If you’re dreading the end of maternity leave, but have to go back to work, or if you are making yourself miserable trying to juggle the kids and your job… Fear not super Mums, there is another way.
We chat to four UAE-based Mothers who turned their back on their old life in the corporate world in order to focus on creating something that allows them to enjoy a better work-life balance.
Yes, they admit that there have been challenges along the way, but not one of them gave up and not one of them would change where they are now for anything.
It’s Mother’s Day this month after all, so what better time to celebrate these hard-working Mums?
Elli Junior founder
As a mum of two gorgeous girls, Nicole, ten and five-year-old Nellie, Kasbi decided to turn her back on her finance career and instead focus on a new venture when she moved to the UAE.
Originally from Iran, Kasbi grew up in Sweden, but arrived in Dubai when her youngest was just six months old. Like many mothers in the UAE, Kasbi struggled to find a job that allowed her the flexibility to be there for her babies. And that’s when the idea for Elli Junior came about.
“I noticed that something was missing in the children’s market in the UAE. There was a lack of nicely-designed, good quality baby and children’s items with a focus on sustainability,” she explains.
“So I contacted my favourite Swedish brands and got the exclusivity to distribute their products within the GCC region.”
“Without any knowledge of the industry and market, and in less than three years, we are in 20 stores across the UAE. And in January this year we also launched our own collection of high quality organic baby towels, play mats and bamboo blankets, plus we have more products in the pipeline,” Kasbi says proudly.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing at the start. Kasbi had no knowledge of how to run a business in the region. She found herself in a new country, facing new rules and regulations. She had no idea about retail, marketing or distribution. But, what she did have was self-belief coupled with a real confidence in her products.
“Not everything makes sense, and I had to learn the hard way that nothing comes easy – it takes hard work and determination,” she says.
“The biggest challenge was to find new ways to grow when the retail market was slowing down. I didn’t enter the market at the best of times. But that made me decide to launch my e-commerce site and I started to work with digital marketing instead of focusing on physical shops,” Kasbi explains.
Even now, almost three years later, Kasbi says it’s a daily struggle to balance her kids and her business.
“It all comes down to good planning and time management. I take my kids with me everywhere. They come to my meetings,
to the bank, to the printers. They learn and we get to spend time together. In fact, one day soon I’ll bet they will be able to take over my business,” Kasbi laughs.
So having been through the tough times and come through the other side shining, what advice does Kasbi give to other mums who might be considering starting up their own business?
“Take your time and do the proper research before you start. Make sure you talk to people and take advice when it’s given. Ask someone to guide you, to be your mentor and surround yourself with like-minded people. Most importantly, take the risks if you really believe in your idea and in yourself,” Kasbi concludes.
Neon Starfish founder
Holly Hart has a background in the music industry having worked in marketing for Sony for 11 years. A job that gave her the chance to travel the world living in some of the most incredible cities in the world.
“I am originally from London and moved to New York aged 25 working for Sony Music in marketing for global artists. This then took me to Australia, back to London and then to Dubai ten years ago,” Hart says.
But when her children came along – Lukie who is now seven and five-year-old Rupert – she struggled to balance the career that was her passion with the children she loved.
“Once I had my boys the music business world started to seem a bit challenging.
I was constantly juggling kids with late sound checks and picking up artists from the airport at 3am,” says Hart.
“So I decided to take a break and that’s when I chose to create something new.”
And the idea for Neon Starfish came about thanks to her children, or rather, more specifically after being pregnant with two children.
Hart says that her body had changed so much after having had two kids that she found it really hard to find nice flattering clothes saying: “It was impossible to find outfits for ladies in their mid-thirties that weren’t frumpy” so she decided design her own.
“The brand has grown from there really,” she adds.
It is important for Hart to be involved in every stage of the process from the design to the retail side of the finished products.
“Every piece is designed by me – hand-tailored with lots of changes in between to get the perfect shape, style and fit. It is then created in the most beautiful prints and colours that we source and design for our customers,” explains Hart proudly.
“We offer bespoke tailoring too to help all shapes and sizes of women. I’m really proud to say that everything we sell is 100 percent created and made in the UAE and designed exactly for our customers’ needs which makes us stand out from all our competitors here.”
After being in marketing for so many years, Hart admitted that it was difficult and frightening to embark on something entirely new, but her experience actually helped in the success of her brand.
“I’d worked with some of the best artists in the world doing styling for photoshoots and music videos, and so I had anunderstanding of how to flatter a body,” she says.
“Having worked with Alicia Keys and Kelly Clarkson – two beautiful women with very different shapes – I understand what is needed to make women look the best they can. I never design clothes to exact tailoring measurements – instead I design them for what looks, and most importantly feels, right.”
And it seems to be working because Hart’s clothing business is flourishing. On top of being popular with ladies in the UAE, Neon Starfish is being worn by celebrities in the UK and is also available in one of England’s largest department stores.
So, how does Hart do it all? “My main challenge is time. I mean, how do you be an amazing business woman and an equally amazing mother? It’s the question everyone in the same position as me faces.”
So what is the answer? “You just have to try your best. I am a single mum, so I am very grateful for the help I have from our nanny. I couldn’t do both work and parenting without her support and I feel very lucky to have it.”
Hart has included her children in her business from the very start, in fact her eldest came up with the name because “the starfish is the most special thing in the sea.”
“They earn pocket money helping me get ready for markets and when I open new shops. Every size cube on every dress is added by my two sons. It’s a great way to help develop their reading, too,” laughs Hart.
“I love involving them in it. I feel it instills a solid work ethic and entrepreneurialism in them from a young age,” something that Hart remembers from her own childhood.
“My Mother and Father always took me to their offices to “work” when I was young. I loved it. I genuinely think my boys do, too.”
Hart also shares her top tip for any mums wanting to make the leap to having their own business saying: “Schedule time so you aren’t torn, never feel bad about having to work, and try to include your kids as much as you can. Let them see how hard you work and allow them to enjoy it with you. When you see it through their eyes, it gives you an energy to put back into your work too.”
Twinkle Tots founder
Mother to four-year-old Vula and two-year-old Noa, Claire Harris is originally from Australia, but has lived in Dubai for almost ten years.
With a background in hospitality marketing, Harris undertook freelance projects when she fell pregnant with her second daughter as she found it easier to fit around the demands of her growing family.
But after the birth of Noa, Harris felt that by not having a permanent job she had lost part of her identity, but at the same time was reluctant to go back to work full-time – an issue faced by many stay-at-home mothers.
“It was challenging because the UAE has very few part-time opportunities so it was a case of going back to work full-time or creating my own part-time solution, and that’s when the idea for Twinkle Tots came about,” she explains.
Twinkle Tots offers 90-minute sensory and development workshops for toddlers aged between one and three.
Harris admits that she found it daunting to start out in a new industry doing something she had never done before, but says it didn’t take long for her to become fully immersed in it. Her biggest challenges? Cash flow and unexpected costs.
“Being such a small business coupled with not having much of a financial buffer and limited funds to invest in marketing and development is really tough, but it also ensures you are on top of your accounts and more creative when it comes to marketing,” Harris explains.
“Also, not having a team around, and therefore having to undertake so many varying tasks (from teaching to accounting) myself, has been both time-consuming and challenging, yet rewarding at the same time.”
Having her children at school and nursery respectively helps her to get on with the task of running her business, but the very nature of what she does also allows her to spend time with them when she is at work.
“When they aren’t at school or nursery they can join in the classes and play in the amazing soft play facilities at the locations where we run our workshops. Also, the beauty of the Twinkle Tots Dubai model is that the workshops take place in the mornings, meaning that I am then able to pick up both the kids from their school and nursery in order to then spend the afternoon with them,” she says.
“I also do most of my administration in the evenings, but should I need any extra time during the day we have a great helper who has been instrumental in supporting our family,” Harris adds.
Harris tells other Mums looking to go it alone to: “Go for it! Do your research, plus prepare and surroundyourself with supportive people.”
“Mums are some of the most organised and productive people and are required to play so many roles daily that often they don’t give themselves enough credit or have the confidence to start something.”
“Being able to plan and manage my own time has been the biggest benefit and has played an amazing part in generating the balance I needed in my life as a mum with a young family. Find your motivation and use this to your advantage, especially when you are tired from being up all night with a bub or two!” Harris says.
Before founding Hotbunz, mother-of-two, Ali Alikhan had never run her own business. Her freelance business consultant background left her with awkward gaps in her CV, something that a lot of Mums will know all about.
So when the idea came to Alikhan, her sister Noora and husband Serge, the trio seized it with all six hands.
“I always loved the idea of building something of my own, but never had any solid ideas or plans to start a business. Somehow the idea developed a life of its own and the three of us have been on this journey together now for the past couple of years,” she says.
Alikhan says the idea formed when she struggled to find cute bottoms for her now four-year-old son, Alex (she also has a two-year-old daughter called Elise) and hated how most brands of trousers seemed to cut into her baby’s tummy leaving painful-looking red marks.
“Our no-pinch waistbanded trousers – for babies and toddlers up to three – are all made out of premium GOTS certified organic cotton sourced from Germany and the US,” Alikhan explains.
To look at the stylish website now, you wouldn’t guess that Alikhan ever faced any challenges, but face them she did, head on.
“They say entrepreneurship is like jumping off a cliff and assembling the plane on the way down. There was definitely an element of that – and in fact there still is,” she laughs.
“We examined and re-examined every little detail about the Hotbunz trouser design and made sure it had everything we ever wanted in a perfect pair. But there was so much more to it. At our first photoshoot we only had one pair of each colour made. We didn’t have a website. And we didn’t know anything about logistics like shipping and fulfilment. All we had was a design we loved and the best fabric we had ever tested.”
But in spite of it being tough at times, Alikhan says she doesn’t regret going it alone.
“I think even when you love what you do you can still have down days, but you never regret it.”
Like any working mum, the biggest battles are the internal ones questioning whether we are spending enough time with our children.
“I have spent way too long agonising over this. I’ve sort of come up with a solution lately, which is to plan the week in advance. If I know I have proper work time and quality time with the kids penned into my schedule, it takes the pain out of making minute-by-minute decisions about what to do and how to best spend my time,” Alikhan says.
“Of course, any Mum knows that a schedule to be working on a Monday morning for example doesn’t always play out the way you want it to – between sick kids and unexpected nights where you haven’t slept much... I just try to be scheduled and flexible at the same time. And to accept the current situation for what it is.”
She also says that she gets impatient on the business front sometimes when she can’t spend as much time growing it as she wants to, but tries to remind herself that moving forward at her own pace is the best she can do, and that doing that is enough.
So what’s next for the business?
“We have just introduced matching bibs which makes a really sweet outfit when teamed with the trousers. Mums have even asked us for Hotbunz in their size, now that would definitely be fun!”