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Angel investor Natalia Vodianova opts for GCC

Model Natalia Vodianova says the Russian diaspora in the Gulf forms a 'network' that works together easily Marechal Aurore/Abaca via Reuters Connect
Model Natalia Vodianova says the Russian diaspora in the Gulf forms a 'network' that works together easily
  • ‘Supernova’ in UAE talks
  • Targets tech, fashion, property, wellness
  • Funded baker Angel Cakes’ expansion

Russian supermodel and angel investor Natalia Vodianova, nicknamed “Supernova”, is eyeing further investments in the GCC through her Paris-registered company, after backing the UAE café chain Angel Cakes this month.

In an interview with AGBI, Vodianova said she and business partner Timon Afinsky, a London-based digital media professional with whom she runs the investment vehicle Supernova, are in talks with several companies in the UAE. They hope to finalise at least one deal in the near term. 

They are targeting the region’s fashion and technology sectors in particular, as well as real estate and wellness.  

Business opportunities abound in the Gulf, Vodianova said: “You have this pool of talent that moved there post-Covid – especially to Dubai – because economic conditions for young people are so much better than in Europe and other parts of the world, and so is the quality of life.”

For startups and other businesses, “everything is faster”, she said, from registering a company to opening a bank account and other bureaucracy.

“Plus, people love sunshine, there are good schools – it’s a good place for families.” 

Close community

Another draw for Vodianova is the UAE’s Russian diaspora.

“The Russian-speaking community from all over Eastern Europe has been very close to us,” she said. “Many founders we work with are Ukrainian, Belarusian, Armenian, Russian… Many don’t live in the countries I’ve named, they moved a long time ago, like me – I moved away 25 years ago.

“But we are a network. Language brings people closer. The fact that we understand each other and have similar cultures makes it easier for us to work together.”

The number of Russian tourists and investors in the UAE swelled in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, as Russian businesses sought a safe haven for their investments free of sanctions imposed on them by the West. 

There are no official statistics from the UAE government on how many Russians have taken up UAE residency since February 2022, but AGBI estimates the figure to be around 500,000.

Russians formed the third-largest group of buyers of Dubai real estate, behind Indians and Britons, in the second quarter of 2023. Russia was also Dubai’s top source market for visitors in the second half of 2022, according to Dubai Tourism. It slipped into fourth place over January to September 2023, but the total number of Russian tourists was still up 77 percent year on year. 

Angel Cake investor

Angel Cakes sells desserts free from gluten and refined sugar. It was founded by the Russian husband and wife duo Dima Tutkov and Alina Tutkova and has four branches in the UAE, at Dubai Mall, Bluewaters, Abu Dhabi’s Yas Mall and the Address Grand Residence. 

With Supernova’s undisclosed early-stage investment, Angel Cakes plans to open more locations in the UAE and expand into Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait in 2024. 

The investment “made sense because diabetes is a big health problem in the Middle East”, Vodianova said.

“At first, it did not seem like a natural fit for us. We knew very little about building a lifestyle brand around food and wellness. 

“But at the time my husband was gluten-free, nut-free, everything-free so I had a personal interest. We fell in love with the business’s core mission.” 

Expanding portfolio

Vodianova grew up in poverty in the former Soviet Union and sold fruit on the street as a teenager to support her mother and sisters.

Since 2015, through Supernova, she and Afinsky have built an investment portfolio of around 30 businesses, mainly in the fashion and tech space. They include the photo-editing app PicsArt, the period-tracking app Flo, and Wanna Fashion, which uses AI to help retailers showcase products. 

More recently, Supernova has expanded into lifestyle and wellness, with investments in the personal fitness platform Zing Coach, the nutrition programme Simple Life, and Soula Care, an AI-powered pregnancy, birth and new motherhood support app.

Vodianova and Afinsky focus on early-stage investments ranging in size from $50,000 to $750,000.

Their first investment, in the charity donation app Elbi, has since merged into Locals.org, an online social network for entrepreneurs, which the pair set up to encourage people to stage real-life activities and events. 

Locals.org has around 200,000 people on the platform and launched in the UAE in July.

Saudi Arabia is its next target, Vodianova said: “Locals.org seems to be very attractive in a region where people are real nomads, they travel a lot and it’s harder for them to meet others with the same passions.”

She would also like to invest in the region’s wellbeing industry, especially connected to real estate, architecture and hospitality: “There is a lot of luxury here, but not to the level of wholesomeness [some other markets offer].”

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