x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Balancing security and good times

Money &? me: In May this year, I launched Speak Dating, a language-exchange platform at the Shelter in Dubai.

Bénédicte Hennebo, the founder of Speak Dating, says she has a balanced view on how to deal with money.
Bénédicte Hennebo, the founder of Speak Dating, says she has a balanced view on how to deal with money.

I'm a Belgian national and I've been in Dubai for three-and-a-half years heading the marketing division for a large multinational IT and communications company. In May this year, I launched Speak Dating, a language-exchange platform at the Shelter in Dubai.

It's a new concept and very simple. It's about putting together people who have the same language requirements in a relaxing atmosphere. I speak four languages. I grew up speaking Dutch and French. I also speak English and Italian and I'm learning Arabic.

I have a degree in literature and linguistics from the Free University of Brussels. Literature and the arts interest me, but I have to be able to earn money to support my life.

I believe you have to be pragmatic and get balance in life.

I didn't feel a vocational pull to teach and business seemed to hold many opportunities, so after completing my degree I took an MBA in business at the Solvay Business School.

I've always felt the need to be financially independent. I'm married, but I want to be able to look after myself.

I've got a balanced view on how to deal with money. My husband and I have our own properties back in Europe. This gives us a sense of security. I'm careful with what I have, but like to enjoy life.

I'd rather spend time watching a classic movie than hunting down good investments or poring over a spreadsheet looking for ways to maximise my money.

I like to take pleasure in life, but there is a peace of mind that comes with being able to afford to enjoy yourself.

My husband is very different to me. He thinks if you've got money you should enjoy it.

I guess he is the grasshopper to my ant, but it's a good balance. I take care of his future and he takes care of my today.

He's Italian. Our differences probably reflect the difference in attitude between people in the north and south of Europe.

After finishing my MBA, I worked in Brussels and Amsterdam between 1997 and 2008. In 2008, I was working for a multinational in Brussels heading its field strategy for the Bennelux region when I transferred to Dubai to head marketing for the area.

I always thought Brussels was a multicultural city, but coming to Dubai I realised it's very much a European city. Dubai on the other hand is a global city, the linking of East and West.

The UAE is a country that doesn't have taxation, so your income is higher. Some people get carried away and find it tempting to use this extra money to, say, buy the latest car. But my parents came from modest backgrounds and I was taught to spend less than you earn and always put some money aside.

The concept of Speak Dating was a move to build bridges between the communities.

As much as possible, we try to put together people one to one.

An Egyptian who wants to practice their English will partner with an English speaker wanting to practice Arabic.

The couple will speak for 40 minutes or so in one language and then the next 40 minutes in the other. Depending on how they get on, they can continue the conversation outside.

When I first had the idea, I contacted Shelter, a community workspace that provides infrastructure for community groups and entrepreneurs.

I promoted the idea through word-of-mouth and a mini-survey that I sent through the Shelter's database.

The feedback was overwhelming. There were about 25 responses to the first event and it's grown month by month. Each session now attracts about 40 people.

Later, I contacted the Eton Institute, which was very encouraging about the idea. Now Shelter provides the location, and the Eton Institute provides missing language skills.

Attendees are from across the globe. There are lots of English, Arabic and Urdu speakers, as well as people speaking Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Italian and French. There are some Emiratis and people from Egypt, Lebanon joined a community group from Brussels that travelled to Burkina Faso. We worked with local theatre groups there to educate people about women's issues; the need to educate girls and the important role women play in African communities.

It was a six-week programme that I took on my holidays.

I didn't go looking to work in Africa, but a friend told me she was going and I thought: "That sounds interesting."

I don't see myself as a being a community volunteer. But some projects I've been involved in do have that context. Again, I think it's part of getting the balance between working for yourself and giving something back.

Speak Dating was based on my own needs and is run on goodwill.

Maybe one day I could make a business out of it - you have to be pragmatic about things. There are non-profit organisations and capitalist organisations. You can't say one works better than the other. There is a balance and, like in life, there are plenty of shades of grey.