Single mother and wellness entrepreneur Ahlaam Ali says she took a leap of faith that has paid off thanks to her budgeting skills
Money & Me: 'I came to Dubai with nothing apart from my son'
Ahlaam Ali is a nutrition and weight loss coach behind vegan-friendly Artizzan Cheeze and Powwer Jars healthy meals concept, of which she is managing director. British of Pakistani/Kuwaiti descent, Ms Ali moved to Dubai 15 years ago. She is a single mum living in The Springs, Dubai, with 19-year-old son Gibran, when he’s not at Cambridge University.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
I was born prematurely on a passenger ship and placed in an incubator for a month. My dad is from Kuwait, mum from Pakistan - we were going from Pakistan to Kuwait where we lived for 17 years. We moved to Pakistan for a year, then the UK.
My father is a businessman and educationist. He set up schools. My mother is involved in the business. I’ve one younger brother who also helps. I had a privileged background and we never had budgets or pocket money. We got what we wanted, which is good and bad; you’re used to the good life, but know you can get what you want if you work for it. Even if you have years in not the best financial situation, you know you can strive for more.
How much were you paid in your first job?
From 1999 to 2001 I worked at Red Letter Days (a UK experiences company) as a marketing executive, paid about Dh8,475 a month. I saved a lot for my son’s education.
What brought you to Dubai?
I was branching out on my own, a complete life change. I grew up living a brilliant life. I wanted to give Gibran what I had in Kuwait – sun, the open air, more exposure to different nationalities and cultures. I thought ‘here’s a bit of adventure’; a leap of faith. I came with nothing, except my son. I was here about four weeks, found a flat, a job and a car and got admission for him in school. I was working with a PR and marketing agency. The salary was good but did not cover all the costs, so I learned to budget very quickly.
What prompted you to start a business?
Something told me it wasn’t right being in a corporate thing and I wasn’t spending enough time with Gibran. I thought let’s have fun and make a difference to people’s lives so I left my cushy PR job to start something called Powwer Bhangra - Bollywood dancercise – the first of its kind in Dubai. We had people from all over UAE. That started 13 years ago. Since then we’ve had Powwer Detox, Powwer Kids, Powwer Yoga, Powwer Abs, Powwer Lounge.
How did healthy food jars and vegan cheese happen?
I retrained as a nutritionist, set up a consultancy that did well for six years. Then I opened a weight loss spa in Jumeirah. I love cooking and in September 2016 we started experimenting with different ingredients. We got jars from Ace hardware, sterilised them. I left them on my desk to eat. A customer walked off with one, came back next day and said ‘I love this, could you do these for me for a month’. Word got out. It became Powwer Jars. Gibran is diary intolerant, so I came up with a dairy-free cheese. We created a few and had an open house. The next day we got an offer from an investor (who attended the open house) of $1 million. They wanted 50 per cent, initially. It was tempting, but instinctively didn’t feel right so I backed off. I thought ‘we’re only young, I don’t know where we’re heading and if we take investors at that stage we’d be devoured by them’. It’s got to be somebody who shares the ethos, not just about making money.
Are you a spender or saver?
A saver. Initially I had no concept of saving. Having arrived in Dubai, after a couple of years I realised I can’t be here forever, had to think about my son’s future education. I started saving 80 per cent, after bills, with 20 per cent for fun. My son has been brought up with real, down to earth values. We learned to live within our budgets. Every time we’d want to buy something we’d ask each other ‘do you want it, or do you need it?’ We understood the difference.
Where do you save?
In bonds and property - an apartment in Dubai Marina I’ve bought off-plan.
What is your best investment?
My house. When you are renting, you move every couple of years. It’s my biggest milestone, to be able to afford a house, on my own; provide somewhere stable for my son. It was a good feeling.
What is your philosophy towards money?
A dirham saved is a dirham earned. I learned that the hard way. Money’s good to have, but don’t let it rule you. Start thinking sensibly, save for a rainy day, have your splurges. The more minimalistic you go, you realise the less money you need.
What is your most cherished purchase?
A Hummer - in desert orange. Initially it was for the safety. I’ve had it 11 years and it still runs like a dream.
Is there anything you regret spending money on?
Designer gowns and shoes. I’ve a closet full I never wear any more. I had some amazing clients who’d invite me to parties, in Emirates Hills, crazy Bollywood weddings; once we were showered with rose petals on a boat from a helicopter. I went through that phase and didn’t think twice about spending Dh6,000 on a gown. When I look back I wish I hadn’t. I’ve evolved and moved to a minimalistic lifestyle. I haven’t been shopping in months.
Do you prefer paying in cash or by credit card?
Cash. Dad brought me up saying ‘if you don’t have the money, don’t spend it’. I’ll only use a credit card online for buying tickets and then pay it off.
Are you wise with money?
When I moved from the UK I had money for one meal a day, so I’ve had to be. I got a job, but it didn’t pay for everything. Until now the business, the last two years, has been funded from savings. I went from being a real spender to being a saver to then spending it on the right things, rather than designer stuff.
Do you plan for the future?
We’re looking to raise money for Artizzan Cheeze through crowdfunding with Eureeca.com. Fifty per cent of our business is repeat, 50 per cent referrals. These people are not necessarily wealthy, but they’re healthy and recognise a good concept and said ‘how can we take the business and message global, help you grow?’ We’re have gone live this month. Initially we want to penetrate all the UAE market, then the GCC and Gulf region, then further afield.
What would you raid your savings for?
A house in Thailand I can convert into a retreat for people who want to lose weight and rejuvenate their health, where I have three/four people each month and help them transform their lives through nutrition and wellbeing.
If you won Dh1m what would you spend it on?
Fifty per cent into the Thailand house - spend Dh500,000 and buy a three-bedroom house with a pool – and the rest into the business.