Doing It All: Lily Kandalaft, Founder Of Malaak Mama And Baby Care
How Lily Kandalaft built Dubai-based maternity and childcare agency Malaak Mama and Baby Care while nursing her first child and while keeping a corporate job.
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“It was ‘mom guilt’ that inspired me to establish this business,” says Lily Kandalaft, founder of Dubai-based maternity and childcare agency Malaak Mama and Baby Care. “Becoming a mother is challenging, and one of the most daunting parts is the struggle of leaving your baby at home while you pursue your career.”
To a certain extent, Kandalaft’s story is typical of a necessity-driven entrepreneur, and in this case, of a new mother starting up a business to fill the gap in pre-and post-natal care in the GCC to support mothers like herself throughout parenthood. But Kandalaft’s entrepreneurial journey is also unique, because she built her business, while both keeping her corporate job, and navigating the demands of motherhood- that’s three roles she enacted at the same time. “I was on my maternity leave from my corporate job at confectionery manufacturer Mars GCC when I realized this gap in the business. Thankfully, my boss was incredibly supportive, and he helped me take the plunge faster, knowing that I had my job still waiting for me, should this business venture fail. I realize how incredibly blessed I was to have a manager like that at the time.”
Born in Jordan and raised in the UAE, Kandalaft had a number of prestigious degrees under her belt that led to a career across the banking and fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) sectors in Canada and the UAE before setting up Malaak. She holds a bachelor’s of science in management degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and a master’s of science in finance degree from the London School of Economics, London, UK.
Today, Kandalaft is a mother to three boys (Ryan, Zayden, and Michael), but the story of Malaak starts in 2013 when she gave birth to her first child. Looking back on that crucial period of starting up a business, Kandalaft now appreciates her own strength and ability to simply take the plunge, because “the best way to assess if a business will work is actually testing it out.” She adds, “I’m generally not a person that does financial models for ideas before venturing into them, and I find forecasts beyond one year unreliable, as no one can really predict what will actually happen, or the opportunities that will arise. I don’t think I even did a financial model for Malaak before setting it up! I just focused on the fact that as a new mom, the quality, service, offering and value that I was looking for in the childcare market did not exist, and I needed to create it for myself and for other moms going on this journey.”
In a span of 10 years, Malaak has grown from just six people as staff, to a team of more than 200 people servicing thousands of families in the UAE and Qatar. “Choosing your team -both at home and in the office- is extremely important, because choosing people you trust, and who will challenge you, and not always tell you what you want to hear is crucial, and I am blessed to have this both at home and in the workplace,” Kandalaft says. “Building and growing a business is very challenging; so, surrounding yourself with a strong support system of mentors, peers, and friends who are positive, yet challenge you, and believe in your vision is everything.”
Source: Malaak Mama and Baby Care
Another lesson that she has learnt over a decade of running a business is to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. “I have learnt that we will never be able to control everything, and you need to be agile when faced with hurdles, because, as an entrepreneur, the hurdles are constant,” Kandalaft says. “I now see hurdles very differently, and I think of them as, ‘What am I learning this time? How are we growing and getting better through this?'”
Such an ethos helped Kandalaft when the COVID- 19 pandemic hit the world at large- while her business was affected thanks to the quarantines and strict health and safety measures for childcare service providers that were imposed at the time, she today remembers this period as a transformative experience that taught her to embrace uncertainty. “It was the first time that I was genuinely worried whether our business would actually survive, and I had to maintain a strong front to my team, who were understandably concerned about their job security and future,” she explains. “However, amidst the chaos of the COVID-19 crisis, I discovered the beauty of relinquishing control, and I learned to appreciate the unpredictable nature of the situation. I embraced patience, and upheld our core values, recognizing the need for consistency, as we navigated through this crazy time.”
Kandalaft thus credits her venture’s ongoing growth to sticking to its values of honesty, quality, responsibility, and passion, throughout the years. At the same time, Malaak’s services have expanded to offer support to families throughout their parenting journey, from pregnancy all the way to early toddler development. In addition, the Malaak team has created a community of parents who regularly meet over weekly coffee mornings for networking or learning from experts.
“Our guiding principles have helped us stay true to who we are,” she says. “This consistency is what has allowed us to maintain our position as leaders in the market, as they are always our guiding principles, while we navigate complex and emotional situations in our business. We are a people business, and a lot of our work is about balancing the needs of our team with the needs of our clients and their families; so, it is important to embrace our values to guide us through these challenging situations.”
Malaak’s community of parents who regularly meet over weekly coffee mornings for networking or learning from experts. Source: Malaak Mama and Baby Care
As she celebrates a decade in business in the UAE, Kandalaft appreciates the country’s efficient business registration processes with lots of support from online resources and friendly local officials. However, she adds, “Running a business in the UAE is expensive for SMEs, as the regulatory framework has ever-changing rules and regulations, which adds complexity and unexpected financial costs. Creating a forum where SMEs can openly share their feedback and experiences regarding the challenges they face, while running their companies, would be invaluable. This platform would allow SMEs to learn from each other, and allow the UAE to learn from these valuable insights to strive towards becoming even more business-friendly.”
Looking at the road ahead for her enterprise, Kandalaft says she and her team will be training their focus on automating key areas of the business, while maintaining the personalized client experience, “as we expand into other geographical markets, and expand our service offerings.” As for how Kandalaft plans to guide her team towards achieving the aforementioned goals, she reveals that her leadership mantra is two-fold: lead by example, and lead with empathy.
“Firstly, exemplify the behaviors and values that you expect from your team,” she explains. “Display unwavering integrity, demonstrate genuine empathy, and hold yourself accountable for your actions. Next, understand and empathize with the challenges, needs, and emotions of your teams and clients. Through empathy, you gain a deeper understanding of their challenges, enabling you to find effective solutions, and you’ll thus be able to foster a supportive environment where individuals feel genuinely understood and valued.”
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