Heather McGregor, Heriot-Watt Dubai
From investment banking, to owning an executive search company; from leading Edinburgh Business School to becoming a dame, Heather McGregor really has done it all. Speaking with The PIE at Heriot-Watt in Dubai, McGregor reflects on her career after six months in the position of provost at the university’s UAE campus.
After a period as an investment banker, McGregor was headhunted for an advertising company by the executive search platform Taylor Bennett, at just 23 years old.
Despite an interest in Taylor Bennett itself, she says, the headhunters had to insist that she take the interviews they’d given her at target firms.
“I realised, actually, that executive search is somewhere between a management consultancy and a private detective agency – and I just was transfixed,” she recalls.
“At 23, I thought, not only do I like this business – but I want to buy it one day. I made my mind up that I would come back and I would buy the business.”
Buy it she did – at 42 years old, she bought Taylor Bennett in its entirety, and remained as its chief executive until 2016.
What came next, though, propelled her into the education sector, and eventually led to her taking the helm at Heriot-Watt University’s Dubai campus – a job, she says, she prepared for with unusual tactics.
“I think the most useful thing I did before coming here was reading the Qur’an. I have pages of notes for every four verses, almost. Reading it, you understand where cultural norms are anchored.
“It was incredibly helpful, and an educational experience,” she explains.
McGregor has been on record for saying that she does not believe in the glass ceiling, and this has endured throughout her time in Dubai.
Despite issues surrounding rights in Islamic countries for women, McGregor insists that she has never felt challenged as a woman in the UAE. In Dubai, she notes, a woman has to sit on every board by law.
“It’s incredibly supportive as an environment for women. I find, having visited a lot of Emirati homes and palaces, that it is the same everywhere [in the UAE].
“Why join the leading brand? All you have at that point is a position of defence”
“I think being respectful is key. I’ve lived in a lot of other countries – Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan – either way, you should be respectful of the views and opinions of the people whose country you live in,” she says.
Her involvement with Heriot-Watt did not start in Edinburgh Business School. Before that, she had a few different jobs at the institution. She was first offered the role of chair of Court in 2014, and the hiring process was, in her opinion, what helped her really begin to understand the university.
She briefly considered taking on the role as a way to “give back”. In the end, had to turn it down due to timing constraints.
“I was passionate by this stage about Heriot-Watt. I’ve always thought it was an amazing university because it championed widening access from the day it was founded. I love challenger brands – why join the leading brand? All you have at that point is a position of defence,” she muses.
She quips that she’s always labelled Heriot-Watt as the MIT of Edinburgh. “Everything about Heriot-Watt spoke to me as I was so passionate about careers.”
The hiring process, while unsuccessful, left a good impression of McGregor, and it wasn’t long before she was approached again.
By 2016, she had become the executive dean of the business school, having sold Taylor Bennett and moved into higher education fully.
During her time there, the team created a whole new MBA, completely overhauling a long-standing distance learning MBA the school had.
“We examined a lot of strategic options with it, because without being merged into the main university, we had very restricted options,” she recalls. As such, the answer was to shut down the entire entity in 2019 and reopen it, merged with the university itself.
“It was chalk and cheese coming together… I was suddenly in charge of all these academics, so it was very different. This whole merger coincided with the arrival of Lucy Everest, joining originally as our director of marketing recruitment.
“She brought two absolutely shining lights, one of modernisation and secondly of student recruitment and retention. I was lucky that we went through this merger not long after her arrival,” said McGregor.
“Everything about Heriot-Watt spoke to me as I was so passionate about careers”
McGregor’s eventual move to Dubai and becoming provost of the campus was long in the making. It was one of the jobs she had her eye on the moment she set foot in the main university.
She recalls her frequent visits to Dubai, not just during her time at the business school but also during her time as a stockbroker, and once the job became vacant at the end of 2021, her fate was sealed.
McGregor reflects on her journey to higher education – all symbolised by a story surrounding a graduation gown.
After finishing her PhD in finance in Hong Kong, she returned to the UK, already having had three children and well into her time as a stockbroker. She turned down the chance to go to the graduation ceremony. Instead, she bought the gown with a promise in mind.
“I thought, I’m not going to cross the stage this time. But I am going to buy my gown, because I did this degree to go and work in a university and I think one day I will. I never wore it, because what would I wear it for?
“The first time I ever took that gown out of its plastic was in November 2016 to attend my first graduation ceremony – so I did eventually get to wear it.”
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