“When I started in this business only men were allowed on the trading floor of Kuwait’s stock exchange,” recalls Maha Al-Ghunaim, of her beginnings in the male-dominated field of finance over 30 years ago. Today she’s considered a key player within regional and international financial circles for convincing banks, companies and individuals to reinvest their profits into the Gulf region at a time when much of that wealth found its way overseas. As the founder and CEO of Global Investment House, she oversaw one of the region’s largest companies specialising in private equity, asset management and brokerage services. “I never set out to be a role model, but it’s important for young women to see themselves reflected in different fields and leadership positions,” says Maha, who managed over $3 billion in assets, some of it belonging to companies helmed by women.
Maha and her daugher Aseel, at home in the CEO's sleek living room
“When we talk about empowering women in the Gulf, it doesn’t begin and end with education. We also have to address structural barriers, such as breaking down social pressures and obstacles within families,” she says, noting that her parents treated their sons and daughters equally, exposing Maha to the world through travel and sending her to boarding school in Switzerland. “They gave us the space to pursue our dreams and explore our chosen career paths. I’ve kept that in mind while raising my three sons and my daughter Aseel,” adds the CEO, who received her Bachelors of Arts and Science in Mathematics from San Francisco State University in 1982. After graduating, she joined the Kuwait Foreign Trading Contracting and Investment Company. When the government merged the business with the Kuwait Investment Company in 1994, Maha was appointed the Assistant General Manager of Asset Management, responsible for investing Kuwait’s expanding wealth into regional and international markets.
In 1998 she launched Global Investments House, after spotting a gap in the Middle Eastern market for a one-stop firm that offered clients brokerage, asset management and investment banking services. Today, she’s nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs through mentorship opportunities, women empowerment programs and philanthropic work. Amongst the boards she sits on is Seletec, which focuses on creating job opportunities in the Middle East. “Girls are often discouraged from pursuing careers in math, finance and science. They are lead to believe they aren’t suited to these fields which is far from the truth,” says the mother of four, who hopes to change these perceptions. “It’s important to remind young women of what they can achieve if they don’t succumb to someone’s definition of who they should be. Instead we should focus on coming up with a new language to describe women in business that’s more inclusive.”
From May 2018 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia
Photography: Maha Alasaker