Inspiring Women: Roshi Tandon, Rachna Sharma

The WSA team have met many amazing women in our quest to bring you the UAE’s most Inspiring Women in Education. But never before though have we met a team quite like sisters Roshi Tandon and Rachna Sharma, Founders and Owners of the Chubby Cheeks Nursery group. These proud Indians, sisters, mothers, best friends (and, in their words, “soulmates”) are the very definition of ‘inspiring’.
Inspiring Women: Roshi Tandon, Rachna Sharma
By Jenny Mollon
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Sisters Roshi Tandon and Rachna Sharma opened the first of the Chubby Cheeks nurseries in Discovery Gardens in 2011. Now with eleven branches, 1500 children in their care and a 400 strong (almost exclusively female) workforce the Chubby Cheeks brand has become synonymous with great value British curriculum nurseries in highly convenient locations. We talk to the sisters to understand the drive and values behind this family run organisation.

Throughout our interview, we enjoy watching the sisters gently make fun of each other. When asked for their job titles, Roshi was quick to point out that (rather than ‘Founder and Owner’), Rachna in fact likes to be known as ‘Directress’.

“Well of course!” laughs Rachna “It sounds like Countess! So powerful!”

“Seriously,” say Roshi (obviously delighted at having had this jibe noted) “Our job titles keep changing. We can teach, we’ve cleaned the toilets, we’ve answered the phones! To me, that is what a true entrepreneur does”.

With this laughing tone set for our interview (and with the sisters still teasing one another), we begin by looking at how the Chubby Cheeks Nursery group began.

Roshi and Rachna, how did Chubby Cheeks Nursery come about?

Roshi: My daughter and Rachna’s son were born four months apart. We had both been doing well with our respective careers (Roshi was a Lecturer in Finance at the University of Wollongong, Dubai and Rachna a Features Writer for the Gulf News magazine, tabloid!) but when it was time to return to work and put them in a nursery, well we were both absolutely clingy mums! Choosing a nursery was such a big decision for us.

Rachna: At the time, Roshi lived near to Ibn Battuta and I was in JBR. This was in 2010 and when it came to nurseries, well, your choice was really…Jumeirah, Jumeirah, Jumeirah! This just wasn’t logical to us, because the kids were so young and we didn’t want them in the car for long periods every day. That is where the idea began.

Roshi: We spent a lot of time with other Mums in our respective neighbourhoods, going to playgroups and the like. All the mums (and I mean ALL!) were complaining about the lack of nurseries in the area. Even the ones that were reasonably accessible started too late and closed too early for working parents. Plus, no bus services! The whole issue really played on our minds.

Around the same time, I watched an interview with Jack Ma of Ali Baba. In it he says:

“Everyone says ‘don’t surround yourself with complainers’! But you must! Because that is when you find the gap. The need that must be fulfilled”.

And that is exactly what happened: We decided to fulfill a need by opening our own nursery in Discovery Gardens.

Your first branch was one of the first nurseries in Dubai to open in a tower [the ground floor commercial units of a residential building in Discovery Gardens]. Can you tell us more about this decision?

Rachna: We were absolutely convinced that this location would work, but took us a full nine months to convince the Ministry of Social Affairs [who at the time licensed nurseries] that you can have a nursery in the ground floor of a tower!

That was our first challenge. But we had many positive signs…during the construction of the site, parents would come to us and offer to help with the work! They’d say, “do you need any help setting up quicker?” This gave us a boost!

Roshi: Yes, that was our big first challenge, to get people to understand the concept of a nursery in a tower. Even for Nakheel (who own the building) it was hard. What was to become our preschool was once a Nakheel office. It was hard for them to see past what it was, it had grey carpets, little cubicles…it was very formal.

Our perseverance paid off and on 22nd May 2011, we opened at 8am. Our founding families were waiting for us. We had 35 registrations that day alone!


Sisters Rachna Sharma and Roshi Tandon Founders of the Chubby Cheeks Nursery Group

So your first branch was an immediate success. What has sustained the success of Chubby Cheeks Nursery?

Roshi: Whilst children are at the heart of our business, we are also 100% parent focussed. We listen to the needs of families. That started right from the beginning. It’s not something that we have learnt over the years.

Rachna: You know what I think is surprising for people who hear our story? When we started out, we didn’t just plan to start the first branch. We were very clear, we were building a brand.

We said “this is our brand name, this is our logo, this is our uniform”. We had the bus service from the first day, we didn’t wait to see if the demand was there. We had the flyers, the logo, the website. We were a brand from day one! We had that confidence. It was all so well planned we were able to open the second branch in Al Nadha within 6 months of Discovery Gardens.

It sounds like you took quite a few risks! Why were you so confident?

Roshi: Oh we knew we were taking risks! We left behind well paid careers and made a leap of faith, no question. I guess, we just felt that if we were going to do this…we go all out and totally commit.

Rachna: We were in such a happy phase of life! I think that helped. We were both recently married and new mums too. Our parents live here, so we had an incredibly supportive family around us.

Roshi: I’ve learnt that what happens as an entrepreneur is this: you trade off an eight hour a day job for a 24/7 job. You trade off your consistent income for literally no income for a year or so. But then, slowly, it all starts coming back to you. We took calculated risks, and thankfully, they have paid off.

How has the business progressed since those first two branches?

Roshi: We continue to apply the same principles. We go to places where demand is not being met. At every step, people have questioned us, “why Al Nadha, why DIP?” [Dubai Investments Park]. DIP was our third branch. That was a much smaller catchment area than it is now, but there was only one nursery in the area at the time, and it was only opened for children from 2 years and up. Plus they closed at 2pm. There was no bus service! We saw the need and went in to do things differently.

Rachna: I think it’s important to mention our team here. Really, the important thing has been the team we built from the start. Everyone had the same vision. So we were always able to delegate with confidence. We knew we could 110% trust our team, and this freed us to focus on building the business. Our team are amazing.

Did you always think you would work together? Was that an ambition that you had?

Both the sisters laugh uproariously at the idea…

Roshi: When we were growing up, no, absolutely not!

Rachna: When we were growing up, we probably didn’t want to see each other at all!

Roshi: We’ve found that our management styles are very much yin and yang. We fit together like a puzzle. Rachna has greater interests in commercial, financial and human resources side of things. Which was a surprise given my background as a Chartered Accountant and that Rachna has a Cache Nursery Teaching qualification! I am more into constantly learning about education, about creating the physical space in our nurseries and the marketing. I am always reading and learning.

Rachna: We are soulmates, no question. [Roshi smiles and nods in agreement].  Everyone around us has to understand that, even our husbands!

What are the benefits of being a woman in education?

Roshi: Understanding the challenges our employees face has made us be more flexible in what we do. As a team leader, I am able to understand their issues, because I too am a mum, a wife and I have a career.

We offer a 100% free child space for our staff, so they don’t need to worry about childcare. We offer lots of training opportunities. Our annual leave policy is flexible.

That understanding and forethought for their challenges, yes I think that comes from being a woman. Happy staff mean a happy and thriving nursery, so we’ve really thought about what our (mostly female) employees need from us. We have a dedicated employee happiness team, a support fund and an anonymous helpline where we pledge to help resolve any problem, personal or work related, within 48 hours. We have a separate helpline staffed by Tagalog speaking staff for our many  Filipino employees too.  We felt that they would have more confidence to come to us for support if they could speak to someone in their native language.

Rachna: The working culture in the UAE, whether you are dealing with government entities or big businesses, it is so supportive. It doesn’t matter whether you are a woman or a man. It’s just a blessing to have started a business here.

What have been the challenges along the way?

Rachna: Well, now we look back at things we thought were challenges and we think “really?” were we really so worried about that?

Our first branch, Discovery Gardens, had huge water leak from the roof, just six months in to operations. It was a long weekend, so no one set foot in the nursery for three days. When I finally popped in, there were computers floating around in the reception area and papers from my desk floating past me! That was a moment when I felt down, I really did. This was not in our contingency plan! Plus, Roshi was on holiday, so it was down to me to deal with it all.

But, and this is what was so wonderful, in the end…you would not believe the response! Within hours, the staff were there and all the parents came to help.

Roshi: So what seemed like a challenge then just made our team stronger. Later, when we were opening our Karama branch, our architectural drawings were rejected 10 times! But we just kept on going. We got there. Like Thomas Edison…we didn’t fail, we just found ten drawings that didn’t work!

What is next for the Chubby Cheeks Nursery group?

Roshi: we believe the need is still there. We are still heading to where the gaps are. We believe that in 2019 the UAE is having a different kind of baby boom. Look around you in the malls – there are so many strollers! There are a whole new set of families that have come to the UAE. We see there are now lots of families from Africa, Eastern Europe plus lots of Russian speakers.

We are adapting to this change in our environment and making sure that we continue to be providers of quality education at the very best value prices. That is the future for nurseries. If you live in a bubble and say “this is what we charge and this is what we will charge forever” then you won’t succeed.

Rachna: Some of things that we have built over the years, the loyalty of our parents, the commitment of our staff. They are the foundations of the future for us. We often we put a post on our facebook pages and ask “which communities would you like us to serve?” At the moment we get lots of requests to open in Ajman! We will be guided by our community.

Roshi: We will continue to focus on the children and put their safety and happiness first. We believe the rest will come. Parents ask us if we plan to open a school one day. Well, watch this space!

We make a formidable team and I think we can achieve anything together.

Read more stories of Inspiring Women in Education

Hind Al Mualla, KHDA

Zara Harrington, Safa British School

Leanne Fridd, Safa Community School

Ruth Burke, Deira International School

Rebecca Annand, Infinite Learning

Aparna Verma, Scholars International Group

Fiona Cottam, Hartland International School

For more reviews of the Chubby Cheeks Nursery Group see Chubby Cheeks Al Tawun , Chubby Cheeks Karama, Chubby Cheeks Dubai Investments Park,  and Chubby Cheeks Discovery Gardens.  The group also has branches in Skycourts (Dubailand), Al Nadha, Al Qusais, Ras Al Khaimah, Abu Dhabi, Al Garhoud and well as running the 'in house' branches of three UAE government departments. 

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