Dubai: When UAE-based British expat Emma Burdett, 43, became her own boss in 2018, she was still working a full-time corporate job. She chose not to quit her job right away, which is what newbie entrepreneurs are often quick to do, because it helped her to keep earning till her business took off.
"I built my business as a side hustle and left my job only three-and-a-half years later as I had to reach a stage where I could take a leap of faith and trust the process,” said Burdett, who self-funded a networking platform for women, named Women in Leadership Deliver (WILD). She initially invested merely Dh1,100 in her passion project.
“Since I was in full-time employment with a visa, this was reasonably easy. I also did my first event free of charge, so there was no profit. I did free events initially to build up our community. When the forum started charging for events and sponsors, I got a freelancer trade license in 2021.”
Quitting a decades-long corporate career
Burdett first worked as a real estate agent in London, which earned her GBP70,000 (Dh330,070) in 2001. After a corporate stint that went on for over two decades, which included multiple director roles in her late 30’s, she came to Dubai in 2014, earning Dh30,000 per month plus commission.
However, Burdett’s entrepreneurial dream was triggered by a mental breakdown, which later enabled her to become a certified transformational coach and support women to overcome fears and become confident leaders in the workplace.
“I worked in male-dominated sectors throughout my career, facing challenges like gender bias, discrimination, and even getting fired from my job once. I was thrown out of a client's office in London once with a comment like ‘what do women know about real estate’,” she added.
Passionate in motivating women to advance
She then created a women's network in 2016 for a company she had previously worked for. This is where she spotted a niche in the Middle East for a women's platform to bring existing and future women leaders together, share knowledge and expertise, collaborate and support one another.
“Women's networks play a pivotal role in gender equity. I am qualified in gender studies and organise formal discussions to bring both men and women to the conversation," she said, when detailing her vision to connect with women hoping to grow as leaders and seek gender equality in the workplace.
She also currently mentors women to create side businesses. For instance, she supported a client, Joanna, in forming TFC – Thriving Filipina Circle, which started with 15 women last year and now has over 300 Filipina women.
How did you finance your latest venture?
Burdett later went on to create her own networking platform for connecting women after she lost her job in 2018. Although she took on another job to pay her bills, it only paid her a third of her previous salary. She also later managed to balance running a business without quitting her job.
Burdett was managing the business on the side with her employer's full consent and was on their visa too. "Once I left the role to run the business full time, I maintained the trade license and applied for a freelancer visa. I have gold health insurance on top of this. The total cost was around Dh26,000," she said.
“I used some of my salary and savings from my previous employments to invest in the business. As time passed, I put a larger share of what is generated from the business back into the company to facilitate the growth of my business."
Entrepreneur's tip #1: Build a venture on the side to start, test it to see if it can make money
"I suggest to anyone wishing to leave the corporate world to build a project on the side to start. This is a great way to test if the concept works and if it can generate revenue. This can all be done with little risk since you have a role, a salary and a visa,” she said.
“It's vital to have savings to support you when you leap as you won't have a regular income to start. I suggest 6 to 12 months of money that you can live on. Only leave your job once your new business is self-sustaining."
Burdett also went on to build different revenue streams for the business. “My core focus over the last year was to get the business profitable. Reaching breakeven for the business was my most significant breakthrough as I did lots of personal growth work to rebuild myself."
Entrepreneur's tip #2: Keep work-life balance your priority to ensure your venture succeeds
Burdett considers 'the hustle' an outdated notion, saying you don't have to work 18 hours daily to succeed as an entrepreneur. She also elaborated how work environments starkly differ when being your own boss as opposed to working at a firm full time.
"We cannot perform at optimum when tired or burnt out. Don't underestimate how hard it is to be working for yourself, as entrepreneurship is a very different experience than working in a company with a big responsibility,” she said.
"The main challenge I faced is not having processes initially that you would have when you work for another company. I have people who work for me but work remotely in other countries, so I often have to make business decisions where one doesn't have prior knowledge, so it’s about taking risks."
Faced burnout when starting out as an entrepreneur
When Burdett left full-time employment in September 2021, being very excited to run her own business got her running from meeting to meeting, chasing clients and doing keynote talks in between. However, working at such a pace resulted in her facing serious burnout.
“I fell off a stage with exhaustion and in tears in March 2022. I had driven myself to exhaustion, and it lasted months. It included apathy, depression and lack of motivation. I realised that I couldn't work at that pace,” she said.
“I now maintain a work-life balance, and feeling good is my priority since we have nothing without our health and well-being. This is why wellness is one of the essential four pillars of our networking platform.”
Money tip: Lessons from your parents can impact your practices, but may need to be changed
Over the last few years, Burdett had to retrain herself to 'undo' ingrained patterns and beliefs that she picked up from her parents. "My UK-based parents were working class and had a lack or scarcity mind-set, which meant there was never enough. It's like you shouldn't be spending; save for a rainy day.
“This caused me to feel the same about money. I was scared to spend it when I had it, and then when I did, I felt guilt and shame. I’ve noticed this is common for a lot of people. So we need to identify limiting beliefs we have about money and rewrite it to include an abundance mind-set.
“For instance, I love clothes, shoes, and pleasant holidays. I did notice a pattern; however, when I felt a little low, I would splurge on shoes and clothes and then feel guilty. This falls into a lack or scarcity mind-set, and I have done much work on my money story to elevate this guilt.”
"It is also a realisation that I can earn and know how to create opportunities and revenue for my business. I resisted spending on home furniture in the past, as I put a lot of cash back into my business. However, I recently bought a brand new bed, mattress and sofa, which I have resisted."
Moreover, this year Burdett took ownership of her finances and started working with a finance coach. "I have an account in the UK and UAE and didn't know much about what I was spending. The coach helped me focus, look at my expenditure for everything, and make the right decisions by budgeting for myself and my business. I have a few pensions in the UK that I have had since my corporate days that are invested in, along with real estate."