Mothers, mentors and two of the region’s most prolific businesswomen, BAZAAR’s Nina Catt sits down with Chalhoub Group’s chief transformation officer, Rania Masri, and Twisted Roots’ CEO and creative director, Latifa AlGurg. The outcome? An insightful conversation about shaping the Middle Eastern fashion landscape while playing their biggest role as ‘mum’
Describe yourself in three words?
Rania Masri: Passionate, disciplined, stubborn.
Latifa AlGurg: I’d say I’m a wife, a mother and an explorer.
How many children do you have?
RM: I have two. Ayah is nine and Lulwa is two.
LA: I have three. Abdullah, 16, Hanalina, 12 and Faisal who is eight.
Tell us about your career path and current job?
RM: I have worked in the fashion industry since I was 16 years old. I fell in love with retail during my first job, in Holt Renfrew, a luxury Canadian department store. I had a great manager that really encouraged me to fall for the trade and the challenge of completing a great sale. She also gave me the opportunity to style lots of prominent society women.
Fast forward to the present day, I am now heading the transformation mission for the leading luxury fashion group in the region. I joined the Chalhoub Group in 2006, initially to run the Ralph Lauren distribution business. This was not only a great induction on the way the region likes to shop but also the best education on the art of retail. The house of RL is a leader in creating experiential retail. I learnt how to create a set from the look and feel, the smell, the layout, and the theatre that comes with the art of a flagship store. This foundation granted me the skills required for my next step, which was the creation of a Level Shoes concept store in The Dubai Mall — the largest shoe store in the world.
Today, I am passionately working to crack the code of retail. Retail has undergone a huge shift. It is disrupted by the changes of society, new behaviours and the way of life today... and of course by digital platforms. As I have always lived and breathed fashion and retail, it’s the perfect time for me to be a part of the group of many global executives who are trying to navigate the change, create and innovate, and inspire the future generation of retail players.
LA: My story is quite different from yours, Rania. I actually started out in management, in the construction field!
After having children, I constantly found myself searching for brands that spoke to my aesthetic, and that were also modest. Trying to find scarves to coordinate with my outfits was the biggest struggle, and I began to wonder why there were no regional designers who made clothes that were easy to mix and match with a modest wardrobe. At that same time, I noticed that the London College of Fashion in Dubai were running short courses, one of which focussed on starting a fashion label. After taking that course and several others, a year and a half later I found myself looking for a space to start my own manufacturing unit, and I travelled to Paris to source fabrics. And so, my company, Twisted Roots was born.
One of my biggest achievements to date was when it was announced that we’d won a design competition for the EXPO2020 volunteer’s uniform. I can’t describe the honour and gratitude I felt knowing that my concept was chosen to represent such a global event. How about you, Rania? What’s your biggest defining career moment?
RM: Mine has to be back in 2014, in New York, accepting the award for best retailer of the year for Level Shoes. Designer, Nicolas Kirkwood presented the award to me by reciting a poem he penned about Level Shoes. As I was giving my thank you speech, I had Sarah Jessica Parker in the front row smiling up at me! I had to pinch myself. It really was a dream come true.
How has the Middle Eastern fashion industry changed over the past 10-15 years?
RM: The fashion and retail scene has boomed in the last 10-15 years. I have seen it grow from a small network of a few boutiques to now being one of the main fashion capitals of the world. We have more brands and designers than ever before. We have also so many exciting home-grown designers and great concepts stores.
LA: You’re so right, Rania. Although it is still a burgeoning industry, it has certainly grown by leaps and bounds. There are so many new voices with a multitude of perspectives on fashion. It’s a really exciting time.
"I’ve been so lucky with the support I’ve had. There are always going to be those who doubt your abilities as a woman, but I find that focusing on the task at hand, and moving forward usually proves them wrong."
- Latifa AlGurg
Have you faced any hurdles as a female in a senior position?
RM: I think there can be bias around the ability of a woman to achieve equal, or better results than male co-workers. However, I was personally always lucky to work for great male leaders that saw beyond gender and gave me the opportunities that I deserved. Many other women are not as lucky.
Today we have to be resilient, to speak up, and to challenge the status quo because we are still paving the way for other women. In my opinion, however, it’s going at a much slower pace than it should be.
I got married and had my two beautiful girls while building my career. That often came at a price. Sometimes physically, many times emotionally. For both me and my family and friends. Anyone that says it doesn’t come at a price isn’t being honest. I believe society will have to shift to find the right balance for co-creating the workplace to be adapted for all genders. I hope it will happen in my lifetime and that I would have contributed a little to it.
LA: I’ve been so lucky with the support I’ve had. There are always going to be those who doubt your abilities as a woman, but I find that focusing on the task at hand, and moving forward usually proves them wrong.
Tell us about your leadership techniques?
RM: I honestly don’t have a technique. I have always loved the feeling of building teams, and on working towards a challenge or a mission together. Maybe being a mother, I tend to manage my team as I do a family, and my husband will tell you I manage my home as if they were my team!
If you ask me, every year I grow as a leader, and it is often from the learnings I get from my teams. I like to say that I listen, and I learn a lot from them.
LA: I agree. I try to listen as much as possible. I like putting systems in place but always in collaboration with my team so that they can be the most effective.
What makes a good mentor?
LA: Good listening skills and an ability to connect parallel experiences are so, so important.
RM: The word mentor has become such a buzzword. I think a good mentor is someone that doesn’t know they are mentoring. They should be genuinely and wholeheartedly interested in the mentee, and they should be patient, honest and direct. They need to give and not expect in return.
How do you support and encourage other mothers to achieve their career goals?
LA: I’m the only mother in my team, however, I’d like to think that I’ve helped other mothers in the design field, which means a lot to me. Many have reached out for help in sourcing, or manufacturing, or even just to talk about ways of stepping into the industry.
RM: I care a lot about seeing mothers succeed because I know it is achievable, and I also know it is hard. I’d like to think that I am an inspirational figure for women that are starting their careers. I would like to think that watching me juggle and balance things, they can think to themselves, “I can do it too”. The most common question I get asked is how to find that balance.
At Chalhoub group, we are looking at further increasing maternity leave. We also believe that fathers have to be part of the journey and we have increased paternity leave. We’ve created maternity rooms in each one of our buildings, to make new mother’s return to work a little less stressful. We also encourage new mothers to return back to work gradually and want our workplace to be flexible. We want to have as many role models within the organisation as possible to support women choosing to have the best of both worlds. The more role models we have, the more women will not feel alone in their quest for a balanced fulfilling life/work life.
Who is your female role model?
RM: My mother. I always looked up to her as a strong-willed, confident, independent, loving woman. Nothing was impossible for her, she started her own company in Canada in the early 90s, and was very successful at her craft, yet managed to always be there for the family. Her voice, although miles away, will always be in my head at every decision point in my life. How about you, Latifa?
LA: My mother has always been my biggest inspiration, too. She too, always put her family first and made sure we had a wonderful childhood. She also instilled in us the value of giving back to the community, and I have found that has given me a great purpose in life. I don’t like to pick just one ‘role model’ because I believe we learn from everyone around us, and from different people at different times. I think that is what makes the journey of life so beautiful.
What makes an aspirational woman?
RM: A woman that can handle herself graciously through the ups and downs of her work and family life. And a woman, that values family time as much as her career.
LA: For me, it’s a woman who truly knows, and follows her path.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
LA: It was from one of my first mentors, Toby Meadows. He told me to write down my six months, one year, three year and five-year goals, and to plan a path to achieve them and then just put in the hard work.
RM: My father always advised me to go after what I love, and had a skill for pinpointing what my talents were — following my heart and being true to what I believe in. He taught me integrity, even if it’s at a cost, and to always chose it before anything else, as he always did.
"The key to balancing family with a successful career is to be organised, very organised. Find your circle of support and trust and delegate, both at work and at home"
- Rania Masri
What is the key to balancing a family with a successful career?
RM: The key to balancing family with a successful career is to be organised, very organised. Find your circle of support and trust and delegate, both at work and at home. Also, choosing the right partner to navigate life with is key. Balancing life is a joint responsibility between a man and a woman. To really be able to have equal opportunities, you need to share the responsibilities.
Also, choosing the right partner to navigate life with is key. Balancing life is a joint responsibility between a man and a woman. To really be able to have equal opportunities, you need to share the responsibilities.
LA: I don’t believe in trying to maintain a constant balance. I believe in making conscious choices every day and owning them. Everyone is trying to do their best and should be appreciated for that. My family is aware of the choices I make and we talk freely about them. I try to do school pick-ups daily so that we have that time to catch up, but if I can’t be there my kids understand, and they definitely make sure that they are heard if they need anything.
What are your favourite things to do as a family?
LA: In the summer, we take short breaks together. The kids surprisingly love exploring new places, cultures and foods, and they’re at ages where we can actually enjoy some downtime together without too much bickering.
RM: We love to travel, too. We also try to discover a new place every time. We love beach destinations. Last year we went on a family trip to Ibiza that we are still raving about.
What’s your motto?
RM: Let go of what isn’t in your control. Focus on what you can control, and drive that.
LA: Life is a journey. You grow from each and every experience.
And finally, what’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to a new mother?
RM: Listen to your body, rest your mind, bond with your baby. Take the time you are given to do that and don’t try to prove you don’t need it — you physically and mentally do. One day the workplace will better understand how to adapt to you, and not for you to solely adapt to it.
LA: Mine would have to be, relax. Your baby feels your energy and feeds off it. We all feel lost in the beginning. Have a good support system of people who can help you.
From the Harper's Bazaar Arabia Junior S/S19 issue
Photography: Efraim Evidor
Interview: Nina Catt
Styling and production: Elle Hutchinson
Hair and make-up: Angélique Turner