Alia Al Nabooda’s Fiafia Play Area and Café brings learning and delight together for kids

Creating a business from your own needs has sparked this mother of four to create an enterprise with a difference. Meet Alia Al Nabooda, founder of Fiafia play area and cafe who created a business of some distinction beyond just the bottom line. Qirat Attar discovers that it goes.

Of all the generational business families, there’s something a little different about Alia Al Nabooda. The mother of four and the creator of Fiafia play area and cafe is an important reminder of the value of intuition in business. Born to a British mother and an Emirati father and growing up in the UAE surrounded by the aura of a successful and expansive business under the authority and able leadership of her father, whose empire ranged from the distributorship of luxury cars such as Porsche, VWs and Audi, construction, education, catering, hospitality, and the Dubai Printing Press, Alia got a glimpse of business life at a very young age.

She recalls sitting under the table while her father conducted meetings, the office being her playground. The home life saw ample dinner parties with Europeans, Arabs, and other potential business partners as guests. Immersed in an overwhelming business culture, it is interesting to note that her playground as a child became her workplace as an adult.

Her stay-at-home mother supported her father every step of the way, handling the affairs of the home. The children were raised with British influences, minding their Ps and Qs, punctuality, immaculate tidiness, and politeness ingrained in their lives. “What’s the magic word?” was a question her mom often asked, she recalls with fondness. When not in UAE, England was a second home, and the family visited London every year during the summer or winter.

It was a different time, and antiquated ideas about women’s education still held sway. Many women did not pursue higher education. Blessedly Alia’s father held no orthodox ideas. All children of the family were expected to go to university, including her elder sisters. “You have to get your education, whether you need it or not.” She acknowledges that the UAE is a flagbearer on this front. Pursuing Bachelor’s in Business with a specialization in Marketing from Dubai’s Zayed University, she later attained a Master’s in International Business.

A YOUNG MOTHER WITH A GOAL

Alia’s defining trait is that nothing comes between her and her goals. What may seem like obstacles to another are just stepping-stones to her; that is the grit and determination she displays. She completed her Bachelor’s when pregnant with her first child at the age of 20, scheduling her classes so that she could take out time to nurse the baby at home and then attend classes.

I’m a big fan of play,” she asserts, stating that she has always been a firm believer in the emphasis on children’s rights

She credits it also to having an incredible support system with her friends, husband, and family, whose encouragement helped her tide over the days when it all seemed impossible to do, and weariness threatened to make her quit.

After finishing her Master’s, during which she gave birth to her second baby, she joined her father’s head office as a board member. “I learned a lot when working as there is a major difference between getting a degree and getting practical experience.” But this wasn’t enough, for she felt the inklings of wanting to expand herself more. It was her instinct for experimentation and creative expansion that led to her meeting David Tobias, who had an ad agency, as well as the idea for VoucherSkout. Partnering up with him in Acumen advertising agency, VoucherSkout took off.

David’s big idea, VoucherSkout, is a free app that customers can use to buy vouchers for discounts at their favorite restaurants, spas, salons, and other leisure haunts. In her brief stint there, VoucherSkout absolutely exploded in terms of market and business. Alia exited the firm in 2018 after reaching a saturation point, bogged down by feeling like it wasn’t her thing anymore, having added all the value she could to the business. Today, the company is still going strong, and Alia’s efforts, leadership, and the amount of work put in have a significant role in its trajectory today.

FIAFIA - THE JOY OF GETTING TOGETHER

After VoucherSkout, Alia took a break, looking for something she could believe in, one that would speak to her passion – that of child development and growth.

A huge proponent of kids leading healthy, balanced, stress-free lives, “I’m a big fan of play,” she asserts, stating that she has always been a firm believer in the emphasis on children’s rights. As a mother, she’s always coming up with different toys and games for the kids, and her friends had often reiterated that any endeavor she started for children would hit the bull’s eye.

“When children play, that’s when they’re learning.” As a mother of four, she has witnessed first-hand the immense benefits of frolic and play for children. They’re learning teamwork, coordination, sharing, social skills, communicating with friends and adults, interacting, all with limitless joy and happiness. “A teenager today has the same stress level as a 45-year-old worker, which is no good.” Determined to spark change with a gem of an idea, the concept of Fiafia was born, a place dedicated to play and fun for the kids.

Fiafia opened its doors in February 2019. It was born out of the desire of a frustrated mother who wanted an amazing fun space where her kids could go and have fun while she could watch them under her caring eye and relax, work, or meet up with friends. She wanted a place that was safe and clean and where her kids could socialize, engage in activities, play, and enjoy their time. Covid forced a swift hiatus in April 2019 for five months, but the enthusiasm did not waver; not Alia’s and certainly not the parents’ who found it a wonderful place to kick back, relax, grab a bite or even get some work done as their kids played and learned in an engaging, social format. The result? Business took off, and they drew large crowds.

Alia passionately explains, “Fiafia means the joy of getting together with friends and family, so it is everything our place stands for.” Given the meaning is emblazoned on their walls, she’s evidently proud of it. Although in its nascent years, she already dreams of branching out, touching multiple sections across the Middle East, UAE, even envisioning a global presence. She is also churning with ideas to expand vertically, tackling various age groups, such as Fiafia for teens, a place to hang out and unwind for adolescents thirteen and above, as well as FiaFia daycare.

She is also churning with ideas to expand vertically, tackling various age groups, such as Fiafia for teens

With a young child, a parent’s life sees a complete 180°. Swept up in the responsibilities of work, life, and their growing child, rest and recharge takes a backseat. Fiafia attempts to change that. Firstly, the cafe menu is not a limited, kids-centric affair. Fiafia has all the makings of a luxurious cafe, with the menu wide and delicious. Apart from good coffee and a calming ambiance, adults can also enjoy card games to spark conversation or connect with other parents.

While they do so, interactive employees who were handpicked for the team by Alia herself don’t just monitor the kids but engage with them on more than a superficial level – interacting with them via play, dance, music, and games. With a service so good, there is nary a parent who is a one-time visitor. Despite a day-based model, regular parents are offered monthly or three-monthly memberships so that they can access the play area whenever they want, all instated around the Covid protocol. “I’ve met a lot of customers personally, and the overall vibe of the parents is that it is a place that the kids love to come to, that they love to come to.”

Alia is surrounded by a competent, dedicated team who believe in the concept of Fiafia. “When we opened in DIFC – Gate Avenue, the play structure was still being finalized, and people asked, ‘How are you going to entertain the kids?’ But my team ensured that even if there is no play area, the kids still have fun. Despite just the cafe being open, the kids had a great time, and it was only possible because of my team.”

EXCEEDING LIMITATIONS

Apart from business ventures, Alia has an abiding spot on the board for Khalifa Juma Al Nabooda Group of companies. This diversified group manages stakes in companies spread over the automobile, real estate, hospitality and food services, civil and marine engineering, amongst others. With Alia heading the Dubai Printing Press and also a board member of the Overseas AST. Company (the civil and marine engineering arm), her brother as Managing Director, her younger brother leading real estate, and her sisters involved in the private office, this sprawling investment group is a tightly knit, well-run family affair with her dad still holding the reins as Chairman of Khalifa Juma Al Nabooda group of companies.

Most people would say numbers, profits, and loss, things like that. For me, that will come in time if you have the right foundation. It is the potential of a great business, then comes running it correctly

But there is something that sets her apart – Alia looks at business and investments differently. It’s never about the size of the enterprise but the spark of an idea. She acknowledges the difference in approach between her and her father. “For his companies, it’s a completely different concept, more traditional, all about numbers, track record, profit, and loss. On the other hand, if something catches my eye, I go, ‘Wow, that could be a really good business. I go with my gut,” she points out.

Take, for instance, her stance on advertising. “I think it’s one of the key factors. You can have an amazing product, but it won’t work if no one knows about you.” But Alia’s approach is unconventional. “Marketing isn’t just advertising on a big billboard; I believe in word of mouth. When a happy customer leaves my venue, they are going to tell other people. And that’s valuable, that’s real, and that’s what shows true growth of the business.”

When asked about how she contemplates new ideas for business, she takes a pause. “What excites me?” she muses to herself. It is revealing of how instinctive and spontaneous her business approach is. Ideas are everywhere, but one needs a keen eye to capture them. “I get excited by the smallest thing or activity I do. Traveling in Turkey, I was at a resort where tourists had the opportunity to hand-paint their own fedoras, and I was gazing at the hats wondering, what a wonderful idea! This will work great at Fiafia.” She routinely picks up little cues from her surroundings, intent on having her business grow or even find a surge of inspiration for her next big thing. That, combined with in-depth research and experimentation, or combining two or more concepts, helps her keep her approach innovative.

“I have lots of different ideas; there’s just not enough time to implement them!” she says wishfully.

AN UNCONVENTIONAL BUSINESS MINDSET

Her unconventional business mindset also means that success carries a different definition for her. “I know most people would say numbers, profits, and loss, things like that. For me, that will come in time if you have the right foundation. It is the potential of a great business, then comes running it correctly.”

“There are some companies with heart, but the numbers aren’t great. They may be weak in some areas, like marketing. That’s why I focus on the potential of the business. If a company like this is looking for an investor, I will take a chance on it. If I see the potential, I will take the risk, then help them find their weak point and strengthen it, basically add value to it.”

The attitude of the people involved, their story, and their passion determine the fate of the business. “I focus a lot on people. I am looking for that vibe in potential partners – passionate, determined, hardworking. I take a chance on people, and I don’t believe in failure.”

ON HOME TURF

With four kids, one might think Alia is chock-full of parenting tips, but she defers. “There is no one right way to be a parent. Everybody has their own parenting style, and it is about what works for you.”

Her kids slept in her bed till the age of six and took their time with independence, but Alia doesn’t mind it. The experience of raising four kids at different stages in their growth (they are aged 17, 14, 10, and 8) and with varying personalities has been an eye-opening experience. “As a mother, it is about how you bring them up. You have to respect them as humans first. Just because they’re my kids doesn’t mean I own them because they are individuals in their own right. I just want to guide and support them. I have a very open relationship with them, just like a friend, and I hope they feel they can come to me with everything. I have a very relaxed parenting style. If they want to do something, and I don’t see a problem with it, I let them do it.”

Because they’re my kids doesn’t mean I own them because they are individuals in their own right. I just want to guide and support them

She and her husband enjoy blessed communication, attuned to each other, and more often than not, are on the same page when it comes to their kids. “We’re partners, and we discuss everything. If two parents have completely different parenting styles, there’s a lot of clashes. But thankfully, we don’t have that problem. And no matter what the matter is, we discuss amongst each other and with the kids as well.”

Parenting can get very controversial, sometimes. Alia is well aware of the pressure on parents, courtesy of social media and celebrity parents. The archetype of the perfect mom, taking care of her kids impeccably, doting on them from dawn to dusk, can get severely daunting for any parent who is already anxious about doing right by her kids. Thankfully, Alia sees beyond the noise. “I don’t aspire to do that. I am a unique parent with a unique child, and every parent should do what they think is right to the best that they can.” Even in her own friend’s group, she observes varying parenting styles, and she understands and respects all of them.

She has taken the kids to work with her and exposed them to work. They come with her to interviews, business meetings, help her out with different roles, and give her ideas. She likes that they know what she’s doing and are eager to be involved, much like she was in her childhood.

DITCHING THE SUPERMOM ROLE

Alia doesn’t believe in the concept of a supermom, one who handles everything with total ease, who needs no breaks or relaxation. Taking time off to recharge is crucial to her, making her a better, more present parent when she takes some time for herself.

“I love traveling. Before COVID, I traveled 4-5 times a year. This year alone, I have taken three trips.” She travels with her family and is exceptionally fond of taking all-girls trips with her sisters. Both the experiences are very different, and she cherishes both and finds them equally enriching to her life. When she travels alone, she passes the baton to her husband, who takes care of the kids.

“I would say I’m very adventurous. In Finland, I went on husky rides and learned how to ski. I also learned cross country skiing, for she likes to try everything.” She describes a bizarre activity she participated in during a trip where you go in a sauna room, jump in the snow, then into a hot jacuzzi. The shock of temperature is supposed to invigorate you! To most that would seem unthinkable, but to Alia everything novel is a siren call, and her enthusiasm never dampens.

As a big believer of a balanced life, she advises everyone to make time for themselves, work, and the family. Personally, she schedules a time for everything; if she has a time specially marked for kids or family, all the work or anything else waits during that hour. With a zest for life like this, business is just another in a series of great adventures. With Fiafia receiving love from parents and kids alike, Alia is determined to take it from strength to strength. With her empathetic approach and hands-on style, whether it’s raising her kids or running her business, Alia Al Nabooda shows it really is possible for women to have it all.