Hemali Shah is the founder and chief executive of City One Tours, a UAE travel agency with 35 employees including in-house guides.
Ms Shah’s passion for exploration blossomed while growing up and her drive for business independence emerged after seeing undervalued women in the workplace during her childhood in India.
She first moved to Dubai 17 years ago, spent time in the US and Uganda, where she and her husband launched a hotel and a brewery, before returning to the UAE.
A former president of Dubai Silicon Oasis Toastmasters Club, Ms Shah, 54, is married with three adult children and two grandchildren. She lives in Nad Al Sheba, Dubai.
What was your earliest experience of money?
We were a middle-class family. My father was a businessman, selling and repairing typewriters, and my mum was a homemaker.
We were not given everything on a platter; we were given pocket money, but we had to earn what we wanted. It was not given easily. We were four kids, so it was difficult to fulfil everybody’s desires.
I am from an era where my father was a strong believer that the woman of the house should not work for money. He used to say, “I'm providing everything” – a very different (way of) thinking. That’s where the fire in my belly started.
How did you respond?
Now I see I was rebellious. One day, I told my father I wanted to do a job. He said “no” but took me to his office to understand how people behaved. I was young but understood that if a woman worked for someone, they were being looked down upon, and not given importance and respect in society.
Without my father’s knowledge, I helped the mum of one of my friends and earned 12 Indian rupees (about 50 fils) putting beads and semi-precious stones on garlands. In 10th grade, I was putting henna on brides’ hands and in 11th grade, was teaching other children how to place the henna.
That was my first encounter with earning and standing on my own feet. When you get a taste of earning, you cannot stop. You can spend on yourself because you earn it, and it gives us freedom. When I was 19, I became a beautician and started my journey.
What inspired City One Tours?
I had seen people in small places in Africa refused boarding on cargo planes because a flight was overloaded. I decided I would not allow someone to suffer like this.
When I came back to Dubai, I was a beautician in a clinic, but it was time to do something of my own (calling on) my childhood passion for travelling.
We always ask people what the most important thing is for their trip. Everybody has a different agenda and goal. We give them knowledge, rather than just selling them holidays. It is a dream for people – they save to realise their dream and then we give the solution. Budget comes later on.
What is your spending and saving balance?
I love to save money and from that, I buy whatever I like, even if it is expensive. If my heart says so, I will do it with that portion of money.
My husband is a bigger risk-taker, an entrepreneur. I take risks wisely. I keep some savings, so in any crisis we don’t have to worry. We got married at 19 and before my marriage, I saved.
What do you enjoy spending on?
I love travelling … that is how I started this business. I always make sure that we go for a family holiday. I also love buying clothes – if I like something, I am going to take it. If I want to eat something, I eat. I do not feel I am deprived. You feel it, you do it, but wisely. I know how much money I am going to spend and how much money I am going to save.
So you reward yourself with travel?
When you go to one place, you then want to visit another. The dream keeps changing. But one thing I decided is that every year, I reward myself with a wellness trip.
I do not believe in splurging, I save and spend wisely and that gives me a better result, so that I can go wherever I want to go and do whatever I want to do with the money I keep aside.
I have travelled first class, business class and other times I have travelled economy. It depends on what liquidity I have. And I create the situations with (rewards) points.
How do you put your money to work?
We do not put all our eggs in the same basket. I have invested in bonds, into a savings account and as a shareholder in different businesses. I also have real estate in the UAE and India that we rent out.
What is your best investment?
My investment in relationships, because money will come and go but relationships will stay, and that will always help you to come up again and stand more strong.
I know a few business owners – we have a nice business relationship and a personal relationship. We give business to each other as a part of Business Network International. What comes around, goes around.
What about a big purchase?
I got a bright blue Aston Martin V8 Vantage in 2019. I like vibrant colours in my life. Whenever I am driving, I really feel good.
How do you view money?
I will not say money is not important for me, but money is not everything because it cannot buy happiness. So, I give it importance. Money is required in daily life, to run the “show”. It is something we need, but it is not the only object.
And I do not believe in running after the money; I create circumstances where money gets attracted to me.
Any business blips?
A medical clinic in Kampala, Uganda. We closed it down in 2015 because it did not go as well as we thought. Not every business is going to be successful. If something is not working, instead of crying we take action, rather than talking about it and whining.
We lost money but I don’t believe in regret because life is like that and always there is a lesson. We learn out of failure.
We also believe in practising gratitude, celebrating every small milestone and success, on a regular basis. When I started City One Tours, it was only three people. We focus on what is working rather than what is not working.
How about personally?
I put money into a property in 2007 that never came up (completed). The market crashed in 2008 and everything was shelved, so I could not get anything back out. It was a significant amount but there was no point crying.
I learnt that you have to be careful when it is an undeveloped property. In life, it is better that I can control the situation.
How do feel about retirement?
I do not believe in retirement because to retire means expired. But we are investing in such a way where we do not have to worry about how we will run our day-to-day lives in the future.