Money & Me: Navigating the networking waters

Sophie Le Ray, the co-founder of Naseba, a business networking company, encourages investors to know and understand the products they are interested in to avoid pitfalls.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates- July 04,  2011:  Sophie Le Ray, CEO, Naseba pose during the interview  at her office in Dubai .  ( Satish Kumar / The National ) For Personal Finance
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Sophie Le Ray is the chief executive of Naseba, a business networking company she launched in 2004 with her husband. Mrs Le Ray, who moved to the UAE from her native France in 2008, is also the founder of the Women in Leadership Forum - an annual summit held in Abu Dhabi that aims to empower women.

Describe your financial journey so far.

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First-hand accounts of financial mishaps, windfalls and the wisdom gleaned along the way, from CEOs to stay-at-home parents.

I come from a privileged environment, so I had an easy childhood and then decided to take off and be on my own and suffered a bit in the process. I studied in the States and, although my parents helped me with the university tuition, I have been self-sufficient since I was 18. I supported myself by waitressing, working at the Gap and for an insurance company opening envelopes for eight hours a day. There were people employed at that company who had been doing that job for 20 years, so it gave me a lot of motivation to keep working and studying. I then started my career in the conference industry, not making much money but having a lot of fun, before I moved to something more serious, which was conference production in England, and starting to support myself properly.

Why did you decide to set up your own company?

Because I felt I could do it better. I like the thrill of being the captain of my own ship. We threw all our savings into the company, which was a gamble, but we thought it would work. That was my first investment and for four or five years, the only thing we focused on. We went from a staff of four to 250 in four years, so we were very busy. Then at the end of 2006, we needed to grow fast and knew we could not keep self-financing, so we decided to list and open the capital to investors. It changed the way we ran the business and the way we ran our own finances as well because when you bring investors in and sell a chunk of your stake, you start thinking: "Shall I start investing in other things and putting my eggs in different baskets?"

What is the most valuable financial lesson you have learnt?

Don't invest in things you don't understand. I could have understood them; I just didn't take the time and listened to somebody else rather than checking things myself. I preach every day now that only hard work and sweating for something works because I tried a shortcut that didn't work. Now I don't invest in stocks or hedge funds unless I know the story and the management behind them. My company is my main investment now because I know the managers and how it is run. Last year, we had the option to take the company back again, so we bought it back privately. I have also invested in real estate in my hometown in the south of France because I know the market and how solid it is.

Are you a spender or a saver?

Unfortunately, I'm a spender and my husband is a salesman, so he is even more of a spender. I like to spend on everything. Food is a big part of my budget because both my husband and I love gastronomy. We love restaurants such as Pierre Gagnaire's Reflets in Dubai, because it's art, not food, and to try out different restaurants in France, Spain and Denmark. It's our way of doing tourism, but it's also part of my culture. We also take our two daughters, 16 and seven, on two holidays a year.

What has been your biggest financial challenge?

Steering a company. The easy part is the first few years when you are growing, don't have too much responsibility and are just a bunch of people going at it. That's the fun part because then you get to a point - especially if you have to go through a financial crisis - where it's a completely different ball game. You have a responsibility to a lot of people who have families and to your clients. You have to grow the company, but you have to be smart about it and not take too many risks. That's the biggest challenge and why we run the company together. While my husband has an approach that is very turnover orientated, I look at the bottom line much more - it's a balance.

Why did you decide to set up the Women in Leadership Forum?

When we opened the office here, I'd get comments from people in the West such as: "How do you cope; do you cover yourself?" There was a real dichotomy between the modern, booming country I was living in and what people outside thought about it. We thought we might as well do a high-profile event for women and break this misconception. The forum is a platform for powerful women to express themselves, to inspire each other and the community and to lobby policymakers.