Founding Director of Kidz Venture
Education involves more than just classrooms and homework. It is about helping your child learn and grow simultaneously. For a child to perceive the world from his or her own point of view, it’s essential for him to have a learning method that pertains his individual needs and interests.
Montessori education is a child-centered curriculum that allows children to make their own educational choices based on their interests, thereby encouraging independence from an early age. Mariam Al Kassab, an entrepreneur and mother of two, noticed the need for this curriculum in Dubai and has successfully managed to bring the Montessori style of education to Dubai but with a twist. We caught up with her recently to find out more about this unique curriculum that is incorporated into an edutainment center and a pre-school and what it takes to be an educator and a mother at the same time.
1. Where are you from?
I was born in Baghdad, Iraq. We immigrated to Canada in 1979.
2. How did you end up in Dubai?
Short after I gave birth to my second child, my husband said, “What’s with your cousin and your sister going to Dubai and never coming back? I want to go check it out.” He visited Dubai, and called me within 10 days to say, “We are moving to Dubai.”
My son was only few months old so I stayed in Canada for a year while my husband settled his business in Dubai and then we moved, 8 years ago.
3. How many kids do you have?
I have an 11 year old daughter named Ayah and a 9 year old son, Yusif.
4. Why did you start your own business?
The biggest reason was passion. There was a lack of Montessori curriculum in Dubai although there were a few good ones.
When I was pregnant with my second child, I had enrolled Ayah in Montessori pre-school at the age of 3. Simultaneously, I was having a bit of an anxiety, doubting my motherhood capabilities.
One afternoon I found a magazine in front of me with an advertisement for a Montessori university course. I knew basics of what a Montessori curriculum is, was intrigued by the teaching methods so I enrolled in a one-year program. At the end of the school year, the professor gave us a lecture on how to open our own business and how the power of Montessori education could support our initiatives.
When I told my professor I was moving to Dubai, he suggested I should open a Montessori school there. Ever since then, the idea was always stuck in my head. I previously helped two of my friends open schools in Vancouver. I knew that I believed in what the Montessori curriculum teaches and the values in upholds.
5. Tell us a bit about the Montessori method.
The Montessori curriculum was initiated by Maria Montessori, who was a psychologist during World War I in Italy. She was highly respected and the government gave her a building for the purpose of taking care of special needs children. When the war became worse, she was also given orphans and lost children to take care of. She realized how the children liked to learn from each other, and how in a team effort, they even enjoyed doing housework and cleaning chores together. Maria started to teach them how to come up with new ideas for games and toys.
What differentiates Montessori from other curriculum is that we have kids who are 2 and half years old and kids who are 5 years old in the same classroom. In traditional British curriculum, you can’t be a day over 4 years old. In a Montessori school, there is just one big space and it is divided into categories. Each subject is introduced, and then teachers allow the child to choose the environment and what they want to do. It is called the child-centered environment.
In Dubai, there are a lot of children who don’t speak English. The question is, how do we increase a non-English speaking child’s vocabulary and teach him the difference between “rough” and “smooth”? If you come into our school, you’ll see that we have material that assists with this issue.
6. How do you open a Montessori school?
Anyone can open a Montessori school, and anyone can use Maria Montessori’s name. Fortunately, the local KHDA ensures that any school that calls itself a Montessori school is properly certified and employees qualified teachers. There are specialized Montessori institutes in Dubai who qualifies teachers.
7. Where did you work before opening Kidz Venture?
I’ve worked in the business sector in retail development and management. I’ve always been an operations manager in customer service sectors where my love truly lies. These companies taught me a lot about product and service quality.
8. How is being an entrepreneur different from working as an employee?
You get to do what you love without any restrictions. You gamble on your own base, and as long as you realize that you are responsible and that things can go wrong, there are lessons to be learned. The only reason I miss being an employee is that I got to go home at a set time, but then I look back and realize that I never really went home on time anyway. So I guess it’s the work that I choose to do, regardless of whether it’s my own or not.
9. What makes Kidz Venture different?
In the play area, we have the no-nanny zone. In Dubai, a lot of people hire nannies to take care of the children. A lot of children are too comfortable with their nannies to the point that some children cannot articulate for themselves. In this play area, we prefer that your children don’t come with their nannies because we want to teach them independence. My staff works 8 hours a day and 98 percent of them have a BA in Education. I have three nurses on hand, and a lot of them have majored in child psychology, linguistics and behavior.
In addition to our edutainment centre license, we have a nursery and an ELC License allowing us to have KG 1 and 2, educating children up to 6 years of age. Our two curriculums are Montessori and EYFS ( British Curriculum ).
10. What challenges did you face when starting your own business?
Government approvals, only because my concept was different, it had many activities that are not related to the same field. They weren’t familiar with the idea, but they loved it so much that they said if I give them a write-up about this, they will print it in their DED handbook next year.
11. What was the first step you took to start your own business?
I wrote my ideas down, collected pictures, and did research. It took me seven years to open Kidz Venture and I looked at five different locations before landing in Ibn Battuta Mall. I never planned it to be in a mall, but that’s what destiny had in store for me.
12. What licenses does Kidz Venture have?
Kidz Venture has been certified as an approved Early Learning Centre in Dubai. And while this is great news, many people don’t realize just how great it is! A formal agreement between the KHDA and the Dubai Economic Development Department acknowledges that any preschool that follows an early childhood curriculum and hires educational professionals such as teachers and therapists to care for young children will be licensed by the KHDA as an Early Learning Centre.
The regular daycare centres, those not offering any education service will be classified as nurseries, although many wonderful nurseries in Dubai do follow curriculum, interactive lesson plans, and employees qualified staff.
We also have an events license for birthday parties and play area which includes an Educational Toy shop which was just opened, the majority of the material are from Dusyma in Germany, a sister company who I respect and value so much. We will carry workshops, seminars, and a variety of educational material to extend the school activities into the homes. The materials are also wonderful for homeschooled children who enjoy the intimate learning moments with their parents in the comfort of their own homes.
13. How did you manage to find a sponsor?
As part of my research and feasibility study, I was looking to work in early years to learn about Dubai and styles of teaching, as a result I landed a job as a KG and a primary teacher when I first moved to Dubai. The owner and I became best friends. She said she loved Montessori education, and had always wanted to open up her own nursery. So she and I started planning, and she had planned to be my local sponsor. Over the years, she got married and had kids and became very busy but I am sure we will work together in the near future. I managed to find my current partner at the last minute. He is a wonderful man who loves education.
14. When did you decide on the branding and initial marketing?
It was my daughter’s idea. Never underestimate children’s ideas and what comes out of their minds! I had all of these activities that I wanted to do planned, and my daughter heard us talking about how we couldn’t put so many activities into one activity code in the economic department. She suggested that we just include the activities in the books and we went with that idea. The name Kidz Venture was determined by a survey. The logo was designed by my daughter when she was only 7 with my sister’s help!
15. How has being a mother affected you at work?
It’s tough at times, but I’m building this with my children and instead of feeling guilty, I’m involving them in the business. I bring them to work and they help me, especially when I’m having a bad day.
16. If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?
I wouldn't over-spend at the beginning. I would stick to the budget and listen to my gut feelings.
17. Did you have a proper business plan?
Yes. I made it myself but I’ve done more than 100 business proposals through experience and when studying for my MBA but paper and actual are two different things, we needed to alter as the business developed.
18. What advice would you give to mothers who wish to start their own businesses?
Again, trust your gut feelings, cover yourself legally and do your homework. Don’t be greedy or driven by money and don’t listen to people if they try to shut you down. Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll learn from it and move on. Keep trying, have faith, and be patient.
19. How do manage your personal and professional lives?
I keep buying self-help books, I network a lot placing myself with like minded people, and allow people to help like incredible family and friends….ask for help, I am so thankful for mine as I wouldn’t know how I would survive the workload. Whatever challenges I’m facing through the day, I just grab one of the books on the related topic and start reading and guess what? I am never alone!
20. Who inspires you most in life?
My father. He passed away 4 years ago. He was very strict, but he was an incredible businessman. A lot of things that he said then which I rolled my eyes about now make sense. After he passed away, my sister and I went back and read some of his books and understood why he said certain things that are happening to us now. Few of the books I have in my library belonged to him and has his notes inside.
On top of my father, I have met incredible people here in Dubai, who have inspired me and helped me grow. They all inspire me and support me.
I am so grateful for my life, my family, my experience, my staff and my friends who stood by me along the way.
It was great catching up with Mariam Al Kassab, the founder of Kidz Venture. Check out the details for more information:
Location: Egypt Court, Ibn Battuta Mall, Dubai
Telephone No.: 04 368 4130