She wears many caps; mother, wife, lawyer, entrepreneur, educator and a lady who can make heads turn wearing a real cap. It was a pleasant surprise to be greeted by Zahra who was sporting a cool cap look on the day of the interview, but it did help me with my nervousness. Her attire made me relax a bit and be assured that I won’t be eaten up alive if I stuttered a little. We had a very special room for this interview, the same room where kids have their “circle time” and this room is designed keeping kids in mind with miniature sized chairs and tables.
Zahra Hirani, Founder of the award-winning Blossom Nursery, Dubai talks to us about moving cities, how her kids played as a catalyst to starting Blossom, changing profession to become an entrepreneur, building and growing her labour of love; Blossom Nursery and all things that happened in between.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself!
A: I am in my early forties, glowing and pregnant now with my 3rd child. I grew up in Canada, went to law school in the United States, worked at Wall Street for a long time and now settled in Dubai. My husband and I are both avid travelers. We moved to Dubai in early 2006 with our family. I moved to Dubai thinking I would continue in the law field and had positions lined up accordingly. At the same time, I was looking for a nursery to enrol my daughter at, who was 3 years at that time. I realized that there is a real gap in the nursery market here and decided to set up my own nursery. “Blossom Nursery”, was thus born and rest as they say is history.
Q: Did practicing law become a pillion rider after coming to Dubai?
A: With my time being dedicated to my family and Blossom, I do not practice law the same way as I used to. Today I practice law in a different way, I am a New York certified lawyer and I use my time to teach law at universities and do pro bono work. I teach Corporate law to MBA and Business Administration students as well.
Q: How was your journey after the decision to start “Blossom Nursery” was made?
A: “Bumpy, really really super bumpy” – says with a warm smile on her face. In our initial days of Blossom, having lived in some of the big cities – Toronto, New York and London I came with my own set of pre-conceived notions as to how things are supposed to be. The laws in these countries are very straight forward and when I started I had a similar approach to things here in Dubai. Which was the very first mistake I made (smiles). When I looked at the law here, about 50% of the things were just not regulated or just not being used. There were things in it which were not consumer practiced and it became really difficult for me to differentiate between what was written and what was practiced.
The bigger hurdle for me personally was to overcome my lack of knowledge about the field I had chosen. I did not know anything about education, my work experience was not in the field of nursery administration. This was really a big challenge but definitely not bigger than ensuring the safety of my 3-year-old. The driving force was I wanted to ensure my 3-year-old was safe when I left her under someone’s care. The basics which I took for granted coming from U.K. like would they have pediatric first aid, would they know what to do if she choked on a piece of watermelon or what happens when she falls of a swing. This led me to hire a good team, sourced internationally and they were the educational specialists and I focused on providing a space where parents can leave their kids and be rest assured that their priced possession is being well taken care of. Essentially what I am trying to emphasize on here is, when on an entrepreneurial journey there will be challenges along the way and one needs to stay focused on their field of expertise, for the other areas hire the best from around the globe.
Q: What role did your legal background play when building Blossom?
A: I certainly think that my background helps me become a strong Entrepreneur and helped me ascertain the risk factors in the early days. I was lucky to be able to self-fund Blossom between me and my husband. And this was possible because of our given backgrounds.
Q: Tell us about one best thing and one worst thing that’s happened; having started Blossom!
A: I will start with Best (with an upbeat voice): I had to work on shifting my personality. I came from a male dominated background and I was very cutthroat and direct in my approach. Given that the team at Blossom is largely women, we are now a team of over 200 women my approach at work had to be very different to what I was used to. I had to recognize talents and skill sets that are not so traditional, the ones that cannot be found in talents coming from a law or business school. Today, I am very optimistic in my approach and solution oriented as against the lady who looked at “what risk does this involve when starting something new”. I look at things from a different lens and starting blossom has given me this gift and I am happy to found this.
Coming to the worst: For the longest period I was entangled in a legal battle with my local business partner which was life changing. I went through local court system and during that period it really made me feel that I could not live here if I don’t overcome this challenge. I am happy to say that in the end it all worked out well and I won the court case. And this was the sign that I was looking for, that things are headed in the right direction and my children are being brought up in a safe environment that values these best practices, honesty and hard work.
Q: What are the Challenges you faced when growing Blossom from 1 to 6 branches in under 8 years?
A: We started Blossom in 2009, and when I started Blossom it was not a business for me. Blossom was conceptualised because I saw a gap in the market and my child was going to this nursery and then my second child went to the same place. To me it was a labour of love and not a venture which was going to pay my bills. Challenges have been many and one of the prime challenge was to maintain and better the standard of education provided to kids. If you visit some of the newer locations, you will notice that it has a different feel and there is lot of focus on consistency in the way the place is being built. We are a nursery that has a HR matrix in place where everyone is treated based on their qualification and not based on race or ethnicity. It took us time to put these things in place and today we are known for these best practices having even come in #1 CSR in SME 100 ranking.
Q: People, Planet, Prosperity, ‘The triple P philosophy’ followed at Blossom – tell us a little about it!
A: From the start, we decided to recycle things and this you will see in the way Blossom is done up. All papers used are old newspapers or used colour sheets. And children who come to Blossom are taught how to separate their trash. Or for that matter our air is pure and this is achieved by using bleach free substances and installing air filters, we have lined our roofs to filter the sun, the windows are all lined and much more. We have looked at International Best Practices and incorporated them when building our nurseries. These are small things we do at Blossom other than the HR matrix to make this Universe a better place for our Children.
Q: How is this ethos weaved into the curriculum at Blossom?
A: Our approach is centered on the British Foundation Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) where the focus is on stages of development rather than chronological, age based teaching and learning. The overarching aim of the EYFS is to help children achieve these five outcomes:
● Staying safe
● Being healthy
● Enjoy and Achieve
● Make a Positive Contribution
● Achieve Economic Wellbeing
Sensory Play is crucial when it comes to children’s holistic development. Children should be given the opportunity to thrive in an environment that would nurture their curiosity and foster their creativity by helping them investigate and explore all possibilities without any undue restraints. Learning at Blossom revolves around inquisitive play which is reinforced through our “Skygarden approach” that is sensory based. This approach is subjective and children learn through their senses and the best way to create strong brain development is to allow them to learn through non-traditional senses. “Skygarden” is built around our five senses, so that it is easy for people to understand.
Q: If one of our reader wants to enrol their kid at Blossom Nursery, up to what is the age limit?
A: There are two types of locations; essentially 4-6 months starting to 4+ years and Blossom at Academic City allows us to take kids up to age of 6 years.
Q: What does a typical day at the nursery?
A: It all depends on the age. Here I will talk about toddlers who are age 2 and above. Children who come to Blossom have flexibility, and parents can either choose to start their kids at 7.30 or 8.00am. Most of our children come at 8.00am and the day starts with circle time. Circle time is getting together to plan the day ahead, so that they know what they are going to be doing for the rest of the day. This takes about 20 minutes and all activities are about 20-30 minute sessions keeping it in line with toddler’s attention span to a task. They have a snack at around 10am and all our food is fresh and mostly prepared onsite. Then this is followed by language, art or a math lesson. After this they have Centre’s time, during this period they would go and make what they learnt earlier in the class real. Elements from earlier classroom teaching to be taken and have a real-life experience of the class. And then they have their lunch at around 12.30pm. Post lunch about 50% of the children go home and those who remain with us are usually tired so they go in for their nap time. And post their nap around 3pm we have another learning class. We also have Skillplay classes, where we have external teachers come and teach. And the next round of pick up is at 5pm and the ones who remain with us post 5pm have another round of meal at 5.15pm and the last pick up is at 6pm.
Q: Lastly what is the one message you would like to leave our readers and aspiring entrepreneurs with?
A: When you are embarking on a new journey, write down what your good at and what are the areas in which you need support. There is no person who can do it all, so have your strengths in place and seek out help for the gaps in the form of mentor or partner. It is important in the early days to have that sounding board and guiding force watching your back. Rest, stay positive and “Believe, Achieve and Become.”