You're a new mum: stressed, sleep-deprived, and constantly juggling. Sounds like a great time to start your own business, right?! A growing number of fearless women in the UAE are showing that, actually, motherhood can be the catalyst for a new career...A mother's work is never done, or so the saying goes. But can you imagine doubling that workload by starting up your own business?
A lot of us can, apparently. The so-called 'mum economy' is booming: it's estimated that businesses owned by women with children under 18 will contribute £9.5bn (Dh46.8bn) to the UK economy by 2025*, while in the GCC women are founding one of every four new start-ups, and managing assets in the region worth $385bn (Dh1,414bn)**.
As increasing numbers of expat families settle in the UAE long term, and with a lack of truly flexible working roles available, many mums are finding that working for themselves means they can hit the right note between work and family life more easily than if they were working for an employer, despite often working harder than in a salaried role.
Lily Kandalaft, 33, originally from Jordan, started up her business Malaak Mama & Baby Care following the birth of her first baby four years ago. "When it is your own business, you are responsible 24/7 and it is extremely challenging to switch off," says Lily. "However, the perk is that you are doing what you love every single day and the feeling of accomplishment of running a business and raising kids is absolutely incredible."
"It's tough, I'm not going to lie. It was easier when I didn't have children as I could work round the clock. But it's made me balance work and life"
Sophie Gamble, 33, who has Greek Australian heritage, has founded two separate businesses, Special Occasions Party Planning and Events, and Touring Tykes. She says "It's tough, I'm not going to lie. It was much easier when I didn't have children as I could work around the clock. But now with the kids it's a whole different ball game. To be honest, though, it has put me in line as well as I have learnt to balance life and realised that not everything is about working."
British expat Katie Savage, 35, founded The Urban Nest, a real estate agency that employs 10 people, while she was pregnant with her son, Sonny. She says "Flexibility when you're a parent is key but because The Urban Nest excites me, working long hours does not faze me. The financial pressures of owning a business are stressful and delays cause frustration, but I'd much rather create a happy working environment than be unhappy working elsewhere."
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While setting up a business can seem daunting, the help on offer in the UAE can make the process relatively smooth. Lily says, "If you compare the UAE to other countries in the region, we are so advanced in terms of transparency, processes, procedures and approvals being outlined clearly, which makes it much easier to set up a business. Most UAE government processes and approvals are done online or through an app, which saves a lot of valuable time for entrepreneurs."
Sophie Gamble agrees: "As more women are taking on their own businesses, there is more support around. There are so many social media groups you can turn to [like the Female Fusion - Fearless in Business in Dubai Facebook group] and communities [like IBWGDubai.com or Kaasdir.com] created specifically to help female entrepreneurs."
Funding a business is often cited as a source of frustration for women in general. A recent study found that while Venture Capitalists invested $58 billion last year, women only received 2% of that money*. So how are mums in the UAE sourcing investment for their businesses? Do they all have rich husbands?
"Absolutely not," says Malaak's Lily. "I'm sure it may make the process easier as you can hire a lot of help to get your business up and running without a concern about the financial impact but to be honest, I can't imagine it being half as satisfying as when you do it yourself. The most precious part of being an entrepreneur is the whole learning process. Regardless if your business succeeds or fails, it's that learning journey (from both wins and failures) that will help you really grow as an entrepreneur.
"Of course it is costly to set up and run a business in Dubai and the size of your financial investment will depend on the level of capital required to set up the business and keep it running," Lily continues. "In Malaak's case, I was working full time and using my salary to pay for the business setup along with my savings from the past few years of working full time. Once Malaak started to break even, I was then able to resign from my job and the business has been funding itself ever since."
Do as much research as you can in advance about the financial commitment required to set up and fund your business, says Lily. "In terms of funding, Dubai has become a hub for start-up accelerators, crowd-funding platforms and incubators to support young entrepreneurs to build a foundation for their ideas and to connect them with the right investment vehicles to support their business. There are even some incubators that are focused solely on female entrepreneurs, so you really don't need to rely on a rich husband."
"Dubai has become a hub for crowd-funding platforms and start-up accelerators to help female entrepreneurs - you don't need a rich husband!"
Farah Sawaf is the managing partner of Soul Communications, a food-focused PR agency. She agrees "I had zero capital and just saw a gap in the market. I didn't hire 15 people on day one or rent a fancy office. I started by myself and then hired one person. We worked from a tiny office and then we were able to hire the next person as the retainers grew organically."
However, The Urban Nest's Katie is adamant that at least one secure salary in a couple is necessary when starting your business. She says "Substantial savings and a stable income from at least one parent is essential. With no social support, no free healthcare system or family around to help, and most people having to pay rent in one or two cheques up front, financial and emotional support from a partner is a must!"
Amanda Perry is the CEO and co-founder of Vitality, the region's first business accelerator focused solely on women entrepreneurs. She says, "The reality is, it can be difficult to get a business idea funded. If you can bootstrap the early stages of your business to develop your idea and gain some traction, then you have a higher chance of securing investment.
"Entrepreneurship is encouraged here in the UAE, yet licence costs are still expensive in comparison to other parts of the world (between Dh10,000 to Dh60,000 depending on the activity or the freezone, whereas anyone in the UK or Europe can set up a company and start trading for about Dh750). Costs have come down though over the years and hopefully we will see another drop before 2020."
Taking the plunge with a business idea is never easy, especially when you are also dealing with the day-to-day tasks of looking after a family. You need to be able to accept help, says Sophie: "I could never work as much as I do if I didn't have support at home from my husband and a nanny. If you don't have family with you here in the UAE it's impossible to make it all work without home help - and there is nothing wrong with that."
Amanda has some advice for those thinking about starting their own venture. She says "You need a dream, a passion, some savvy, some hustle and some tenacity. A thick skin helps but is not essential. Seek out solid mentorship. A great mentor goes a long way because running a business is at times lonely and access to knowledge given by an experienced person with your best interests in mind is invaluable. Also make use of the great organisations that are being developed in the UAE that are focusing on developing women leaders in business."
Case studies: Three women who are making it work in the UAE
Lily Kandalaft, originally from Jordan, is founder and CEO of Malaak Mama & Baby Care and mum to Ryan (5) and Zayden (2)
"Malaak was founded in 2013 after countless sleepless nights caring for my first born baby, Ryan. I realized the big gap in pre and postnatal care as well as childcare support in the region and we've grown from six employees in 2013 to over 80 in 2017."
Best thing about being your own boss? "Making my own decisions, working from home when I need to and managing my own time."
Worst thing? "Finding time for myself and really switching off. I've learnt that balance is not only about balancing your work and your family, but prioritising your own wellbeing too"
Advice for other mums? "Just do it. All you need is an idea and serious drive. Plan ahead, prepare yourself for the financial commitments ahead, speak to other mumpreneurs about their experience and learn from them, prepare your support ecosystem (childcare options, splitting tasks with your husband etc) in advance to ensure it is conducive to a working mum's needs. Then go with it. The biggest hurdle is starting the business."
Farah Sawaf is the founder and owner of Soul Communications and mum to three boys aged 3, 5 and 7
"Soul is a boutique, foodie-focused PR agency, which I launched just before finding out I was pregnant with our first baby. In eight years we've worked with around 100 brands, including celebrity chef Annabel Karmel and many F&B outlets across Dubai."
Best thing about being your own boss? "The creative liberation it brings, to express professional output the way you truly believe. Plus, pressing 'pause' throughout the day - as long as you complete tasks, it works."
Worst thing? "It never stops. You dream kids. You dream work. And you want to do a great job at both. Also keeping the standards as high as the day you thought of the business. There is a reason you are doing what you are doing - you have to hold on to the essense of the business and not lose what it is meant to be."
Advice for other mums? "Think not only with your heart but with your head. Do a full competitive analysis first, identifying why your business will be different than the competition. Secure your support network prior to beginning so you don't get overwhelmed. And remember: it will be difficult, don't give up during the uphill battles, and enjoy it!"
Sophie Gamble is managing director of Special Occasions Party Planning & Events, and excursion company Touring Tykes. She has two boys (3 and 1).
"I have run Special Occasions Party Planning & Events since June 2010, and I have always wanted to keep it as a 'family' in terms of internal structure and number of employees. We have some huge corporate clients and work with many UAE VIPs, which I put down to us keeping everything on a 'human', personable level. In 2017 I launched my second business, Touring Tykes, which is the Middle East's first ever adventure-excursion company for 3-5 year olds in Dubai. I started it up to keep my 3-year-old active and intrigued, while mum had to work on the weekends!"
Best thing about being your own boss? "Most people would see it as the best thing in the world but it's not always the case! There are no set hours and being the perfectionist that I am I can never leave anything unanswered until tomorrow. However I can be flexible with my schedule and I can also be 'late' to the office (but I rarely am!)."
Worst thing? "The constant stress! Also there are so many events companies nowadays. When I started seven years ago there weren't, but I am having to compete now, which I don't really like."
Advice for other mums? "I think all mums have an internal gut feeling when it comes to everything. And although you may have 'ideas' for a business, you know inside if it's really worth the leap. If it feels right then do what you can to make it happen. Your passion for what you do will shine through and people will see that this isn't a 'hobby' but a great business idea you are making a reality."
3 tips for starting your business
Suzanne Browne, co-founder of innovative baby-products brand Clevamama, which retails in Europe, the UAE, Asia and the Middle East, shares her wisdom
You need a good idea and a route to market
Then you need to turn your idea into a plan. This will be instrumental to your success. If you fail to prepare you should also prepare to fail. You also need to identify your route to market. People assume it will create itself, but no matter how good your idea is, if you don't have a route to market you don't have a business.
Cash is King
Your idea needs to make you money so have all your sums in order. Be prepared for voluntary work in the beginning and to work day and night for a long time.
You need people
No one ever succeeds by themselves and no one knows everything. You will need help, so make sure you surround yourself with people better than you. You will need to be able to ask, listen and hear. Also remember your suppliers are just as important as your customers so take care of them too.
*Ebay Study, conducted by Development Economics ** Report by Al Masah Capital