Justine Corrado used her salary and savings to start Abu Dhabi-based healthy meal plan business Basiligo in August 2014. As managing partner, she now employs 32 people and also has an organic Basiligo cafe on Reem Island. Born in London to American parents, Ms Corrado, 34, has spent most of her life in Abu Dhabi and went to university in the US. She lives in Khalifa City with her husband and two cats.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
My parents came to Abu Dhabi in the ‘70s. Since then it has been home. I grew up in Khalidiya. My father, a financial adviser, taught me the importance of always questioning people’s intentions, like why they are requesting money, and the importance of research before making any financial decision.
My mother is an entrepreneur and set up a regional educational and English-language testing company, across three offices in UAE. She taught me the importance of a woman always having her own pocket money, how to be financially independent, to set up bank accounts and to do my taxes.
Most importantly, my parents taught me to be curious — not striving for financial reward necessarily, but to improve myself, skills and interests in life.
How much were you paid in your first job?
I was eight, we were living in a hotel at the time and I started selling small chocolates that the housekeeping team would leave on our pillows at night. I took them to school, would sell them on the front steps to get money and buy ice cream. The school shut me down pretty quickly.
My next ‘job’ I was 12 accompanying my older sister to conduct market research for the Abu Dhabi Mall [she was working for the mall developer at the time]. We walked in the middle of summer to survey offices, shops and residential. This taught me the importance of listening to the market, that understanding customer feedback before a new project is critical. Unexpectedly, my father gave me Dh1,000 for helping my sister.
My first paid job was aged 14 in the holidays at Amideast, my mum’s company. I earned Dh50 an hour, selling test preparation books, and learnt the essence of the sales pitch: how to transform an ordinary product into a need.
What led you to return to the UAE as an adult?
I went to university in New York, 2003 to 2007, but felt like a foreigner. I returned aged 22 to be with my parents and build my life in Abu Dhabi. The UAE gives opportunities to young entrepreneurs sometimes not available in other parts of the world. Initially, I spent about 10 years as an economic analyst in industrial development for an Abu Dhabi government entity.
Why swap a steady job for a start-up?
Every day my colleagues and I faced the challenge of what to order for a healthy, affordable lunch. I started cooking and bringing food in for all of us. I transformed it into a business as I felt there were no healthy, affordable options in Abu Dhabi at that time (2013/2014) focusing on clean eating, meaning no preservatives, chemicals or additives.
I built a website, an industrial catering kitchen in Mussafah and, with my chef Mama Sujee, our dishes. I was hustling as a start-up, pretty much doing everything in the beginning from food photography, HR, accounting, food supplies, marketing, delivery and management. We started only with lunch until I gained enough cash flow to expand our hours, staff and resources.
I was working full-time when I started Basiligo. When I left, my end-of-service benefits were reinvested to Basiligo. End of 2017 we opened the Reem Island branch to cater to offices and the community.
Is healthy eating still considered a luxury?
My goal is to make healthy eating affordable. Healthy eating should not be a luxury, it should be accessible and can be inexpensive if one knows how to make flavourful food with quality ingredients.
Are you a saver or a spender?
As I've got older I’ve become a saver. With no interest in brands I prefer to spend on experiences such as hiking epic trails and travel with my husband.
In business I try to balance both. We must spend to expand into new products; on the other hand we have to save for ‘rainy days’ during low seasons.
Instead of necessarily saving, I reinvest in Basiligo, into growth; my free cash usually goes into trying new types of packaging or new projects.
What is your best investment?
Basiligo. In terms of time and money spent and experience built … I worked 10 years as an analyst, but learnt more in these five years about negotiation, business, supply chain, different industries and so much more that my personal outlook in life grew tremendously.
What is your philosophy towards money?
Money comes and goes. [It] is a means to success and a vehicle for growth, character building, wisdom and life. I’ve become frugal and learnt to appreciate each dirham.
My father always taught me, ‘if we give money, then we get money’ and ‘we cannot take money to the grave’. So, I try to be gracious and generous with all around me. Most importantly, my other philosophy is to always be charitable, whether towards humans or animals.
What is your most cherished purchase?
My Shirazi Persian cats, Ella and Coco. They are my fur ‘kids’ and companions.
For my business, my most cherished purchase is our Turbochef. It’s an expensive (Dh30,000), amazing oven that contains the cooking smells, cooks quickly and provides quality cooking in a small space.
Is there anything you regret spending on?
My first industrial cooker, for Dh8,000. I was new to the business and naive, and didn’t realise I was purchasing a counterfeit. I only discovered that a year later when I went to find a part and contacted the manufacturer in Spain. They notified that I had a fake with their brand name glued on. I learnt my lesson.
What has been your key financial milestone?
Achieving our first 100 customers. I knew I was on to something. I started Basiligo from scratch and with the approach of drip-feeding investment, rather than one huge investment from the beginning.
Do you prefer paying in cash or by credit card?
Credit card — just to get the Etihad miles. Travel is the best gift and it’s amazing to see cultural and culinary treasures in the rest of the world.
Do you plan for the future?
As a small business, it’s hard to financially plan for the future, as we are looking to get through this year. However, we are trying to launch into new regions and products that would enable us to be able to better plan for the future.
The aspect that most motivates me is that my team members all have families they support in their home countries. Basiligo revenue supports over 100 children and adults across India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Philippines and many more countries.