Sonal Vara-Parmar, 42, owns IAM Entertainment, an international artist management and events company that brings celebrities and live shows to the region.
With music industry roots, it also focuses on entertainment management across TV and film, with Mariah Carey, Kevin Hart, Victoria Beckham, Alicia Keyes, Lady Gaga, Jay Shetty, Tony Robbins, Shah Rukh Khan, Karl Lagerfeld and Donna Karen among its clients. IAM also co-produced Hollywood movie North of the 10.
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Born to British-Indian parents, Ms Vara-Parmar’s career began in hospitality with London VIP events; her first one was a musical showcase with Amy Winehouse and Elton John.
She later worked in New York at Sony/BMG before moving to Dubai 15 years ago. Ms Vara-Parmar lives on Palm Jumeirah with her husband and dog, Tyson, named by boxer Mike Tyson during a visit.
How did money figure in your upbringing?
I grew up in Zambia. My dad took over from his father, who started a textile business and had a bakery and carpet manufacturing company. I had the best childhood, the first of four kids.
Then, in 1991, we moved to the UK as the Aids pandemic spread. My father had to leave most of his wealth in Africa. He took over a supermarket, had a very successful business, but then [major chains] came and we had to downsize. We ran a couple of fish and chip shops.
What impact did that have?
It was humbling to see my parents go from “this” to “that”. All successful businesses, what changed was the work, waking up early, staying late. They did it with grace and humility and that taught me you can’t have fear over money, you learn to adapt. You can have it one day, the next day you don’t. I saw fluctuations and how my mum and dad had to really graft later in life.
When did you first work?
I was 16. I started in the chip shop part-time for £50 ($56.64) a week. It taught me the value of money. We got pocket money until we were 14 or 15, then Dad said: “You have to work for your money.” Through university, in summer, I worked for Etam and French Connection (clothing retailers), and packed fruit, so I’ve always had that discipline. We did talk about money, that you have to have savings behind you.
What led to your profession?
I got a job after graduation with a newly opened Hilton hotel. I fell into doing celebrity weddings and got headhunted. I went to work for The Hemple, the first minimalist boutique hotel. We’d have Princess Diana come in and go to the restaurant. That’s where I did the Amy Winehouse showcase.
What brought you to Dubai?
My best friend had just moved to Dubai and said: “For the entertainment industry, you have to come out here — it’s uncharted territory, about to go boom.” I was on the opening team of the Madinat Jumeirah, responsible for handling indoor arena live shows, concerts, events.
What led to your business?
I was working for Live Nation for five years as a marketing consultant. I had such passion for the business and entrepreneurial spirit. I had enough experience to seize the opportunity the UAE gives to start on your own. I didn’t want to be constrained by corporate structure and to be pigeonholed in music. We now put on groundbreaking concepts that, as just a talent booker, I wouldn’t get to do. I am in a position where I get to conceptualise and dream up shows, motivational events and tell the story of the region through movies we produce.
Is there financial risk staging shows?
Huge financial risk. We’ve got a very captive audience here, we don’t have millions and millions of people. Sponsorship plays a big part. If you’re really in this for the passion and thrive off live shows, you take that risk. It’s part of the business.
We brought the first Bollywood singers to Sundance, at Atlantis, The Palm, Honey Singh and Mika Singh, huge Indian artists. The show was on Friday and on Wednesday, we’d sold only 3,000 tickets. Just the day before we started seeing queues and sold 10,000 tickets in 48 hours. I learnt the peaks and troughs of this market are like no other.
What is your spending and saving outlook?
I’ve got better. That comes with age. The rebellion in me with my parents always saying, “Save, save, save” … for a long time I was a spender. Now I see the value in saving.
You have to respect money but not let it overpower you. You also have to enjoy it. We work hard, four different time zones and if I’m working this hard, I want to enjoy it. You can’t feel guilty for rewarding yourself; if I’m earning, why can’t I?
How do you grow wealth?
My husband comes from a financial background, so a lot of my education comes through him in stocks and shares — a big part of my investment portfolio. We have property in England and we just bought a place in Italy, a long-term passion investment we can pass down to family. Often, if I’m doing a particular deal, I’ll take equity in the company.
What has been your best investment?
Property. There’s security that comes with it. Dubai is on the cards in the next six months. The pandemic really solidified that this is home. We were on the precipice of basing ourselves in LA because we’ve opened a film and TV division.
What is your most cherished purchase?
Tickets to the Maldives to spend time with Steve Harvey, the comedian/actor, and his wife. We spent two weeks with them, a treasured time. It wasn’t planned. Also, my signed Annie Leibovitz (US photographer) coffee table book, one of 10. It’s based on all the celebrity shots. I spent $10,000.
Does money make you happy?
It gives you access to being happy, but it doesn’t complete the circle.
Are you surprised by fees some celebrities charge?
I used to be, but having done this for 20 years … when they get on stage, the joy they give a crowd, I see it’s validated. Not everyone has that skill, that aura. What I don’t agree with is disparity; if they’re charging X in Europe, why do they charge “that” here? We’d like to give this region more access to talent. Sometimes it is only the fees that stop it.
Have your spending habits evolved?
I’ll save and maybe buy one expensive purchase that will last, as opposed to fast fashion. So my average spend increased, but the volume of consumption decreased; quality over quantity.
Do you have a financial philosophy?
It goes back to respecting money and not abusing it because you never want to get into that position where you have it today and don’t have it tomorrow. But if you were to lose it … it’s not the be-all and end-all, it’s a tool.
A friend told me: “You don’t want to be the only one on the yacht; to have that much money you’re the only one there.” So sharing is the ultimate satisfaction. If there’s business, an opportunity I can bring friends into … we’re all climbing together.
What are you happiest spending on?
There is nothing more satisfying to me than cooking a dinner with whatever ingredients I choose, no matter how expensive. That, to me, is ultimate luxury — to be able to fill a table with food, friends and family.