15 Oct 2015
How completing her EMBA left London Business School’s first female leadership donor in the Middle East determined to leave her legacy through education for others.
Most LBS graduates can expect to face business challenges during the course of their careers, but when Muna Al Gurg finished her EMBA, she was thrown into a crucial role that put her skills to the test straight away.
Having previously led marketing for her family’s business, The Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, she was promoted to Director of Retail.
The global economic crisis had just hit, and the retail sector faced an uncertain period. But under her guidance the company’s retail business flourished as she combined her previous insights gained as Director of Marketing with the strategic planning skills she’d developed at LBS.
“I really thought twice about how to take on the challenge,” Muna admits.
“But as soon as I got into the role my background of branding became very relevant. I knew all the brands really well – I started on the shop floor in 2001. I knew what our brands represented and I knew what our customers and target market were interested in.”
The Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group is a conglomerate that works with a diverse range of product and business interests, including retail, building and construction, industrial and joint ventures. It partners with global leaders including Siemens, British American Tobacco and Unilever. Taking on its varied retail sector as a global recession hit was no mean feat.
“I really honed in on things like training and I focused a lot on customer service; I felt like that was something we really needed to improve on,” says Muna.
“Over a period of time we were happy to see the results of double digit improvement in the business and profits, so I think it was a great experience for me.” The transition marked the fulfilment of one of Muna’s ambitions post-EMBA – to gain a more holistic strategic understanding of the organisation and allow her to progress.
“I wanted to expand and broaden my scope of involvement in the business itself,” she explains.
“I really wanted to be fully immersed on a broad level in terms of strategic planning. There were certain sectors that weren’t my forte – finance and accounting – where I felt I needed to improve, so it seemed like a suitable time to enrol on an MBA.”
Giving something back
But progressing within the successful family business wasn’t Muna’s only ambition. Giving back to others through education was a personal passion she wanted to develop. And her experience on the EMBA provided her with the ideas to put her ambitions into place.
“I’ve realised I want to set up my own education fund,” she explains. “I feel that the EMBA gave me the confidence to really think about things like high-impact entrepreneurship. Post-EMBA I set up several programmes within the organisation I chair, Young Arab Leaders, and now we positively impact more than 700 entrepreneurs a year. I also joined the UAE Board of Endeavor, which is a high impact entrepreneurial initiative mentoring programme that has mentored thousands of young entrepreneurs all over the world.
“I started to really think about entrepreneurship and about how I can impact the world we live in – not just through the organisation that I work at but through my personal investments.”
Muna didn’t have to look far for inspiration – “I’ve been exposed to philanthropy through my family, particularly my father who started the Al Gurg foundation board (to support charity housing projects, orphanages and academic institutes) and really has worked hard to make it such a success,” she explains.
As well as working to create opportunities specifically for women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Muna decided that funding a scholarship at LBS, the Muna Al Gurg scholarship, was the perfect way to give back to the School and ensure opportunities for future generations.
“My own experience was so rewarding,” she explains. “If I can share that and someone else can get the same experience as me, that’s fantastic.
“There’s so much someone can do with an MBA; they can create more jobs and develop more revenue – it’s economically healthy for the community they live in. I feel the School can really add a lot of value in that way.”
Describing her own EMBA experience, Muna says that three things stood out to her: the exposure to a wide range of peers from different backgrounds, the structure of the programme, which allowed her to juggle work, study and family life, and the quality of the teaching faculty.
“One of my favourites was Professor Andrew Scott,” she says. “To me, he was one of the most inspiring faculty.
“Whenever we attended any of his lectures it was so interesting to learn about the economic environments we live in. He’s an advisor to governments and we had that one-on-one experience with him. Having such experienced people sharing their knowledge was incredibly inspiring.”
Promoting women’s education
As well as the new LBS scholarship, Muna has also worked to support students at undergraduate level – including two female refugees from Syria, who are studying at the American University in Lebanon. Muna is passionate about working to specifically support women’s education in the MENA region. Often from poor families, the women she works with would rarely have their education prioritised over male family members. But Muna says that by supporting women’s education in the region, she hopes to bolster diversity and increase wealth.
“Part of my inspiration is down to my own experience,” she admits. “I was personally allowed to grow. Because of that I feel it’s important and it’s a responsibility to see if I can help other people do that same, and particularly if I can help women.
“We all know diversity creates wealth, whether on a company board or at any level. So I’d like to see more of a gender balance within the business environment and within the education environment.”
Her work with undergraduates is the perfect complement to her master’s-level LBS scholarship.
“It’s at a time when I’m thinking about education in a more impactful way for the future and setting up an education fund. It really is a stepping stone for me from that perspective,” she says.
Muna says that she has seen huge shifts in the opportunities available for women in the MENA region in the last decade.
“I see the change in my own country,” she says. “There’s so much focus on encouraging women to take up roles – I see young women becoming engineers and getting into fields that were really in the past considered masculine.
“I think there’s a lot of encouragement. We’re lucky in the United Arab Emirates (UAE); the leaders are really very encouraging.”
Referencing a 2012 action by the UAE Cabinet to make it compulsory for corporations and government agencies to include women on their boards of directors, she says: “I know some people are against quotas. But I feel that it’s really working for us, because I do really see more women on boards now.
“The crucial part of the whole thing has been the implementation. We all know quotas are put into place, but the checks and balances need to be there in terms of implementation.”
Muna says that many women find rewards in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and foundation boards, where they can make a difference in areas they care deeply about. “This is a significant role and one they feel very comfortable in,” she says. “Even in family businesses where women sometimes find it difficult to manoeuvre between the dominating male family members, they do see a place for themselves on foundation boards and CSR boards. Change may not be rapid, but I really do feel that it’s happening.”
For Muna, the key to any challenge, whether it’s gender equality or her personal career goals, is to focus on the long-term.
“I think that it’s very important to focus on the end goal and what is it that you are trying to achieve in your life in terms of where you want to end up,” she explains.
“It’s a digital world that’s full of information, it’s rapidly growing and there’s lots going on. It can be overwhelming and confusing. I feel it’s important to really focus on that end goal, to stop and think ‘Where am I going? Where am I heading?’
“It’s important to take a step back sometimes. I remember when I was doing the EMBA, there were times when I felt seriously challenged, particularly because I was juggling work, studies and family. I had to take a step back and ask myself why I was doing it. Focus on the end goal.”
In 14 years, Muna has established a highly successful career and found time to focus on her charitable and social endeavours. She has also secured her legacy through education for others, by launching the Muna Al Gurg scholarship at LBS. We look forward to seeing what more she achieves in the coming decades.