From rags to riches: Filipino entrepreneur’s journey to success in UAE

MANILA: When Jenny Segalowitz arrived in the UAE two decades ago, she started with a minimum wage job, working hard to help her family, and with a resilience that years later saw her flourish as one of the most successful Filipino entrepreneurs in Dubai.
Segalowitz spent her childhood in a poor household in the suburbs of Las Pinas city, near the Philippines capital, Manila. Her home had no electricity and no running water. To sustain the family’s nine children, Segalowitz’s father worked as a carpenter and her mother earned money as a tailor.
The entrepreneur started work at just six years old after her father had an accident and her mother became the family’s sole breadwinner.
“When I was a kid, every Saturday and after school, me and my siblings would collect trash that we could sell,” she told Arab News.
“When we had nothing to eat, at the age of six I learned to earn money already. I was selling ice.”
Later, she would also become a ragpicker, laundress or housemaid — working and at the same time attending classes in school.
Segalowitz worked her way through to college and made it to the Philippine Normal University in Manila, which specializes in teachers’ education. Her dream was to become a teacher, but she was dealt another cruel blow when her father died.
In 2003, while still in college, Segalowitz received a job offer from a fast-food chain in Abu Dhabi. It did not take her long to make the decision to move and she was soon climbing an airstair for her UAE-bound flight.
“I will never forget when I was crying while climbing the steps to get into the plane. I was crying because of joy,” Segalowitz said.
She only that knew she would be employed in a service crew, with a salary of 1,000 dirhams ($270).
“I told myself I will use this as a stepping stone … I prayed and thanked the lord, and I asked him to help me not to waste the opportunity he has given me.”
Working 11 hours a day was sometimes tough, but Segalowitz knew that she had to carry on.
“When I got very tired, I would mop the floor in the toilet, and then I would kneel down to pray.
I would ask the lord to bless my life,” she said.
“My only desire at that time was to get an additional 1,000 dirhams or for my salary to double.”
But her salary did not increase and as she married and had children, Segalowitz would take on two full-time jobs — at a salon and as a house cleaner. Then she had an idea to manage apartments, rather than clean them.
“I think being an entrepreneur runs in my blood,” she said.
“That was in 2008 to 2015 … I started with just one unit, but not long after, it became 10 apartments. So, from the 2,000 dirham income that I was praying for, I was already making 35,000 dirhams.”
But when everything seemed to be finally going great and Segalowitz could guarantee her loved ones a good standard of living, her family life suffered.
She divorced her abusive husband and became a single mother, solely responsible for her three children.
When the market suffered a downturn in 2016, Segalowitz had to close her apartment business and began investing money in other companies, often taking big risks.
“I was a risk taker, so I was investing millions,” she said.
“I was also praying that if the lord will give me a new partner in life, let him be a good man.”
That prayer was answered in 2019, when she met her now husband, Douglas Segalowitz, an American IT professional and a man in whom she found support — both in family terms as well as in her endeavors.
It was her new partner who encouraged Segalowitz to pursue her dream of opening a restaurant.
The business officially launched in January 2021, with one outlet in Abu Dhabi’s Muroor Road, but as strict COVID-19 restrictions were still in place, it took one year for the restaurant to fully open.
The all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue and seafood outlet, Mukbang Shows, became a hit last year. Its second branch opened in Electra Street, also in Abu Dhabi. A third is scheduled to open in Dubai later this year.
“The concept of mukbang was my husband’s. He is a jolly person, and he just wants to be always happy. He loved to do mukbang,” Segalowitz said, referring to Korean-style live-streamed videos featuring people eating large quantities of food as they address fans.
“We were surprised with its immediate success. There was always a long queue of customers outside. Others are making advance bookings. Some even drove for 1.5 hours just to try our food … our blessings were overflowing.”
To give back, Segalowitz is now trying to help fellow Filipinos, sponsoring children’s education back home and giving employment to those in the UAE, her second home, which she calls a “land of opportunity.”
At the same time, the Filipino never forgets where she came from, and makes it her main advice for others who dare to aim higher.
“I didn’t expect to get this far, from collecting garbage to being a restaurant owner … in life, nothing is impossible as long as you trust yourself,” she said.
“Dream, endure and persevere. Do not give up on life.”