x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 November 2017

Money & me: Snacking her way to financial success 

As the founder of The Snack Society, Kamilla Omarzay produces healthy, vegan treats — but 16 months into the venture she has still not paid herself a salary. 

<p>Kamilla Omarzay set up her snack foods&nbsp;business after&nbsp;working in marketing and advertising for 12 years.&nbsp;Satish Kumar / The National</p>
<p>Kamilla Omarzay set up her snack foods&nbsp;business after&nbsp;working in marketing and advertising for 12 years.&nbsp;Satish Kumar / The National</p>

Kamilla Omarzay is the founder of The Snack Society, a vegan food producer offering cakes and desserts free from gluten, dairy and refined sugar. Born in Afghanistan, the 32-year-old moved to Dubai when she was three after her family fled the Russian invasion. Ms Omarzay worked in marketing and advertising for 12 years before quitting corporate life in March 2016 to set up her online retail business, which delivers directly to homes and offices in Dubai and Sharjah, with plans to expand to other emirates.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I grew up with a father who was an entrepreneur. He started his own business at 15 when he lost his father. Back then in Afghanistan, the men were the main breadwinners. So when his father passed away, he had to step in and support the family. He dropped out of school and got into the trading business, trading all kinds of goods and commodities. In the '80s when the Russians invaded and it wasn’t safe, he moved us to the UAE and set up a manufacturing business here. Growing up he was a role model; he'd started from nothing and is now a very successful businessman. I always knew I would end up doing something on my own.

So why a healthy snack foods company?

I was suffering from a lot of digestive issues and went to every doctor in Dubai to no avail. I eventually let go of the conventional medicine to try herbal and Ayurvedic medicine and one of the doctors said I should give up gluten and dairy. This was challenging; while there were lots of options for eating out I struggled to find snacks. And the minute you find a gluten-free label in a cafe, they charge you an arm and a leg for it. I started making my own snacks, such as energy balls, to take to work and everybody was addicted. When I left my job in January 2016 to start my own business, my objective was to keep the prices low to make it affordable because everyone deserves to eat well.

How did you finance the venture?

I used my savings. I didn’t have the overheads to pay huge amounts for a retail shop, but I still required money for a trade licence, a website and logo, packaging and an industrial kitchen. I share a kitchen so the costs are not as crazy as they would be if you were to go out on your own or into a retail store.

How much did you get paid in your first job?

In other countries you can get jobs as a teenager, but that culture does not exist in Dubai. I got my first job at 19 in a bank but I didn’t get paid for about five months. They made empty promises and I eventually left. Then at 20 I joined a media organisation as a client servicing agent, making about Dh4,000 a month. I was really happy about that and when I got promoted to an account manager and was making Dh7,500 I was very happy. Then I moved into broadcasting and was making about Dh12,500 and was very, very happy. Later I was making about Dh15,500 and was extremely happy.

What came next?

I thought I was done with the corporate world and I went into yoga, but after a year as a freelance yoga teacher I decided that was not a career. I went back into the corporate world, working at Dubai Multi Commodities Centre for about Dh27,000 a month.

Are you always happy with your salary?

I’m always grateful for what I have. I believe that what you need will be provided to you – that’s the spiritual side of me. And the best thing you can ever say is thank you.

Did you worry about being able to pay yourself as an entrepreneur?

I’m still not paying myself. There was a lot of fear and uncertainty about going it alone – not just initially but every other day. Deep down I know this is for me. Having my own business and being an entrepreneur will take time.

If you are not earning from the business, how do you support yourself?

I am fortunate to have family living in Dubai so I have a good support system. What I'm earning does not measure up with a 9-5 job and whatever money does come in goes straight back into the business, so there are not huge revenues being generated or huge profits. It means I do fall back on to the family for help despite being 32.

Are you a spender or a saver?

A little bit of both. I do spend but I am a careful spender and never go in for retail therapy. If you need therapy, then retail isn't the right place for that. Things don’t make you happy. If you feel unhappy and go and buy really expensive shoes, you have the shoes but are still unhappy.

What is your more cherished purchase?

A present I gave my mother because she is not in my life any more; she passed away in June 2014. On the last Mother’s Day before she died, I bought her a gold set from Damas for Dh5,000. Seeing that happiness on her face made that gift the most cherished thing.

Where do you save?

In a bank in Dubai. I keep some in a current account and the rest in fixed deposits – it’s the most you can get out of your money over here. Even though the percentage is really low, that’s the best option.

Do you prefer paying by credit or in cash?

Preferably cash. I’ve never been one to have credit card bills piling up but you need one for travelling. At the same time, although I prefer cash I always forget to take it out.

What has been your best investment?

My business because it’s a passion and I know it will flourish into something amazing.

And your worst?

That was in 2007 when the property market was booming and I invested in an off-plan in RAK. The developer ran away and I lost about Dh100,000. The same thing happened to about 10 other people I know. I lost the least though, they’d invested Dh100,000, Dh200,000 or more and they lost all of it.

What do you most regret spending money on?

Louis Vuitton shoes – it’s just a waste because they are just shoes at the end of the day. In my 20s, I used to spend Dh5,000 on a pair of shoes and I regret that. As women we get bored and you can’t just throw the shoes away because you spend Dh5,000 on them. I also buy a lot of long gowns that I don't wear here. I have Alexander McQueen gowns, Stella McCartney ... they just sit in my wardrobe.

What advice would you give your younger self?

To relax, everything will come to you at the right time, in the right place, in the right order. Don’t rush, whether it’s a job, a husband, money – it will come to you when it’s meant to. If it’s not coming right now then you have a few lessons to learn, so just relax and enjoy the ride.

Do you have a financial plan for the future?

In terms of retirement, I don’t. I’m from Afghanistan but I don’t want to go back there – it’s not safe and there are not a lot of career opportunities. At the same time Dubai is home, but is it? There is a practical side to me and a "live in the now" side. I take each day as it comes, so I’ll just see where life takes me.

What would you raid your savings account for?

To expand my business by getting a small production unit where I can start producing en masse to supply to retailers, such as supermarkets.

* ahaine@thenational.ae