Marc Cirera had a steady salary and a great career that took him around the world. For four years, he worked with Dubai-based luxury retailer Chalhoub Group as a member of the company's sustainability team.
“I liked my job, it was interesting and gave me a good work-life balance,” the 36-year-old says. “But I was missing something.”
Mr Cirera helped Chalhoub to define a more strategic sustainability programme and engage its 12,000 employees in impactful corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
But it was a role that pushed him on a trajectory away from the relative comfort of a corporate salary towards something that could impact a broader audience and make a positive impact on the wider world.
"I felt my corporate job was not as exciting as it used to be … something was telling me I needed a new challenge,” says Mr Cirera, who was previously an employee engagement and sustainability consultant in London and educated in Spain and Australia.
“I was ready to come up with my own project … I guess it was my entrepreneurial spirit kicking in.
“Many other companies in the UAE were keen to involve their people in activities that made a positive impact, but, unlike Chalhoub, they did not have a ‘Marc’ organising initiatives for them.”
So, in September 2017, Mr Cirera launched social enterprise Companies for Good, which aims to help companies make a difference through social impact initiatives, secure economic profitability and provide meaningful work for his team.
Part of Mr Cicera's mission is to build bridges between businesses and social organisations; something that would help companies meet their objectives while making a positive difference.
“I knew lots of charities and other organisations doing great things for the planet and the community, but they lacked volunteers and resources and didn’t really know how to connect with companies to get their support,” says Mr Cirera, who mitigated the potential financial impact of quitting his job at Chalhoub by initially developing his venture during his downtime.
“I spent one year working full-time in my corporate job and dedicating evenings and weekends to creating Companies for Good.
“Because I set up while working, I was lucky not to suffer much financial distress.
“Yes, I cut my salary by half on the first months, but being able to dedicate my full efforts to Companies for Good also meant growing quickly and after half a year I was getting the same pay cheque as in my previous job.”
For eight years, Ahmed Mobasher also held aspirations of starting his own business – but it wasn’t until 2018 that his son Yassin, then aged three, provided the inspiration.
At the time, the Egyptian was the senior manager of investments at Meydan Group. While not revealing his salary, Mr Mobasher's entrepreneurial drive proved too strong to ignore and Koala Picks was born.
“The dream of starting a business was still on my mind when I struggled to find healthy snacking options for my son … I felt the time was right to make the move and start a business that carries a social purpose as well,” Mr Mobasher, 39, says.
“We started a brand to offer all kids the snacks they love, but with only natural ingredients.”
Koala Picks became operational in October 2019 with two other co-founders, including his wife, Aya, who leads operations and product development. Mr Mobasher heads strategy, business development and finance.
“It wasn’t easy, nor that difficult, to let go of the corporate salary because I was really happy that I was pursuing my dream of starting a business addressing a problem I genuinely care about,” he says.
“Financially, it was hard because we knew there will be a downgrade in our lifestyle and we didn’t know if the concept would succeed.
“There is a lot of ambiguity about the future when you start a business, but you have to be optimistic that things will eventually work.”
What began as an e-commerce venture has recently expanded into other channels – parents also seeking healthy snacking options have supported the brand’s shop in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, where products include breakfast and baking items.
“The messages of encouragement we receive from them are the main reason we keep working hard,” says Mr Mobasher, now father to two sons and about to expand Koala Picks’ operations to a new facility in Dubai Investment Park.
He is scaling the business in the UAE and planning to expand the brand to markets such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Mr Mobasher adds: “It is really difficult to remain motivated if you are only building a business for the money.”
Fellow Egyptian Sherif Dahan’s inspiration to alter his career course followed the birth of his daughter, Chloe, in 2014.
“Being parents for the first time and seeing our daughter grow gave us first-hand experience of the amount of items parents have to buy, especially in the first few years,” he says.
“You can’t help but think of the families who cannot afford to buy neither the essentials, nor optional items their kids need. Add to that, how short the span of usage is for a lot of those items.”
Alongside his wife, Dina Nazmy, he co-founded TOYIT, a dedicated online platform for parents to securely buy, sell, exchange or donate pre-loved clothes, toys, books, strollers and more, to save money.
Mr Dahan was previously regional general manager for an internet and digital conglomerate of companies. More recently, he managed the MSN network in 18 countries, including the MSN Arabia portal.
Following pandemic-enforced delays, TOYIT officially launched in October 2020, adding to Dubai’s drive towards a “circular economy” of re-use/recycle instead of landfill.
“It is definitely a challenge being an entrepreneur, especially when you have a family and kids,” Mr Dahan says.
“You’re required to support a business and a family at once, while you don’t have a steady income, or no income at all for a time.”
Having played a leading role in the UAE’s evolution towards a digital economy via “a considerable number of technology and solutions initiatives at the core of the transformation”, you might expect Mr Dahan to find it difficult transitioning from a healthy corporate salary to building a business from scratch.
"It’s a mixed feeling, I would say,” he explains.
“On one hand, when you are hit by an exceptional idea that you validate and believe in you, you are super charged and excited to make it happen as soon as you possibly can.
“The other side is not as green … it’s challenging to pull things off with limited resources, human and financial. You need to really fight your way through.
“You definitely miss the regular corporate salary at the end of every month. I would say we had to trim our lifestyle budget and consume a decent portion of our savings to see this coming to life and taking its baby steps.”
So far self-funded by Mr Dahan, 45, and his wife, TOYIT has secured 45,000 users since launching and also actively supports impactful UAE charity organisations Dubai Cares and Tarahum Charity Foundation.
They also have plans to expand the platform beyond the UAE.
“Venture capital funding, or funding from organisations that support initiatives like ours that touch on sustainability, environmental and charitable causes, will definitely give us the push we need for marketing and recruitment and will also fast-track expansion.
“We are seeing high tractions on the ‘donation’ feature, especially this Ramadan, which gives us a unique sense of achievement that we are able to connect families to charity organisations that support the needy.”
Mr Cirera, now also a father, cites similar satisfaction with his new working life as chief executive of Companies for Good.
“Handing in my resignation and leaving the [perceived] security of a corporate job was not easy,” he says.
“There is always that doubt and many what ifs, but a couple of thoughts really helped the decision: one is that we often regret most of those things we have not done, rather than those that we did and didn’t work out as planned.
“The other thought was that most of us tend to dramatise things, [like] ‘if I quit this job I might not find a similar position and be miserable the rest of my life'."
But the Spanish CSR and business ethics specialist says his life has “improved in many ways” as Companies for Good has worked with 250-plus firms, including majors like Amazon, L’Oréal, Gucci, Unilever, Emirates NBD, even Chalhoub Group, and involved more than 10,000 employees.
Initiatives have included helping 25,000 families from underprivileged communities, planting more than 8,000 trees and removing at least 25 tonnes of rubbish from nature.
Mr Cirera adds: “When we manage to put in some perspective, it helps you realise that leaving a job isn’t like jumping from a cliff.
“It’s simply ending a chapter to start a new one that probably will be more exciting than the one we’re leaving behind.
“And working with companies – and their people – to make a positive impact is highly rewarding.”