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Growing the Legacy of a Large Family Business – Muna Al Gurg

My guest on today’s show is a businesswoman and philanthropist from Dubai. She is director of retail at Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group LLC, a conglomerate of 26 companies founded by her father 58 years ago.

Muna sits on too many boards to list here so I’ll just mention a few: Along with her two sisters, Muna sits on the board of the family business founded by their father; she is the Chair of ìYoung Arab Leaders – a non-profit organisation that promotes education, entrepreneurship and youth development; and she is a founding board member and Co-Chair of Endeavor UAE, a non-profit organisation that promotes high-impact entrepreneurship in emerging and growth markets. Her first seat on a board of directors was in the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, where she served from 2004 to 2009, helping build the cultural center.

She started her career in Dubai with Saatchi & Saatchi and in 2001 Muna joined Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, as director of marketing and communications. Since 2009, she has been director of retail, responsible for strategy and operational development for the group’s international and local retail brands.

Muna is an advocate for women in business. Within the family business she started the Al Gurg Women’s Empowerment Forum, a program providing a platform for women to voice their opinions to company board members. In 2015 she launched the Muna Al Gurg Scholarship at London Business School, supporting female students studying on the school’s MBA and Executive MBA program.

In June 2010, Muna received the prestigious Emirates Women’s Award for outstanding achievers.

We discussed Muna’s career path from Saatchi & Saatchi to the family business; the enormous risks associated with the third generation of leadership and how to mitigate them, the pluses and minuses of working with family, and tips on conflict avoidance and resolution. We also talked about how her drive for self-improvement has shaped her path in both business and philanthropy, and how she manages the overwhelm. Muna is an advocate for women in business, and we discussed her MBA scholarship fund and how to get more women into leadership positions.

My favorite quote was “Never over-promise and underdeliver.”

You can find Muna on Twitter @MunaAlGurg and LinkedIn.

Please forgive the banging you’ll hear towards the end of the show – there was some construction work next to the studio!

Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas: [00:01]

Ladies and gents, my guest on today’s show is a businesswoman and philanthropist from Dubai. She’s director of retail at Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, a conglomerate of 26 companies, founded by her father 58 years ago. Muna Al Gurg sits on too many boards to list here, so I’ll just mention a few: Along with her two sisters, she sits on the board of a family business. She is the chair of Young Arab Leaders – a non-profit that promotes education, entrepreneurship and youth development; and she’s a founding board member and Co-Chair of Endeavor UAE, a non-profit that promotes high impact entrepreneurship in emerging markets. We discussed Muna’s career path from Saatchi & Saatchi to the family business; the huge risks associated with the third generation of leadership and how to mitigate them, the pluses and minuses of working with family, and tips on conflict avoidance and resolution. We also talked about how our drive for self-improvement has shaped her path in both business and philanthropy, and how she manages the overwhelm. Muna is an advocate for women in business, and we discussed her MBA scholarship fund and how to get more women into leadership positions. Please forgive the banging you’ll hear towards the end of the show – there was some construction work next to the studio! Anyway, let’s get into it.


Rana Nawas: [01:21]

Muna, thank you so much for coming on the show. I’m so happy to have you on When Women Win.


Muna Al Gurg: [01:23]

Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.


Rana Nawas: [01:26]

So you work for the family business, Easa Saleh Al Gurg. It’s a massive, I think 50 year old conglomerate.


Muna Al Gurg: [01:32]

60 actually.


Rana Nawas: [01:34]

60. Fantastic. So were you always destined to join the family business?


Muna Al Gurg: [01:39]

I think it was subliminally playing on my mind since I was a child. You know, I’ve always been around my family, they’ve spoken always about the business when they’re at home, so it’s kind of worked with me. It was a natural progression for me. And so when I went to university, I studied business administration and I found myself really interested in the creative side, which is advertising and marketing. I worked for a while outside the business. I worked for Saatchi & Saatchi and I found that the family business was actually in this transitional stage where they were kind of adopting best practice and they were kind of bringing in new ideas and so that’s when I joined the business and I then got into the marketing side, which was very, the creative side, which worked really well with me.


Rana Nawas: [02:29]

And are you still on the creative side now?


Muna Al Gurg: [02:32]

So now I’m more involved on the retail side, which has a creative side, which is marketing, advertising, communications, but also I get involved with training. So being the Director of retail entails a lot more than just a creative side. It also involves our employees, their wellbeing, so CSR within even the group, programs for our employees, communication points within all our retail sector so whether it’s somebody sitting at the desk who greets you down to the person coming in and installing your furniture and appliances. So retail is really my thing now.


Rana Nawas: [03:09]

Okay. Well maybe we should give the listeners a bit of an overview of your family business because it’s a huge company and I think, I think we need to give us some time


Muna Al Gurg: [03:18]

Yes, a little bit of time. So the Al Gurg Group was formed in 1960 by the chairman who is my father, Easa Saleh Al Gurg. So it’s nearly 60 years old and the group now is made up of 25 percent of retail, which is home lifestyle, furniture, home appliances, 25 percent in manufacturing, which is industrial and steel manufacturing, paint manufacturing, etc, and 50 percent is in fast moving consumer goods such as Unilever and British American Tobacco, etc, and also industrial goods. I’m head of retail for the home lifestyle, furniture, appliances, side of the group.


Rana Nawas: [03:59]

Okay, brilliant. And so let’s talk about your career trajectory a little bit. So you started at Saatchi & Saatchi, you said. How did that come about and what did you learn there?


Muna Al Gurg: [04:15]

So I was quite fortunate because at university the Head of Advertising was very keen on getting the students to sort of get an internship at the best ad agencies. And so I got into Saatchi & Saatchi, luckily as an intern and it was really good. It was a good experience in terms of sort of really starting on the grassroots level and, and learning about, you know, what people do in terms of research, a lot of the things that obviously senior managers don’t like to do and they give, you know, the junior executives. But it was really good because it led to a lot within the Al Gurg Group because then once I did join the group, I was on the shop floor, I was a marketing executive, I was doing questionnaires, I was a mystery shopper, and my background at Saatchi helped me build those processes within marketing within the group. And since, as I said that we were at that transitional stage where we were bringing in all these different new ideas to the group. It was really interesting to integrate that into a family business, which is essentially the opposite to what Saatchi is, which is a global kind of, a different dynamic to it.


Rana Nawas: [05:16]

 So you started on the shop floor. Is that normal in family businesses that the, you know, the family members come in and start at that level?


Muna Al Gurg: [05:24]

I mean, I can’t really speak for other family businesses, but I know within our group it’s crucial that people a. Get experience outside the group and also once they do join the group, they kind of learn from that level that, that very basic level. And even my sister who’s now the Managing Director of the group always speaks about how when she started 25 years ago in the business, she was literally in the store rooms, you know, sorting out furniture and, and, and that’s what you learn because once you’re then on the board level when you eventually reach there, you know what’s happening on that other, you know, very ground level, the operational side and you know, what questions to ask because you’ve been there. And so for, for our business, that’s very, it’s, it’s crucial that we have people start off at that level. And so now we do have, for example, the third generation come in and again, really started at, it depends on also what their experiences are. If their experience has been quite extensive outside the business, then they may start at a more senior level. It really depends.


Rana Nawas: [06:34]

Okay. So let’s talk about this third generation because I think the stats are at third generation, family businesses get a little shaky, so I don’t know if you know the sats


Muna Al Gurg: [06:44]

Of course.


Rana Nawas: [06:44]

Oh please tell me then.


Muna Al Gurg: [06:48]

We know that, you know, they always say that the first generation Is the person who builds the business and the second generation sustains the business and the third generation Is the generation that destroys the business. And that’s very good Information to know because if you know that, that information, it’s valuable and it will help you kind of not reach the stage where you know, it’s destroyed and you sort of build the business and sustain the business. So as I said before, the Al Gurg Group is, is, is nearly 60 years old and the setup of the board is this way where generation one is the honorary chairman, generation two is the operational executive board, so it’s myself and the two other shareholders and we sort of look into, let’s say the approval of annual budgets. We look into more of a strategic operational sort of decision-making. And so what happened is that once the third generation came, we integrated them with the existence of the first and second, we trained them to reflect the spirit of the previous generations. And that’s been very interesting because it’s really important that the third generation understands the values that this business was built upon. I think that that’s very important. And so if we can talk a little bit more about the structure, you know, we have a family charter in place and that family charter, for example, gives a clear indication to family members who are within the business and outside the business about, let’s say ownership rights, responsibilities of family members. So that kind of also


Rana Nawas: [08:30]



Muna Al Gurg: [08:34]

Transparency, and also enabled sustainability of this family business. Because at the end of the day, all of us are working towards the same thing. We want to grow this business, we want family members to be part of the business. But in an amicable way, and so it’s very important to put in structures. Another thing that we have again, implemented is the governance charter. So governance charter enables accountability again, impact sustainability and governance charter is, was formed by us sitting with our lawyers and they helped us form this governance charter. And again, you know, we have like by-weekly reports, we have monthly meetings, we have investment strategies, we have external and internal audits. So all these processes really help family businesses sustain themselves. So this is very important.


Rana Nawas: [09:28]

Yeah. And do you, do you have family members who are not in the business and not interested in being in the business? Like how does that conversation happen?


Muna Al Gurg: [09:36]

So going back to the point of how within our family business, we always stress upon the fact that the young generation have to get experience outside. So many of them are still, you know, they’re working for consultancies, private consultancies, global consultancies outside and gaining, you know.


Rana Nawas: [09:55]

A lot of knowledge.


Muna Al Gurg: [09:58]

A lot of knowledge and experience there. And once they decide if they would like to be part of the business, then we can sort of integrate them in the right manner, but this is, a lot of the family members at that third generation level are still working outside. We, we do, however, have four members of the third generation now working inside the family business. Again, the way we kind of integrated them is by finding out what their skills are and what they can add value because the most important thing at the end of the day is actually adding value to the business. And we sort of identify that and then we kind of match it with what we need within the business and bring them in because the third generation need to be fulfilled. And you know, how it is, you know, it’s, the world is changing so fast and everything is, is just very different right now. And people always need to be stimulated. You know, Dubai is a city that is stimulating from the moment you leave your home, you know. And so it’s important to have that third generation stimulated also.


Rana Nawas: [11:06]

Right. And you were talking a bit about corporate governance, do you have independent board members in the family business?


Muna Al Gurg: [11:12]

 At the moment, we don’t, but it’s, it’s definitely something that we have spoken about.


Rana Nawas: [11:21]

Okay, well let’s look a little bit more, because I’m really curious here as to working with family members. Now I’m sure there’s a lot of pluses and minuses. So let’s start with the pluses. What are, what are the great things about being part of a big, you know, old established family business with lots of family members?


Muna Al Gurg: [11:42]

One of the best things of being part of this group and part of a family business is that everybody is on the same page in terms of wanting this family business to grow, and you kind of very much feel that ownership. You’re proud of it because there’s a heritage there. You want to sustain it. It is to the benefit of everybody for yourself, for your children to sustain this business. So that’s the great part. Everybody’s sitting together and really working towards growing this business. So the challenge really comes where there are sorts of emotions involved, right? So we’re all human beings. We need to get a certain message across. How do you get that message across without upsetting people? And I think that requires a great deal of diplomacy and it requires a skill and you need to have that skill because if you don’t have that skill, you’re going to end up always kind of getting into conflict and that really goes for family businesses and non-family businesses. But more so with family businesses.


Rana Nawas: [12:51]

Yeah, because you’re having dinner with the people you’re upsetting.


Muna Al Gurg: [12:53]



Rana Nawas: [12:54]

You know, like if you’re, if you’re in a corporate world, you can say, look, this is just business and you can have the hard conversations that you need to have and then go away and forget about it. But you can’t when you’re in a family business, that level of, I don’t want to say complication, but the reality is that you’re eating and you’re hanging out with these people at the weekend.


Muna Al Gurg: [13:13]

I learned a lot by sitting on other board seats. I could tell how people would not agree and sometimes there would be people I knew who were friends, but the moment we left that board room, everything was fine. It was important again to really get the message across, but obviously also being respectful, you know, and I learned that over the years that, you know, we are all here again, we always repeat this to each other, we’re here to for the same reason. And if there’s something that we believe it should be done a little bit differently, I think it’s, it’s important for the entire board to listen. And they do, you know, they’re very good at that. And I think so far it’s been quite smooth from that perspective, you know, bringing in new ideas, saying that certain things should not be done in a certain way. People do listen. So far it’s been quite smooth. But I think that perhaps obviously the challenge will be seeing how the third generation integrate those, those kind of a same attitudes and processes.


Rana Nawas: [14:22]

Yeah. I’m interested to know what tips you have for us for conflict resolution. I mean, what specifically have you picked up along the way, if anything?


Muna Al Gurg: [14:31]

I think it’s important to, you know, choose your battles and really identify what are the most important things that you need to talk about and you may, it may not be everything that you want to talk about, but pick the most important things that you want to talk about and really very calmly communicate that to whoever it is that you, you would like to communicate. I think it’s very important not to lose your calm and your cool because that’s not going to get you anywhere. So that’s really what I would advise.


Rana Nawas: [15:03]

And how many are you on the board?


Muna Al Gurg: [15:05]

We are now three sisters.


Rana Nawas: [15:06]

Three sisters. Okay. See, so there’s no men on your board to interrupt you.


Muna Al Gurg: [15:10]

Yes, that’s true. That’s very true. That’s very true.


Rana Nawas: [15:14]

That’s really fascinating that,


Muna Al Gurg: [15:14]

It’s very unique.


Rana Nawas: [15:18]

 Very unique and incredibly inspiring that the three sisters took over from dad. I love it.


Muna Al Gurg: [15:23]

We’re very, very lucky, fortunate, and lucky to have him around to kind of guide us and really, you know, teach us a lot about, the values of the business, you know.


Rana Nawas: [15:35]

 How does succession planning work in a family business? I imagine that would be a bit of a tense conversatIon or is it not?


Muna Al Gurg: [15:42]

It happens organically. So I think with us, it’s not a tense conversation because the family members are anyway working outside the business. There is a structure as I said, so the family charter really helps with that. And then there’s the whole governance charter that helps with: if you are to come into the business, these are the rules, you know. And so it’s very, very crucial to have a good communication process within your organization. Very important. And as you said, it can turn awkward and so those conversations need to be open communication and communication is key.


Rana Nawas: [16:26]

Alright. Let’s talk a little bit about mentorship because I think I heard you say somewhere that you had a great mentor coming up through the organization. Can you tell us a bit about that relationship?


Muna Al Gurg: [16:38]

I was fortunate when I came into the business, there was the Head of Advertising Marketing Department had over 25 years of experience behind him and I came into the department and he was really like, sort of the big boss. And I remember my, my father came in and said, treat her like any employee. So if I were to leave five minutes before, you know, leaving time, I don’t always see him look at his watch. And I was really, actually, I was scared of him, you know, at the time. And so, I learned a lot from him because he sort of really opened up a whole new world for me. I knew everything in theory, but I didn’t know everything from a practical point of view. So we were, you know, we were meeting up with all these ad agencies. We were brainstorming on how to grow our brands. We were diving into our brands and it was very interesting times, you know, and so he really was my mentor and yes. And now he’s moved onto other shores. We’re still in touch, you know, in touch with him and his family, etc.


Rana Nawas: [17:44]

Oh lovely. And do you mentor people coming up through the company?


Muna Al Gurg: [17:49]

Well, you know, actually to be very honest with you, within the organization, we don’t have many people who are of that sort of very millennial, junior level, you know, so a lot of the women, for example, let’s say part of the organization are older women, like who perhaps may not need that much of my mentoring. But what I’ve, I have started within the organization is the women’s empowerment program. And this is a great program where we empower women at all levels and we do that through whether it be a breast cancer awareness day where we kind of really pumper our female employees and we do a lot for them and we educate them on the subject or whether it be just a motivational talk or whether it be a platform where they can come and speak to us about their challenges. And so that’s one thing that brings together all the women within the organization. But I mentor a lot of young people through the Young Arab Leaders, which is an organization that I chair in the UAE and I get to meet a lot of young people through our workshops, etc. And another thing that I’m very passionate about is mentoring young entrepreneurs. So I’m on the board of something called Endeavor and we get to meet some fascinating entrepreneurs out there who really sort of, we, we’d like to scale them up. And so I, I go through the whole mentoring process with them.


Rana Nawas: [19:24]

Oh. Fabulous. I, I’ve heard a lot about Endeavor. Now Muna, I’m really blown away by the fact that your company, your business is run by three women, I mean a board of three women. Wow. I really like, it’s really touched me. So this question that I would generally ask a woman in your senior position is how do corporations get women to senior leadership positions? Because most companies, as you know, are not like yours, right? So women on boards, forget it. You know, female CEOs, less than five percent. Even just C-Suite is a very low number. So you talked about the women empowerment forum and I was wondering, you know, what do you, when you meet CEOs and chairmen of other companies who are saying, you know, oh, we can’t, we can’t seem to keep women or find women or whatever. What do you say to them in terms of what they need to do to get more women in leadership?


Muna Al Gurg: [20:20]

I think that’s really the responsibility of a. the HR department that really kind of really needs to look out for women who are out there, which are really valuable women of the community and as you said, with all the biases out there, kind of really shut that down and look at women and don’t perceive women as these people who perhaps will get pregnant one day and not come back to work. So human resources plays a big role in that. Within organization, I think training and also providing women with a great platform. So if a woman was to come and ask for a scholarship towards, let’s say, an MBA program that could help elevate her to the next level and within our organization, I mean we have helped people with their MBA scholarships, you know, we have to about two graduate from London Business School within the Al Gurg group, so they’re working and studying at the same time. This will help elevate them, for example. And I think it’s also important for women themselves to kind of get their name out there and network. So we were talking about how you go out and you network and you meet so many incredible women


Rana Nawas: [21:28]

All the time.


Muna Al Gurg: [21:30]

Yes. And so it’s so important to go out there, you know, and really speak about what you’re doing, network, get people to know more about you and that’s how you reach that level. Because if you’re just doing your daily job and you kind of don’t meet other people and you don’t look beyond your kind of daily job, how are you supposed to then progress? You know? And so I feel it’s also the responsibility of women to kind of push themselves.


Rana Nawas: [21:56]

Yeah, I love that emphasis on networking because a lot of women believe that if I just do my job really well, I’ll get noticed and great things will happen. And that’s just not the case. You need to put yourself out there. You need to meet the right people and deliver the message. You need to tell them about your accomplishments and your achievements.


Muna Al Gurg: [22:14]

Absolutely. I totally agree with you.


Rana Nawas: [22:16]

And we really encourage that at Ellevate Dubai, the women’s network that I run. So I’m really glad you pointed that out. And also role models. I think for me networking is critical and that’s the responsibility of the woman and then the responsibility of the companies and also to put role models in those positions. Because you can’t, Like if I look at your company and there’s three women on the board and the Managing Director’s a woman, well guess what? If I join your company, I know I can get there.


Muna Al Gurg: [22:45]

Very true. It’s a top-down decision from that perspective, I feel, whether it’s a male board member or a female board member, then there needs to be a little bit more of a push from the top to say we want women to progress within the organization.


Rana Nawas: [22:57]

Yeah. There needs to be a commitment.


Muna Al Gurg: [22:59]

Yes, absolutely.


Rana Nawas: [23:02]

So let’s talk about the tone at the top. I mean, your father has built an incredible business and then the three of you mashallah are doing fabulously well. What do you think in your opinion, I mean, what traits make a great leader?


Muna Al Gurg: [23:16]

A great leader is someone who takes decisions without hesitation. And I feel that’s something that I’ve learned from let’s say the Chairman himself, you know. He’s very sort of strong on taking on decisions he does not, and the same with our Managing Director who is my sister, very kind of a decisive, you know, resilient. Resilience, riding the storm. And also another thing that I’ve really learned is never react when you’re angry, you know, sleep on it, you know, and, and wait until the next day and then think about how you would like to react. That’s something that, you know, take your time from that perspective. So I feel these are really good characteristics of a good leader and to be a good listener. So with me, for example, I have an open-door policy. A lot of people are shocked as to how I meet everyone, you know. And so I feel that’s, that’s a great leader. Someone who’s accessible, you know, who you can actually go and bounce off ideas with, personally and career wise, you know, if your employee can come and actually talk to you about their problems.


Rana Nawas: [24:26]

And what have you learned from your employees doing this?


Muna Al Gurg: [24:30]

I mean I’ve learned a lot more about what goes on behind closed doors, you know. And it’s interesting because when you are sometimes at that top level you don’t get to hear about what’s happening. And I love the fact that, you know, for example, my team can open up and really talk to me about many different things because then I can tackle those challenges because I don’t want to see my team going through certain challenges, so if I can help them overcome those challenges, that’s what I’ve learned.


Rana Nawas: [25:01]

Yeah. That’s fantastic because I think back, I spent the last 13 years at GE and so when we’d have our CEO come in or any sort of senior leader, their time would be scripted to the last minute. So they’re not walking the corridors, meeting people in the guts of the organization. Right. All of their day is set up in 15 minutes slots with the head of this and the person of that, and everybody’s briefed. And so it’s really, I think, a missed opportunity for them. You’re coming all the way in and you’re not hearing from the everyday person.


Muna Al Gurg: [25:36]

Very true. I totally agree. Absolutely.


Rana Nawas: [25:38]

I think that open door policy is fabulous. Alright. Let’s shift gears a little bit and look at your achievements for a second. So you sit on several boards for profit and not-for-profit. As you mentioned, you’re the Chairman of Young Arab Leaders. You’ve received the Emirates Women’s Award, fabulous accomplishment, and the Arabian Business Startup Award for women in business. And you mentioned the MBA, which I will come back to because I love that story. So it’s easy to list but probably not easy to do. Right. So could you tell us a bit about mistakes you’ve made along the way? You know, where has Muna screwed up?


Muna Al Gurg: [26:18]

I’ve learned to be ahead of the learning curve and what I mean by that is, for example, in the business world, when I was in my twenties I was very kind of like, I’d get my emotions in the way and I’ve screwed up in terms of like if there’s a certain brand, I wouldn’t deep dive into its financials, but I just talk about how good the brand is generally. So one of the examples is we had a brand called United Colors of Benetton.


Rana Nawas: [26:46]

Oh yeah, I know Benetton of course. Yeah.


Muna Al Gurg: [26:53]

And in the eighties, it did tremendously well for us, but later on I was very enthusiastic about the brand after meeting Luciano Benetton, but I didn’t really understand that actually benefits in globally was not reinventing itself and with time we also did not grow our fashion portfolio, so Benetton was a stand-alone fashion brand that didn’t really work well for us. So what I’ve learned really is you need to be innovative and creative with your brands all the time. Be ahead of everyone else. So if I were to, let’s say, talk about that now it would be being an e-commerce. It’s a basic kind of requirement at the moment, you know, so how do you keep your brands, you know, creative and so Benetton along the way kind of died down and I learned with time that it’s not about how passionate you are about something really, but it’s about the product itself and it’s about how creative you are and it’s about. And so I look at things very differently now that I’m older and again, try to always be ahead of everyone else, try to be innovative type, try to be creative. But talking about my role on other boards, it’s very interesting because I balanced that out by really having a day job and having these board meetings really in the evening. But what keeps me going is that these board seats that I sit on are organizations that I’m very passionate about, so I’m so willing, like yourself how you’re willing to put time to create these podcasts and go to Ellevate and, and, and do all the, you know, networking events, I’m the same with these organizations. You know, I want to see youth grow and be empowered and do a lot. I believe in SMEs. I believe in scalable businesses, although I come from a family business that really has all these global brands and they kind of are the big brands of the world, I’m very passionate about SMEs and I’m very passionate about keeping those businesses really growing. They make up the economy, I feel. They’re the base of the economy. So, so that’s how I kind of balance it out.


Rana Nawas: [29:09]

You’re on several boards, including Young Arab Leaders and Endeavor, etc. And you have obviously your family business which you run. It’s a multi-gazillion, you know, dollar business. How do you manage it all? Like what practical tips do you have for listeners on managing it, managing your time?


Muna Al Gurg: [29:29]

Right. Yeah. So what I would say is a never over-promise and under-deliver. So if I cannot take on a certain responsibility, I will always be very clear from the start.


Rana Nawas: [29:42]

So learn to say no is tip number one.


Muna Al Gurg: [29:44]

Yes. Absolutely. You know, I will not take on, if I do, I give it my all, you know, and so whatever you do see that I’ve committed to, I know that I have the time to do it, you know, and it’s important to balance your social life. It’s important that on weekends you’re not sitting there and checking out emails. You need to be with your family, with your friends. You need to have something that gives you the energy to do your work during the week. So it’s your time during the weekend. So I would say really also balance your social life and also work on what you are, what you enjoy, you know. So for me, for example, I love to go to art galleries and I love to collect art. Those are the kinds of things I do on my weekends, you know. Taking on too much is never a good idea.


Rana Nawas: [30:31]

I think for, for a lot of us, that’s where we fall.


Muna Al Gurg: [30:32]



Rana Nawas: [30:32]



Muna Al Gurg: [30:32]



Rana Nawas: [30:36]

Because you want to please, you want to support, you know, there’s, you feel you owe it to someone and then you end up saying yes to way more than you can actually handle.


Muna Al Gurg: [30:44]



Rana Nawas: [30:46]

And then the question becomes right. How do you switch off when you’re overwhelmed


Muna Al Gurg: [30:48]

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.


Rana Nawas: [30:50]

I guess you, what do you do?


Muna Al Gurg: [30:53]

I love to read. I sort of go into another world when I, I, I read my novels.


Rana Nawas: [30:58]

So you still read hard copies?


Muna Al Gurg: [30:58]



Rana Nawas: [30:58]

Me too


Muna Al Gurg: [31:06]

No way will I change that, you know. I love to read books and again as I said, I love to sort of go to art galleries and you can learn so much about art now, in the UAE, you can learn so much because there’s so many great exhibitions that come to the UAE and art for me is a form of actually learning about history. I’ve learned that that’s what really art is about. It’s about a historical moment and it’s how the artist depicts it to you. And so I find that fascinating, you know? And other than that, I just love to meet my friends and spend time with my family.


Rana Nawas: [31:42]

Have you had to make any sacrifices in building your career up to, to where you are today?


Muna Al Gurg: [31:48]

I have to admit that when I first started, so when I went back to university, my daughter was, I, I had her at age 20, so I was bringing her up for a few years and then I went back to university a little bit later than everyone else. And when I did pursue my career in advertising, you know, the advertising industry and you know, how long the hours are. And I have to admit, I mean, I’d come home, sometimes I wouldn’t even see her before she went to sleep and she was quite young in those days. And I did feel guilty and so when I came into the family business, that was also partly why I also came in because I felt like I had a little bit more flexibility and obviously the family understanding that I had a small daughter, you know, so they were not going to be like you’re spending the night in the office, you know? And so that really helped a lot. But in those first few years, particularly continuing my education and also working in the advertising industry, it was a little bit tough.


Rana Nawas: [32:52]

Yeah. I find this model in the GCC fascinating. I, I quite like it, you know, whereby women sometimes have kids when they’re very, very young and then go into the workforce for the first time at a relatively older age.


Muna Al Gurg: [33:07]



Rana Nawas: [33:08]

And then you don’t need to take a career break to have kids. So can you tell me more about this experience? Because I think it’s pretty different to most listeners. It’s fascinating.


Muna Al Gurg: [33:18]

It’s very different, you know, my life has been the opposite to how people have lived their lives. I went back to university at age 26. I graduated around age 28, 29. I was older than my other colleagues, but that also gave me a sense again of determination. So although I still did not have my degree at that age, it almost, there was this force inside me that was trying to prove that I can do it, you know, and perhaps that force wasn’t in the younger generation of people at university, you know? And so yes, definitely. That was very different. And then I started my career later than everyone else, you know.


Rana Nawas: [34:04]

And advertising at the age of 29, you’re old.


Muna Al Gurg: [34:12]

Exactly, exactly. Absolutely. And so again this kind of determination was sort of embedded in me. And one thing that I did always stress upon is that I want to keep improving myself at every stage of my life, you know. So when I found that I had sort of worked for six years and in my field I felt like there was, I wasn’t learning anything new. So I decided, you know, I want to be part of the board level. I don’t just want to be part of the operational level. And so that’s when I went back and I did my MBA at London Business School. Again, opened up a whole new world and I met people from the SME industry. I met people from British Telecom. I, I met people who were on all levels and it, it kind of really opened up a whole new world for me.


Rana Nawas: [34:59]

And you wanted to pay it forward, so you launched your scholarship?


Muna Al Gurg: [35:01]



Rana Nawas: [35:03]

Could you tell us a bit about that?


Muna Al Gurg: [35:08]

So London Business School came to me later and said we’d like you to contribute back to the university. And I said, let me have a think about it, I will let you know how I’d like to contribute. At the time I had just completed my fellowship program with the Aspen institute and it was an 18-month program and it was called the Good Society. So it was all about what your contribution is to this world. What is your legacy, what you’d like to leave behind. And I was very lucky because I was with 18 other people from the middle east. We would meet in the remotest areas of the world. And we would have discussions on, you know, everything from Socrates to Machiavelli to, you know, Nelson Mandela, and at the end of this 18 month program we all realized what we would like to leave behind. And for me, I, I came to a conclusion that I’m very passionate about women’s rights in the middle east. And so when London Business School came to me, I said, I’d like to launch a scholarship for Arab women. And so now we’re onto the second recipient of the Muna Al Gurg scholarship. The first young woman is, is a bright, vibrant lady from Kuwait. She really makes me proud. She wants to be the next CEO of Microsoft. She is amazing. The recipient right now is from Egypt and she’s in the private equity finance industry. She’s quite senior. So again, I feel the, the MBA program will help elevate her to perhaps board level. So again, I’m really proud of what she’s doing.


Rana Nawas: [36:51]

Fabulous. Okay. Well our time is almost up, but I wanted to drill down to the last thing you mentioned, which is supporting women in the middle east in our region. If you could change one law, what would it be?


Muna Al Gurg: [37:06]

Definitely the maternity law. We started off with 45 days and now, we’ve gone up, so there is progress, we’ve gone up to three months but I still believe that it’s not enough and there is not enough policing of the private sector. So the government sector is implementing the three months of maternity leave, but the private sector, no one really asks them. It’s up to them what they would like to kind of. And so when I look at my friends and colleagues in the UK where they’re mothers and, and you know their husbands have paternity leave and they basically have six to nine months off and then they, on top of that, they have flexi hours later and they’re working from home. We are eons away. So that’s what I’d like to change.


Rana Nawas: [37:56]

Lovely. And what is it in your company?


Muna Al Gurg: [38:02]

It’s again 45 days until now. They is no stipulation that it should be more than that. Exactly. So that’s something that I should change.


Rana Nawas: [38:15]

Yes. Well if only you knew somebody on the board, Muna, who could actually implement more than the statutory maternity.


Muna Al Gurg: [38:17]



Rana Nawas: [38:23]

Excellent, action. Great, okay. And you’ve spoken before about how, you know, the women in the region are very well educated, but there are sometimes cultural barriers to them getting jobs, etc. Well let’s, choose one. If there was one cultural setting you could change, what would it be?


Muna Al Gurg: [38:40]

So I would say when women even start to apply for universities and one of the cultural norms that I’d like to change really is that if a girl is academically smart, she could get into an Ivy League college outside, you know, the country. Why is it that, you know, her sibling who is a boy who perhaps is not as academically smart as her is allowed to go outside, but she is not allowed to do so. So I feel that this is, this is really is a pity. I mean, so many women out there who, I’m not saying the universities in the uae aren’t good. They are good, but perhaps this woman could do even better, you know? And so if she, it’s her basic right. If she has, you know, the, she has the right to ask for this.


Rana Nawas: [39:30]

And so she’s not allowed generally because she has to stay in the country with her parents to look after her, is that it?


Muna Al Gurg: [39:35]

Yes to sort of know where she’s coming and going, etc. So, and that goes on for a long time even when women are in their late twenties and they want to pursue their MBA and sometimes they’re told, no, you can’t go when you just stay here and look at your options within here. So that’s something that I’d like to see change.


Rana Nawas: [39:59]

You never faced those constraints with your father or your family, but if you had to go back in time and there was one thing you could change in your own life, what would you do differently?


Muna Al Gurg: [40:10]

I would definitely tell my, let’s say my teenage-self that, have the confidence in yourself to \do what you would like to do. Because when I was younger I, I didn’t have that much confidence. I was at school, I was bullied. Not a lot of people know this and so I did not have that confidence to say this is what I want, this is what I’d like to pursue. And so I would definitely give my younger self more confidence, you know, and perhaps even, you know, really sort of convince my parents that, you know, I want to. I didn’t study outside the uae. So for example, I, I should have been a little bit more confident to say I want to go out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do quite honestly. And I wish I did at that young age.


Rana Nawas: [41:00]

Yeah, I think all of us are in the same boat. I think nobody is born with wisdom. Right. It just has to come with time.


Muna Al Gurg: [41:06]

True, true, true.


Rana Nawas: [41:08]

Well Muna, I have learned so much from this conversation, thank you so much for your time. And how can listeners find you?


Muna Al Gurg: [41:14]

Thank you for this interview. I enjoy your podcast so much. You can find me on Twitter when Muna Al Gurg and Linkedin.


Rana Nawas: [41:25]

Lovely. We’ll do that. Alright. Thank you again.


Muna Al Gurg: [41:26]

Thank you Rana. Thank you.


Rana Nawas: [41:29]

I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. You can check out show notes and more episodes at or search: When Women Win on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’d also love to hear your feedback and ideas for who I should bring on the show. You can find me on instagram @RanaNawas. Thanks and have a great day!


End Of Transcript