Money & Me: 'I don't gain happiness from material things'

Aventura co-founder Lina Malas says she doesn't care about the car she drives or the jewellery she wears

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, January 20, 2020. 
STORY BRIEF: Lina Malas,co-founder of Aventura zip-line adventure park, in Mushrif Park, Dubai.
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  BZ
Reporter:  David Dunn

Lina Malas is co-founder and managing director of Aventura, a nature adventure park attracting families, schools and team-building to Dubai’s Mushrif Park. Born in the US of Palestinian and Syrian/French heritage, she worked in management consulting and project management, developed leadership and time management workshops and volunteered around the world, before launching Aventura in 2017. Ms Malas, 55, has a daughter, 24, and son, 22, studying in the US, and lives in Business Bay with her husband Iyad, a partner in a private equity group.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude to money?

My father is Palestinian and arrived in the US with $30 (Dh110.19) in his pocket. He worked as a teacher, a research fellow and in sales for oil and gas, moving up to company vice president. I’m number three of four children and he managed to put all of us through university. My mother was a homemaker. We were lucky to have parents who’d give anything they could to provide. At times things were tough, but they never made us feel it. They taught us the value of money. My father was prudent about saving, but it was a struggle to [save]. He truly believed in education so wanted make sure he could provide for that. We all worked early in life because they wanted us to understand what it is to earn.

The problem with living in Dubai, or anywhere as an expat, is you don't quite know where you're going to be later on.

What were you paid in your first job?

We were in Chicago, then Libya, England, Lebanon and Greece, Then I spent my teenage years in Texas. At 16 I worked as a sales person for a clothing store, making $3.10 an hour. My parents encouraged independence — any extra money I wanted I had to earn — so I went out, got a job and really enjoyed it. It was long hours at times. I learnt a lot about working hard, what money could buy and how important it is to save. I would save half of what I earned and got good discounts on whatever clothing item I wanted.

Independence is like reading; when you can read, it opens a whole world. This was the first taste of that independence; I'd think, ‘I can survive in this world, if I had to’. My first professional job after my undergraduate degree was as a systems consultant. I was 21, making $28,000 a year in Detroit.

Do you still save?

Absolutely. My husband and I, as a team, have that as a value. We have to provide for ourselves as we get older so we have a saving programme we adhere to. He invests part and we have rainy day cash. We’re diversified between real estate, stocks and bonds and put as much as we can into savings and I have a 401(k), a [US] retirement fund. A lot [of my money] goes into Aventura.

What has been your best investment?

Our first house [in the States] in 1992 because it led to stability. We saved diligently for the down payment and started a path where we could move and navigate to different properties as we grew in our careers. In Dubai it was our apartment in Business Bay three years ago; it was a good time to buy and we’re here for as long as we’re welcome.

What brought you to the UAE?

We had been in Cairo and New Delhi, then moved here in 2007 because of my husband’s work; he came in as chief executive of Majid Al Futtaim Trust. I was mostly a stay-at-home mum at the time. I dabbled in different things, such as volunteering  for a school and different causes. I also taught as an adjunct professor at the American University in Dubai. That got me into leadership development and working on human development.

How did Aventura happen?

My children were growing up, I wanted to do something that was bigger than myself and didn’t want to go back to the corporate world. My business partner and I came upon this idea of building an adventure ropes course. We put together several investors and built the place from scratch, something where people can enjoy nature, be active in nature and learn more about themselves and each other. For the corporate client, we do team-building, leadership development work and have serviced over 200 organisations. For schools, we’re great for field trips.

What do you enjoy spending on?

Experiences, travel and quality time with my family; doing anything meaningful with them. With a start-up, that time has become more valuable than anything. There are a lot of pushes and pulls and paying attention to the details takes away time.

Money is not the source of my happiness, but a source of comfort. I don’t gain happiness from material things; I don’t care what car I drive, what jewellery I have. Family and friendships are extremely important to me. Relationships have helped build this business … we wouldn’t have been able to thrive.

What is your most-cherished purchase?

My camera, a Nikon D800. It helped me document the lives of my children, their journey, and helps me live through all we’ve done here. I love to capture moments. When I lived in India, I went into slums and took photos of all kinds of human experiences. You’d see more smiles [there] than you see at many malls.

Are you wise with money?

I’m very careful and when I do spend, I spend on quality. We understand the value of — and how hard it is to make — money. We wanted to provide for our children and at the same time teach them to be wise with money because it may not always be there. Life is not predictable; we don’t know when things are going to go up or down.

What’s been your key financial milestone?

That first pay cheque when I was 16 — that feeling, and pride my dad had when I brought it home. The amount was insignificant in the whole scheme of things, but it was mine. It had a slip in for tax purposes; I was part of a system, something bigger, contributing to the world.

Do you prefer paying by cash or credit card?

Credit card because of the reward programmes, but I’m very disciplined paying it off every month.

Do you plan for the future?

The problem with living in Dubai, or anywhere as an expat, is you don’t quite know where you’re going to be later on. I’ve no idea where we’ll settle. So it’s about the hope that we can be near our children, see our grandchildren at least once or twice a month and grow old with good healthcare in a place where we’ve developed friendships.

If you won Dh1 million what would you spend it on?

We’re still a relatively new company. You have to be able to make ends meet as an organisation. We have incentive programmes, but we don’t have as strong a bonus/reward system as I’d like. So, the first thing I would do is take a portion and offer my team proper bonuses for the hard work they’ve done in building this place. I’d also like solar panels so we become sustainable.