x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

All that and a bag of potato chips

Money & me Since she was a girl, HR director Bibi Farnham has found new and unusual ways to make cash.

Bibi Farnham, the HR and training director at Desert Adventures in Dubai, sends about Dh5,000 home to her family each month.
Bibi Farnham, the HR and training director at Desert Adventures in Dubai, sends about Dh5,000 home to her family each month.

I grew up in Pretoria, South Africa. I've always been quite entrepreneurial. When I was about seven, I would buy big bags of potato chips, divide them into smaller packets and stand on the pavement and sell them. There's always been something to supplement my income. In high school, my best friend and I baked cakes every Thursday night. The house would be completely swamped with cakes. The next day, my mother would drive us to school and we'd sell our wares. We did this for two or three years, making about 600 rand (Dh1,987) a month, which was a lot for us then. We'd make our holiday money that way.

I did that until I was old enough to get waitressing work. My first proper paid job was in 1986; I was the receptionist at Jacqueline's, nightclub in Pretoria. I earned around 4,000 rand per month, plus bonuses. I left my parents' home soon after getting the job and moved to Sunnypark Complex in Old Pretoria, which at the time was quite a prestigious place to live. My rent took up a big chunk of my salary; I moved in with one towel and one side table. I slept on the floor for awhile; I wanted to be independent so I improvised. I hung shawls on the wall and got bits and pieces from friends. Once I made some money I bought more stuff from second-hand stores.

My next job was as an assistant manager at Ster Kinekor, a South African cinema company. I was eventually promoted to regional marketing manager. At the same time, I did a nail course and opened a small salon. My father helped me pay for the franchise - Dream Nails - and I paid for all the trimmings inside with my savings. The franchise cost 15,000 rand and I spent around 10,000 rand on the interior. I sold it after two years and paid my dad back for the loan.

I didn't make thousands or anything, but I would supplement my income by clients coming to the salon or my home in the evenings. I left that job to go to the UK in 1997, where I worked in Harrod's beauty section; after that managed a salon on the QE2, the ocean liner. At Harrod's I once did Goldie Hawn's nails. The rand was very low at the time, so earning pounds was phenomenal, even though my basic salary wasn't high. The tips were more than the salary. I also once did a job as a medical guinea pig by testing new blood pressure drugs ? once a week for six weeks ? and got £950 (Dh5,249) for that. Nonetheless, I didn't really save money during this time because I used it to go travelling around Europe.

After a year, I returned to South Africa, and my previous employer, Ster Kinekor, as marketing manager. I stayed for one year before packing my bags again, this time for Orlando, Florida, in 1999. I worked as a cultural representative in the animal kingdom at Disney World. It wasn't a well-paid job; around US$5.20 (Dh19) per hour, but it was fun. Disney used to sell everything to employees - cups, plates, clothes - at 80 per cent warehouse discount, plus give out meal stamps, so people would end up staying for years and becoming completely Mickey-Moused.

My next job was for the owner of the Bank of Bermuda, and that was the most glamorous time in my life. I met the owner, John Deuss, in Florida while I was working for Disney World. He offered me a position with the company. I flew regularly by private jet and stayed in incredible hotels doing PR, hosting, marketing - bits of this and that. I was very well paid, and lived in Palm Beach in a gorgeous apartment.

I worked on marketing a new credit card that allowed the wealthy to make offshore transactions anonymously. I travelled to Mauritius, Bermuda and Florida for that and stayed in incredible hotels. I'd use my savings to send money home to help out my family and my friends. I never splashed out on shopping and I've never been a label person. In 2003, everything changed. I have an active relationship with God, and when he told me to help people, I said to Him: "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer me to work in more glamorous fields?"

But I knew that counselling was my calling. I started my own practice in South Africa, but I was very soft. If someone needed help and couldn't afford it, I would counsel for free. For example, if a woman going through a terrible divorce was sitting in front of me, I could not bring myself to take her 500 rand. I also worked at a rehab centre with addicts. I got very little pay, and it ended up taking increasingly more and more time, and it ruined me financially.

I used up all my savings and ended up with nothing. It was a very spiritual time for me, as I gave up an incredible corporate life, but I ended up with nothing. I did that for three or four years, before coming to Dubai, in 2007, to start fresh. I had nothing left at home, and Dubai seemed like a good opportunity to pick myself up again. I couldn't even afford the plane fare; a friend generously paid that, and another friend put me up while I looked for work. But I couldn't find the right job. I had no money; my friend gave me a little bit to get by, but I was completely broke.

One night, after I had been in Dubai about a month and a half, I felt particularly down about the fact I couldn't find a job and had no money. I was very angry; this was my worst moment and I questioned everything about the decisions I had made up to this point. I prayed to God, and felt like I was at the lowest point I had ever been. Eventually, I switched off the light and slept. When I woke up the next morning, I felt like something had changed in me - as if something had been switched on. I went to the computer and there was an e-mail from a man whose name I didn't recognise, asking me to come in for an interview. It was Samir Tabbah, the chief executive of Desert Adventures, a destination management company. We met, and I was offered a job that same day, as director of HR and training.

I'm still with the company. I cleared my debts in South Africa, and when I bought a Peugeot 206 CC I felt like the richest woman in Dubai, driving around with the top down. I'm not saving any money at the moment, because I am spending on self-improvement courses; I am learning about internet marketing, and have written an e-book about how to become a plus-size model. The marketing course cost several thousand dirhams, and I have also bought art supplies, as I love to paint.

I don't save, but I think I am investing in skills that will help me to make a passive income in the future. This includes learning about e-marketing and making money online through various marketing and advertising strategies. I send around Dh5,000 to Dh6,000 home to my family and loved ones each month, and I've never been a big spender on myself. One of my few luxuries is beauty treatments. I go to a place called Yin and Yang for a weekly massage, which costs around Dh150.

I also go to Dubai Cosmetic Surgery for laser pigmentation and facials, and Aesthetica in Deira. Those are the only glamorous things I spend money on. * As told to Jola Chudy