Money & Me: ‘Financial freedom is more important than a fancy car’

Malavika Varadan, managing director of drama and public speaking school The Hive, quit a lucrative media job to become an entrepreneur

Malavika Varadan juggled a full-time media job and running a business for a year. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Malavika Varadan moved to the UAE from Bangalore, India, in 2008 when she was 21 years old to join the Arabian Radio Network as a weekend presenter.

After spending the past 15 years being a radio (and sometimes television) presenter and public speaker, she decided to become an entrepreneur and currently runs a drama and public speaking school for children called The Hive.

Ms Varadan made the transition in 2019-2020 amid a divorce and the Covid-19 global pandemic. She lives in Port Rashid, mostly alone, but sometimes with her mum.

How did money feature in your childhood?

We lived in a simple, middle-class home. This meant that there was a lot of focus on saving wisely for a rainy day. My mother worked as a clerk in a nationalised Indian bank and often told us the story of the ant and the grasshopper — her way of drilling into us the importance of saving.

My father was a publisher and worked in the family book business. He had a severe paralytic stroke when I was nine years old, which meant that my mother was both the primary caregiver and breadwinner for most of my life.

How did switching careers affect your finances?

The Hive was established in 2014 by my friends, and I taught for a few hours a week at the space. I decided to buy it from them in 2018 and began to run it in January 2019.

I had a job that anyone would kill for — on the prime time slot for a popular radio station in the UAE. The well-paying job came with fame, fun, adulation and stability — but I reached a point where I felt like I had done my part and was seeking something else, something more.

Call it a challenge or an opportunity to learn, a need to impact lives in a deeper way, or perhaps I just got tired of the glamour. It was then that my friends announced that they were moving to Canada and looking for buyers for the business. I dared to ask if I could buy it and have not looked back since.

A key moment in the transition was when I told my then-boss about buying the business. She offered me excellent advice and told me to try doing both for at least a year before I completely jumped ship. This was financially one of the wisest moves I made.

Exhausting and excruciating as it was to work 16-hour days for a year, this meant that I was able to break even on my purchase and be completely debt-free when I moved into the role full-time.

I did not pay myself that first year, but was able to ensure that the transition put no one else’s (not my parents, as my dependents, or even employees) financial freedom at stake.

How did you fund your business?

I bought the business essentially with my gratuity and a personal loan. I funded this entirely by myself. I had no investors or partners and I like it that way, because I get to make the decisions on my own.

Have your spending habits evolved since the pandemic?

A lot of what I spent on in my twenties no longer interests me. I don’t feel the need to do expensive nights out or shop for red-carpet wear.

I enjoy spending money on experiences, though. Good food, holidays on my own or with my family, books, books and more books — is mostly what I spend on now.

In what asset classes do you save?

I do save. But I let my mother manage my personal investments. She mostly invests it in mutual funds.

Are you wise with cash?

Very. I am not someone who is wasteful with money. I am as cautious as I think I need to be. I have made some terrible mistakes in the past and am now much wiser for it.

I value my financial independence greatly, my freedom to be able to up and move when I feel unsafe or unhappy — and as a woman, I think having enough to be able to support that freedom is extremely important. It’s more important than driving a fancy car, living in a mansion or wearing designer outfits.

Being able to draw boundaries, walk out when you need to has little to do with what shoes you wear.

I bought the business essentially with my gratuity and a personal loan. I funded this by myself. I had no investors or partners
Malavika Varadan, managing director, The Hive

How are you growing wealth?

The wealth I am truly growing is the wealth of The Hive. As a business, we have nearly quadrupled in size since I bought the company.

We are a team of eight women (teachers and administrators), each of whom are supporting their own dreams and their families’ dreams.

We are growing a community of young people who are truth-tellers, risk-takers and empathetic leaders — and that is worth more than all the millions in the world to me.

Do you have a cherished investment?

When I quit radio, I was able to set up a fund for my parents that would pay for their lifestyle and medical needs, irrespective of how my business rose or fell, and this was the most important investment I made.

Because there on, I knew that any risk I took rested on my shoulders only and would only impact me.

Any financial advice for your younger self?

To draw clearer boundaries for myself, financially and in relationships. I was unwise in that regard.

To start saving in my 20s as opposed to my 30s. And to negotiate harder for what I wanted.

Malavika Varadan spends her money on good food, holidays and books. Chris Whiteoak / The National

What are your key financial milestones?

Buying the business and choosing to do it alone was the most daring decision I ever made. But it came at the end of a lot of wisdom from my sister and a lot of calculations.

I was not careless with this purchase and knew that I had what it took to make this a profitable, sustainable, impactful decision for myself and my team.

What luxuries are still important to you?

Books, holidays and tickets to shows are all I spend money on. Art and experiences are the only things worth the money!

What are your financial goals?

I would like to own an idyllic farmland in the hills in India. I would also like to own a home here, perhaps (this is one I am still battling with, 15 years into renting!).

I would like to be able to expand the business across many more neighbourhoods and emirates. And, of course, a wall-to-wall library would not be a bad bet either.

Updated: October 31, 2022, 5:31 AM