of us from the accounting courses accepted we were paid less because we were still also studying to do the accountancy exams. There was the expectation that once we’d done our exams, we could move up the salary scale, with the hope we would surpass our colleagues at some stage.
Why did you then move into education?
After four years in accounting, I gave birth to my son. Having him showed me the importance of balancing work and home life, so although I still wanted to work full time, I decided to move into a job that offered more flexibility and allowed me to spend more time with my son. I started teaching accounting and management in 1988 at a nearby college, and quickly realised I loved teaching. More than anything, I loved being able to balance work and family. My daughter came along two years later, and I’ve stayed in higher education ever since.
Did working with numbers make you more mindful about money?
It definitely made me more knowledgeable about how to save and invest money, and to appreciate the value of it. Also as a wife and mother, I wanted to make sure that I was always on top of our family’s financial matters. I sometimes worry when I see women who don’t know much about their family finances, because they leave it all up to their husband. It’s important to me not to do that.
How do you and your husband share the financial responsibility?
We work together on it. Definitely, all our major decisions are joint decisions, but when it comes to keeping track of our biggest investments, which are in property, I’m more involved with the details of that.
What made you decide to invest in property?
When my husband and I realised we were staying in Dubai for some time, we decided to purchase some real estate in our hometown of Hamilton in Canada, to create some retirement income. In 2006 we bought a Victorian family home that had been segregated into six separate units. They are now rented out and managed for us. We decided to purchase in Hamilton because we realised it was a city with good potential for growth, and we understood the market there. As our hometown, it’s also where we go back to visit in the summer, so can keep checking on our investments when we’re there. Because that investment was going so well, in 2010, we bought another apartment block of eight units in Hamilton to rent out.
What has been your best investment?
Education is the best investment for everyone. As someone who has gone on to do a masters and PhD in the education sector, and we’ve funded our children’s studies, I know that no matter what happens in life, I will always have education. The next best investment is real estate, because it has that enduring factor to it and substantial capital gain and return.
What are you happiest spending money on?
Family holidays. Because my husband and I are both teachers, we’ve always had time to spend together in the summer. When the children were young, we used to go on six-week family holidays, travelling around the world. I’d say the experiences we gained and the time spent with the kids, opening their minds to the world, was a tremendously good way for us to spend our money.
What has been your biggest financial milestone?
Once my kids had finished their first university degrees, I felt I’d provided a good start to their lives because we’d funded their studies, and now we could start working on making sure we had enough to retire. Then about three years ago, my husband and I both reached a point where we thought we could retire; we have enough money to be able to do so, but we both really like working. We are no longer working for the money. Sometimes I feel like I have to apologise for that - that actually, I like to work and I enjoy living in Dubai, and that’s why I continue working.
What prompted you to move from the educational fields of business and accounting to fashion?
Although my career was focused on business subjects, in my hobbies, I was always doing creative things such as sewing, and making handicrafts and pottery. Moving into fashion has allowed me to combine those two elements, so my creative side is actually happening in my work. I love that, it’s a beautiful blend of business with creativity.
Should aspiring fashion designers also have an understanding of finance?
Fashion designers often lack that finance and business knowledge in the UAE, and being a creative person myself, I know first hand that fashion is not a cheap activity to get involved in. It’s quite a cash heavy business. You can’t start a fashion brand if you haven’t thought through how to find investors or fund your collections. Typically, you have to make the collections before you sell them, so there’s a lot of upfront cost in purchasing fabric, paying people to make it, marketing, film shooting and fashion shows, before you’ve even sold anything. If you don’t have a handle on where to find that money, it’s a very difficult business to break into.
What is your most cherished purchase?
I love ethnic jewelry. I have a collection of over 100 jewellery pieces that I’ve picked up, mostly on my travels. Whenever I travel to a new country, I try to find a jewellery piece that’s unique to that culture, handmade there, or expresses the motifs of that culture. Whenever I wear those pieces, they recall the memories of that country and sometimes even of the shopkeeper who sold it to me. The pieces are not necessarily expensive, maybe in the Dh300 range, but they have a tremendous amount of meaning, so its not so much the price tag but the handiwork that’s gone into making it that’s valuable to me.
If you won Dh1 million, what would you do with it?
I have everything I want right now, so there’s nothing I’d really like to purchase. I’d probably buy another investment property to use the money over the years, because I’d enjoy seeing the return on that.