Mona Ataya Bio
Mona Ataya, CEO and Founder of Mumzworld, is one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in the Middle East, with her company reaching more than 2.5 million people across the region since 2011. She previously held positions at Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. Ataya was recently voted one of 6 Powerful Women Transforming the Business World in the Levant. The Tamer Group of Saudi Arabia recently bought a majority stake in her company.

Episode release November 7

Mumzworld Founder Mona Ataya: Empowering Women in the Middle East

Mumzworld is the largest online baby store in the Middle East. It was created by Mona Ataya, one of the most influential businesswomen in the region. Ataya is driven to empower women, motivate employees, and benefit all of the company’s stakeholders.

Transcript

Ranjay Gulati:

Let’s say you’ve got the idea for a great new business. How do you make it happen? And how do you do it with purpose? Mona Ataya had just such an idea. She created Mumzworld, the first and largest online baby store in the Middle East, that’s Mumz with a Z. Mumzworld sells an incredible array of products from diapers and baby bottles to sandboxes and teepees. The company’s purpose is not only to serve its customers’ needs, but to empower women throughout the Middle East, by becoming an indispensable extension of a mother’s life, helping make it more of a mom’s world.

            Hi everyone. I am Ranjay Gulati, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, and this is Deep Purpose, a podcast about courage and commitment in turbulent times. In this episode, we meet Mona Ataya to explore why brands can’t survive without establishing their purpose. Operating in a region considered to be socially conservative by most standards, Mona is making change. She’s recognized as one of the most influential business women in the Middle East, and she has made it her goal to empower women in the region.

Mona Ataya:

You empower a mother, you empower a child, you empower a child, and you change the world.

Ranjay Gulati:

Mona told me about the challenges she faced as a founder of a women-led startup in the Middle East, about the importance of finding talent that aligns with your values, about how to inspire employees during tough times. She also has some advice we could all use about knowing your own worth and define the status quo.

Mona Ataya:

I will start by saying that great organizations are built by great teams. And in the early days of starting an organization, you as a founder are driven by a certain mission, a vision, very little resources, very little funding, and really no momentum in the business. So the beginning challenge, if you like, or the earliest challenge, is how do you attract stella talent on the journey and on the road with you. And once you’ve done that, how do you encourage them, motivate them, drive them to go to the finish line with you when they know that they have to work harder than they’ve ever worked with probably less income than they’ve ever earned, and with a tremendous amount of unknowns. Once you cross the hurdle of bringing in strong talent, that makes the road next a much easier one.

 

For us also as eCommerce pioneers, particularly in the vertical space, back in 2012, we entered eCommerce when the ecosystem was very nascent. So we didn’t have enablers in the ecosystem that allowed us to take shortcuts. So in eCommerce, you need payment gateways, you need technology talent, you need careers that understand the need for speed. None of that existed back in 2012. So our greatest challenge and what kept us up at night over the years is how do we create that ecosystem ourselves with limited resources and with limited knowhow in the region.

Ranjay Gulati:

You’ve said before that you were never motivated by money as an entrepreneur, it was always about impact and values. Can you say more about that? Because sometimes we imagine that entrepreneurs are all about a big idea with a big part of gold at the end of the rainbow. And you seem to come at entrepreneurship in a slightly different way. How does an entrepreneur imagine what they’re going to create? And what was that like for you?

Mona Ataya:

Commercial success comes when you create a business proposition that creates value. So when you are able to solve important unmet consumer needs and do it better than others, have a unique proposition, then the commercial wins naturally follow. For me with Mumzworld in particular, I was a mother, I am a mother of three children. I was also an entrepreneur at the time. I was a co-founder in another business, a business that was doing incredibly well. And so for all intents and purposes, I had not in my agenda to launch a second business. It just so happened that as an entrepreneur, I saw the eCommerce trajectory globally. I saw that it was the biggest trend of the decade. I also saw that the regional landscape was still very much behind. And I saw that the mother consumer, and me being a mother consumer, I felt it daily, had a lot of important unmet consumer needs that needed to be solved. And as a mother, I was very frustrated in choice of product, access, community, et cetera.

 

On the other side, I have that regional experience, I had worn the entrepreneurial hat. So I knew that using my skills and experiences in the region, as well as my commitment to my motherhood and other motherhood, I knew that this was a project that was important to launch. And ultimately for me, when I launched Mumzworld, the vision was to create a brand that would become the indispensable online extension of a mother’s life and empower her to make the most informed decisions for her children. And you empower a mother, you empower a child, you empower a child and you change the world. And with that vision, the rest is history. We’re 10 years down and the business has been growing since we launched.

Speaker 3:

Mumzworld’s purpose, to empower women throughout the region, by becoming an indispensable extension of a mother’s life.

Ranjay Gulati:

One thing I found interesting here is you could have defined your business as where an eCommerce play to provide products to women and mothers, but you expanded your notion a bit more in your vision statement, even on your purpose statement, in saying we are here to really empower women. You had lots of information available over here. Why that expansive notion, why not just focus on the actual service you deliver or products you deliver? You wrapped it in a more bigger sense of purpose and mission of what we’re trying to do. And I think it’s helpful for entrepreneurs to hear why that can be very helpful. So how do you go from what I call an idea to an ideal?

Mona Ataya:

So it’s purpose that activates people and motivates people. It’s your why, it’s not the functional benefit. So yes, providing moms with the widest choice at the best prices delivered seamlessly, except all of that is great, but your ultimate purpose is far greater. And the ultimate purpose is to empower your customer to make better decisions. And by the way, for us at Mumzworld, on one side, we are empowering mothers to make the most informed decisions. On the other side, we were the pioneers in the eCommerce space. And as I mentioned earlier, back at the time, when not only was eCommerce very nascent, but there was a lot of negative perception around eCommerce. It was considered to be very cash intensive, incredibly complex. Some people even thought it would be a fad, because consumers needed to touch and feel the product. So eCommerce was an area that the majority of the region at the time thought was not a place to be operating.

 

So we set out to revolutionize the ecosystem and reshape people’s perception, and in so doing we would be contributing to the region. We would be creating jobs. We would be empowering our customer and we would be demonstrating how you build something from nothing in an ecosystem that was very nascent. And I think to wrap all of that up is the fact that this business is a woman led business. So, I’m the CEO and founder, my partner is also a female. Our head of technology is a female. Our head of logistics is a female. Our head of Saudi was a female. So we really challenged traditional status quo and traditional perceptions on what is right and what is wrong. And in that there’s a trickle effect going forward.

Ranjay Gulati:

A lot of us have life stories and professional experiences that help make us who we are. Mona’s family background is Palestinian Lebanese. She grew up in Kuwait. She lives in Dubai with her husband and three children. Earlier in her career, Mona worked at Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. She co-founded bayt.com, one of the leading recruitment platforms in the region. I asked her about some of the formative moments that shaped her leadership, that prepared her to be resilient in the face of obstacles.

Mona Ataya:

My father who’s the eldest of 13 siblings is an entrepreneur, and his father before him was an entrepreneur. We are Palestinian originally. My father left his home when he was a young boy as a refugee. So perhaps entrepreneurship is at a cellular level, perhaps it’s in our DNA. Through multiple generations we’ve learned the importance of creating from nothing, the importance of hard work, the importance of doing things that are important, and that are in line with your values and the legacy you want to leave behind. I’ve always wanted to win, and I’ve always wanted to be first in what I did and creating things that contributed to positive impact. So Mumzworld is my second venture. And all the ventures that I have attached were for me impact stories, stories that created change in the ecosystem that I lived in, and stories that were in line with my values as a human being and the values that I want to instill on my family and those around me.

Ranjay Gulati:

So tell me how, as a woman, as a mother, how has that shaped you as a leader? You’ve talked a lot about this, and I’m personally interested in this answer to this because my mother was an entrepreneur and I know how hard it is for a mother and a woman to be an entrepreneur, and the challenges you can face. So, I’m really curious to hear how you, as a woman, as a mother, how did that change the way you had to think as a leader?

Mona Ataya:

When I started Mumzworld, I had three boys under the age of 10. And so certainly, on one side I’m an entrepreneur, on the other side I’m a mother, and they hold equal weight. So it was very important for me from day one, first of all, to be a purpose driven. And I’m getting alignment of the family and my children and helping them understand what it is that we are building together, because it is really a joint effort because every hour I’m away from my children, they are vested in that as well. So we are building this business together. And therefore the purpose had to be meaningful and relevant and had to be in line with our values. And what are our values? Our values are, you have to challenge the status quo. You have to work because time will never come back. You have to contribute with the skills and the resources that you have been given, and you have to create positive impact, and you have to create a legacy that you are proud of.

 

And so for me, when I set out with Mumzworld, while certainly there were many challenges along the way, across different projects, I never walked into a scenario feeling that I was disadvantaged because I was a woman. I always walked in very confident that I had the skills or resources, or I would develop the skills and resources and knowledge needed to allow me to succeed. And certainly I failed in many things I did, I didn’t succeed in a lot of projects, but I knew enough to step back, learn, pivot, revisit, and go back and try again.

Ranjay Gulati:

In your second year of operation, you opened an investment round just for women. Can you explain why you did that? And what your thought process was, which is unusual to do.

Mona Ataya:

So this was just before our B round, we were actually going to go out, again this is very early days, the round was supposed to be a $7 million round. And just before that we decided that we were actually going to open up a round only for women. And the reason for that is we were a business built by women for mothers in the region, primarily as the primary target. And our ultimate goal was to empower women in the Arab world. That was our ultimate vision. And so what’s better representatives, eyes, and ears and builders of the organization than women? On one side. On the other side, there were a lot of women in the region who were highly educated, who came back to the region with fantastic degrees, who perhaps had worked before, but decided to not work anymore because they had a family to raise, or because they had a situation where they were unable to go back into the ecosystem. So we wanted to open opportunity for such women to come back and contribute to the business as contributing investors.

 

We sent out a press release. We got a lot of traction from the first day. In the end, we ended up bringing on board just under, I think it was nine women in total. Two of them were stay-at-home moms. There were a couple of lawyers. One of them was a DC. Another one was the head of a woman community. So incredibly impressive women that you wouldn’t normally tap into if you hadn’t done something like this. And this opened a lot of doors, because we now also had not only investment in from these women, but they really became our eyes and ears into the ecosystem.

Ranjay Gulati:

So Mona, you mentioned one thing about assembling a team of people around you, like-minded people, who also are willing to challenge. How do you spot them? When you interview somebody for a job, even from the very early days, what are the kinds of markers you see in somebody and say, that’s somebody I really want to have work with me?

Mona Ataya:

That’s challenging honestly. Well, I hire for character. You can build skills, you can’t build character. And the character of resilience, grits, optimism, I always ask people, do you consider yourself to be a lucky person? Because people who consider themselves to be lucky are optimists. They figure things out. Whereas people who believe that they have a burden on their shoulders and they’re unlucky, and they’ve been dealt difficult cards are always looking for the negative part of the story. The reality is, we’re constantly solving challenges, figuring things out. So that’s what I look for. I look for character, I look for strength of grits. I look for vision. Can you see the finish line the way I see the finish line? We may not agree on the road to the finish line because there are many roads to the finish line, but are we aligned on what that finish line actually looks like and are our values aligned? So these are the things that I look for.

Ranjay Gulati:

You’ve said about your vision being, or your purpose being empowering women in the region. How do you get from eCommerce play for mothers to empowering women in the region? And what does that mean even? What does empowering women in the region, it’s very similar to Microsoft also talks about empowering customers. So the word empower has become resonant. I’m just curious, A, how did you get there? And B, what does it even mean?

Mona Ataya:

When you look Mumzworld, you mentioned an eCommerce play, we deliver eCommerce services, but that’s not who we are. So we are, and I said this earlier, we’re an indispensable online extension of a mother’s life. We’re building an experiential and transactional experience where we’re building eCommerce, community, social commerce, all ingrained in one 360. That is essentially empowering women. It’s empowering the customer through informed decisions. It’s empowering professional women who come back into the workforce and contribute, it’s empowering investors also who come back and contribute to the region through investment, and it’s empowering women by creating success stories that… Success breeds, success creates courage and attract record to allow this ecosystem to continue to flourish with 50% of the population who are essentially women.

Ranjay Gulati:

How do you convey this idea to new employees or ongoing employees? As you’ve gotten bigger, I can imagine a young team coming together saying here’s what we do and here’s who we are. But now you have more people, you have grown, you have people in different locations. Do they also get this distinction and understand what it means and how does it inform what they do?

Mona Ataya:

So when we hire, the majority of the interview is really around understanding the level of customer obsession that particular professional has as we do. How obsessed are you in serving the mother? How obsessed are you in empowering moms and women to make the most informed decisions for their families? And how far will you go to ensure that you deliver with excellence and do things that others don’t know how to do, or don’t want to do? So the customer obsession part is part of the interview process. We do say straight up that we are building a brand that is empowering women and mothers in the Arab world to make the most informed decisions. Again, I said it earlier, you empower a mother, you empower a child, you empower a child, you change the ecosystem. I have three teenagers now, there’re adults. And every day when I operate, I say is Mumzworld also… With what Mumzworld is giving me, is it helping me shape the new generation? And insofar that the answer is, yes, I know that I’m actually doing what I set out to do.

Ranjay Gulati:

Do you measure and reward any of these kind of behaviors? Because those are hard things to measure, intention, purpose, values, even empowering. It’s much easier to measure outcomes like sales and revenue targets. How do you think about that?

Mona Ataya:

So measuring sales, revenue target is a given. That’s your price of competing. You have to be growing, you have to be driving commercial gains. You have to be the leader in the revenue, that’s the price of competing. But guess what? If you do that without purpose, you won’t be around for very long. So anybody can build top line, and I always say that anyone can build top line revenue, in fact, anyone can build hyper growth top line revenue for a short period of time, unless the brand has purpose and has a finish line that’s creating impact around it, and that really doesn’t only drive transactional success, but experiential, emotional activation of people, then it is short lived.

 

So how do you measure that? Again, it comes back to behaviors. It comes back to character. It comes back to grits. Are you able to survive times like COVID that are so difficult and that you are working 22 hour days, are you able to survive that? You are only going to be able to survive that if you are empowered by the mission and the vision statement. Are you able to come to work every day and create revolutionary ideas and challenge the status quo? You are only able to do that if you are impassioned by the vision and the mission that’s long term.

Ranjay Gulati:

I want to explore this idea that increasingly business leaders are being asked to take a stand on social issues, environmental issues. What do you think about sustainability? What do you think about inequality? And a lot of these issues are getting politicized where sadly now, a business leader’s caught in the middle of a political debate. How have you navigated these issues? You’ve taken a social stand on empowering women, you’ve taken a stand on hiring women, you’ve even brought them in as investors. One could easily imagine this getting… And I don’t know your position on sustainability and other things. Do you feel how should leaders be thinking about these social environmental issues that increasingly even investors expect you to say more about?

Mona Ataya:

So for me personally, when I look at social or environmental issues, again, they tie back ultimately to, as a leader you do what is in line with your values, that’s the reality. You cannot do something that is not authentic and that is not in line with your values. So for me, when I look at social issues around women, and that’s natural because I’m a woman. When I look at social issues around mothers, it’s natural because I myself, I’m a mother. So I have lived it. Now again, for me, it’s all about inclusion, it’s not about one versus the other. It’s about really looking at the status quo and saying, can I make this better? Whether it is inclusion, equal opportunity, improving employment opportunities, et cetera, for us, for example, also in the early days, because it was core to our, if you like, values and underprivileged education. So this was something that as an organization we were heavily involved with, we were looking at opportunities to add value to the ecosystem with underprivileged education. And in the first three, four years, we actually mandated our team members to volunteer.

 

So as part of them working with us, they had to once support or volunteer with one of the institutions. Again, it’s a non-political institution, but they were education related. Again, this ties back to our DNA.

Ranjay Gulati:

One of the phrases you’ve used today and in your other conversations is that challenging status quo. And that seems to be something that is very near and dear to you. And one of the things we like to say is that to challenge status quo, you need to have courage. You need to have the courage to… Because it does take courage to challenge status quo because it can be scary. So tell us a little bit more about how you came to this realization and tell us about some concrete examples, if you will, simple things you had to do that really required you to think about how do you… And how do you train yourself to challenge status quo?

Mona Ataya:

Challenging status quo has been my way of operating from very early days. And that is because you are conditioned to live your life, to improve the things that are in front of you. And you are conditioned to always contribute to the betterment of your surroundings. So what can I do today to learn, to teach, to improve, to enhance? And you’re constantly asking these questions. So for me with Mumzworld, again, when we set up the business, the entire ecosystem had to be challenged and the status quo had to be challenged. So that’s the, I think the first concrete example. The other one is the notion that females in the region very early on, females in the region could not raise capital. So that when I went out there with my A round, I said, I’m going to go out there. We went out there four months before we actually needed the money. And this was in January, of 2012.

 

And everyone told us that you need to give yourself at least a year to raise your first round, particularly since you don’t have the momentum to grab that amount of money early on and you are a female. So we went out there, we talked to several people, we got six term sheets on our table and we were over subscribed in about six weeks. So again, had we listen to perhaps the naysayers and not challenge that we would not be here 10 years later.

Ranjay Gulati:

One of the things leaders have to do is inspire courage in others, because not everybody is joining you as an entrepreneur, we call them joiners. They join entrepreneur venture, but they don’t necessarily start them. How do you inspire courage in others who are not in that same mold as you? And tell us about an example of how you took a team and really encouraged them to think bigger, challenge status quo. How do you make it safe for them to do that even?

Mona Ataya:

That’s important for a leader to do because in the early days, again, you are that cheerleader. You only have a narrative. So in the early days, when you cannot pay market salaries, when you don’t have the momentum of revenue, nobody knows who you are. The only thing you really have is your narrative. You have your story. What is it that you’re trying to build? So for me, I remember, let me start with the suppliers, because we didn’t talk about that, in the early days when we went to suppliers in the region and knocked on their door, and I said, listen, we’re going to create the biggest, the most respected and admired eCommerce vertical for all things mother, baby, and child, where we’re going to empower mothers to make the most informed decisions for their children. We’re going to do that by giving them access to the widest choice at the best prices delivered immediately, and the largest community of mothers under one umbrella. And this is going to be the biggest story of the region in eCommerce. Are you in, or are you out?

Ranjay Gulati:

I want to ask you back to you, which leaders have you personally worked with, who inspire you? You say those are my model leaders. You worked at incredible companies, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and your own startup world. I am sure in your career, you’ve come across some really inspiring leaders who really gave you some ideas and ideals to think about. Could you share one or two of those with us and tell us, what did you learn from them?

Mona Ataya:

My first manager at Procter & Gamble, so that was my first job at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. She was a female leader. And the first day on the job, I walked into her office and I was 21 at the time. And she said, “I’m off on a two week vacation. And when I come back, I want to see a continuity plan for Dreft and Ivory Snow. I was in the soap sector at Procter & Gamble managing the two baby detergents, interestingly enough. So I got a crash course in baby branding very early on in my career. So I want you to develop a continuity plan and in two weeks present it to me, and off she went. I knew nothing about the company. I had no idea what a continuity plan was. I didn’t know anything about the business. So that lesson really started my career, where if I needed to do something, I had to figure it out.

 

It was problem solving. It was being super creative. It was getting the support of people around me. And this was really the start of my career. And the rest of my career was exactly like that, where I figured out, I realized that I could figure things out and that’s important, being accountable, having ownership and being super resourceful. That’s the first leader. The second one, I would say my brother. So my brother, who is the CEO and founder of bayt.com, this is the first business that I was a co-founder of. Rabea has a very different style than mine. He’s a true leader who inspires those around him, who gets a tremendous amount of not only respect and admiration from those around him, but trust. And I learned quite a few lessons from him as well.

Ranjay Gulati:

What advice do you give your children? And I’ll share with you what my mother said to me when she was running a business. So she was very successful. And I remember I was a teenager at that time. And my mother said to me one day over dinner, she said, ‘Ranjay, my wish for you is I hope you never, ever have to work a day in your life.” Now, the teenage me thought she was telling me that she had made so much money, that I never would have to work a day in my life. And I told her that, I said, “Is that what you’re saying?” She said, “No, no, no, I’m not saying that. I’m telling you that I never want you to feel like what you’re doing is work. What you do needs to be an extension of who you feel you are. It should give you meaning and purpose.” That was her message to me. I’m curious, what message, how are you communicating ideas? Because I’m sure your kids have had a chance to see you build this business right on the front row. So, what do they hear from you?

Mona Ataya:

So perhaps I’m not as kind as your mother. Look, what I tell my children every day is first of all, don’t squander time, use your time wisely. Every second counts. The other thing I tell my children is, do something of worth, whatever it is, do something of worth, do something positive for your life. If it improves you, if it improves those around you, do something that has value, and that is in line with your values. And the other thing I tell my children is always know your worth. Do things for the right reasons and know your worth. And they’re starting their life. And yes, they have seen their mother build from nothing. And they have seen what it takes and the work and the commitment and the grit and the compromise. And I hope that they take this forward, knowing that life is about what you put out, what you put out, you get in, do things for the right reason, and do things that are in line with your values that are positive.

Ranjay Gulati:

Mona Ataya is founder and CEO of Mumzworld, the first and largest online baby store in the Middle East. She spoke with me from Dubai where Mumzworld is headquartered. You’ve been listening to Deep Purpose, a podcast about courage and commitment in turbulent times. You can go to my website for more of my conversations with leaders in business, deeppurpose.net. We talk about navigating a challenging 21st century environment, restless employees, DEI issues, fickle consumers, and demanding expectations by shareholders who expect social benefits to run side by side with the profit motive. You can also find out about my book, Deep Purpose. My argument is that a revolutionary approach to business does exist. One that delivers game changing results for both companies and society alike, the serious and deep pursuit of purpose. So visit with me at deeppurpose.net. This podcast is produced by Steven Smith with help from Lauren Morowski, Ellie Honan, Craig McDonald, Melissa Duncan, and John Bath. The theme music is by Gary Meister. I’m Ranjay Gulati. Thanks for listening.