Women manage, orchestrate, lead and make vital decisions.
Inspirational Woman Interview: Miray Zaki
By Mariett Ramm
Women inspire. There’s something about a woman in a leadership role or a position of power that is awe-inspiring. The quiet confidence is most compelling about these successful women who have no insecurity in their convictions, no aggression in their demeanor. They recognize the gravity of their achievements without seeking praise for them. I know too well women aren’t impervious to the trappings of self-doubt and anxiety. A woman’s work to achieve success in her field doesn’t just entail hard work and discipline, but it also adds a set of obstacles that are not present on everyone’s road to success.
Billionaire Chronicle set down with Miray Zaki, who is one of the top listed financial female leaders of “The 100 Most Influential Women in Finance Work” by Dow Jones Financial News, to find out all about being a senior influential female executive working in financial services.
Miray has been working for 19 years of which the last 12 were investments focused – the previous ten years were at ADIA (2008-2018) working amongst and leading teams in taking deals from origination, diligence, negotiation, execution, portfolio construction, and taking investments through exits; across multiple asset classes. Investments ranged between $10m and $500m across Private Equity, Credit, Hedge Funds, and Special Situations.
Before ADIA, Miray was a Vice President at Endeavor – a mid-market private equity firm in Chicago, USA. Her prior experiences include Deutsche Bank in the UK, Orascom Telecom, and Schlumberger.
Miray is a twice-nominated Top 100 Most Influential Women in Finance by Dow Jones Financial News for both 2015 and 2016. She was an award-winning Fulbright Scholar and amongst the youngest nominated globally for the Aspen Institute. She has an MBA in Finance and Economics from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, a Bachelor of Science from the American University in Cairo and is a CFA Charter holder.
What is your background?
MZ: I was born in Abu Dhabi to Coptic Egyptian parents who – very typical of Egyptians actually – always encouraged my brother and me to strive for excellence, honesty, and genuineness in everything we do. After completing high school in the UAE, I sought to study multiple fields to broaden my perspectives, so I enrolled at the American University in Cairo (AUC) to study computer science, electronics engineering, and business/finance. In parallel, I wanted to learn more about medicine and pharma industries, so I initially attended the faculty of pharmaceutical studies at Cairo University and then switched to auditing at the Faculty of Medicine.
How did you get to where you are today?
MZ: Growing up in the UAE, I would notice how some companies would let go of some low hanging fruits that could improve their market share or took for granted certain aspects of their success and – with changes in leadership -would lose focus of what’s important. I was determined to set my career on a path where I could add value to companies from an operational/management perspective as well as from a financial standpoint. I later came to recognize that the field was called “private equity” as the industry was still developing in the 1990’s, and the nomenclature was not as sophisticated in the Middle East.
Studying engineering and medical fields allowed me to broaden my perspectives from the get-go. I then decided to work in industries for a while before shifting into finance. Thankfully, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend time with excellent companies; SITA (a subsidiary of France Telecom), Schlumberger, and a subsidiary of Orascom Telecom covering the EMEA region (Europe, Middle East, and Africa).
A few years into my fast-moving career at Orascom Telecom’s subsidiary, I decided the time be right for my shift into finance. Having applied to and admitted at top business schools in the US, I decided to enroll for my MBA at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business (now called Booth School of Business) due to its strong behavioural finance and economics focus.
In parallel with my MBA program, I had a couple of stints in the venture capital world and worked for a mid-market private equity firm in Chicago.
During my investment banking Summer Associate internship at Deutsche Bank in London, in 2007, and to be specific, during the last week of July – something happened that defined the rest of my career so far. When spreads widened by circa 2 sigmas, and I heard my colleagues complain about hung-loan exposures and private market deals cracking – I realized that asset classes were not only interconnected but also that participants in one were typically non-versatile across others. Therefore, that asymmetry of understanding of how one related/affected the other presented me with a challenge I decided to endeavor: I was to train to become a global unique situation investor, across asset classes, investing in the best risk-adjusted return related securities.
Returning to Chicago during the fall of 2007 through summer 2008 period, I searched globally to join a deep-pocketed long-term, yet tactical investor pre the impending crisis – which ended up with me joining the Private Equity Department of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA).
At ADIA, I was blessed with the exposure across asset classes and securities in both the PE department (for four years) and the Alternative Investments Department (for six years). Within the PE department, we under-wrote special deals across capital structures and geographies globally. Within the Alts Department, I looked after the Event Driven Hedge fund portfolio of predominantly public market securities, and then I was privileged to be part of the launch of the new global initiative to explore Emerging opportunities across asset classes and structures, as long as ADIA’s existing investment departments did not already cover these opportunities.
After ten years at ADIA, and with the high exposure I’ve experienced, I decided it was time for me to branch out to launch special situations private equity fund to focus on the same strategy I’ve been personally focused on for years; investing in:
– small to mid-size investment tickets (where competition for such sizes is less frequent)
– dynamic capital solutions (flexibly examining capital structures targeting the best risk-adjusted securities; debt or equity)
– convexly structured deals
Fortunately, in parallel with my time at ADIA, I’ve been able to invest my capital, as well as some family and friends’, in predominantly private situations that were non-competing with ADIA’s focus; thus, honing the strategy above and developing an independent track record of circa 30% average IRR across almost 50 deals over the past 10 years*.
* Legal Disclaimer: unaudited personal returns. Past performance not a guarantee of future returns.
In parallel with the fund I’m launching – and due to my passion for solving industry problems – I’m personally backing AURA: redefining affordable luxury travel in the US. Www.flyaura.com
Define a great leader. What traits do you think a great leader possess?
MZ: “One for all and all for one!” A great leader is one who leads from within, by example; steers with ambition; motivates, encourages, and protects.
What is the One Key lesson you have learned along the way?
MZ: at the risk of sounding cliché, “pay it forward” is the best strategy for one’s spiritual and emotional sanity especially over the longer term. Particularly during moments of duress, positive gestures of the past have a way of reappearing in one’s life, often from the least expected people or even from Mother Nature!
Is attitude an essential issue for Women in Business?
MZ: while I’m cognizant of the fact that generalizations tend to be dismissive of the specifics, most women in the workplace that I’ve encountered tend to fall in 1 of 2 buckets: either excessive humility or excessive sense of entitlement. Men – on the other hand – tend to be spread across the spectrum from friendliness to extreme right (but not necessarily humility )
What are your struggles?
MZ: hypocrisy is my biggest struggle in life. People who say one thing, and do another – or even better, people who apply different standards to various groups. It’s a close cousin to discrimination of which I’ve often fallen victim of. Thankfully, I’m always hopeful and, and I try not to let those instances drag me down.
What is your passion?
MZ: Learning more about anything and everything, doing good, and bridging gaps.
How do you define success?
MZ: being able to create value in any way, shape, or form – professionally, personally, societally, environmentally, or otherwise.
How do you feel being a woman in a male-dominated environment?
MZ: I honestly feel no difference from a performance perspective. However, I do feel the difference from a perception perspective – meaning it’s much tougher for women to progress. Though some men are supportive of women’s successes, others are envious. Given the simple generalization above, many women – even some of those who claim to be supportive of other women’s achievements – tend to impede their own kind’s development.
At PE fund I’m in the process of launching, a majority of my team members turned out to be women – not by design but through personal experiences with them and their qualifications.
What is your secret for life-work balance?
MZ: I’ve always been a fan of Anna Quindlen’s statement “you can never be first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”
Building a strong organization allows for further work-life balance as the team functions as an orchestra – with some members playing as others tap out on a seamless, harmonious break. I do not particularly appreciate taking long vacations, opting for long weekends instead, but can always trust my team to handle whatever comes their way.
Very often on vacations with friends or family, I come across quite intriguing and compelling investment opportunities or turnaround situations because my mind is clear and unboxed.
What advice would you give to a ten-year younger self?
1) Time management is crucial – it’s the only finite, and irreplaceable asset one has.
2) life isn’t guaranteed: family, friends, and one’s health are diminishing assets. Enjoy them as long as you and they last!
3) leave emotions out of the workplace but recognize that not everyone does the same. Some people take things a lot more personal and require a lot more hand-holding than usual – understanding that is crucial to career advancement.
4) unless you’re in a meritocratic environment, expect the surrounding politics to try to drag you in like quicksand. Staying neutral is imperative to one’s reputation but might not be conducive to a smooth ascension up the ladder. If the latter is of greater importance at any point in your career, jump-ship and move somewhere else, or if you have the guts and support system: “create” your preferred environment.