Peeping over the picturesque Dubai Creek is the Easa Saleh Al Gurg (ESAG) Group headquarters, a heritage of nearly six decades. You can see the busy Dhow Wharfage with cruise liners and traditional wooden dhows – a location reflective of the Group’s close association with the emirates’ evolution from a trading hub to commercial capital.
“The Group was integral to the Dubai business community in the 60s. In these six decades, along with Dubai, we’ve grown. We want to think of ourselves as partners in progress in the future of Dubai,” says Muna Al Gurg, who recently took on the reins of ESAG as vice-chairperson. It’s a role she envisions will help in creating a sustainable business for generations to come as we sat down for a chat.
The Group was established in 1960 by her father, Easa Saleh Al Gurg. She is the second generation in this family business. “A big milestone for us as a Group and as a family was when my father handed over the reins to his three daughters,” she says.
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Looking back on her entry into the family business, she recalls herself as “young and unassuming” then. She had just finished her MBA from London Business School and remembered it was when the world was facing a recession. Though daunted by the challenge, she took it on, and it was a matter of time until she found her calling.
“We need to think and dream big,” Muna says. “But also be kind to ourselves along the way, and so upon facing any uncertainty, we need to lean in rather than run away.”
Entrepreneurial success was never the end goal. A cause close to her heart is empowering women and girls in the Middle East.
She launched the Muna Al Gurg scholarship at the London Business School for Arab women, which has had five recipients so far. “It pleases me to see so many women from different sectors thrive upon graduation, reach that C-suite level,” says Muna.
Be it helping talent, a startup with a great business idea, funding scholarship programs, or mentoring Arab youth, Muna is looking for means to amplify impact.
Muna’s career began in marketing and communications, eventually joining the family conglomerate with diverse business interests such as retail, real estate, and joint ventures. She rose to the top of her game as director of retail, ESAG Group, overseeing strategy and operational development for the Group’s international and local retail brands.
KEEPING PACE WITH CHANGING CONSUMER DEMAND
When it comes to comprehending market trends, she keeps abreast with the pulse of changing consumer demands, a practice that came in handy when the pandemic hit and disrupted operations. Muna’s specialization in retail operations, which makes up 20% of the Group with 27 companies and 370 brands, led her to strengthen it through ecommerce offering. She says the pivot to digital forced the Group to focus more on customers “to ensure that they have a seamless experience from the point that they start their research right up to acquiring one of our products.”
Investment in online platforms is still paying off. The Group has partnered with sustainable brands to capture conscious consumers. “Gen Zs and the millennials research the products they buy from a sustainable point of view. It’s important to them that the product they use has an environmental impact,” she says.
KEEPING PEOPLE AND THE PLANET AT CENTER
A business might thrive with a clear strategy, yet, it takes an effective leader to steer the organization through troubled waters. “A good leader empowers, listens, and helps others reach their best potential,” says Muna.
Whether at ESAG or The Young Arab Leaders collective, Muna has helmed mentorship programs, enabling people to prosper in their fields. “The mentorship program has helped a lot of people to step out of their comfort zones and learn from the experts,” Muna says, explaining why, from a leadership standpoint, it’s essential to invest in such programs.
Protecting people and the planet, she says, is close to her heart. The Group’s policies focus on reducing waste, plastic consumption, recycling paper, conserving energy, and more. On a personal level, Muna plays an active role on the Board of Emirates Nature, affiliated with the World Wide Fund for Nature, responsible for analyzing strategic policies impacting nature conservation in the UAE. One of the most interesting and recent projects she’s working on is the Al Bitna project in Fujairah which aims to revive the old irrigation system of the UAE, called the Falaj system.
AMPLIFYING SOCIAL IMPACT
She dedicates time to philanthropic causes – it is an important part of business, she says. “Like a return on capital investment, the impact is a return on your charitable giving.”
“It’s easier said than done,” she adds, citing an example of when the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Charity Foundation built a school in Zanzibar about ten years ago.
Building the school was the easy part, she explains, the tricky bit was sustainability. “How do we ensure that faculty continue to get good training? How do we make certain that the school’s operational cost continues? That is where any ambitious project’s success lies—not just in creating impact but ensuring its viability,” she says.
Education and empowerment of women is an area she hopes to invest more time and effort. She says she draws her inspiration from several influential icons, some in her family and some global leaders that include Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, who previously served as chair and managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
“I look up to Christine Lagarde,” says Muna. “She thrived in a male-dominated field, which is finance, and managed to balance her career and family life. She is a confident, strong woman who has done so well.”
Reflecting on what’s next, Muna says, “I plan to establish my foundation for Arab women and girls in the Middle East for their economic empowerment, to create pathways for them to reach their best potential.”
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