Filipino Entrepreneurs: Surviving and Thriving in the UAE

Photo by Alexandr Vlassyuk -
Photo by Alexandr Vlassyuk –

With the growth of entrepreneurship in the UAE, a country with a vibrant SME sector accounting for 60% of the country’s non-oil GDP, Filipinos, who are amongst the largest expat groups, are catching on.  More options for start-ups including flexible free zone facilities offered around the emirates are driving more and more Pinoys to leave the workforce to start their own business ventures or go into self-employment.  Whereas, Filipino businesses tended to be community-focused serving the “kababayan market” in the past, a lot of Filipinos enterprises now serve the mainstream market and are present in sectors as diverse as food, fashion, health, hospitality, human resources, publishing, advertising, education, wellness, retail, franchising, real estate, financial services and etc.

Still, notwithstanding local incentives and lower barriers to entry, the ups and downs of both local and global economies have kept entrepreneurship the hallowed ground of the bold and the fearless.  Illustrado speaks to six seasoned Filipino entrepreneurs who talk about how their companies where able to survive and thrive despite the market’s highs and lows, and how entrepreneurship is really not just about business plans and numbers – it is also about sheer guts and dogged determination.

Meet our panel of entrepreneurs:

Lucille Ong
Lucille Ong

LUCILLE ONG – Design Unlimited LLC

Former PBC Dubai Chairman Lucille Ong has been managing businesses in the market for the last 3 decades. Design Unlimited LLC, her latest venture, is an indoor and outdoor plant and maintenance provider for corporate clients. Introducing the company to clients in 2008 just before the economic crash, was tough, says Lucille, “but we just kept knocking on doors until they opened.” Now, Design Unlimited serves an esteemed roster of clients including malls, banks, hotels, among others.

Jovy Tuano
Jovy Tuano

 JOVY TUANO – Asia Gulf Trading

Former PBC Abu Dhabi Chairman Jovy Tuaňo set up Asia Gulf Trading in early 2004 in Abu Dhabi as a LLC importing Philippine contract furniture for the hospitality industry in Kuwait, Bahrain and UAE.  After ten years, the company has diversified into food, trading and real estate. As CPA and licensed real estate practitioner, Jovy has also recently assumed leadership of Megaworld International for the Middle East, India and Africa as AVP for Sales.

Lea Cordon Ruof
Lea Cordon Ruof


An hotelier and spa expert for the last 15 years, Lea Cordon Rouf launched her own brand – Spa Cordon in 2012.  An upscale ladies day spa, located in in Sky Gardens, DIFC, Dubai, Spa Cordon has won the Best Day Spa in 2013, at the Middle East Spa Awards, and was also awarded the Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence in 2014 and 2015. The spa boasts five treatment suites, an oriental bath, sauna, two steam rooms, whirlpool, a nail lounge and pre & post relaxation areas. It also features an interactive beauty spa bar, stocked with an eclectic selection of natural ingredients.


Guil Afrika
Guil Afrika


Guil Afrika’s company OneCM² started as an interior design company in 2011 but later evolved to what they are today – OneCM² Advertising LLC, a one-stop creative solution agency – providing services from design concept to final installation delivery. In a world of “cut and paste” designs and a “follow the leader” branding, Guil says their agency sets itself apart through its innovative, creative, and unique design and implementation model.

Maria Aranda
Maria Aranda

MARIA ARANDA – Captain Potato Foodstuff LLC

Maria Aranda’s company owns the franchise brands Captain Potato and I Love My Crepe. A company established in 2009, starting with humble wheeled cart/kiosk operations, they now have 9 outlets currently operating in Dubai and in Sharjah.  Captain Potato is set to expand to dominate the market by opening 10 more kiosks all over UAE by the end of 2015.

Chris Calumberan
Chris Calumberan

CHRIS CALUMBERAN – Chris Calumberan Photography

Prior to becoming a professional photographer, Chris was involved in web design, and production management for TV commercials. As brand ambassador for some leading photography brands, he speaks in some major photography workshops.  His business, established in 2008, focuses on stills productions as well as videos, with fashion houses, advertising agencies and corporate offices as the main clients.

What’s the one thing that has allowed your business to survive and flourish all these years?

LUCILLE:  Keeping a continuous dialogue with our clients – basically listening to them and being around when they need you.

JOVY: It is doing business with a mission for the benefit of the community, environment and for yourself that extends to family, staff and stakeholders. I may have personally failed and lost some money, but my stakeholders have gained from my enterprise e.g. dependents of staff, suppliers, competitors and customers.

LEA:  Passion has given me the drive to succeed and be the best. I’ve taken everything I’ve learnt over the years, researched and learnt about the gaps in the market. I strive to give my customers an experience they can’t get anywhere else and am constantly trying to improve. I always ensure to train my staff regularly with new industry insights, or products and only employ those who show they are as passionate about their job as much as I am.

GUIL:  Pure determination to achieve what you believe in is the key to keep you standing in this warzone. Focus to fulfill your vision and mission. Dubai is such a huge and fierce market, you need to be ready for the battle.

MARIA: We have developed a solid and successful business model and a team of qualified people growing Captain Potato in the market. I surround myself with great people who support and trust me.  Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely job, but surrounding yourself with the best team enhances your chances to succeed, and it makes the process a lot more enjoyable.

CHRIS:  We survive because of passion and work ethics. Be on time, avoid over promising but exceed expectations. Other artists can be very talented but they can also be stubborn and all over the place. We are thankful that we continuously work on our talents and maintain the ideal work-relation status. If our work speaks for itself, it’s just because we keep our clients happy. Most of them are very willing to pass us on to their business network.

Photo: Badahos - Shutterstock
Photo: Badahos – Shutterstock

 How have you overcome challenges through the years?

LUCILLE: By never giving up on what we are truly passionate about and through sheer hard work.  By continuously looking for channels to improve and innovate so we can offer our clients better choices.

JOVY: Daily prayers for wisdom to know the difference between what I can do and cannot do.    The big challenge is understanding fast-changing customer behavior and offering the right product at the right price that gives you the highest yield possible.  With limited resources, we just had to offer high- value or high-yield products to good paying customers that accept what we can deliver in terms of volume.  As the saying goes, less is more.

LEA: Perseverance and faith.  I believe that challenges create the person you are today.  If one embraces them and takes a different perspective, it can bring out the best in you. Dubai is a somewhat transient city, with UAE residents and visitors coming and going on a regular basis. This is a challenge for us.  Our client base is always changing and evolving, and this is why it’s so important for us to be constantly educating our existing client base, including potential customers. It is also important for us to be an industry trendsetter and to keep raising the bar. It is this attention to detail and bespoke offering that really continues to set us apart from the competition.

GUIL: Challenges are always part of the game. You just have to play through it and be persistent. Keep calm and always keep the faith

MARIA:  We make sure we have plan for the next 6-12 months, as well as for the next 3 to 5-years which includes specific growth goals.  I really focus on opportunity and leave the setbacks.    I don’t worry much about things that could go wrong.  In business, there are so many things that could go wrong and it’s easy to be distracted by them. Instead, I focus on what I am doing right, and the problems I have will get resolved.

CHRIS:  Experience and efficiency always prevails.  Also, we keep moving forward. Failures will be present and will always be considered lessons learned. Brush it off and move on.  As the market gets more saturated and competitive, we do maintain our handful of clients that share the same vision and practices the same values. We keep our competition to ourselves. What we have done well today, we progressively do better tomorrow.

Filipino Entrepreneurs: Surviving and Thriving in the UAE

What’s the best thing that entrepreneurs can do when the market is down or when the going gets tough?

LUCILLE:  Tighten your belt, focus on your core business and be vigilant of your competitors.

JOVY:  Kill your ego and accept eventual market failure but do not give up.  Go back to basics.   Optimize use of current resources to generate revenue and minimize spending to bare essentials.   Re-invent and re-position your enterprise.

LEA: Always keep looking for opportunities.  They say that any business should have at least three legs to support it. It’s just finding the right combination of that would fit your organization and maximize it.  It’s really about going out there and seeing what the market is looking for.

GUIL: Keep your ears open and understand your clients’ needs. Focus on the most important issues and analyze it. The market is probably waiting for the greatest idea that is just within your head. Don’t think out of the box… think of what you’ll do with the box.

MARIA: We have to keep reminding ourselves that a good business with a strong, reliable source of revenue can stay afloat even in the roughest of times. That’s why, while we have the  chance, we need to test different income and revenue models, evaluate and simulate our business in different economic environments, and think of new methods to bring in more profits. When the economy is rough, because we’ve built a good foundation, we’ll be more optimistic and maintain the motivation that’s necessary to keep pushing forward.

CHRIS:  We should allow ourselves to get bored. This only gives us the opportunity to study, meditate and explore. Procrastination can be a good thing if you’re figuring out how you can finish a task efficiently. It gets so tempting to be frustrated when accounts are on hold, but that that is why we have to be prepared on lean days. “For the meantime, try to learn something new or teach something you know that you want to get better at.”


How about when the market is on the up?  How can entrepreneurs maximize benefits to their business?

LUCILLE:  Offer additional products and services that will enhance your clients’ brand and improve their image.

JOVY:  Maximize profits by positioning your products and services in the value chain within your business ecosystem.  You have to make yourself an indispensable part of the value chain.   Evaluate the risks and benefit of commercial agreements, without over-exposing your business to high financial obligations since creditors can be aggressive.  Stability, liquidity and profitability have to be sustained.

LEA:  Never be complacent. Even when the market is on the up and business is going well, there’s always room for improvement. We pride ourselves on attention to detail and offering bespoke and quality service for our customers, and this means a very rigorous training programme and constantly being aware of the market that you’re operating in, the changing demands of the customer and the competition.

GUIL: Take advantage of the opportunities and maximize your strengths. Keep innovating and create new ideas to keep you apart from the others. I love to fuse the old and the new and for me that’s a new design! Sustain what you are doing to keep the edge.

MARIA:  When applications for our franchise is high, we focus on getting deals and lease offers from various malls that help us sell franchises or open outlets.  I maximize my time reaching clients and customers who really need our system, products and services, and will pay for them. We improve our system further and sell at a good price for us to get good premiums.

CHRIS:  Being double booked is a positive problem. The discipline of organizing is a virtue. This is when we need to be physically healthy and mentally sound, when traits of leadership and experience are required. We need to learn how to delegate, negotiate and deliver. Defining priorities by negotiating contracts and who gets more attention. And as much as possible, avoiding compromises when it comes to delivery.

What are the qualities and practices that can truly help entrepreneurs in managing their business?

LUCILLE:  Working hard and being open-minded especially to new ideas and innovations in your industry. Your clients will appreciate them.

JOVY: Entrepreneurs should have spiritual guidance and wisdom to do the unthinkable; self-assessment of resources and self-realization of skill sets; clear shared vision and mission – you and your people should know where to go and how to get there; the drive to win and willingness to accept and learn from failure as steps to success; and an understanding of customer behavior and market demand. You should also build personal equity, character and reputation; excellent planning and negotiation skills, while learning project management skills, developing cultural intelligence (CQ) in addition to EQ and IQ, as well as people and leadership skills – talent management.

LEA: Generally speaking it’s about constant education, partnered with growth and knowledge.  These days there are so many avenues to obtain information, such as the internet, courses, webinars, conventions and so much more. It has never been easier. Dubai and the UAE, in general, really foster innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s a wonderfully creative market and a fantastically supportive environment for start-ups.

GUIL: The most important thing is hard work and integrity. When we started this business, we created a culture of “consistency” in the quality of work we do. I believe if you meet your deadline, you have fair pricing, and you do great after sales services, then everyone will be happy.

MARIA:  Learn to manage your time properly. I use 3 time management principles – Let it go, Keep it Simple and Move quickly.   Have discipline, be consistent and have faith.  I follow that inner voice inside my head telling me that everything is happening the way that it is supposed to. Faith tells me to keep going – that this will all work out, that the stress and sleepless nights will all pay off. Lastly, stay strong and be resilient. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart

CHRIS: Managing your own business becomes lonely at some point. You’re mostly making your own decisions.  Though, the best side of it is being in control and dancing your own show. We should look for mentors and role models to help set our goals and provide us advice when we’re faced in a difficult situation. Besides independence and control, entrepreneurs should also have initiative, dedication and the wanting to deliver quality not only just on the product but with service and client relations.

What’s the best piece of advice you can give to start-up entrepreneurs?

LUCILLE: Never give up on your passion.

JOVY:  Kill your ego and be ready to be a one-man show – from driver, delivery boy, cashier, accountant, secretary, manager, etc.  Be ready to be insulted, discriminated and forget about yourself because customers don’t really care about you.   Customers care about satisfying themselves with your products and services. Discover your own talent and enterprise.  Discern your God-given mission in life by connecting the dots of your life from childhood until today.  Don’t be a copycat or be envious of your neighbors and friends.  Social media is good for understanding trends and consumer behavior.  Maintain a fixed income – keep your job during the transition to entrepreneurship. If your spouse is working, then you can take the plunge. Develop business related to current job, experience or passion and align with the current market demand.

LEA: Having a dream is where it all starts and where the passion will come from.  Ensure that your vision of the business is detailed and specific. Knowing what you want and knowing how to attain it will help you a great deal. When you are faced with hurdles or roadblocks, it’s this that drives the determination to push through and achieve your goals.

GUIL: Never ever be afraid of something big. Be passionate about what you do. Look for what the market needs. Be strong on what you believe in and follow your intuition.

MARIA:  Launching a startup is no cakewalk.  Be bold but humble, and have a positive attitude. You’ve got to take risks. Don’t underestimate your own value, and the value of pure assertiveness and passion. Also, there is plenty of room for error and there are tons to learn. No person can do it all. What is great about building a business is that you build a team, too. It is like a family. It is not about you, it is about the idea and building something sustainable. You need to let go of the ego, and let the idea grow.

CHRIS:  Adaptability is key when you want to pursue success both in life and in business.Win a person in less than 90 seconds, first impressions are important. You never know who might be your next big client.  When the going gets tough, never sweat the small stuff.

Would you encourage other Filipinos to go into business?  What do you think are the pre-requisites for people getting into business?

 LUCILLE:  Yes, definitely, but business is not for everybody. They must be passionate about their idea, willing to work hard for it even when it fails.

JOVY: Yes, but one has to understand the different roles and responsibility of stakeholders related to any business. Either you do it alone or share it with a corporate businessman, entrepreneur, investor, social entrepreneur who all think differently.  Your best friends and relatives can abandon you or become your competitor while, your worst friends can be your best customer.

LEA: I would encourage anyone to set up a business, as long as they have researched the market properly, created a business plan and are confident it is feasible. Dubai is a great market to operate it and is continuing to expand at a rapid rate, so there is a lot of support available for start-up companies.

GUIL:  Definitely! We Filipinos would like to assimilate even better in our adoptive countries. We need to step up from just being a professional who gets old and retires in the same position.  We need to move out from that thought. Trust your instinct and think that you will succeed. Entrepreneurs always take the risks, and whoever takes the risk, gets the big return.

MARIA: They just have to decide on what type of business they want to enter, and how the business should be. It has to be something of interest to the person and something that has the potential for long term growth. If they are decided, just go for it. Although it can be scary to go on your own, especially, if you’re leaving a steady paycheck behind, the idea of working for someone else for the rest of your life is more frightening. If you believe in your idea and are willing to work hard, sooner or later things will fall into place.

CHRIS:  Find your element. Discover that activity that leads you to flow. You will realize that you just enjoy what you’re doing. Just adding a bit of effort makes it more special. Once you find your niche everything else will fall into place. All of the sudden, the elements and requirements will align. You will notice that most of the problems and challenges have reasons behind them and eventually get solved on their own.