Noor Sweid started her professional life as a strategy consultant in biotech and pharma; she then moved back to Dubai where she joined her family business, Depa, an interior contracting company. She helped grow it from $60M in revenue to $600M over 8 years. When it became the biggest such company in the world, Noor led its IPO on the London Stock Exchange.
In parallel, Noor founded ZenYoga, the first yoga and pilates studio in the MENA region. It grew to become the largest chain of wellness studios in the Middle East and was sold to a private equity firm. Noor currently owns and runs Global Ventures, a Dubai-based, growth-stage VC firm that invests in emerging markets.
I was curious to know, given these very different life & work experiences: what were the big lessons learned? It kept coming back to just one: you need a good story. Whether you’re building a yoga business or selling a contracting firm, people need to understand and believe in your vision. I also asked Noor why and how she does what she does. My favorite quote of the episode is “Good enough should be the bar” – am delighted that Noor shares my distaste for perfection. You’ll have to listen for more context – and loads of book recommendations.
In 2018, Noor was named by Forbes as one of the World’s Top 50 Women in Tech, and she received the Arab Woman Award for Finance. She has been named in the Arabian Business 100 Most Powerful Arab Women list three times. Noor is Chairperson of the Middle East Venture Capital Association, was on the Founding Board of Endeavor UAE, and serves as a Director for MIT Sloan, TechWadi, and The Grooming Company.
By the way, some funky stuff happened with the studio’s recording system this time, so today we are literally going to get right into it!
Read the Transcript
Rana Nawas: (00:00)
Hello boys and girls. One of the reasons I started When Women Win is because I’m super curious about so many different things and people. If I’m interviewing a domain expert, I want to go deep and if it’s someone with a broad range of diverse experiences, well I’m looking for lessons learned and any common threads. This episode is more the latter. Noor Sweid started her professional life as a strategy consultant in Biotech and Pharma. She then moved back to Dubai where she joined the family business, Depa, an Interior Contracting Company. She helped grow it to become the biggest such company in the world and led its IPO on the London Stock Exchange. Noor founded Zen Yoga, the first Yoga and Peloton Studio in the MENA region and she grew it to become the largest chain of wellness studios across the region and then sold it to a private equity firm. Noor currently owns and runs Global Ventures, a Dubai based growth stage VC firm that invests in emerging markets. So, I was curious to know, given Noor’s very diverse life and work experiences, what were the big lessons and it kept coming back to just one; you need a good story whether you’re building a yoga business or selling a contracting firm, people need to understand and believe in your vision. I also asked Noor why and how she does what she does. It seems Noor shares my distaste for perfection and so my favourite quote of the episode was, “good enough should always be the bar.” You’ll have to listen for some more context and there are loads of good book recommendations in this show. In 2018, Noor was named by Forbes as one of the world’s top 50 women in Tech and she received the Arab Woman Award for Finance. And by the way, some funky stuff happened with the studios recording system this time. So today, we’re literally going to get right into it.
Rana Nawas: (02:04)
With all of these different hats you’ve worn, all these different experiences you’ve had, I’m thinking this wasn’t planned when you came out of university, you didn’t say, “I’m going to be a consultant, I’m going to scale an IPO. I’m going to build a business and exit. I’m going to become an investor.” How did this path happen? How did you move from one to the other?
Noor Sweid: (02:23)
So, it wasn’t planned at all. I think that being open-minded is key to success. So, I think being open to opportunities and trying to see opportunities when they present themselves to you, which often people are blind to because they have such a set path that they’re out to journey on. So, I joined the family business for a few weeks to help out in between projects when I was consulting. A few weeks turned into a few months, few months turned to ultimately 8 years in contracting, which is not something I would’ve thought of at all. I moved back to Dubai from Boston and couldn’t find a yoga studio, which had become just part of my habit and instrumental to me as a person. And so I said, “okay, well why not?” And so we just built one and there were no teachers. So I asked two of my favorite teachers to move over from the states and got into a deal with them. And this was how it came to be. It was literally like this: I saw a market, need based on demographics and population and started building out Zen Yoga. So it was the courage to identify opportunities when they present themselves to you and then the initiative to actually act on them.
Rana Nawas: (03:37)
Love it. Noor, you’ve worked in many different fields. What is one lesson that you’ve taken away from all these experiences?
Noor Sweid: (03:44)
So the importance of building the story is consistent across everything from consulting to scaling IPO on your business to building a business from scratch into investing. We look at stories now as investors; we looked at it when we were IPOing. We were selling our story. When you’re building a business from scratch, you are having people believe in your vision and your story. And all the story is what your vision is. Where is the data to prove that that vision can actually succeed? And how do you plan to get there? And are you the right person to execute? Now as investors, all we do is invest in people and stories that have the right data to back them.
Rana Nawas: (04:18)
All right. Let’s go deeper into each of these buckets of experience, if you will. What did you learn in consulting, apart from the importance of a good story and how to craft one? Any lessons or tips for the listeners that you picked up during your consulting career?
Noor Sweid: (04:36)
So for me, consulting was a journey and how do you have a 10,000 foot view and then drill down to being on the ground? How do you then translate that from, you know, a vision and a strategy to operations and KPIs? So, that for me was part of the consulting journey. The first piece of advice I ever got from a Manager was to buy really good eye cream because apparently when you travel so much that is an imperative. So that was kind of the balance, the balancing act from day one was let’s focus on these master visions in Biotech and Pharma, which are the industries I focused on and not forget about our eye cream.
Rana Nawas: (05:21)
Let me guess, your manager was a woman?
Noor Sweid: (05:23)
Of course, yeah. So, that for me was consulting; it was how do you go from having a vision and translating that into operating KPIs.
Rana Nawas: (05:32)
Okay. And then you moved into Depa, as you say, an opportunity presented itself. Weeks turn into months, turn into years. What did you learn there?
Noor Sweid: (05:42)
So on the operating side, I learned really the importance of policies, processes, procedures and governance. So, I moved into Depa from a consulting mindset into a very operating role and the company had grown. It was a thousand people. It was in six countries. It was $60 million in revenue the year that I joined. And it was an interior contracting company, which means we don’t design, we execute the design in hotels and in infrastructure. And what that meant was you’d take 30% of the development value and you make a hotel look as it looks on the inside. You take a building that’s core and shell and you hand over the front door keys.
Rana Nawas: (06:23)
Let’s talk about entrepreneurship and investing. What mistakes do you see entrepreneurs make when it comes to growing or exiting their business?
Noor Sweid: (06:31)
I think a lot of people get attached to their businesses, attached to their vision but are only halfway through building them. “It could be so much more,” is what we often hear when people start talking about exits. And sometimes you need to take a step back and go back to that 10,000 foot and just take a look and say, “okay, well maybe someone else will take it in a different direction that I had never envisioned and that could be even better. Maybe someone else has more resources.” So I think a lot of it is psychological and it’s about attachment. People get attached to their businesses as if they’re their babies and they’re not. Businesses are for us to build, exit and move on to building the next thing. There are so few visionaries in this world that I’ve come across that get attached because if you’ve had one vision, you can have another, you can have a third and you know, your job is to let go and start building towards something new. And I think that once people realize that they actually have the ability to do that, they’re so much more inclined to say, okay, let’s have a conversation.
Rana Nawas: (07:31)
Okay. And so how do you know you’re getting the right price? Most people who build a business wouldn’t have the evaluation skills or valuation skills rather. So how do you know you’re getting a good deal?
Noor Sweid: (07:43)
You’ve studied Finance…it’s, you know, Engineering, Math, it’s the price that someone’s willing to pay.
Rana Nawas: (07:52)
Okay. So it’s the market price?
Noor Sweid: (07:54)
I mean, you can think that your business is worth whatever you want to think it’s worth, but it’s actually only worth what someone’s willing to pay for it and that’s just the hard reality. So it makes sense to shop around. It makes sense to try to sell on an upswing so as your revenues are actually growing very quickly or your profits are going very quickly, that’s a really good time to sell because what you’re selling, I go back to this, is the story; “look how fast we’re growing. We can continue to grow this fast. This is doing incredibly well.” That’s what you’re selling. The minute your business starts to plateau and your revenues don’t grow as fast, or there’s softening on your profits or your margins, that’s a really bad time to sell because whoever’s buying it is going to say, “well, that’s now your trend.” So, the best time to sell your business is probably the time when you want to sell it the least, on a very personal level but it’s time when you’ll make the most money on a very professional level.
Rana Nawas: (08:50)
I love that we keep coming back to a good story because in my mind, what’s happening is yes, it helps you build the business, helps you finance it, helps you scale it and it helps you sell it. But also this is a skill. Fundamentally, it’s about influencing people. So it’s a skill you apply in the corporate world and it’s a skill you apply at home. I know if I could tell a good story, maybe my four year old will do what I say, probably not. But I love that we keep coming back to that. So I’d like to ask you about your story. We’ve known each other for a few years now and I have this deep personal question that’s been burning inside me for years because I know you and I know how hard you work. I know that you have three children and you have a husband who works and travels a lot and you’ve gone from business to business to business. And I’ve always wondered, given your background, what drives you so hard? Why are you so determined? What is your why?
Noor Sweid: (09:50)
So right now, I am building out this venture capital firm in the region, these speak very deeply to me. I only do things that I genuinely believe in. So building out Zen yoga was something I genuinely believed in because I believed that the region needed to be more in tune with wellness and Yoga was my translation of wellness at that point. Building out Depa was something I deeply believed in because that became the largest interior contractor in the world. When we IPOed in London on the main board, we had Morgan Stanley and UBS as our billionaires. It was a global success story in the sense that this was a Dubai based company that had become the largest in its space and then was successful. So whatever I work on, I deeply believe in and that drives me right now. Venture Capital for me is something I deeply believe in. I believe in it because of how essential it is. So when I reflect on the two success stories I’ve been fortunate enough to have in my career, on both exits, they would have never happened without the right capital. So, DEPA was funded in a private placement when I first joined. And that enabled its growth. Zen Yoga was funded and that enables its growth and yet it was so difficult.
Rana Nawas: (11:04)
What was difficult?
Noor Sweid: (11:05)
Raising the funds, building the companies, being an entrepreneur, building a business and building a yoga business was incredibly hard, yet I have an MBA from a good school and I didn’t need that job financially. And so I take a step back and I think, you know, if we’re so fortunate that we are in this position and yet it was so hard, how hard is it for people who are not as fortunate to have either the education or the financial background to be able to pursue their dreams? And so fixing this access to capital problem and this allocation of capital to founders, especially in our part of the world, is what VC is about. To me, it’s how do we find these founders who have these amazing visions, these great stories, are determined, the market needs what they’re building but can’t find the right capital to enable their growth.
Rana Nawas: (11:55)
And your VC fund is early stage.?
Noor Sweid: (11:56)
Our VC fund is series A and B which for the region means that you have more than a million dollars in revenue, pretty much, because that’s an A.
Rana Nawas: (12:04)
How do you split your time? I think something when you and I last saw each other for coffee, you were saying the same thing, it’s like you split your time between fundraising and actually doing the work. How?
Noor Sweid: (12:21)
Yeah. Not on day-by-day, on week-by-week.
Rana Nawas: (12:21)
Ah, so one week is dedicated to this and one week is dedicated to that?
Noor Sweid: (12:25)
Not dedicated, one week it’s 80-20 this, one week it’s 80-20 that. And now it’s 2 weeks- 2 weeks because these two weeks, it’s all founders and we have been scaling. And then for two weeks I’m out, I’ll do fundraising an hour day.
Rana Nawas: (12:37)
Okay. We’re going to switch into the rapid fire round door. What is a book you’ve recently gifted someone?
Noor Sweid: (12:44)
So we give to all of our Portfolio Founders books every three months. We gifted “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”, we gifted recently “Straight Talk for Start-ups,” which is a great book for any Founders out there, which again talks about building your company, scaling your company and exiting your company. I’ve personally gifted someone “The Book of Joy,” which has a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu about what joy is, how to bring joy into your life.
Rana Nawas: (13:16)
Love it. And is there a book that’s influenced you deeply?
Noor Sweid: (13:22)
A while back before I had kids, I received a copy of a book called the “Feminine Mistake,” which is along the tunnel study that tracks Ivy League women who ended up working in high stress jobs, for lack of a better word, and then got married and had children. It divided them into two cohorts; those that then left the workforce and those that stayed in the workforce. I’m a very data driven person. And so this book provided me with a lot of data on the reasons that these women left, there were three, you know, health, husband and children and what happens in these three categories over time in the two cohorts. So data around the success rates of the children, the success rate of the marriage and the impact on your health, depression and obesity. And that book really influenced my thinking around what it means to work, what it means to work as a mom. The last chapter of the book really changed my lens on the way I operate my life in a way it’s called being good enough. And it talks about how women generally have a bar of perfection across everything they do, whether it’s the way they look, whether it’s the school their children go to, whether it’s in their job, we always strive to be perfect across everything and that as women, we’re often raised that way, as the female gender. Whereas the male gender is raised with a different bar; that bar being “good enough.” And if we could change the lens that we have to, or the bar that we have to, is this good enough, then not only would we relax a little bit, but we could actually do a lot more. And it doesn’t all have to be good enough at the same time. So sometimes, you know, you do have to be perfect at your job and sometimes your kids do have to look perfect for, you know, Christmas lunch. But more often than not, good enough should be the bar. And so once I started thinking about that, the meals I cook at home are good enough. Sometimes I like to think they are perfect but good enough is where they need to stand for the day to get on. And so that really changed the way I see things.
Rana Nawas: (15:31)
Two thoughts on that. I just released yesterday the episode of the podcast with the Melltoo co-founders; Sherene and Morrad. Sherene talks about this as well. So they have six children and they’re serial entrepreneurs. So they started and sold a bunch of businesses. So I asked her, how do you manage, you know, the two of you are equal partners and six children? And she said lower expectations. And I just found that advice to be so valuable and on the topic of perfection. Also I recently interviewed Reshma Saujani, who you may have heard of, the founder of Girls Who Code, who’s recently written a book called “Brave, Not Perfect,” which tackles exactly this issue, which starts when girls are very young.
Noor Sweid: (16:16)
Rana Nawas: (16:17)
Brilliant. So what is a question you wish people would ask you more often?
Noor Sweid: (16:24)
I don’t know. I think that, you know, people ask me enough questions. I think that it’s really the angle of my life, which is driven by mindfulness and presence, that people, once they realize that that exists, start asking a lot of questions. And for me, that was driven largely when I was in college and I started practicing yoga and meditation and that I’d always come back to that. I start everyday with five minutes of meditation, just five minutes. And that’s enough. That’s more than enough really.
Rana Nawas: (17:02)
Okay. I was going to ask you, how do you switch off when you feel overwhelmed?
Noor Sweid: (17:06)
I breathe. I teach my children to breathe, to practice yoga. I play tennis, I play piano.
Rana Nawas: (17:16)
Okay. You play the piano well, don’t you?
Noor Sweid: (17:19)
I think I play piano. So it’s one of these things where I think you have to go back to areas where the mind focuses completely on one thing. So meditation in the tress and some meditation is fantastic, but if you’re playing tennis and you’re not focused on that ball, you’re not going to make your shot. And so to some degree that is very minuted for the mind because you’re not thinking about your to do lists or groceries or your work. And same with yoga, you’re probably focused on your breathing. And same with playing piano because if you’re not feeling that music, then you’re going to miss a note. So anything that truly makes the mind focus and go away from what it’s working on…
Rana Nawas: (18:07)
Love it! Noor, where can listeners find you?
Noor Sweid: (18:09)
I’m on Twitter. It’s @NSweid and I’m on LinkedIn @NoorSweid
Rana Nawas: (18:16)
Great, thank you so much for coming, I’ve really enjoyed this!
Noor Sweid: (18:18)
Thank you so much for having me!
Rana Nawas: (18:20)
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