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May Nasrallah: ‘Go seek out your own mentor’

Headshot of May Nasrallah, Founder and Executive Chairwoman of deNovo Partners, on Aurora50 template

May Nasrallah is the Founder and Executive Chairwoman of boutique corporate finance advisory firm deNovo Partners, based in Dubai.

She was also, until recently, the Non-Executive Chair and Senior Advisor for BlackRock in the Middle East and is also: a non-executive Director at the Dubai International Chamber and a member of the Investment Committee of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce; an independent board member for the regional diversified business conglomerate YBA Kanoo Holdings; and member of the international advisory council for investment bank PJT Partners.

Ms Nasrallah previously spent almost 16 years working for Morgan Stanley, in various jurisdictions and capacities, lastly as Managing Director and Head of Investment Banking for the Middle East region.

She grew up in Lebanon and Kuwait and holds Bachelor of Science degrees in Economics and Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as well as a Master’s in Management and Finance from MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

She has lived and worked in New York, Hong Kong, London and Dubai, and is married with four sons.

Aurora50 spoke to Ms Nasrallah about allyship, career sponsors, good managers and leaders.

Who have been your career sponsors?

I was privileged to have had multiple career sponsors along my career that had an impact on me.

In university, I had a professor, Franco Modigliani, who was instrumental in driving my interest in economics and finance away from bio sciences/ pre-med, which is what I thought I wanted to pursue.

When I was first deciding which investment bank to join, Morgan Stanley, I had the privilege of meeting the chairman and CEO at the time, John Mack, who had Lebanese origins like me.

That had a huge impact on me; I joined Morgan Stanley then and continued to look up to John over the years.

I had other people along the way – men and women – who helped my career path and gave me critical advice: Walid Chammah, Terry Meguid, Elizabeth Chandler and Maria Richter, to name a few.

As you grow in an organisation, it’s so much easier to stay in your comfort zone; to not step into a more challenging role.

It takes a great manager to make you believe that you can do it, to push you to do it and to showcase yourself – and even surprise yourself in how well you can do in that new role.

It really takes the right type of sponsorship, earlier on in your career, and the right type of advocacy, so that you can get appropriately noticed.

Did you go looking for allies?

In the beginning I didn’t look for anything. I just kept my head down and did my work.

I grew up in the world of mergers and acquisitions in New York in the early nineties, working at Morgan Stanley with very few women around me.

It was a tough working environment. I remember the streaks of never-ending all-nighters, week in week out.

I did my work and let my work speak for itself. It took prodding from my manager for me to take on other roles in other divisions, and grow my horizons and skillsets.

In the earlier years, I never put my hand up for anything. I just thought that, if I did a good job, someone would notice it.

My male counterparts, on the other hand, were constantly putting their hands up for bigger roles, irrespective of whether they were actually capable of doing them or not.

It really takes the right type of sponsorship, earlier on in your career, and the right type of advocacy, so that you can get appropriately noticed.

Then you reach the point where you have enough confidence in your own capabilities to be able to more confidently advocate for yourself.

How do you make mentorship work?

At Morgan Stanley, when I became an officer – a sort of vice-president role – they initiated a system that randomly matched people with mentors.

They matched me with a mentor who met me once. I had nothing in common with him, and nothing ever happened with him.

Later on, I went to my managing director, and I said, why don’t we turn the system upside-down, so we choose our mentors? If we have affinity, then mentorship is going to work better and it’s a two-way street.

My MD agreed and tasked me with that initiative: it was the first time the division had a successful, longer lasting, productive mentorship programme.

So what I would say is, don’t wait for someone to say they want to mentor you or advocate for you. You should go seek that out for yourself.

You will be surprised by how many managers/ leaders actually would like to mentor and would appreciate you reaching out to them.

We can create a different set of role models, and a different, more collegiate environment.

Did you find female role models in your early career?

I am an Arab woman who jumped into the deep end of the sharp-elbowed, intensively male-dominated investment banking environment in NY.

I’ve faced a lot of hurdles in my career, and I think it’s my duty to help other women go through it with fewer obstacles or thorns.

When I first started working in the industry, every woman who was already there looked like a man, acted like a man, was unmarried, without children, and wanted to make sure that any other woman that came into the division had it as hard as they did.

There was no support network and it was tough. The attrition rates for women in investment banking was huge.

But I realised we can create a different set of role models, and a different, more collegiate environment.

The more senior I became, the more comfortable I got in advocating for, and spearheading, such initiatives.

Capabilities should be measured on their merits, not on gender.

May Nasrallah (R), Founder and Chairwoman of deNovo Corporate Advisors, and Diana Wilde (L), co-founder of Aurora50
May Nasrallah (R), Founder and Chairwoman of deNovo Corporate Advisors, speaks to Diana Wilde (L), co-founder of Aurora50, in a fireside chat.

Should men and women be treated the same at work?

I’ve always taken issue with people saying men and women are the same. We’re not the same. Men can’t give birth to children, so how can we be the same?

There is clearly a role for men in the workplace and in the home, and there is a role for women in both the workplace and at home.

We are not the same but that doesn’t mean we should be treated differently in the workplace. Capabilities should be measured on their merits, not on gender.

From a career standpoint we’re just as capable.

If someone can be forward-thinking enough to not differentiate between the two (sexes), even in a male-dominated environment, they can be pleasantly surprised in the capabilities, value add and incremental business that diversity can bring any particular firm.

We are 50 percent of the population, and we should be able to do our share in terms of economic productivity.

Women are good at balancing and juggling things simultaneously, and time has proven their well-deserved place in the workplace.

How do you network well?

It’s so important to be networking and connecting with others – seniors, peers and juniors. But at the core of it all, you need to be good at what you do!

If you’re connecting with a lot of people but you’re bad at what you do… well, that can only take you so far.

So the first thing I’d advocate for is to work hard to develop your reputation as being really good at what you do.

Then interconnectivity/ networking can ensure you are well-noticed – and that can take you incredibly far.

Don’t just work hard, then do nothing about it: equally, don’t schmooze with people without any content behind it.

The two go hand in hand: once you’re comfortable with one, the other will naturally complement it.

What makes a good manager?

A good manager is able to deliver well on the task at hand, while mentoring, supervising and lifting up his or her team with them.

It is not about ‘me versus you’. It’s about the team delivering.

I saw myself, as a manager, as someone who would deliver the best product needed, to help my superiors win or execute a mandate, and make sure my team had all the support, guidance and tools they needed in their toolkit to deliver on that task.

A good manager manages up and down. The end product should speak for itself, but it needs to be perfect.

A bad manager, in my opinion, makes it about himself or herself. They do not work well with others and think that the only way for them to look good is to make others look bad.

I’ve come across a quite a few of those in the course of my career…

I surround myself with people who are far smarter and more capable than me. They are complementary to me, and our skillsets make us collectively stronger.

May Nasrallah, founder and executive chair of deNovo Partners, at Aurora50's The Board Summit 2021
May Nasrallah at Aurora50’s The Board Summit 2021

What makes a real leader?

A good leader is someone who has vision, a target, a plan, and who can inspire others to follow that plan through their own actions – not through their words alone.

They have the strength of character to be in the trenches to get that done, and to build a good team around them – to lead by example.

I surround myself with people who are far smarter and more capable than me. They are complementary to me, and our skillsets make us collectively stronger.

The leader is not about an ‘I’, but about growing the collective ‘we’.

How did your parents influence your education?

I’m one of five children, number four out of five: I have two sisters and two brothers.

My father had the foresight and strength of character to send all of us to university indiscriminately – despite being criticised for spending “all that money” to educate his daughters.

I will never forget the answer my dad gave when he was asked by one of his friends one evening why he was also sending his daughters to university and “wasting money” on that.

He said: “I will have my daughters study whatever they want, in whichever university they want, even if it means they end up hanging their degrees in the kitchen if that is what they decide to do. At least they have it and the choice is theirs.”

How was it to be a woman in the finance world, when you started out?

Most women in my industry were expected to not last when I began my career.

The expectation was that we were going to leave either because the hours were too long and we couldn’t ‘cut it’, or we were going to get married and have kids in a few years, and leave for that reason.

Work for women was seen as a temporary thing.

I did eventually get married – but I stayed. I did have children – I had four boys in fact – but I stayed.

For me it was important to prove them wrong, just as much as it was to prove me capable.

The connotation that a woman – an Arab woman – could not do it, was in, and of itself, a driver for me to rise up the corporate ladder.

What challenges did you face in your career, being a Middle Eastern woman?

I hated many having a stereotype of what an Arab woman can or cannot do…

The connotation that a woman – an Arab woman – could not do it, was in, and of itself, a driver for me to rise up the corporate ladder.

I wanted to prove them wrong and did not want to give anyone the satisfaction of their stereotypes being proven right.

I wanted to show them that yes, we could, that I could.  Today I feel it’s my duty to who I am to make sure that message is sent broadly, through my actions.

It is important not to lose sight of who you are, where you come from, or what your heritage is.

We should be proud of who we are, and of our differentiated backgrounds. These should be a source of pride and drive. I speak about it as much as I can: it’s important that we are who we are.

I didn’t even take on my husband’s name formally in the workplace, because May Nasrallah, that’s who I am. (Despite the fact that his last name, Merville, would have been a far easier name to navigate in my career than Nasrallah!)

How was it setting up your own business?

The toughest decision I ever took was to resign from Morgan Stanley in the middle of the financial crisis.

I moved to the UAE in 2005 to set up Morgan Stanley’s regional investment banking business.

By the end of 2009, I resigned to set up my own firm, as I wanted to create an independent advisory boutique that was focused on giving good independent advice to our regional corporates and groups in achieving their strategic and financial aspirations.

No one was doing that at the quality level that was needed, and I wanted to fill that gap and give back to my region.

I went from a comfortable, known position, with a global support network behind me, to an incredibly uncomfortable unknown position with no support network! That was unsettling, to say the least.

For 16 years I worked for a global firm with a formidable globally recognised network around me and a stable income stream. It felt like cutting the umbilical cord, going out on my own.

I became the office designer, project manager, I set up logos, the website, presentation designs, decided who was going to be in the team, what areas we would cover as a business – all the stuff someone else used to take care of, other than me.

I quickly came to the conclusion that I needed to build a strong team of professionals and support network around me and, once my non-competes and non-solicits were behind me, I started hiring from my old team.

I’m very blessed and lucky that the organisation has found its niche and continued to grow over the years. It has become well recognised and highly successful.

And we continue to provide our advisory services and expertise to helping our regional corporates and organisations achieve their potential, and ultimately benefit our region.

We should be proud of who we are, and of our differentiated backgrounds.

Can we have it all – work and family?

Well, you can – so long as you are comfortable in juggling and accepting sacrifices, be that in your time in office or your time at home, whichever the case may be. And living with the guilt of not being able to be everything to everyone, at all times.

No-one should expect you to not be there for your children or family when they need you. That doesn’t make you unable to be productive or to do your work as well.

You just need to be organised. And you need to rely on a support network too: within work, your team.

At home my husband, for example, is very hands-on with the children. That makes a big difference.

No-one should ever think that you simply cannot do both.

You just need to be mindful or focused on what is most important at any point in time, and make sure no shoes are dropped along the way. Not easy, but doable.

How do you balance family and four children?

If you lose your job and your whole life is your job – then what are you left with and who are you afterwards?

Finding the right balance to have both is the most satisfying feeling in the world.

The two – family and career – balance and reinforce each other in your personal sense of accomplishment. Don’t sacrifice one for the other. You will eventually live to regret it.

Family gives you perspective: you go home to your children, and they have no clue what you’ve gone through at work, nor do they care necessarily.

The gratification you get from being around them, helping them, listening to them, playing with them, it gives you the energy to go back to work the next day. It’s a beautiful balance.

Build a powerful network of advocates, sponsors and allies, and do it sooner rather than later.

Build your own network: don’t wait for that network to be built for you.

What advice would you give your younger self?

The world is your oyster; the future is yours. Make of it what you want.

Don’t be bashful about asking for something that you want – and don’t be upset if you don’t get it because you didn’t ask it either.

It took me a long time to learn that I could/ should put my hand up.

Build a powerful network of advocates, sponsors and allies, and do it sooner rather than later.

Build your own network: don’t wait for that network to be built for you.

It took me a while to build mine, I have an incredibly good one now.

Give to your network as much as you’re expecting to get out of it: make it a two-way street or it doesn’t last.

And in a nutshell, go for it!

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