The Family Office is evolving in MENA and taking forms that are significantly different from the traditional construct first used by European industrial families to manage their wealth. Similar to most business and investment endeavours in MENA, it is the specificities unique to the region, its nuances, growth and dynamism that are also shaping the family office space. And it’s those same regional influences that will likely help define the role women play in family offices over the coming decades.

Women in Finance and Technology: Advocating for Opportunity
Ekta Tolani; image courtesy of the subject

Ekta Tolani is the Chief Investment Officer of Astrolabe Holding and runs the Family Office for one of Kuwait’s largest families. She has seen the challenges that still exist for women in MENA, and how technology and startup culture has become a popular option for women who face the region’s barriers of entry into finance and investment.

The opportunities are growing for women, but more support and sophisticated conversations are needed to elevate their contribution in the investment sector and the Family Offices within it. It can be a fight, but women must advocate for the education they need and the business positions they want.

In this episode of the WIFB podcast, Ekta and Farida El Agamy speak about how the finance sector is changing, why education is the engine driving that change, and what her journey to the top of one of Kuwait’s largest family offices was like.


R: Welcome to the conversation on women and family business. We are WIFB, the global initiative that offers an opportunity to women all over the world to share their thoughts on matters related to the family enterprise.

On this episode, WIFB co-founder Farida El Agamy speaks to Ekta Tolani, who is the Executive Director at Astrolabe Holding, a Kuwaiti Family Office that focuses on technology and ed-tech.

Aside from her work, Tolani is a powerful voice for mental health advocacy and digital evolution through her social media and other channels.

Farida and Ekta speak about how the finance sector is changing by education as the engine driving that change, and what Ekta’s journey to the top of one of Kuwait’s largest family offices was like, enjoy this episode with Farida and Ekta.

F: Welcome everyone to another conversation on Women in Family Business. Today we are joined by Ekta Tolani.  Welcome Ekta.

E: Thank you so much.

F: We’ve had some fascinating conversations, you and I, about the family office space, specifically the family office space in the Middle East and North Africa. And so we thought that today it would be fantastic to share this opportunity with others. And just by way of quick introduction.

Ekta, you are currently the Executive Director at Astrolabe Holding in Kuwait. And, of course, in a way we need to start off with asking you, what’s your background? And how did you get to have a single-family office in Kuwait?

E: Thank you so much. I would quickly describe exactly what my role is right now. So yes, I do run the family office for one of the largest or rather significant shareholders for Al-Sayer Group.

Astrolabe is a single-family office and Al-Sayer Group is the largest automotive conglomerate based off Kuwait. We basically distribute Toyota [inaudible00:02:03], I would say that’s the core business. Other than that, a quick background about the Group would be that we are huge into education, health care as the strategic investments for the Group.

We are huge into real estate. We are huge into F&B, we have the franchise for Caribou Coffee across GCC, including Turkey, we have different chairs for franchise in Kuwait. We are big investors within financial services and banking sectors as well.

So I happen to be one of the core members of the investment team of Al-Sayer Group. I’m associated with the Family Office for plus five years. And when I joined Al-Sayer Group, it was as part of the investment arm of the group. And then I got the opportunity to work closely with the owners.

F: How did you get into finance? Because we still up till today don’t see that many women in high ranking positions in finance. So I’d love to know more about your career and how you got interested in this field.

E: That’s very interesting, actually. I think there are two things that probably drove me. One was that I was ambitious right from the beginning. And that was reflected in my education, whatever I was doing, wanting to be the number one and leading. So that is the ambition reflected in the growing up years.

So I’ve been a scholar and a gold medalist during my school days, and had this ambition to do well. Now when I was researching about what is it that I want to pursue, I was like, mindful of my interest, and I was studying in Pune, at the time when is considered the education hub of India.

I was studying at Symbiosis, which is also the top College in India. So while I was pursuing my undergrad, there were a lot of Institute’s MBA schools, particularly around, I would go and talk to people, particularly women, and at that time, there were three core subjects like Marketing, Finance, HR or the three core subjects, usually for MBA, and again, technical fields, there were separate Institute’s altogether.

So I used to go to these institutes and just have casual chat with people- with women, that what is the subject that you’ve chosen, why you’ve taken this? To conclude what I found out was majority of the woman had taken Marketing, second majority second was HR. So I figured that these are the top schools in the country and most of the women really working hard to get into these colleges and taking these areas, basically. And when I asked about finance, they were very few.

I still remember reaching out to one friend and asking her, “So who has taken finance? I want to talk to somebody was taken finance.” She’s like, “Oh yeah, why don’t you go straight?” Da da da da. She directed me to a place and I looked at her, “Where are you directing me?” She said, “That the library, anybody who’s taken Finance would be sitting in the library instead and not chilling out here.”

So one was, of course that requires you to really study a lot of books. Probably that’s one of the reasons also many women do not take that. But that is also a high-paying category segment- I would say, amongst various others. Also I thought that all the top guys are good with numbers, all the top guys are good with ABC. So finance cannot be out, I want to take this, I want to like, be the smartest one. And you wouldn’t believe even after so many years, and even in the beginning, I have always found mostly myself, the only woman in the boardrooms, mostly myself, the only woman working on certain important projects, I think, background in finance helped a lot on that regard. I would say.

F: Do you feel that that attitude has changed a little bit? Do you feel more women dare to take those subjects?

E: Quite a lot has changed. Earlier, it was like 90 to 10, maybe the ratio have gone to 75 to 25. I don’t have the exact stats. But over a period of time, there is a lot of change. Now thankfully, I’m seeing a lot of women getting into the tech segment, which is amazing.

Earlier the craze was not so much about tech. Now we see that’s a new emerging area. So I get very happy. It’s not much about finance anymore, because entrepreneurs, they become good with businesses, any which ways. But having a tech background in today’s world I feel is more relevant. Finance, if I have to go back, probably I’ll go back and do engineering instead.

F: Really, would you? So you would choose engineering instead of Finance?

E: I would have an engineering base. I would go into that and then do the MBA in Finance maybe.

F: We have a plan, in case you go back, we have a plan what to do. That’s amazing.

E: Do both.

F: Do both, exactly. So clearly, you are already a little bit of an exception, specifically perhaps in India as a woman in finance. And then you get into a field in the Middle East, where also we don’t see a lot of women heading single-family offices. And what I’d love to discuss with you a little bit is two topics today.

One is the evolution of family offices in our region, the Middle East and North Africa, maybe we can chat a little bit about how family offices are evolving here. But then also about the leadership that it takes to run a successful single-family office.

So let’s kick-off. How do you see the evolution of single-family offices in the Middle East and North Africa? What have you observed over the past few years with regards to how they were initially set up, how they have grown, how they have evolved? Any thoughts on those points?

E: I think a lot of evolution is yet to come. At least I have some comparison in mind, because I also got to interact with a lot of family offices in US. I see in terms of awareness and knowledge about the family office concept is a lot more in the West compared to Middle East and North Africa.

So one, this concept is not that popular yet. Not everybody knows about this, people still confuse family businesses and family offices. Those are two different things. So many people still think of that as one. So this just gives an indication in terms of the awareness about a new area, which is not very popular. I would think that in the coming decade or this decade rather, would be a wave of single-family offices, because we will see a lot of people from the next gen, who may or may not want to be part of the family businesses, but might be interested into family offices, because that allows them to lead a particular vertical and more so if it is leading the investments for their family.

That’s something very, very exciting and many people love that. And now we are seeing the rise of banks. I’m sure you would know that. So tech companies have taken over the world and varied start from a small start-up. So the idea is, invest into start-ups, you might just hit a jackpot.

So that seems very exciting to many people. That gives rise to a lot of VCs and including family offices having that VC angle within that. So I think we will see more and more of that. That’s the interest I see from the next generation.

F: I fully agree with you. I think the rise of the Venture Capital space has definitely pushed the family office structure forward. I think if we had not had that growth of interest, perhaps even in the region also triggered by one or two major exits, that kind of gave rise to that awareness that Venture Capital is something that can work in the region, but can also work for regional investors outside of course that kind of triggered a different approach.

So how do you see that parallel development kind of the VC, and then the single-family office space?

E: VC and single-family office space. So we do have VCs and single families within the region, but both I would say are relatively nascent, we have not seen any particular topic, talk about the single-family office, multi-family office or VC which has been very popular on a global scale on the map. We’ve not seen that kind of success yet.

Why? Because it’s still new. So that would happen. We are following I would say, a lot of things from the West, including these.

F: Which I think is an interesting point to be made with regards to, should we look at what it means to be a single-family office in the region as something different from being a single-family office in let’s say, Europe, or in the US. We all know it’s an Anglo Saxon concept or the latest development of family offices is an Anglo Saxon concept.

It largely came from industrial families selling out their operating assets, and really managing their wealth. Now, in our region, one of the distinguishing factors that I always see is that it becomes a parallel structure. So instead of fully selling out their operating assets, families seem to set up their family offices in parallel to their operating entities.

So do you think there will be a particularly Middle Eastern version of a family office that is going to emerge in the next decade?

E: I wouldn’t consider it completely parallel, because there is a reason why somebody would sell off the operating entity completely and get into investment. So quite a lot, we will see that kind of navigation when there is nobody else to lead that particular operating business, maybe.

Another is if you get that good deal out of that, and you make a calculation that, if I run this for another 20 years, this is going to be my financial, whatever outcome versus if I sell it off, this is going to be my financial outcome.

Third, could be that big companies were now coming to take over and you know that if I don’t sell it off and get this money right now, they’re anyways going to kill my business, they’re going to penetrate the markets. Those are the primary reasons we’ve seen in the US particularly, families sell-off, take the exit, and then wonder what to do with this money. Setting up an entirely separate business is a pain. So might as well start investing, see how it goes.

In the Middle East, I would say we are good in terms of, we have operating entities already. So far, nobody’s coming in attacking or for a hostile takeover or stuff like that. We are still not the focus of a lot of investors, I would say a lot of giants—

F: That is a good point. Yes, absolutely.

E: So we are free to run our business and that’s a better situation to be in actually. Because if you have a huge sum, let’s say a huge pile of cash, whatever, which you can convert into a fund or use it in the single-family office and have an alternative source of income, while you already have an operating entity which keeps pumping in money on a periodic basis. That’s the best-case scenario, but in some cases, that doesn’t work for many others. This is the lucky bunch. I would say.

F: This is the lucky bunch and I agree with you that it’s what we currently see the most, these emerging single-family – of course, most operating owners will have some sort of association with an investment entity, be it a multi-family office, be it just investing through a private bank. There is investment activity in most operating entities. So I think that’s a given.

However, this single-family office set-up also requires a specific strategy and division. It’s not something that just grows naturally out of an operating company. So I fully agree with you that it’s quite an interesting process to see how family businesses, family business owners are now starting to kind of almost diversify. It’s almost a type of diversification, to have an investment office for the family’s wealth and for the corporate wealth to certain extent managed in parallel.

You also told me in one of our conversations that it was interesting for you to transfer from the corporate investment side to the private investment side, can you tell us a little bit about that?

E: Well, in my case it was with the same family for the environment was not entirely new for me. But there are still a lot of differences in terms of family dynamics coming into play. So in terms of sophistication of governance, that is the key, I would say, because an established corporate house has a different way, lines of functioning and all that compared to a newly set up family office, it’s going to take time to mature to a level wherein everything is governed in a way or approvals are happening in a certain way.

So that is a little more of a start-up culture there, when things are happening ad hoc, and when we see a problem, we solve the problem and put something in practice. That’s what I saw. And I think that’s the biggest difference. Like I was managing investments there, and I’m managing investments here. But the key difference is how the approval process is happening.

Here there’s a lot more to manage. Maybe that’s because I’m in a role where I have to manage a lot more. But it’s not just the investments part, it is to see that it doesn’t overlap with what we already have. It’s also to see that now I have a longer vision, their exit is important to me. Here sustainability is important to me. Here I also want to see that at any cost, I don’t want to be in a situation wherein I lose the principle that I already have. Because wealth preservation is objective number one.

Growth of wealth is objective number two. So from that regard, this again, risk return parameters that you have to consider while making investment decisions. So I would say, risk appetite is different, because now you’re also responsible for entire next generation. And you also have to plan that how this next generation is going to play a role within family office, or whether they want to start their own thing. How is it that we are able to sustain their lifestyle where it is today, 10 years later. So investment decisions are a lot more long-term I would say.

F: That’s very interesting. Coming back to the question of women in finance, in a way, do you see more women getting active in the family business investment space, be it family members, who perhaps are starting to either invest for themselves or perhaps play a part in the family investment office? Have you seen a change in this area over the past years?

E: To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of evolution in women getting into the investment side, it’s still very minuscule. But I have seen more and more women even on the when I see next-gen or families, I see more and more women getting into the family business, yes. Entrepreneurship, yes. May not be so much on the investment side is what I have to say. Again, for somebody to be into the investment side, that is like really a lot of work.

F: Of course, it is a lot of work. And it takes education. I think it’s an important conversation to be had. Because in a way, this is what it was for operating roles as well and for entrepreneurship as well. Let’s say if we think 20 years ago, it was still very, very rare that you would see a woman as a CEO or a CFO.

E: I still don’t see that prevalent in most of cases. I still feel that there is a huge need, particularly in this region to put such programs in place to, I would say, fast track women that are doing well, because we see a lot of women on the junior level. For example, I see a lot of women in Finance, if you ask me in the accounting role, for example, a junior.

But how many get promoted to become a manager? Now you may say, if they are good, they may get promoted. Yes. But there is probably one of women compared to 20 men. You don’t want to lose this and completely have it no women. So initially, at least for some time, we may want to provide some sort of more support to bring the change. That would be apt.

Again, it completely depends on the management, how they see it, whether they see the need in the first place.

F: I fully agree with you. I think there is an absolute need for a bigger conversation. I think we need to be careful that the conversation is a sophisticated one, not just a blonde- let’s put women everywhere. It’s about fostering the real talent and supporting leadership skills in women across the board wherever they want to go.

E: I remember I was having this conversation with you in which we were talking about, well, you are in a powerful position in investments and finance field, how do you support other women, I was like, I would be very happy to hire a woman in my team and mentor, somebody, for them to reach where I am or to do better or to grow.

But for me to be able to do that, at least when I’m recruiting, I should at least receive applications from them. How do I even give somebody even a chance to meet me? You’ve got to at least apply for the position? So I would say situation is difficult rather.

F: It’s a chain reaction. I see that the chain reaction is both within the family of an owning family, I see hesitation in the young women to say, should I try to put myself forward? Should I push for it or is it just easier to go off somewhere else and do my own thing? As well as for the non-family members.

E: But it’s a huge fear of judgment, I would say. You are judged a lot more when you are in your own family businesses, because you are in the circle of known people. These are the people you spend time with. These are the people who are in your community. And if you’re not living up to your own or their expectations, the fear of judgment, the fear of failure is much higher, I feel and probably that also is a holding back thing. Again, it’s a mental block.

F: It’s a mental block and it’s a complex one, because it starts very early, and it keeps taking hold more and more over the years. And then to overcome that at a certain age is very, very difficult, I feel. But I think to me, it’s very motivating to see you in these positions of decision making power. I’m very happy that we do see change, and there is shifts. I think as women, definitely, we need to have male champions, we need to have male allies.

E: So you’re talking about these challenges and mental blocks. In my own journey, even though- as a child also, I was ambitious as a child, I was a scholar. My parents always saw me as the bright girl.

However, still to be able to move forward in life and choose a career path, I still had to fight, to go on a hunger strike, to convince my dad to let me study because he wanted me to get married and settle down. I was like, “No, I’m going to do this.” He’s like, “You’re not doing this.” I’m like, “Okay, I’m dying then.”

F: Simple choice.

E: I said, wait. You need to take me seriously. I didn’t eat for three days and he was like, “I take you seriously eat food. I will do what you want.” I was stubborn in that case.

F: I think it showcases one thing is that grit is extremely important. You need to have a vision. Sometimes I do feel it’s a little unfair, because the extreme version of grit that you need to have in order to just get to a position.

E: It’s right to education. To me, I had a fight for my right compared to my brothers getting a push or support. Go for it. You’re not saying that to me.

F: I think those are the small steps that then lead to the question of, at some point, will the mental block be too big for you to even apply to a position and to even put yourself out there. So I think that’s a very key topic to discuss.

But perhaps to slowly close our conversation. I’d love to end with an outlook from your side, as we say that the family office space in the Middle East is actually very exciting. I think it’s a very exciting space. It’s very dynamic, it’s growing, it’s growing in different ways. We don’t know yet what it will look like 10 years from now, I also believe that private capital has the enormous opportunity to change a lot of things in this region depending on how it’s being allocated. And I do think diversity in the decision making processes are really, really important.

So if you were to look, let’s say for the next 10 years, and the young talent that perhaps wants to come into this field of finance and family office, and both family members as well as non-family members, what would you recommend young women going forward to kind of summarizing some of the points perhaps that you’ve already made?

E: Be absolutely comfortable with the idea of failing. Nobody, whoever successful people, you see nobody is successful always. No, we all go through failures. I have gone through my fair share before I’m here in front of you. So everybody does that. And equipping with the skill set is very important.

If somebody intends to be into finance and investments, there is no shortcut. You have to read books. There is no shortcut. You have to understand case study. You have to understand deals, if that’s what you want to do. So there is no shortcut, you cannot just go and because it’s all about numbers, and numbers don’t lie. You cannot lie. If it is 40, it is 40, you cannot make an 80 or 100.

So, there is no shortcut, you have to go through the grit of working hard, working on the papers, working on your exams, whatever that may be. If it helps going to school, I would encourage all women out there to have the ambition of going to the top business school, they all have quotas for women, especially for the minority, especially people coming from Middle East or from Africa, they have quotas.

If you think you’re not as smart as somebody to get admission into that, you are wrong. Once you reach there, you will know there are so many people just like you and you might be smarter than many others. Because your experiences still are very different than many others, you bring your own unique experience. So go forward, apply for it, apply into all the quotas that are available to you, apply for the scholarships. And that’s a good platform to start I would say, education.

Another is lean in. Don’t be afraid, speak up. You might find yourself like- this has happened to me. I wouldn’t speak up because I would feel maybe my question is silly or I don’t want to sound stupid. Well, now I don’t think that way is because regardless, even after all these years, I’ve still been wrong so many times, you might as well as can learn and move on. So it’s okay.

F: I think those are beautiful points at times. I think in a way, we can never hear enough of those because they do make a difference for us. Even just not hearing you say those things, it actually gave me a certain motivation, because I’m like, you were actually right.

Readiness to fail is important. But then also in a way there is no failure, because it’s just part of your life story and you need to just be able to deal with it and move forward.

E: You don’t even move forward or take the action just because you’re so afraid to fail. So I’m not saying be ready to fail. No, I didn’t mean to say that but what I’m saying is, please give it a shot. Give yourself a chance. I would say, give yourself a chance.

F: I think that’s a wonderful way of ending this first conversation Ekta. It was a great pleasure to welcoming you to WIFB. And of course, we hope to welcome you back very soon again. Thank you.

E: Thank you so much Farida.

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