I met Muna AbuSulayman in 2006 when she was the co-founding host of the no.1 and longest-running Arab TV show on social issues.
At the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, She interviewed me to consult with her apparel startup, a celebrity-pioneered brand targeted at modest fashion women. During my interview, I talked about the intensive capital a startup requires, the lengthy logistics, global sourcing, and the production process. The constant changing and demanding compliance requirements, fit and styling problems, and customer returns all lead to markdowns, over-inventory, paper-thin margin, fierce competition, and ultimately, a write-off if you are fortunate, or, for the not-so-lucky, personal bankruptcies. I thought it was my duty to warn anyone who wants to dip their toe into this industry, especially someone with no prior retail experience.
The old joke comes to mind: How do you make a small fortune in the fashion industry? Answer: Start with a larger one.
Post-pandemic, I decided to catch up with Muna over Zoom. In the last 16 years, Muna AbuSulayman has become a serial entrepreneur, investor, partner, founder, and philanthropist. She is the partner of Transform VC (Tonal is one of their investments, https://transform.vc) and the co-founder of Healthkey Technologies. She serves on multiple boards, including the Global Equity Board of Gucci, a Board member for CPSL at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and was the first female Saudi UNDP Goodwill Ambassador. She has received numerous global awards and recognitions, such as the Morley Colin award from The Medinge Group, which stands for a Brand with a Conscience. AbuSulayman is a Yale World Fellow and The Aspen Institute Middle East Fellow. She was also the former Secretary-General of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation. She supports innovation and strategic initiatives to combat poverty, empower women and reframe the Islam-West dialogue. AbuSulayman is one of the 500 most influential Muslims worldwide for her work in media, gender, leadership, and education and as an iconic Arab media personality and humanitarian, according to The World Economic Forum.
Chan: It’s been 16 years since we last met. I have been following you on social media and watching everything unfold in your professional life. Please tell me if you started your apparel business.
AbuSulayman: I started and stopped my fashion apparel line. Undoubtedly, it was the most fun I’ve ever had in my career. My fashion line was my first foray into the business world. With no training or experience, I followed my heart. I saw an opportunity to design and produce an elegant, modest fashion line for regular and plus-size women who want to look as fashionable in Milan as they would in the Middle East. And we met during my research process, and you gave me very pertinent advice.
I was a pioneer, as modest fashion wasn’t a thing in 2006. Unfortunately, mistake number one was that I invested my money instead of raising funds from friends and family to mitigate the risk. Therefore I lost all my savings when the business went bust. But the experience taught me what it takes to be a successful business person. It doesn’t mean you don’t go into a sector you don’t know; you don’t have to be an expert, but it just means that you have to make sure that you have a team that knows what they’re doing. I did not, which was mistake number two.
Though I failed in that business, I learned my lessons, went into education, philanthropy, healthcare, and technology, and succeeded.
Chan: What lessons have you learned from this experience?
AbuSulayman: You have to have the right team. The second lesson is to keep going.
After I closed down the apparel line, I started a consulting business called Directions, which focused on ESG strategies and processes for corporations. We were ahead of our times as these were the pre-ESG buzzwords days. Strategy, risk, and reputation management consulting is my area of expertise, and we were very successful. 3S Consulting Group acquired our company in 2018.
Around the same time, I co-founded the Arabic Digital Reform Institute (ADRI). It is an AI translation platform. We create knowledge and digitize educational content in Arabic that is up to date so that people become internationally competitive within their language. We are breaking down the language barrier, enhancing the learning experience, and improving our students’ global ranking.
The tool is also a plagiarism checker to allow journalists and universities to translate information from Arabic to English and fact check in Arabic and English, so you can figure out if somebody plagiarized from another language. This tool does not exist in the world, and we are the first that has done this.
It’s B2B and will be B2C soon. The algorithm is the secret sauce, and we are revolutionizing education in the Arab world.
In 2019, I realized that the world is changing beyond recognition, and in the next 20 years, many things will be happening that depend on deeply understanding these changes. So, I decided to take a year off to study and learn. It was not easy to leave a lot of board positions and operational duties. Still, it was important to have the space to deeply immerse me in the future global social, economic, and business trends.
Chan: You certainly have a very credible name across diverse industries. As a venture capitalist, what is your mission?
AbuSulayman: At Transform VC, we are based in Silicon Valley, focusing on technology and innovations. Our mission is to bring in the best and brightest minds from underrepresented groups, especially the Middle East, and give those with cutting-edge ideas and startups the opportunity, support, network, guidance, and structure to succeed globally.
The team is amazing: Raed Almasri, our managing partner at Transform, is a genius, and Rama Chakaki, one of our LPs, is the most multi-talented person I have worked with and is also one of the kindest human beings. Rama and I worked on many refugee issues together for a long time, and you know you will go far when you have people like that with you.
At this stage in my life, I am thankful to have opportunities in the venture capital industry to make a difference in the world through economic advancement and increasing employment opportunities. It is a different side of the coin of my mission which is a universal opportunity for all.
But I also enjoy my non-profit work with the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund with the United Nations, where I participate in supporting the efforts of women leaders working on the world’s most complex conflicts and who get minimal resources and funding.
Chan: Tell me about your role as a part of Gucci’s Global Equity Board.
AbuSulayman: It is a fantastic board. Marco Bizzarri, CEO of Gucci, Susan Chokachi, President & CEO of Gucci, The Americas, and Robert Triefus, Executive Vice President of Brand and Customer Engagement, are outstanding professionals. We also have amazing non-executive directors from all disciplines, which rounds out the board.
Angela, I have been on many private, public and non-profit boards. Still, Gucci is highly dedicated to achieving equity across their businesses and supply chain suppliers and working diligently on every issue that impacts that.
Additionally, Marco Bizzarri’s ability to be laser-focused on how a problem needs to be solved, combined with a high-risk tolerance, allows him to make significant decisions quickly. We can test solutions quite rapidly and see what works and does not.
Chan: You have worked with so many people worldwide; who are the women leaders you admire most?
AbuSulayman: I have met many wonderful and thoughtful leaders worldwide, and it is extremely difficult to pick one or two.
One woman, I do admire Pat Mitchell, the former and first female CEO & President of PBS. She wrote Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World. Her life story of how she was a force in the world of media and opened it up to other women when it was a man’s world is extraordinary.
She is a compelling example of women’s empowerment. She connects women leaders from all over the world on equal footing. Usually, when you bring in women from the developing world, there is a little bit of condescending and white feminism. Pat Mitchell’s leadership is probably the first platform where true equality exists for feminist leaders. Women are not a homogenous group, and differences in culture and priorities must be openly and comfortably discussed to create the solutions that make the world more equitable.
Chan: Do you have any regrets when you look back in life?
AbuSulayman: Almost no regrets. But I wish I had gotten some advice on work life and self-balance early on. The learning journey for that was arduous.
I was working so much and putting everybody’s needs first for decades. I didn’t realize how much I neglected myself until I became older. I also did not enjoy my accomplishments because I always looked at the next mountain and ensured everyone else was thriving.
My regret is that I could have balanced these demands a bit better.
My advice for my daughters is always to enjoy the journey, not just think of the destination.
Chan: What’s next?
AbuSulayman: Outside of my work in ESGs and universal opportunity for all, I am doing a lot of VC work, traveling, and meeting founders and scientists. I’m also very interested in recycling and have several ideas to increase the recycling rate in the Middle East. I am also kicking around some ideas for the metaverse catering to the Arab and Muslim communities.
Chan: Some people say ageism is the next #MeToo movement; what are your thoughts on gender ageism?
AbuSulayman: Around the world, women do get aged out. It is a subconscious bias favoring the youth. Many older women executives in companies start not to get invited to certain meetings, not getting the big projects, and not being asked to represent the company, and that’s how exclusion starts.
I’m happy that powerful women like Viola Davis and Jane Fonda from the entertainment industry and others from the business world are openly discussing gender ageism.
As you have a longer career, you get so much more knowledge. I went from education to media, fashion, philanthropy, business, and technology because I was curious. This career and discipline allow me to see solutions and connect issues and networks that may not seem obvious to others.
My career trajectory shows other women that you can keep reinventing yourself as long as you remain curious.