Noor Sweid, MBA '05
Christopher Reichert, MOT '04, and Noor Sweid, MBA '05, discuss gender differences when working in the Middle East. Noor is a General Partner at Global Ventures in the United Arab Emirates and Chairwoman of Middle East Venture Capital Association.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So, what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at Sloan. I'm your host Christopher Reichert.
Hi, I'm Christopher Reichert.
Noor Sweid: Hi, I'm Noor Sweid.
Christopher Reichert: And welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. Welcome Noor, to our fourth in the series. Tell us a bit about where you work and about the last few years of your life.
Noor Sweid: Well, thank you for having me. I run a venture capital firm based in Dubai, investing in emerging markets and companies that are scaling globally.
Christopher Reichert: I have a list here actually of your activities, so I’m going to take a deep breath. Actually, I won't read them all. But one of the ones I'm interested in is the Zen Yoga. Tell me about that whole venture.
Noor Sweid: Zen Yoga was the first yoga studio in the Middle East and Africa, and we established it with the thinking that we really want to embrace wellness and teach wellness. There was a massive opportunity to do a lot of market education on what wellness meant and how to access health and wellness beyond the Western methods of medication. We established in 2006 as the first kind of yoga that had teachers that were Yoga Alliance certified and really tried to up-level the amount of education information about wellness in the region. Zen quickly grew to become the largest wellness chain across the region with 6,000 unique students, 72 teachers in a few years, so we scaled that quite rapidly and we sold it to a private equity firm, largely because every time I'd walk into the studio I'd be inundated with business problems and I couldn't practice yoga. So it defeated the purpose.
Christopher Reichert: You started doing it for your own wellness?
Noor Sweid: Yes, it was very selfish of me. I thought, “I wanted to practice yoga.” I can't be the only person in Dubai at the time that wanted a yoga studio, so I thought the best way to solve my problem was to fix it and build one.
Christopher Reichert: And how did you manage to scale?
Noor Sweid: Slowly and steadily. Traditional businesses, surface business, slow and steady.
Christopher Reichert: And did you in your first year realize, "Hey we can do another one or two.” Or five or…
Noor Sweid: Well, it was accidental. I started Zen Yoga as a project. I had a full-time job. My full-time job was scaling a business that was at the time a family business. So when I joined our family business in 2005, it was about $60 million in revenue. It's an interior contracting company. It was in six markets. By 2008 we had reached $600 million in revenue, 22 markets, the largest interior contractor globally.
Christopher Reichert: What does that mean? Interior contracting?
Noor Sweid: Well, when we take buildings they are just cement and steel and we do everything on the inside and give you the front door keys. The only thing we don't do is design. Somebody else designs.
Christopher Reichert: And that's Depa, is it?
Noor Sweid: So that was Depa.
Christopher Reichert: Depa Limited, right?
Noor Sweid: Zen was a project because I couldn't find a yoga studio and I needed my yoga to de-stress after a long day at Depa. And so again, it doesn't exist. You see a market need, you approach it and build it. And that was Zen. Zen scaled at the same time as Depa. Depa, we IPO'd. I led the process with Morgan Stanley and UBS in April 2008, so just before the financial crisis. It was a dual listing in London and the NASDAQ, Dubai, and that was a great success story for the region because it was a Dubai-based company that had become a global success story and really reinvented the market. So when you ask me about scaling Zen Yoga, I find it ironic because that was actually harder than scaling Depa.
Christopher Reichert: Right. And was that your family business?
Noor Sweid: [affirmative]
Christopher Reichert: How was that working with family and then having your own separate business?
Noor Sweid: The family business occupied I would say 90% of my time. But the learning for me was that it's much harder to scale from zero to 10 than to go from 60 to 600. And working with family was fine. My father had founded the business in 1996, so I came in nine years later. I came in for three weeks, that turned to three months, that turned to eight years. The first thing I did when I came in was build our governance. I thought that governance was very important and institutionalized the business. That made it a lot easier to work within the confines of family. At the same time, the second thing I did was a private placement. I mean it went hand in hand with the governance, and that capital of $120 million allowed the company to scale and scale very rapidly.
Christopher Reichert: Were these novel concepts to your father or the family generally? “What is this? What are you doing here? This seems like we're going to lose control.” Was there any of that friction in the process?
Noor Sweid: No, I think everyone was excited about the vision. I think that when it comes to scaling companies, vision is paramount. If you're aligned on the vision, the strategy shifts depending on market dynamics, regulatory frameworks, and the people you have around you. The vision is paramount and the capital is paramount. So without that capital, it's unlikely we'd be able to scale. Without the capital Zen Yoga had in the beginning, it was unlikely Zen Yoga would have scaled. But because it was so difficult to scale Zen, I realized that entrepreneurship is indeed where I wanted to work, with other founders, which is why now I'm an investor and a venture capitalist and really helping companies scale across global markets.
Christopher Reichert: And so, who's approaching you and who are you approaching? What's the nature of the businesses that you're working with now at Global Ventures?
Noor Sweid: We like enterprise tech. So, business-to-business companies focused on global scale—really entrepreneurs with a global mindset. A lot of them live in Dubai. Dubai is a six-hour flight from about three billion people. So in the time it takes to get from East Coast to West Coast in the US, we have half the world's population almost—it attracts a lot of talent. It's a great place to be. It's become an innovation hub for emerging markets and we work with founders that are building out of the region, so out of the Middle East and Africa, into Asia, into the US. One of our companies today launched in London. It's a food tech company, so we're very excited, and they're scaling massively. They've grown 12x on good base revenue in the last six months, so we're seeing massive scalability, great opportunities in terms of valuation, and an abundance of talent on our side of the world. 50% of the population is under age 30 and the population's just over 400 million people.
Christopher Reichert: I see you started at Accenture way back.
Noor Sweid: Way back when.
Christopher Reichert: Way back when, and that led to Sloan.
Noor Sweid: Yes.
Christopher Reichert: And then you were obviously very versed in the area that you were working in, in terms of the dynamics of it, the language of it, all the pressures of it. Tell me about that path from undergraduate, which was here in Boston, right?
Noor Sweid: Yes. I went to BC [Boston College] for undergrad. I think life is always full of opportunities if your eyes are open to find them. I learned how to code about 30 years ago, back in BASIC.
Christopher Reichert: Fortran or BASIC?
Noor Sweid: BASIC.
Christopher Reichert: Interesting.
Noor Sweid: I stopped coding ultimately, but I used to TA all the computer engineering classes at BC to make a little bit of an income. Although I was a finance, economics, and pre-law, so it didn't seem to be a fit at the time. After BC, I went to Accenture because I wanted to delve into biotech, so I worked a lot in biopharma in Accenture because if you're interested in an industry but you have a finance degree, consulting is the only way to really explore that industry.
Christopher Reichert: A good way to get into it, yes.
Noor Sweid: And again, back to the wellness and health space, which is a theme in my life. After Accenture, I decided that I wanted to stay in Boston, I was living here with my sister. I lived literally a two minute walk from Sloan. So it seemed incredibly convenient.
Christopher Reichert: There it was.
Noor Sweid: I think that when I attended classes in the four schools I was fortunate enough to apply to, for me MIT felt like a complete mixture of my passion and early exposure to tech, as well as my understanding and skill set in finance. And so I think that the crossroads in my life have led me to where I am today in venture capital, which has an intersection of technology and finance, and they just seem to be themes that keep coming back. It's where the world is going. It's down the street from where I used to live so I didn't have to move. And most importantly, I thought as I contemplated amongst the schools I was fortunate enough to look at, when I attended the classes at Sloan it just really struck me how much people raised their hands to ask questions, as opposed to raising their hands to answer questions. I walked away feeling that this is a place that people come when they actually want to learn and explore, and there's an innate curiosity in most of the students here. And for me if I was going to take two years out and do something, I wanted to be around people who were as intentional about their learning as I was.
Christopher Reichert: Right. Did you meet your husband here or?
Noor Sweid: I did meet my husband here.
Christopher Reichert: You did, right?
Noor Sweid: That's the real reason I came here.
Christopher Reichert: Did you know him prior? Did you meet him in…?
Noor Sweid: No. We met first week of school. So he started a year before me, so we met because we both come from similar backgrounds and someone thought, "Oh, you guys should meet." It's the Middle East Club. He used to run it. I ended up running it and we got married two weeks after graduation.
Christopher Reichert: Wow, that's intense. So you grew up in Dubai? Where did you grow up? Is going back to Dubai going home? Or is that where everyone moved eventually?
Noor Sweid: I now recognize that there's a term for what I am, which actually makes me feel much more comfortable. So apparently I'm third culture, which means you're from one place, you grew up in another, and you live in a third.
Christopher Reichert: Right, okay.
Noor Sweid: And so now there's a generation of people who are third culture. They've termed it third culture and they find it…
Christopher Reichert: So what are the three for you?
Noor Sweid: I was born in Boston, but I grew up in London and Saudi and Dubai. We moved to Dubai when I was 15 and then I moved back to Boston when I was 17. And when I left Dubai, I never thought I'd go back because when you move around all the time, and Dubai in the '90s was not Dubai today, but my family stayed there, and so I would keep going and coming. And after Sloan I had an offer with Booz Allen. My husband had an offer with McKinsey, both were in Dubai, and so it made sense to try it out for two years, and we're still there 14 years later.
Christopher Reichert: Right. Sounds familiar. I moved to Australia accidentally and I thought, “I’ll stay there for six months or a year,” and I ended up staying 13 years. So it's funny how life takes that adventure. 85 Broads?
Noor Sweid: Way back when.
Christopher Reichert: Way back when. What a funny name. But now it's-
Noor Sweid: Now it's called Ellevate.
Christopher Reichert: Sallie Krawcheck, isn't it?
Noor Sweid: Yes, exactly. 85 Broads was named off of 85 Broad Street, which is the headquarters of Goldman Sachs. And the lady who founded it was at Goldman and left Goldman and missed the female network of Goldman, and then included HBS and Sloan and all the business schools and all the undergrads. Now it's the largest, I think, professional network of women globally. So, when I moved back to Dubai, I really missed that network. I thought to start a chapter, which very quickly became the second largest chapter outside the U.S. And we had, within a couple of years, 450 members of professional women in this network.
Christopher Reichert: So there was a need?
Noor Sweid: Until now we host the largest conference in the region for females, it sells out within 48 hours at 500 seats. I no longer run it. There's an amazing woman called Rana Nawas who has her own podcast called When Women Win, who runs that and she's done an incredible job with it, taking it to another level.
Christopher Reichert: So you were part of an organization, running a company, your contracting company? That's the nitty gritty of running a business. Zen Yoga, same thing, running a business, and now you are running Global Ventures, but it seems to me that has a different focus, right? Which is a lot of conversations with nascent businesses. What's the draw to you for that?
Noor Sweid: I'm solving a problem. The problem I find is the access to capital. So consistently in our part of the world, in emerging markets, there's less capital for young companies than there is globally. So specifically in the Middle East and Africa, less than 0.02% of GDP goes towards venture capital. That number is about 0.2% in Europe and 0.3% in the US. So it's 10 times loss on a per capita or GDP basis, however you slice it or dice it. So that means that as founders have great opportunities, they get to a million or five million in revenue, they want to scale, they need to hire people, they're super excited about what they're doing, they found their product market fit, they have clients, but then they hit a wall. And so when I look back at the opportunities that I've had, we've been fortunate enough to have access to capital, and we've successfully scaled because of that.
So I believe that even with the best strategies and the best people, without the right capital, it's very difficult to grow. Especially in emerging markets where sales cycles can be longer. So the problem we're solving now is access to capital, it just happens to be called VC. And by providing the right capital tools and access and network to these young companies, and we invest, to be clear in series A's and B's, nothing pre-revenue, so north of $1 million in revenue, at least five clients. So you're there, it's just you need to grow. By providing them with capital, we expect that not only will they grow rapidly, they will also employ, because we have 40% youth unemployment and they will create jobs and they will become regional success stories that thereafter reinvest in the ecosystem and grow the ecosystem.
Christopher Reichert: So with the growth of Dubai as a city, from what it was in the '90s you said?
Noor Sweid: [affirmative]
Christopher Reichert: To now, does that create opportunities for new businesses to an ecosystem that's growing there? Or is that happening at a different level that's hard for people who aren't part of that to get into? And are you bridging that gap?
Noor Sweid: It creates opportunities for people to innovate, because we have a lot of innovators and try new things, especially in industries where we're ahead of the curve. So you have logistics, oil and gas, the food industry, all areas where we lead, even by global standards. And then you have the emulations, so this worked in the U.S., we change it slightly, and it works here. So we do both. Dubai is a place where you can show up and start a business. It's not cheap.
Christopher Reichert: To live or to start a business?
Noor Sweid: Both. Just like you would expect in Boston or San Francisco. So it's the equivalent.
Christopher Reichert: It's comparable.
Noor Sweid: Exactly. So it's not like starting a business somewhere in a second or third tier city where you could expect it to be very cost competitive. Dubai is somewhere where anyone is welcome to come and start a business and scale that business. It's also somewhere where there are already founders. So most large international corporations manage MENA, MEA, MEASA, EMEA out of Dubai.
Christopher Reichert: Acronym city.
Noor Sweid: Some acronym of the region, Europe, Middle East, Africa, out of Dubai. So from Oracle to Google to Facebook, most of them have a few thousand people sitting in Dubai. Engineers, salespeople, as these people spend five, six, seven years there, ultimately they leave, they start their own businesses, they need capital. There is no capital, we come in.
Christopher Reichert: Right. So where are you investing? Are they located in Dubai or are they in the whole MENA region, how far away? What's your reach?
Noor Sweid: Our reach is everything from Africa to Pakistan, all the under-capitalized ecosystems. We ultimately find that as companies start to scale, they move to Dubai, largely because it provides infrastructure, and I mean this is the UAE in general, so it could be Abu Dhabi. So it's first world infrastructure. You have electricity that doesn't cut, internet that works really well.
Christopher Reichert: Good transportation.
Noor Sweid: Good transportation. You can attract talent. Global companies headquartered there so they can become your clients. So it works in that sense. As they start to scale, they relocate there. As they seek funding, they come there. So generally we see most things from Africa to Pakistan. Not everything. No one sees everything, but most of it passes through at some point.
Christopher Reichert: Are you seeing any pressures or advantages that you can take with Brexit or with London becoming uncertain as a financial center? That you can then swipe off?
Noor Sweid: I think we saw a little bit of advantage there. We also saw advantage in your own politics out here, especially.
Christopher Reichert: Not mine, not mine. Hang on a minute.
Noor Sweid: ... By “your own,” I mean, U.S.
Christopher Reichert: I'm going to claim my Australian citizenship for this podcast.
Noor Sweid: Well, I think that U.S. politics have made it more attractive for people from the region to stay in the region.
Christopher Reichert: Yes, keep the talent there.
Noor Sweid:Exactly. It's been very helpful to our brain drain.
Christopher Reichert: It seems so shortsighted, and its great people are taking advantage of it. So Sloan, you were in Boston and you were working at Accenture and you chose Sloan to get your master’s for finance. Do you have any memories you want to share of your time at Sloan? Besides meeting your husband and getting married to him.
Noor Sweid: That's the most important memory. Everything else is just a far second after that.
Christopher Reichert: Any professors that you have memories of, or who were influential to you? Or that you keep in touch with?
Noor Sweid: Some professors were very influential. I think the learnings I took were just across the board fascinating. But I think more importantly, I made such great friends. So a lot of people who I'm still in touch with and especially as now, for almost 14 years later, a lot of us have regained touch. I think it's a really nice community. We're all very close to each other, whether it's the females, so a lot of my girlfriends are Sloanies and when I'm in San Francisco I see them, when I'm in New York I see them, when I'm in London I see them. It's a really global network of amazing women and men. But from where I sit, that's what I took from it more than anything else.
Christopher Reichert: When you were approached to join the MIT Sloan Alumni Board, what was your thinking in deciding to do it or just generally being engaged with Sloan?
Noor Sweid: Really, I think that the school has an opportunity to engage its alumni more, and to speak the story of who it is through its alumni. Some of the most incredible and smartest people in my personal network are Sloan alums from years before me, years after me. And I thought that it would make sense to participate as long as the ability to help Sloan shine through its alumni was something that we could do.
Christopher Reichert: And did you find any areas that you were particularly interested in? That irritated you perhaps, over the years, that you're thinking, "No, now I have a chance to change that.” Or improve it or alter it or have a conversation about it?
Noor Sweid: Well, the first thing I think is that the way that the school communicates with its alumni is not as forceful or as pervasive in our lives as it could be. I don't remember every day that I’m a Sloan alumni.
Christopher Reichert: Noor!
Noor Sweid: I think that other people from other schools probably remember every day... where they went to school. I also think, and especially because I spend a lot of time in the Bay Area in San Francisco, the Stanford network there is fantastic and in my head it really is pervasive in the culture of the way of doing things. So I think that bringing more of that to the MIT and Sloan Alums was great and why not, right? That we learn from the best around us and the way that they leverage each other's networks and the way that they're all really well connected to each other, which Sloan Alums could be a bit more of.
Christopher Reichert: And I would be remiss if I didn't mention your recent Forbes, what is it? An award? You were mentioned on the list at Forbes as one of the top most prominent venture capitalists in the MENA region. How did you find out about that? What's been the reaction to people around you and has it made any difference to you?
Noor Sweid: So, the Forbes “World's Top 50 Women in Tech” list, is something that was published. I found out about it two days after I was on it when someone congratulated me. And it's ironic because it's a great... I know three people on that list. They're all people that I admire. I was very honored and humbled to be on that list. I think it's good because it kind of helps me in one of my missions, which is to rewrite the narrative about Arab women. So it shows that there's at least an Arab on there. We are competitive globally and especially in this space, which is incredibly exciting.
Christopher Reichert: Right. Coming up on my phone here is the list of all the things that you've been part of.
Noor Sweid: Please don't.
Christopher Reichert: General Partners, Independent Board Director, Chief Investment Officer, IPO, first woman-led IPO in the Middle East, now Global Ventures, the Forbes list, married. Do you have any children?
Noor Sweid: I have three boys.
Christopher Reichert: So, what is your definition of success? If you think about all the things you're doing and what drives you?
Noor Sweid: Well first my three boys, so they are now ten, eight and five and a half, and they drive me.
Christopher Reichert: Nuts, sometimes!
Noor Sweid: No, I think it's important, especially back to re-writing the narrative, right? It's important for our younger generation of men to open their eyes to the world and see that it's a fair world out there, and that you can do whatever you set your mind to do. My definition of success is really to be able to do what you love. I'm very fortunate, I'm very blessed. I'm lucky to have the job I have and to be able to work with founders and to be inspired by their stories and what they want to achieve and just to be a part of their story and their mission. We're very honored to be able to play in the ecosystem. Success, I think is a fleeting moment. And for me, success is just defined when you wake up in the morning and the first thing you should do is smile and just be grateful that there's another 24 hours for you to get out there and do what you love.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. So Global Ventures is what, a year old now?
Noor Sweid: Yes. Just over a year old.
Christopher Reichert: What do you think the next year or two or three or five is for that?
Noor Sweid: Well, we're very fortunate that we were able to do our first close, make our first five investments. We would like to see the portfolio grow up to 15 investments, to do a final close in the next, I'm not sure how long, and then to grow that as an emerging market venture capital firm, tapping into the next billion, the rising billion that are underserved in terms of their capital needs and their growth opportunities, and really taking a look at how we can build that out into something that's a global best practice.
Christopher Reichert: And how patient is your notion for the capital?
Noor Sweid: My capital is more patient than me, so I'm in a very fortunate place. Patience is not one of the virtues that I hold, unfortunately.
Christopher Reichert: When you take on a company, do you give them a timeframe where you're saying, "We're looking at one year” or “Five years.”
Noor Sweid: So, it's a seven-year fund, which is very typical. We've kept everything in the firm as global best practice as we can. So we're really trying to build out something that's at a high level. And that goes from our terms, to our timeline, to the way we operate, to diligence. This is something that's supposed to be long-term. We enjoy what we do enough that we can be as patient as we need to be. And our capital is very smart capital so it understands how patient it needs to be. And the entrepreneurs know that we're VCs, we're not strategic investors. So we're strategic in the sense that we can add expertise and network, but we're not there for a 20-year horizon.
Christopher Reichert: Right. And are there any venture capitalists that you look to as good guides for how to set this up, or build this, or grow this, or mature it? Whether you look to California or do you look to Boston, New York?
Noor Sweid: Of course, Boston.
Christopher Reichert: London?
Noor Sweid: So, Boston, who's in Boston? General Catalyst is a great firm. I think they've felt very methodically and thoughtfully the firm, the funds, their portfolio of companies, so that's a great firm. There's many out there. I think the less often spoken of ones are incredible to work with because they tend to have the time more than others.
Christopher Reichert: Do you see partnering with them on some, maybe a larger investment or?
Noor Sweid: Well, our last investment Xcel came into, and Gobi came into out of Singapore, that's a large Singapore fund. So we try with every investment we do, to bring in some international capital. We work with the VCs globally and with our international LP base to due diligence and validate the companies we're seeing. I would say half our capital comes from the U.S., the other half comes from the region, and everyone is incredibly value additive and smart and willing to lend their expertise when we go through diligence process and growth.
Christopher Reichert: Interesting. All right, well this has been great. I just wanted to know if you had any parting advice or thoughts for prospective students or for alumni for engaging with the school, and what's next for you? How long are you in town for and then where do you...?
Noor Sweid: I flew in last night. I leave tonight. I go back to Dubai. And parting thoughts, sharing words, nothing really. I think that life is always full of opportunity and often we're so hung up on the past that we've made for ourselves that we forget to look around.
Christopher Reichert: Excellent. Thank you very much. This is Noor Sweid.
Noor Sweid: Thank you very much.
Christopher Reichert: Thanks for joining us. We're honored to have you coming in from Dubai just for this, right?
Noor Sweid: Just for this. Absolutely.
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