"I was born to be successful." Meet Roxanna Jaffer, CEO, thought leader, motivator, social entrepreneur, strategist and agent of change.
Her exuberance for life and the constant search for excellence are perhaps some reasons why Jaffer, a donut maker from the UK, became a hotel entrepreneur in the UAE.
Jaffer, co-founder of Holiday Inn Al Barsha, who is at the helm of running the hotel business, says success is not just the art of making money but also staying humble and compassionate at the end of it all.
Jaffer, a UK national with roots in India and Kenya, was a housewife for a year before she was given the responsibility of building and running the Holiday Inn Dubai - Al Barsha in 2006.
Previously, in the UK, she was the founder of a donut manufacturing unit and selling it to the likes of brands like Harrods, Selfridges and others.
So, how did she end up a successful entrepreneur in the UAE?
Jaffer doesn’t give a straight answer. Instead she quickly circumvents the question to reply, “Just to let you know, for me personally, success is not about the money you accumulate through the course of life. Your status is most definitely not designed by the economic situation you are in. Instead it is the person you become after making the wealth that for me defines as to who truly is successful and who is not. How you contribute for the betterment of the under-privileged society is what completes a person.”
For the record, Jaffer came to the UAE in 2006. Her husband was already a businessman working in the UAE. "I came here to lead a retired life after having worked in the UK. But a year in I was bored stiff. I was yearning to do more with my life and myself."
She said Dubai has given her more than she expected. Back in 2006, as a new entrepreneur and hotelier in town – a field she had never dabbled in before – she admits there were fair number of challenges to contend with.
“Being a woman, I had to think like a man, an engineer, an architect and a designer as I built the hotel from scratch. I am aware of every brick on the wall, the wood, the stone that has gone into constructing the hotel. It is my baby and I love her to bits.”
How it started in Dubai
Jaffer said her husband was helping a friend buy the land for the Holiday Inn Dubai - Al Barsha. "It so happened that I was with him when the deal was taking place. Before I knew, our friend asked me to join the business and help run the hotel. Soon I was looking at designs for the hotel, picking the marble and designs for the floor. It was really interesting and challenging at the same time. Remember I was dealing with things like structure cabling – for example. I had to figure out what this was, why was it required in a building construction and best place to source a good quality cabling from. Then there was the issue of the door. How it should look was not the primary concern, whether it was fire-rated was vital. I had never dealt with issues like this. But I dived into it."
Basically, at the drop of her hat Jaffer would put on the hard hat to oversee property construction. “Mind you, I have climbed a ladder in peak summer and 50 degrees heat. I have enjoyed every bit of it.”
“Being budget savvy and making sure everything worked to a number was a challenge, but thanks to my background in accounting, it all fell in place. For example I had to deal with quotations from $20 to $500 from suppliers. So I had to finalise a product that would balance the two. Yes you have to have a little bit of a finance background. Luckily for me I had worked as an accountant, dabbled in real estate selling and in the letting business in the UK, so I was not afraid of dealing with numbers.”
"One of our challenges is that in Al Barsha alone there are 14,000 hotel rooms. Essentially we are competing with 14,000 keys to fill up the hotel every day. When we don’t meet this challenge, it is inventory gone down the drain. I had no idea about hospitality. Remember I was selling donuts, I had no idea about running a hotel. Everything was new to me but I realised soon that selling donuts and hotels was the same - both were perishable as the clock turned. Added to this, the UAE is a cultural hotspot - a melting pot if you like. So meeting people of different walks of life and more importantly understanding their cultures were beautiful."
Making donuts in the UK
“I was a young aspiring student in the UK who had come from Mombasa, Kenya. My family was already living there. At first, I thought I was cut out to be a stage person. But my father did not like me doing anything on stage. Like any Indian parent, he wanted me to be a doctor, lawyer or an accountant. Since I was not keen on the first two – I qualified as an accountant. In one of my early jobs, I got myself a job as an accountant for a donut manufacturer. The American company which owned the operations of this donuts firm left the UK and handed the business to a British person. I decided to partner with the British person. Later I learnt the ropes and opened my own production unit producing 14,000 donuts a night selling to Harrods, Selridges and the British railway stations.”
“I was 24. My sister then joined hands with me and together we built this built it up a certain level. At one point, we were hiring nearly 40 people.”
The business was competitive, she said, as is the hospitality industry now. But dealing with the challenges back then, she said, helped her meet the new ones today.
“I was competing with Kit Kat. It was a very cultural thing. While Americans like to indulge in donuts ever so often, the British love their Kit Kat. The other thing is that Kit Kat is not perishable, but a donut is. So I learnt to deal with wastage and consumption and what worked for people and what did not.”
Besides industry challenges she faced a number of networking challenges. “In the UK I had to face colour prejudice and sex prejudice. There used to be what is known as the man’s club. For instance, I was about to sign a contract with a company on Monday. And on Monday morning I got a call saying he was not signing with me. He would not explain why. Later I realized on the weekend the owner of the company had a golf game with someone who he eventually gave the contract to. It was a rude shock to me but I learnt to deal with it. Basically whatever price I offered it was refused because I was not playing golf with the company owners. Thankfully in the UAE, if you don’t see such a thing. End of the day, it is all about providing good quality service to customers. That is what the UAE thrives on. And that is why at Holiday Inn Al Barsha, we strive to offer quality service to all."
Message for women entrepreuners
If you have a dream or a vision, work hard to realise it. Learn to be assertive. In fact, I talk about this to a lot of women. I like to empower them and advise them to not run after success, but after excellence and success will follow. I think Dubai and the UAE have achieved a lot of success in the UAE.
And always keep your compassionate side with you, no matter how much you grow big in life.
As part of the team initiative, we decided to host a number of children of determination. “It was heartening to see the staff all come together to spend time for the children and do things for them. Some wanted to make them a special burger, play games for them. Suddenly I saw everyone coming united for a cause.”
It is no wonder that Jaffer has received many recognitions and awards not just for her work but also her philanthropy.
“There are not too many people who get an opportunity in life. So when I was given a chance I grabbed it with open arms. This should be the case for everyone. Don’t miss a chance to bring a positive change.”
Accolades and rewards
"GLOBAL INSPIRATIONAL LEADERSHIP AWARD 2015" for Outstanding Leadership Awarded by: World Women Leadership Congress
“Best Best Woman in Hospitality UAE Award” conferred by “Women Leaders in UAE”
“Super 100 Women Achievers From India in the Middle East & Africa”
“Global Female Leadership Impact Award” for being a transformational CEO in UAE
‘Why Leadership Matters”
Recognised as “Putting Sustainability Development Goals into Action” 2017
World Women Super Achiever Awards at 26th FEMINA World HRD Congress in Mumbai