Marie O’Neill:'I traded in money for happiness'. Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/ANM

'I went back to university in my 40s'
Andy Hill, 41, kick started a new career a little later in life by embarking on a law degree.

“I grew up in the UK and graduated with a degree in business studies from Brighton University where I met my husband Julian, who was studying to be an engineer. At 22 I got my first job with the merchandising department of Debenhams. We got married in 1993 and soon after Julian got a job in Hong Kong. I’ll never forget that February day in 1995 leaving the UK to start our new life in Hong Kong. I was so scared I cried all the way. Little did I know, that departure was the start of my life as a long-term expat.

The Hong Kong environment is very career-focused. I continued to work in the garment industry, this time sourcing fabrics for UK high street retailers from suppliers in the Far East, a job that involved a lot of travel. When I turned 27 I fell pregnant with our daughter Meghan, who is now 13. Soon after I had Harry, now 11, then Tia, now seven years old. I tried to continue with my career but the travel commitments made it too hard. I stopped work and became a full-time mum.

After 12 years in Hong Kong, Julian got a job as design engineer for the Dubai metro and we moved here six years ago. I love my kids and enjoy being involved in their lives, but on another level I found it frustrating. It’s as if I had lost my identity; I was always someone’s mum. My life involved volunteering at school and driving my kids to their many after-school activities. I hit 40 and realised that even my youngest was getting more independent and that my job as a hands-on mum was becoming obsolete. Sitting by a pool one day last year watching my kids at a swimming lesson I felt a sudden panic. Soon they wouldn’t need me any more and who would I become?

Law has always fascinated me and a continual nagging regret I’ve always had is not giving it a chance at university. I discovered the Institute of Legal Executives for UK law and their website www.ilex.org.uk offering flexible, online training and welcoming mature students living anywhere in the world. It was the boost I needed - by March 2012 I signed up and my law degree began.

When you reach 40, some priorities change. I don’t believe it’s ever too late to start something new. I’ve put the last decade of my life into my children, now it’s my turn. I want to take the experience I have gained in being a mum and use it to help make a difference to the lives of other families. Law is something that affects people everyday. I would like to specialize in family law eventually, though for now I’m plowing through the basics of all English law.

I have tight deadlines, research papers and endless reading. Now, while at my kids various activities, I’m with them but instead of watching I’m pouring over statutory instruments and litigation papers. I’m not going to pretend any of it is easy. I just sat my first exam in 21 years and I was terrified. I hope I’ve scraped a pass.

My husband is extremely supportive. I study alongside my daughter, my son thinks it’s cool his mum carries a pencil case and my youngest marvels that I am as untidy as her with our dining table covered in law textbooks. With a little discipline I can manage it all. As a very determined and proud person, I know I will finish the degree, even if it takes me the next six years. Doing something for me is very motivating. I’m working on the second half of my life being the best half.”

'I set up my own business to into my kids' lives'
Maureen Hall, 50, switched from Aircraft Technician in the Canadian Air Force to founder of Dubai’s own COEGA Sunwear corporation.

“Growing up in a small town in Canada as the sixth of nine children some of my earliest memories are of my mother sewing. She made all our clothes and insisted that we learned to sew, including my six brothers. I’ve always enjoyed making things; if the choice was between building a fence or doing the washing up, I’d be out there hammering nails every time. I also enjoyed tinkering with car engines, stripping them down, replacing parts and putting it back together again.

I wanted to become an auto-mechanic but when I turned 20 my father, who worked in the Military, encouraged me to join the Air Force as an Aircraft Technician instead. I remained in the Air Force for the next 12 years, often being deployed to the Arctic and Northern Canada.

After about seven years in the Air Force I met my husband Roger while we were both posted on the Hercules aircraft - he as a pilot, me as a technician. We were married in 1990 and I became pregnant with our first son, Kyle, in 1993. I was working with 450 Helicopter Squadron at the time on the Chinook helicopter, it was combat training and I didn’t feel it was suitable for a new mum. I left the Military and, while Kyle was a baby, started a small sewing business from our basement - ‘Maureen’s Custom Clothing’. I made everything from curtains to wedding gowns to military tuxedoes.

In 1999 Roger got a job with Emirates Airline and we moved to Dubai when Kyle was six years old. In 2001, when I turned 40, we had our second son, Aidan. Dubai is much hotter and sunnier than Canada and having a new baby and an older son I was always on the lookout for good comfortable swimwear to protect them – and me - from the sun. All that was on offer I found expensive and drab. So I started sourcing fabrics both from Satwa and online and made their swimwear myself. I also found that my children were slipping at wet poolsides and their feet were often getting burned on hot surfaces. Nothing was available to address this so I came up with the idea of comfortable, durable shoes that they could wear in water. Swim caps were the next issue; the silicone ones were so fiddly to put on, so I designed a cotton/lycra alternative. While swimming with my boys I also wanted sun protection and couldn’t find nice rash guard tops for women, so I started making them as well. Slowly I perfected various designs for friends and demand slowly grew until, eight years ago, I took the plunge and launched my own company, COEGA Sunwear. My first retail outlet was our then corner store, Park ‘n Shop in Jumeirah.

I have developed COEGA slowly and deliberately here in the local market; now supplying over 30 outlets in Dubai and throughout the Middle East. I also have customers in the US and UK. As my boys have grown up I’ve been able to fill any gaps in swimwear available for their changing age and the general Dubai market. Customers can mix and match to suit the many cultural preferences present here – be it a child’s rash vest, bikini and shorts or leggings and a full swim shaela.

In June this year I also launched the ‘Drop Your Shorts For GOOD’ campaign following the banning of labourers on Dubai beaches because of unsuitable swimwear. Under the COEGA brand I’ve donated and distributed many pairs of new and used swim shorts to labour camps. We have drop boxes all over Dubai to keep the collections going.

My eldest son just left home for university. Watching a child grow is a lot like nurturing your own company. There are challenges along the way but in the end it is always enormously rewarding.”

'I traded in money for happiness'
Marie O’Neill, 31 years old, took a step back from the corporate grind to find out what really matters in life.

“They say travel is in the Irish blood. As soon as I completed my computer science degree I left Ireland and worked in Germany, South Korea and Australia. 2007 started with a job in Dubai as general manager for a major inflight entertainment company. I set up their Dubai office and was managing major clients including, among others, Emirates Airline and Etihad. It was challenging, fast-paced and the salary was great but over the next two years I became increasingly restless. By April 2010, just six months after the global recession hit Dubai, I handed in my resignation, despite the security and future job prospects.

For six months I travelled through Nepal and Southeast Asia before going back to Ireland to visit friends and family. By the end of the year I had the travel bug out of my system and was ready to return to Dubai. My priorities had changed and a fat salary was no longer my main motivation. I chose a job with EER, a relocation company, because I knew that my new boss would be incredibly supportive and advocate a work environment that I would find motivating – and I was right. It didn’t matter that I had to take a pay cut.

On my way to work one June morning in 2011, I found a five-dirham note on the road. I kept it as my lucky note, using it several months later as a contribution to a Dubai Duty Free raffle ticket. I completely forgot about it until I was contacted a month later to learn I had won a Ducatti Super Bike worth over 65,000 dirhams! I sold it and decided to donate a portion to charity. Through friends I had heard of the Raey Child and Family Development Association - a school for children living with HIV in Ethiopia. I went to Addis Ababa to visit the school in October to personally hand over my donation and was incredibly impressed with all they have achieved. I returned to Dubai and set about fundraising enough to sponsor an entire classroom of 20 children through their next academic year. From then on I knew I wanted to continue to help Raey in any way I could.

I’ve always liked to keep fit and with more time on my hands I started jogging. I liked the idea of triathlon but couldn’t swim the length of a pool and had never ridden a bike with clip in shoes. With the remaining prize money I decided to buy a road bike and start training. I entered the cycle leg of a sprint triathlon as part of a team last October and loved it. This motivated me to join Tri2Aspire, a local triathlon club. I trained hard, learned to swim and gained enough confidence to complete the next triathlon on my own.

Triathlon is now my passion. My goal now is to complete a full Ironman, December 9th, 2012, in Western Australia. Ironman is a mega-endurance triathlon that very few women attempt. It consists of a 3.8km sea swim, 180km cycle then a full marathon (42.2km run). I hope to complete it in 13 hours. In doing so I also aim to raise enough money to buy a school bus for the children of Raey who are not as fortunate as many of us living here in Dubai. Some of the youngest children at just three years old are walking over 10kms a day to get to school, often alone as they are either orphaned or their parents are too sick to accompany them. Through completing the Ironman my aim is to raise USD50,000, enough to donate a school bus and its running costs for a year.

My boss is encouraging and understanding of the time I need to train. For the next six months, every week I’ll be swimming up to 10kms, cycling between 180 - 250kms and running around 50kms, as well as doing yoga and core strength training. Most days start at 4 or 5am with training so I still have time enough for a full day at work.

By changing jobs I have never felt more motivated, content and driven. In the beginning it was challenging getting used to less income, but I wouldn’t have my old life of wining and dining back for anything. I took a chance by taking a slower lane in the corporate world, but sometimes life is worth a gamble - I’ve certainly never felt happier.”

For more information on Marie’s school bus visit www.raeyfoundation.org/blog.