x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Already having tasted success, these high-fliers quit to follow a dream

Who hasn't thought about quitting that dreary job and doing what you really want to do? Tahira Yaqoob profiles five business owners in pursuit of their passions.

Sibille Buchholzer-Juen was an international make-up artist for Chanel and Bourjois and is now the founder of Iconycs Cakes, which creates wedding and celebration cakes.
Sibille Buchholzer-Juen was an international make-up artist for Chanel and Bourjois and is now the founder of Iconycs Cakes, which creates wedding and celebration cakes.
There cannot be many of us who have not sometimes wondered at the almost arbitrary career decisions we took at the ages of 16, 18 and 21, decisions that more often than not shape the rest of our lives, for better or worse.
Many no doubt end up in jobs that are unfulfilling, unsatisfactory or do not tap into their skills. Some plod on regardless.
But it takes a bold soul to turn her back on climbing the career ladder and a lucrative salary to follow her passion or fulfil a childhood dream by setting up her own business.
The five entrepreneurial women featured here did just that, and they tell us about the highs and the pitfalls along the way.
According to the Dubai-based management consultant Alia Ali Khan, an increasing number of people in the UAE have a change of heart about the paths they have taken, whether it is five, 10 or 20 years down the line.
"When we choose our original career, it's usually at a time when we have a very limited understanding of ourselves or our judgement is clouded by parents, friends and what everyone thinks we should do," she says. "There is also a very limited understanding of what the options are in life. That is not the time in life when people sit you down and say: 'You can start a chocolate shop.' They tend to advise conventional careers like being a doctor or lawyer."
Reaching another stage in life means those stagnating in jobs have the financial freedom to take a different fork in the path.
"A bit later on in their career," Khan says, "they may walk away from something high-paying, but at the same time they are looking for a better work-life balance and they have savings so they can afford to take the risk."
Claire Fenner, the co-founder of Heels and Deals, a Dubai-based networking group for female entrepreneurs, says it is a particularly common trend among women in the UAE.
She herself packed in a job as the marketing manager for The One furniture store four years ago to launch a magazine for new parents and then set up Heels and Deals, a networking group for businesswoman in the UAE, which has now expanded to Hong Kong.
"If men are the main breadwinners, they cannot afford to leave," she says. "For career women, if they have children they sometimes find the work environment is not flexible enough. It can often be a lifestyle choice because your time is more flexible with your own business.
"A lot of people say they work longer and harder than ever before but the rewards are far greater than working in a corporation. They prefer being in control of their own destiny."
The UAE lends itself to creating a business and pursuing a long-held dream as it is a relatively new market with plenty of niche opportunities waiting to be filled, Fenner adds.
"The whole spirit of the country is very entrepreneurial," she says.
 
 
Sibille Buchholzer-Juen, 30, Dubai
Was International make-up artist for Chanel and Bourjois.
Salary  Dh16,000-26,000 a month.
Now Founder of Iconycs Cakes, which creates wedding and celebration cakes.
Earnings  About Dh9,000 a month after costs.
 
As the youngest of six sisters, I grew up watching my siblings applying make-up and dressing up. I was always fascinated by colours, make-up and beauty. I loved that you could turn someone ordinary into someone really beautiful and correct so much with make-up.
So I studied beauty and make-up artistry in my native Austria before moving to Dubai to work for Chanel nine years ago, where I opened the label's flagship make-up studio in Harvey Nichols. I was there for two years and toured around the UAE, Qatar and India to train beauty advisers, teaching them about new products and how to apply them correctly.
I loved teaching and making someone better than they already were.
Then I was offered the position of international make-up artist and trainer for Bourjois, part of the same company. I saw an opportunity to grow and take on more responsibility.
I trained the entire Middle East, Africa and Cyprus for four years but quit when I fell pregnant in May 2010 because I could not travel. I stopped and took some time off when Noah, who is now 13 months, was born. I had no idea if I would go back into the beauty business or whether I would go back to work full time; I left the book open. That's when the strange part of my story happened.
One morning in June last year I woke and wanted to bake, which is really odd because I have never had a passion for cakes or sweets and baked only the occasional cake. I made my traditional cake from Austria, the Sachertorte - I can make it with my eyes shut - and covered it in fondant and flowers.
Ever since, I have been baking and baking. The first one was probably not that great. At first I just baked for my friends. I did not feel it was a talent; anyone can do it.
I uploaded pictures of some of my cakes on Facebook last August and was contacted by a private client asking me to make a chocolate birthday cake for 12 people. After I had several requests without advertising and had made wedding cakes, I thought the interest must be there - and today it is my company. I make up to six cakes a week.
It was all word of mouth. Two months ago, the wedding planner Olivier Dolz said he wanted to partner with me.
I am not a baker. There are a lot of things I don't know but I ask my husband, Stephane, who is executive chef at Le Méridien Mina Seyahi and Westin hotels, and if he can, he helps me. He taught me old school tricks and tips, like how to make a traditional buttercream, but mostly he likes to stay out of it.
I look for good recipes all the time and change them to make them mine. I use prime ingredients, such as Echire butter from France, the most expensive on the market.
Ideas hit me all the time; I once saw a Vera Wang dress and used the inspiration to make a double-tiered wedding cake with ruffles around it.
I don't think I will ever go back to make-up. I made one exception when Carolina Herrera came to Dubai in October and asked me to do her make-up. I made her a yogurt sponge cake in the shape of the 212 Men bottle and she said: "Keep making cakes".
Working with food colours allows me almost the same feeling. With make-up, I created beauty on the face, but you make everyone happy with cake.
 
Samantha Wood, 38, Dubai
Was Director of corporate communications for Hilton Middle East and Africa.
Salary Dh40,000-50,000 a month.
Now Creator of the food blog Foodiva.net.
Earnings About Dh40,000 a month.
 
I started working in fashion public relations in London but decided to get out as it was very cutthroat.
The hospitality industry appealed to me, so I took successive jobs with two PR firms in Dubai, where my accounts included the InterContinental and Hilton hotel chains.
In the summer of 2003, I resigned and took a few months off. I was disillusioned, overworked and my health was suffering. I took some time off and went to Iran and Europe.
I started freelancing on my return and when the regional marketing manager role at Hilton came up in April 2004, they offered it to me. By then, I was hungry for it. It was in-house marketing, broadened my experience and I loved the company.
After three years, I was offered the role of corporate communications director looking after the Arabian Peninsula and Indian Ocean, reporting directly to the president of Middle East and Africa.
It was more responsibility but in the year leading up to my resignation in July 2010, the company restructured a lot. I found myself doing less and less of what I loved. There was a lot of red tape, bureaucracy and a lot of conference calls with the US. My hands were being tied and I did not have much autonomy.
For me, it has always been crucial that I wake on a Sunday morning and race out of bed to look forward to my week. The day you stop doing that, you have to question your job.
It was not an easy decision to leave. My parents were supportive but my father thought I was taking a big risk without a job to go to. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was not prepared to jump from one job into another, I wanted time to reflect.
I used the year before I left to save. That gave me the courage to take the leap.
I went to Japan and China with my mother and started a food blog that was then very amateurish. I had not even looked at a blog before but I have always loved food and every time I travel, the first thing I look up is where I am going to eat.
I would be up blogging until the early hours and got a real taste for it.
I started researching the market when I got back and thought there was a gap for a website with a blog with impartial restaurant reviews. After a number of courses to teach myself how to develop online, I looked into generating revenue through advertising and sponsorship, establishing social media channels and using my expertise to help publicise it.
My little black book has opened doors for me. I've been able to sell advertising and pitch sponsorship because of my contacts.
I launched Foodiva a year ago. It is instantaneous, easy to update, does not need much technical expertise and has zero overheads. I am still doing some public relations training 10 days a month as my bread and butter, but the website is now earning and brings in revenue. I'm actually making a profit now.
I get 20,000 hits a month and there are some months when I earn more than I did in my corporate role. I was also recently voted second best blog in the Best in Dubai awards, despite the fact there are more than 80 food blogs in the UAE.
It has not been easy, though. There were teething problems with the web developer, I was hacked into three times in six months, and you have got to be prepared not to have that regular cheque at the end of the month.
I work harder now than I've ever worked in my life. It dovetails into my social life. I have not been on a shopping spree or for a massage in a year. But I love the autonomy of being my own boss. I have plans to expand to Abu Dhabi and Qatar.
I have realised it is not about the money for me, it is about enjoying the job I do and what gets me out of bed in the morning.
 
Leslie Turner, 34, Dubai
Was Founder of the property investment firm Malpen Investments.
Salary Dh45,000-55,000 a month.
Now Creator of DubaiConfidential.ae, a gossip website with tips on the city's hidden secrets.
Earnings Not yet in profit.
 
I did a business degree in France, where I was born, and moved to the UK in 2001 to work as an accounts manager for a French food company. I left after three years to run my own business.
There was a scheme in France called Leaseback, which involved buying commercial properties off-plan and selling them to investors for a guaranteed rental income and tax back. I realised no one was doing it in the UK and saw an opportunity. I did not know anything about property but I think 80 per cent of jobs can be done by 80 per cent of people.
I had just met Jonathan, who is now my husband. He was working as a bond issuer for a bank and that relationship and stability gave me the confidence to do it.
At first, I was happy working from home and not taking orders or commuting, but after three years I started feeling lonely. In 2008, Jonathan was offered a job in Dubai. The plan was to expand Malpen Investments in Dubai but pre-recession, the prices were crazy so I decided to liquidate the business and do something else.
I tried going back to a regular job as a sales manager in a publishing company but did not enjoy it and left in August 2009 two months before the birth of my son Joshua.
I got the idea for Dubai Confidential from the American website Daily Candy. There was a gap in the market here for a website for women in their 20s to late 40s wanting tips and ideas about businesses that were not well-known. My focus is the practical and the quirky; my market is women who like the finer things in life.
I made a lot of mistakes. I must have seen at least 200 illustrators over six months before I found the right person. I changed IT companies three times. I launched the website in May last year, with the plan to expand it to Abu Dhabi. Revenue comes from sponsored links in articles, but I make it clear when it is an advertisement.
Last summer I created Dubai Confidential Film Club, which hosts a monthly screening in the Pavilion in Downtown Dubai. When we screened Breakfast at Tiffany's, everyone came in Fifties-style dresses and we followed it with an afternoon tea while there were vintage dresses and jewellery on sale.
Surprisingly, 15 per cent of the traffic on Dubai Confidential is male so I am hoping to feature more things to cater for men.
I get 8,000 visits on my site a month and it is growing. I have lots of ideas about how to expand. I am also working on a rental website, wonderland.ae, where you can access and advertise temporary services, from nannies for hire to renting furniture.
It is easier for women to set up small businesses here; they have help at home and more free time.
I have not reached the level I am aiming for but unlike before, I am more relaxed. If I become very successful, perhaps I will go back into a corporate environment.
 
Brigitte Hauwaert, 51, Abu Dhabi
Was Representative officer for Deutsche Bank.
Salary Dh30,000 a month.
Now Founder of Chez Brigitte chocolate making company.
Earnings Not yet in profit.
 
I studied economics in Brussels, where I was born, and then got married. At the time, it was the course my mother could afford and the easiest way to find a job.
I moved to America with my husband, and after my son Nicholas was born we moved to the UAE in 1988.
I started working in human resources at BNP Paribas bank, reporting to the general manager. I dealt with staff and contracts and set up a database.
When I left 16 years later, I was working as a compliance-in-charge officer, which involved auditing accounts, advising on money laundering and reporting to Bahrain.
I am a very outgoing person but I did not have contact with clients and it was extremely intense. I was learning a lot but there were a lot of rules and regulations and it did not suit my personality. I moved to Deutsche Bank as an office manager dealing with corporate and individual clients who wanted to invest. I learned a lot but I always felt something was missing. I am very good with my hands but I was not creating anything.
I did it for three years before leaving in March 2008, then spent six months working for the F1 team - but it was not my cup of tea. I was already thinking about chocolate.
You see, I have liked chocolate from childhood. When I was a little girl in Belgium, I loved going with my mother to the praliniere to look through the window at all these different bonbons and that feeling when it melted in the mouth - I always loved that.
I wanted to do something that represented my country but I did not know how to start or where to go.
The Belgium chocolate makers Callebaut have an academy at their factory in Wieze, so I did a one-week course in March last year, which gave me a good start. They used liquid chocolate from Africa and I learnt where chocolate comes from, how it is brought from Africa, the drying process and then got to put it into practice.
I found I loved working with my hands and using my creativity. There are so many different designs, recipes and colours, it is just amazing.
I did some more courses online and in Atlanta in the US, but mostly I learnt at home by practising. Even when you make bad chocolate, you can just melt it and start again.
I started selling boxes of chocolates last July and ran out when I had orders for 100 boxes at Christmas. People were ordering 20 boxes each and my box supplier could not keep up.
There is a lot of money involved; you need melting machines, moulds and colours, and I buy the best quality Callebaut chocolate from Belgium. Even the boxes come from Belgium, which is expensive, but I wanted the quality.
My dream is to have a shop. I had a lot of good moments in 19 years in banking but this is an adventure.
 
 
Rachel Morton, 33, Dubai
Was Celebrity PR and sales executive.
Salary Up to Dh38,000 a month.
Now Managing director of Social Circles UAE.Earnings Up to Dh10,000 a month.
 
My first job was in the entertainment world. As a music and celebrity publicist in Los Angeles, we had clients including Colin Farrell, Joaquin Phoenix and Ridley Scott. I took care of everything from red carpet appearances to getting into clubs; it was a grown-up babysitter position.
All the publicists were living vicariously through their clients. They had no life and it was a very sad, empty industry.
I ended up working with a family-run printing business. I was selling printing packages to manufacturers and earned US$125,000 [Dh459,150] a year with commission. At the same time, I had my first experience of an online business with a website called WhyWasIDissed.com. I found women in particular would spend a lot of time wondering why relationships ended so I came up with a solution - acting as an intermediary and contacting their other half to find out why they ended the relationship.
It was great. I loved the creativity, concept and design aspects of my own website but I wound it up when I moved to Dubai in 2008.
While here, I have sold everything from yachts to air-conditioning units to IT packages for hotels. At first I really liked it. But 2009 and 2010 were horrible for the hospitality industry and at the same time, I was busy setting up a website called SocialCirclesUae.com with a friend. The idea was to put people with common interests in touch with each other. There were groups for everything from movie lovers to camping and outdoor groups with organised events. Word spread and people started joining and coming to our monthly mingles.
Back then, it was not so much a business as for fun. It became a business a year later because we had hotels coming to us asking us to host events. By June 2010, we had 1,300 people on the site and I parted company with the friend. She wanted to do it for fun but my background in sales and marketing meant I could see how to turn it into a business.
There are now nearly 10,000 people on the site. I quit my job a year ago and decided to go full time when the numbers went up.
My revenue comes from advertising online and from events in hotels. Last October, I introduced paid-for membership levels, which earn different benefits.
I realised there were a lot more challenges than expected. I thought it would be very easy to sell online advertising but it was a learning curve. Technical stuff is not my forte so that has been difficult.
There is a need for the website. The population here is so transient; at events I have people who have been here for anything from eight days to eight years, and they include all ages and backgrounds.
When you're passionate about something, you're not clocking in 9 to 5, you're working all the time. There is nothing better than that feeling. The biggest lesson I have learned is having a plan, knowing where you are going and the financial implications.
I was once told: "You can have your own business or a very expensive hobby." I have personally taken on a huge risk and invested every last cent into making this work. It has been hard at times, especially when the rent is due.
But I see myself as an entrepreneur. I don't want to give up; I have too many good ideas, and each process teaches me more.