Breaking the family business stereotype

Interview with Muna Easa Al Gurg, Director of Retail at Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group

Interview conducted by Jenny Kassis

 

It is only natural to think being part of a personal family business is easy, however, that is not the case for many including Muna Easa Al Gurg, Director of Retail for the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Grouphas, who created herself a name through hard work and determination.

The young Emirati native businesswoman is responsible for strategy and operational development of the group’s international retail brands that include United Colors of Benetton, Siemens, ad Unilever.

 

A strong supporter of entrepreneurship, she is the Chairwoman of Young Arab Leaders U.A.E., and helps guide essential components of the initiatives’ success in education, entrepreneurship and youth development. Muna was also been appointed as member of the board of Emirates Foundation, an independent philanthropic organization set up by the government of Abu Dhabi to facilitate public-private funded initiatives to improve the welfare of people across U.A.E.

 

Moreover, her commitment to empower others has made her an avid public speaker on Corporate Social Responsibility, leadership, women and youth development topics. In June 2010, Muna was awarded the Emirates Women’s prize as an outstanding achiever. A frequent opinion columnist, she has an abiding passion for arts and was a Director at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre in 2004, and continues to support the project.

 

Muna also serves on the board of several non-profit organizations including the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Charity Foundation, which allows her to extend her philanthropic efforts internationally and regionally. She received her BA in Business Administration from the American University in Dubai and her Executive MBA in Business Administration from London Business School in 2009.

 

Although she holds several roles and leads on various initiatives, Muna has never failed to keep her family at the top of her priorities, maintaining a balance between her personal and professional life.

 

How do you find joy in doing business in the different roles that you have held throughout your career?

People perform well and succeed while doing the things they enjoy. I am very passionate about developing high impact entrepreneurs. Besides my role within Easa Saleh Al Gurg group, I work on several projects and initiatives to help and empower young entrepreneurs. SMEs and small businesses face many challenges right after their launch. Sometimes they don’t know how to overcome them and take their business to the next level; this is why I spend a lot of time and put a lot of effort to see those businesses grow. It is something I enjoy doing.  I am on the board of Endeavor U.A.E., an organization that identifies high impact entrepreneurs and creates support systems with an unparalleled network of business leaders and mentors. Endeavor puts them in touch with highly experienced businesspeople that can support and mentor them along the way, therefore transforming economies one entrepreneur at a time.

 

How would you describe the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the U.A.E.?

In the U.A.E., the entrepreneurial ecosystem depends on the sector a startup is operating in. Many organizations, incubators and angel investors’ mentor and support entrepreneurs, who in case didn’t get the right mentoring, could eventually lose their business. Through Young Arab Leaders (YAL), we have worked with over 700 young entrepreneurs over the past year in the U.A.E. to help guide them.

We see a huge difference and massive development in the market today from how it was ten years ago. In the past, the market was controlled by major family businesses. Today, the country is buzzing with new ideas, and technology is definitely influencing businesses.

 

How do you define success?

There are different elements to success whether it be on a personal level, career level or within a community. However, I believe that success is achieved when all these elements come together holistically.

 

From a career perspective, I would define success as a sustainable factor that stays beyond one’s existence. I always ask myself what I would like to leave behind me in this world. It is a hard question to answer, and it took me a while to reflect upon. However, I was lucky to participate in a two-year fellowship program with The Aspen Institute along with 20 other fellows from the Middle East and North Africa region, where we all reflected on what we are trying to achieve in this world. The program revolved round ‘The Good Society’ and was about giving back to the community. I realized that I am passionate about women’s empowerment and that education is something I could contribute to. This is how I started my personal scholarship for Arab Women at London Business School. This initiative was a starting-point for me to think about my legacy and what I would like to leave the world with. I am very passionate about education and I am glad to contribute towards the education of Arab women.

 

What are the main challenges that you have faced as an Emirati businesswoman?

For me, it has not been a difficult journey from that perspective. I received a lot of support from my family. However, I know that many women face challenges related to culture and gender issues. I always try to speak to as many women as possible in order to empower and uplift them to do their best despite cultural constraints.

 

From your experiences what are the main constraints that Arab women have to deal with?

Parents in the GCC tend to question their daughters about their career choices more than they ask their sons. This makes it more challenging for women to grow. However, there is always a way. I always advise women in similar situations to find a supportive person within their family and convince them to persuade the others. They also have to be patient as it is crucial for them to focus on their end goal. When facing such challenges, people get distracted and tend to forget their main objective.

 

As a working mother, how do you maintain a perfect balance between your family and career?

I schedule all my board meetings that are not related to the family business at a specified time, usually in the evening. However, I have certain fixed plans to do during the week such as going out with my mother and daughter on a particular day and work can’t make me skip those days. This is how I create the balance. Family time is sacred; I never forfeit spending time with my family for work unless there is an exceptional reason.

 

What are some of the advantages of working in the private sector and in a family business?

The private sector contributes to the growth of an economy. The best part of working in this sector is that it brings out a lot of creativity and innovation. For me, it is never stagnant; I feel that creativity and innovation bring more competition to the market. It is very beneficial to be part of the private sector as it brings out creative thinking and allows one to learn more; whereas working in the government is more systematic.

As for my experience, I worked outside of the family business for a while and I learned a lot. However, working within the family business is like working for your own and putting your efforts towards building a legacy for your children and their children. It is about the inner drive in you that motivates you and pushes you on a daily basis to make this work, build the brand and take the company to an ultimate level.  

 

How do you describe GCC women’s achievements in the private sector?

Women have strived within family businesses and private sectors. It is incredible to see their drive within this division. Many women are great achievers in the private sector across the GCC. We have a lot of success stories such as Lubna S. Olayan, the Chief Executive Officer of the Olayan Financing Company in Saudi Arabia; Fatima Obaid Al Jaber, the Chief Operating Officer of Al Jaber Group in Abu Dhabi and my sister Raja AL Gurg, the Managing Director of our business, just to name a few.

 

According to you, how can self-motivation influence women’s roadmap to success?

It is important to acknowledge that there are challenging and negative times in life that one has to deal with. Personally, whenever I face an encounter, I pick myself up and say, “Now is the time to move on”. Women need to keep themselves from getting distracted and rather stay focused on what they are trying to achieve.

 

I always surround myself with positive people; I feel that self-motivation can come from such people that I can learn from. It can also occur in many different forms, namely a good balance between spirituality, exercise and positivity.

 

How do you describe the power of female consumers nowadays?

There is an incredible consumer spending power amongst women within the GCC. According to a report, there are more than 1.5 million wealthy households in the GCC, with more than $50 million in cash. Those households are constituted of women, which allows for their consumer spending to be incredibly high. Women have the authority to choose and buy. Through Better Life, one of our stores specialized in home appliances, we realized that women are the decision makers whereas men sometimes just provide the means. Women are also increasingly becoming independent and making more money, and therefore contributing to the growth of consumer spending in the region.

 

What is your advice to women entrepreneurs in the GCC?

The ability to listen is crucial. This goes to both women and men entrepreneurs. Listen more than you speak so you can learn. Identify one person to look up to, and don’t be afraid of approaching them and asking them if they can mentor you and share with you an “outside perspective”. Again, during challenging times, it is always important to focus on your end goal. Last but not least, network, network and network.

 

What keeps you going and motivates you in life?

I am very passionate about life in general. I have a lot of energy and I believe that there are so many things that can be achieved. My daughter is definitely a driving force in my life in terms of how I perceive life and how I think about the future. Also, I am very lucky to be living in Dubai, a dynamic city that keeps me going as I can feel the buzz the moment I wake up in the morning.

 

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