On the cover: How Emirati business leader and philanthropist Muna Al Gurg is breaking the mould

August 28, 2023 | By Rupkatha B

Muna Easa Al Gurg, Vice Chairperson & Director of Retail, Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group (ESAG)

Closing the gender gap in the workforce is not only a moral imperative, but one that has a measurable impact on economic growth, said Muna Easa Al Gurg, Vice Chairperson & Director of Retail, Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group (ESAG) during a cover story interview with IMAGES RetailME.

According to the World Economic Forum globally the rate of women’s participation in the workforce had declined by 3.4% between 2019 and 2020, versus 2.4% for men.

The good news is women are re-entering the workforce at a “slightly higher” rate than men. Between the 2022 and 2023 editions of the World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Gender Gap Report’ the parity in the labour force participation rate has increased slightly from 63% to 64%.

Having said that, moving at the current pace, it will take us roughly 300 years to achieve full gender equality, the United Nations indicates. Even though ensuring gender equality has the potential to add $12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025, as per a McKinsey Global Institute report. It also has the potential to enhance “innovation ambidexterity” indicates a recent study published by the University of Pennsylvania.

If anything, a gender balanced workforce is an imperative.

Closer to home, in the Middle East workforce in the public and private sector has become more gender balanced over the past decade. In fact, with 60% of Qatari women and 53% of Emirati women employed in the workforce, as per World Bank, female workforce participation in these countries outpaces the current global average of 47.4%.

Yet, gender equity in the region is a long road, particularly at the leadership level where 7% of board seats are held by women in the GCC versus 20% globally, stated a recent Bain & Company report.

Changing the narrative, here’s a unique example of an over six-decade old, diversified, UAE-based family business with a board led by three women. I’m talking about the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group (ESAG) founded by the Late Easa Saleh Al Gurg. The Group is now helmed by his three daughters – Raja Easa Al Gurg, Chairperson and Managing Director; Muna Easa Al Gurg, Vice Chairperson & Director of Retail; and Maryam Easa Al Gurg, Director & Member of the Board of Directors.

“Currently, women constitute 17% of our entire Group across divisions, including retail, consumer goods, building materials, industrial within roles such as architects, engineers, communications and human resources professionals. Our goal is to double this number in the next five years,” shared Muna Al Gurg.

A strong advocate of empowerment of women and their greater role in business – and a member of the ‘30% Club’, a global campaign to increase gender diversity at board and senior management levels – Muna undertakes several initiatives to ensure equitable representation of women at all levels across ESAG.

For instance, she started the Al Gurg Women’s Empowerment Forum, a programme providing a platform for women to voice their opinions.

In 2015 she launched the Muna Al Gurg Scholarship at London Business School supporting female Arab students studying on the school’s MBA and Executive MBA programmes designed to help them in areas of skill development and strategic thinking. Even beyond ESAG Muna is heavily invested in creating pathways for women and girls in the MENA region through education, economic empowerment and by investing in women-led social impact enterprises.

“Closing the gender gap in the workforce is not only a moral imperative, but one that has a measurable impact on economic growth,” she emphasised.

What’s more, Muna is set to launch her own foundation this year that will focus on finding innovative and entrepreneurial solutions to gender inequality, aligned with UN Sustainable Development Goal 5.

Explaining the rationale behind establishing her foundation, Muna said, “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my values, my lived experiences and the longer-term impact I hope to have in the world. This has informed the creation of my foundation. The foundation is focused on creating more opportunities for women and girls – creating more agency, voice and choice for all women and girls across the Middle East. Our approach is threefold: creating pathways for economic empowerment, ensuring access to healthcare and health awareness, and investing in greater impact measurement and data transparency.”

As someone who is serious about not only supporting causes but also measuring progress, through her foundation Muna is keen to invest in long-term, sustainable solutions that are data driven and evidence based. “I believe in openness and accountability through impact measurement and data transparency as a key to good governance,” she opined.

Steering a family business

In a region like the GCC where family businesses play a pivotal role in the economy accounting for over-90% of the private sector and are a significant employment generator, our conversation slowly steered towards an important topic. The responsibility of continuing the deep legacy of a family business, one that’s been part of the UAE’s trade fabric for over 60 years.

How challenging is it to steer a business of this scale and reputation?

“No two days can ever be similar. Some days are challenging, and some days are extremely gratifying. I don’t think it’s much different from any other corporate entity,” Muna responded, adding, “It’s really about the mindset, whether we have a growth mindset, whether we are open to learning and evolving while keeping in mind the founder’s vision and values.”

“We find it extremely gratifying to take forward our founder’s values and legacy,” she continued. “Each one of us do it in our own way, looking at the greater good of the community, while also bearing in mind the greater good of ESAG as a company. It requires striking a balance between following the founder’s path while developing our individual mark, reflecting on what we’ve learned from the founder and his values and how we can take it forward in this day and age. I think that’s a huge privilege and a big responsibility.”

The ‘G’ in ESG: A crucial piece

Now that several third-generation family members are actively engaged in ESAG and since the business recently underwent a smooth succession process, I was naturally interested in knowing more about the mechanics governing the company’s corporate governance structure.

“We’ve had a robust governance structure set in place at ESAG for many years now,” Muna shared. “Now we’ve also created a ‘Next Gen Committee’ that I currently chair. The intention is to make our governance structure even more inclusive and transparent. We’ve laid out a set of guidelines to not only govern succession planning but also help in furthering our vision to achieve inclusive leadership, diversity in the boardroom, recognise merit and spearhead innovation.”

Despite having a governance structure in place, since leadership styles must be different, a big question is how the ESAG board leverages each leader’s strength in the best way possible.

Offering context, Muna explained, “At our governance committee meetings, we focus a lot on the importance of how a family member needs to come in with their expertise. Every person has a certain set of skills, their own forte, things that they are good at. For example, my elder sister brings in tremendous strategic value. While my second sister brings in the philanthropic mindset. My role is focused on gender equality and marketing, and our CEO has an operational mindset.”

“Force fitting someone just because they are a family member is not the right approach. It’s more about what value they can add to the family business. That’s something the future generations must keep in mind. And here I must mention that our founder always stressed on the importance of family members working outside the business first before joining ESAG. He wished for us to first get external experience to be able to add value to our unique culture.”

Changemaking doesn’t happen overnight

Alongside good governance ESAG has actively embraced sustainability, prioritising it in its ESAG2025 vision framework centred around diversity, empowerment and integrity.

ESG is more than just a buzzword, Muna stressed. It is a sound strategy for sustainable growth and development by achieving net-zero emissions, taking care of employees and ensuring transparency in decision-making process, among several other things.

“To bring about meaningful change, we align with like-minded companies. Our long-standing partner Siemens has strategic collaborations with Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) and Mubadala for green hydrogen. Interface, a leading flooring products manufacturer and a key brand partner, has a ‘Mission Zero’ goal to source 100% recycled materials for its carpet tiles. We are also adopting internal initiatives to enable behavioural changes of our workforce. Water filling stations are being set up within our offices to reduce plastic usage and carbon emission due to bottle transportation. E-waste recycling allows staff to dispose everything from old smartphones and laptops through to charging cables and batteries,” she elaborated.

Real changemaking doesn’t happen overnight. It requires concerted efforts, constant measurement of impact to ensure a desired outcome.

Over to transformations reshaping retail

Two decades ago, when Muna joined the family business the retail industry was unlike anything that it is today. From being brick-and-mortar dominated, the landscape has now become channel agnostic. Among several transformations reshaping retail, Muna highlighted three that stand out for her including customer engagement, employee empowerment and optimisation of operations.

Talking about customer engagement, she elaborated how technology pieces such as mobile computing, data analytics, CRM systems offer crucial insights into customer demographics and their behaviours allowing brands to personalise experience and enhance engagement with customers across touchpoints. “Honesty, integrity and responsible behaviour by retail brands are also important as these tend to have a very decisive influence on shopping decisions.”

Moving over to employee empowerment Muna spoke about the importance of enabling people by giving them access to the right tools to efficiently function in a digital world. “It’s important to evaluate how teams are operating in this rapidly evolving digital world. Having the skills to sell isn’t enough anymore; people must be equipped with the right skills and tools to sell in a digital landscape.”

Optimisation of operations to enable data-driven decision making is pivotal, Muna pointed out, as this ensures efficient workflows within the organisation and visibility over supply chain. “Earlier we used to have a supply chain manager, but now we also have data that’s phenomenal and helps in increasing operational efficiency.”

There is one more piece that certainly can’t be ignored – the people piece.

Standing at a juncture when the younger generation, people in their 20s are entering the workforce with a very different outlook, skill sets and expectations from a company compared to the previous generations, how are organisations like ESAG keeping pace?

“A certain amount of upskilling is required on part of the corporates to create a conducive environment for the younger generations. With teams now comprising not just Millennials but also Gen Zs, the challenge is to keep them excited, help them see the fruits of their labour, allow them to understand how important their role is in the entire retail landscape. Once they see that, they feel good about the work that they do. But to keep them excited is a constant challenge,” Muna observed.

Up Close & Personal

Could you recollect some crucial learnings from your initial days of joining ESAG?

I joined ESAG as a marketing executive. I remember our founder had asked all the managers to treat me like any other employee. I spent my first week on the shopfloor, which was an invaluable experience. Back in those days, I did a lot of surveys. There were no digital tools to conduct surveys, so we spoke to customers to understand what they thought of our brands. That experience was quite enriching. I liked the fact that I started at a junior level because it gave me the opportunity to really understand the brands and the customer profiles. Another interesting fact is back in those days a lot of the branding and marketing work used to be done externally by agencies. I’d sit for these meetings, listen, take notes and try to absorb everything. As I said before, it all boils down to the mindset – whether our mindset is to learn, evolve and grow every step of the way.

Since the time you joined ESAG, what are the three accomplishments that you feel proud of?

I’m incredibly proud of growing a small marketing team to function like a boutique agency today. We do everything in-house and the department is so strong that we can take on external clients.

I’m very proud to have changed the maternity leave policy from 45 to 90 days doubling the amount of paid leave for new mothers, which came into effect in 2020. It has brought about a certain sense of comfort for women working with us.

The third accomplishment would be launching the ‘Women at ESAG’ programme and having 85 women involved across the various programmes. Women who have been part of these programmes feel more positive about the work they do, their accomplishments, and above all now they have a better understanding about their real potential.

As a leader, how do you support your people to feel less inhibited to speak about failures?

I think failure is now spoken about a lot more than it was previously. We are starting to understand that failure is an opportunity to learn rather than taking it as ‘I failed, and I’m done’. I think it’s important for the younger generation to understand that failure is not the end. If you failed, take what you’ve learned from that failure and think about your next steps. An important question to reflect on is ‘are you doing the work that you find rewarding’. If you are, you will find a way to overcome every obstacle.

Please share a message for young entrepreneurs.

Find a mentor. Within our Group through the ESAG mentoring programme we’ve seen how the mentor-mentee relationship has been tremendously transformational for some of the younger generation members of the workforce.

Set long-term goals, focus on them and work towards achieving them, no matter what happens.

Stay relevant by upskilling. If you don’t upskill in this digital world, you might run the risk of being left behind.

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