This month our lady in the expat spotlight is owner and creative inspiration behind Starfish Lane Kids nurseries in the Middle East, Kimberley Sheedy
Originally from Australia, Kimberley’s expat story took her from Switzerland to Doha, via Dubai in the early 2000’s. In 2006 she was a full-time working mum with a new baby, a 9 year old son to put through school and a child care dilemma on her hands. Taking charge of matters, Kimberley decided to open her own unique brand of childcare with a holistic and very Australian approach. Starting with just one nursery in Doha, Starfish Lane Kids now have 4 branches, including their latest opening in Khalifa City, Abu Dhabi.
BG: Tell us more about what inspired you to open your own nursery, while living overseas 10 years ago?
KS: After leaving Dubai we were broke. I was working all hours; we had school fees to pay and I couldn’t find anywhere suitable to put my then 6 month old daughter. There were a couple of British nurseries but no where that was near the standard of what my son had experienced in Australia. I had a huge amount of working and expat mum guilt at the time.
At the time I had also befriended my now business partner, and although neither of us had had previous early years experience, through our joint passion as parents we were able to pull things together and start our own early childhood education business. I thought there was a big gap in the Doha market that parents were looking for and we were right. Immediately on opening we had 85% of our classes filled, within a few months a wait list of 200.
We follow the Australian Early Years Learning Framework and have a far more holistic approach than the tradition British EYFS.
Some of the surprises upfront, when Starfish Lane 1 opened in 2006, was how little regulations there actually were for opening a nursery. Rules didn’t exist, qualifications weren’t asked for. At the time it did make the job a lot easier.
Despite the existence or not of any rules in the Middle East, we ensure all our nurseries are of Australian standard when it comes to qualifications, training, health and safety. We invest a lot in our staff. Rules and regulations are in place now so there should be no excuses for poor quality early years centres operating in Qatar.
The success of our first nursery lead to further branches opening in 2008, 2009 and 2010 in Qatar, all in equal partnership with my Qatari Partner. This year with a new Emirati Partner I’ve opened our first branch in the UAE.
BG: What have been some of the challenges of running your business?
KS: For any new business out here (in the Middle East), there’s always a lot of work needed to understand exactly what is the system; how do you work with it, trying to get the answers you need. Coming from Australia I was used to a different work ethic. The country of Qatar is still very new, government departments are still working out how to do things best and sometimes this involves a lot of waiting for the right answer.
I always acknowledge that I am here in this country (Qatar) as a guest and must abide by the laws. But sometimes this means a lot of patience is needed. There are differences in business practice that I would not expect to observe in Australia.
Some lessons though you can only learn the hard way. Our 4th branch opened in 2010 and we had a 5-year contract in place but after 18 months, the landlord wanted the building back. We tried everything we could through the legal systems but despite everything that had been invested, our hands were tied and we were forced to close our branch.
This was hugely disappointing for the parents in our community, and we know impacted on reputation as people do talk. People who have lived here a long time understand how these things can come about but newcomers can’t comprehend the difficulties and what goes on behind the scenes. It was a valuable reminder that despite our successes things can go wrong.
BG: What have been the biggest positives of this experience?
KS: Being able to be my own boss is hugely important. I went through a difficult personal time in 2010, but as a newly single mother I knew I could personally sustain the lifestyle and income I needed to support my family and continue living in Doha.
It has also meant I am able to employ over 100 women from all different nationalities. I firmly believe that all women deserve an education; I have been able to empower women and help in the community.
But most importantly, success to me has meant I can focus on my passion which is working with my mentor Dr Catherine Hamlin and her Fistula Foundation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
BG: What words of advice can you give to others looking to pursue their business aspirations overseas?
KS: Working with a local partner is a requirement in Qatar. I suggest don’t just look for someone who you pay a fee to, look for someone you can work with and believes in you. Sharing a passion really helps. I consider my Qatari Partner to also be a friend and we challenge each other which is great – I feel like my voice is heard. Some, of course, will only be interested in the money and demand a flat fee for their time.
Excellent childcare for the community comes from employing excellent staff; this can be expensive so our running costs might be higher then other nurseries, but if you want to deliver a quality service, you’ve got to find the right people. We pay them what they deserve for this, as well as give them the training and the tools to do their job properly. We do a lot of training with a focus on team work, but most importantly we make our staff feel empowered.
I always employee people who are smarter, more experienced or more qualified than me, and willing to challenge me. I don’t deny that I am the creative one, I have the vision but I need people who can deliver that vision, take it forward, and feel empowered to do so. This can only happen if you give them the opportunity.
It’s hard not to talk to Kimberley and leave without a vibe of warmth and empowerment too!! We thank Kimberley so much for her time in talking with us and wish her new business in Abu Dhabi every success (Aussie passport holders & Abu Dhabi Mums members also get discounted term fees!)
Do you know any other inspiring mums in your expat community who have turned their business dreams into a reality? We are always looking for more people to interview and share their story – contact Keri at [email protected].
Don’t forget to check out the other amazing women featured in our Expat Entrepreneur series.
Photos courtesy of Kimberley Sheedy and Starfish Lane Kids