Ngozi Nwaneri is a second-year at Wharton. He sat down with the co-president of MENA Club, Randa El Borollossy, whom is a second-year as well, to interview her about a range of topics, from working at the largest fund in Africa, to her experiences on the ground during the Arab Spring.
Ngozi: Hi Randa. Thanks so much for volunteering your time to conduct this interview. Let’s get started, shall we? So you’re quite involved on campus this school year. What are some of the clubs and activities you’re involved in?
Randa: Hi Ngozi, thanks for having me. This year I’m the co-president of MENA club and the co-president of the PEVC club. Both have been extremely different experiences but very rewarding in their own ways. So the MENA Club is a small club in terms of members. My responsibility as a co-president is to work together with the board to build a close-knit community and to do things like we’re doing in EMW that exposes the club to the entire school and tell the students about the region and what it is like to live in the region. PEVC is completely different because the board alone is almost as big as the total members in the MENA club. In the beginning of the year, the big challenge was to set up the board structure, select the right people and get people motivated. Now, it’s about working together with the board to deliver high value to the members; in terms of education, careers, alumni relations and treks just to mention a few. It’s a very big responsibility, but being surrounded by a fantastic team makes joyful and worthwhile.
Ngozi: Quite interesting at how different both experiences has been. So what exactly is your connection to MENA?
Randa: So I’m Egyptian. I was born and raised in Egypt, and lived there until I moved to the US for my MBA.
Ngozi: Was this your first time in the US?
Randa: It wasn’t my first time. I have been to the US a few times for leisure and business. When I joined Wharton, I realized that I’m one of very few that never lived outside of their home country for an extended period of time.
Ngozi: That’s great. I’m not sure many classmates knew that about you. So you said you worked in Egypt. Where did you work?
Randa: I worked at Citadel Capital, which is the largest fund in Africa and invests heavily in Egypt, the Middle East and East Africa.
Ngozi: That’s a great shop. What did you do at Citadel Capital?
Randa: So I started off as an analyst. By training I’m an engineer. I did my bachelor thesis in Sweden where I lived for 6 months. I returned to Egypt and I was eager to explore something new. I was like “Engineering is cool but what about finance?”. So, I applied to Citadel Capital and I didn’t know what a balance sheet is. But I picked up quickly and soon got promoted to Associate. I worked with the fund for approximately four years before business school.
Ngozi: So at Citadel Capital were you just covering Egyptian equities or did you work on different pan-African strategies?
Randa: I was a generalist and worked in a bunch of different industries and I did some debt and equity fundraising as well. I worked on agri-foods, which was Egypt and Sudan; transportation, Egypt and Sudan as well; energy was in Uganda and Egypt; and real estate was in Egypt.
Ngozi: Interesting you worked in financial services. I worked in financial services in New York, which is notorious for a specific kind of office culture and work-life balance. What was it like working in financial services in Egypt, especially at a megafund like Citadel? What were work/life balance and the working hours like, and what was the culture in the office?
Randa: In terms of culture, I think the fund was very much influenced by Western culture. Most of the people I worked with actually did MBAs abroad and worked overseas before returning to Egypt. Of course, it wasn’t as intense as you would see in the west. It was a mix of emerging markets culture and the developed countries. We worked long hours and we were much more efficient than most of the work places one would typically find in emerging market companies. Nevertheless, working with a third party, we had to deal with some inefficiency.What I liked about the fund was that the ratio of female-to-male in the work place was high, especially at the junior level, in comparison to other emerging markets. So literally, every team I worked with, there were at least 1 or 2 other females, which was very nice.
Ngozi: So let’s go a level deeper into your work experience in Egypt. You must have started working during or shortly after the Arab Spring. Despite the countless documentaries I have watched, I still find it difficult to truly visualize what it must have been like on the ground. So what was ground zero actually like during that time?
Randa: I got my offer right before the Arab spring and I was supposed to start February 1st. The revolution in Egypt began on the 25th of January. Everything froze in the country and I had no idea, if the fund would still hire me, or if they’re going to say ‘I’m sorry, things have changed’. A couple of days later, I got a call from the fund saying ‘Yes, we still want you, please come in mid February’. Things started very slow because it was still after the revolution, but soon picked up. It was even more intense than before the revolution. As you can imagine, one had so many problems: the fund had to raise more funds for follow-up investments and the team had to support with the portfolio management. The companies were facing new kind of operational problems such as labor strikes.
Ngozi: Switching gears a bit, I guess you had already interviewed and were sitting idly awaiting your start date. What were your sentiments as the revolution unfolded? Were you afraid to go outdoors? Did you participate in the revolution? Did you have friends that participated in the protests? And where did you stand? Did you support the movement or where you against it? Anecdotally, how did the revolution unfold from where you were sitting.
Randa: It was an emotional roller coast. I had a lot of friends who participated on a daily basis and who were actually there from the very first day. I had a bit of mixed feelings about the demonstrations. I knew that I wanted change but I wasn’t sure if this was the right way to drive change in a country like Egypt. I went to Tahrir Square out of curiosity. I wanted to witness what’s happening in the square to be able to form an opinion.
Ngozi: What opinion did you end up forming, and did that opinion evolve and change over time or remain the same.
Randa: I realized that Mobarak, the president at the time, had to step down. My opinion was evolving and it still is. See, we were literally part of writing history and some events made more sense in retrospect. In general, I think that the Egyptian nation was dreaming of radical change instantaneously, however, change does not happen over night. I wish the revolution had a leader who could have filled the political vacuum post-revolution. Also, after the turmoil in the past 4 years, I came to appreciate Mobarak’s regime even more. In the early 2000, Egypt was developing a lot on an economic level and it was going in the right direction.
Ngozi: I see. So where do you see Egypt going and what do you think about the country’s future prospects? Do you think the region has stabilized politically or are you still concerned that there needs to be more radical change to government and industry needs to happen?
Randa: I do think politically and economically, it has stabilized and it is headed in the right direction. The current president is doing a great job on the political front. He’s doing a lot of work to stabilize Egypt’s foreign affairs and gather everyone around him to deliver what he promised to deliver. I think the one area Egypt, where is lagging is human rights.
Ngozi: These insights are so invaluable, Randa. Thanks for sharing them with us. So let’s take a step away from Egypt and bring it back to you. If 2020 Randa could come back to speak with you today, 2015 Randa, what do you hope she would tell you about what you’ve accomplished personally and professionally over the preceding five years.
Randa: I’m determined to go back to emerging markets. I feel I have a responsibility to go back and contribute to the development of my home country. So, I hope she tells me that I carried on a successful career back home. But at the same time, life is not just about career, and coming here to Wharton, I have realized this even more. I hope 2020 Randa tells me that I have spent a good amount of time focusing on personal life and spending quality with my husband, family and friends.
Ngozi: Well said. So, to conclude, what would you like to tell your classmates about emerging markets across the globe and their involvement and participation.
Randa: Emerging markets are still so underdeveloped that it’s quite promising to do business and be successful. I think that smart people like Wharton students shouldn’t be afraid of emerging markets and should actually venture into them. There’s huge potential in Africa. Huge potential.
Ngozi: I completely agree with you. Africa is literally a fertile ground that is rife for cultivating. And a bright person can help shape it anyway they desire that reflects their personal view of positive change.
Randa: And it’s so nice to be in an environment where you can feel the impact of what you do. So, I would encourage classmates to attend Emerging Markets Week events, travel with the GIP or GMC, and push themselves outside of their comfort zones. Whether it’s Africa, LatAm, or elsewhere, experience what’s out there and see if it’s for you.
Ngozi: Thank you very much for your time, Randa. This was amazing.
Randa: Thank you too, Ngozi, it was my pleasure.