A few weeks ago I sat with my mother, Mona Aboelnaga, to discuss how she chose her career path, and the various organizations that she is involved with. With a holistic view of long-term investing powered by organic and acquisitive growth, Mona draws on 30 years in the financial industry and experience as a CEO, entrepreneur, private equity investor and corporate board director for public and private companies. Mona serves as Managing Partner of K6 Investments, a private investment firm she founded to invest in a wide array of industries including financial services, technology, consumer products and hospitality. In addition, Mona has made endless philanthropic efforts as a member of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Capital Campaign Committee, Wharton Club New York’s Equality Task Force, the Council on Foreign Relations and much more. A strong advocate for education, Mona is also a Trustee of the Fashion Institute of Technology, The Chapin School and International House New York.
Thank you for joining me for this interview today. Obviously as your daughter, I have a vague sense of what you do, but I’d like to learn more about you and the things you’re involved in, so hopefully this will give me the chance to do that! To start off, why don’t you talk a little bit about yourself, what you do and what the things you care about are?
Hi, Layla. I vaguely know about what you do too! I was born in Cairo, Egypt. My family moved here when I was a little girl, and I moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey to Philadelphia when I went to school at Penn. I thought I was going to be a doctor my whole life, but got to Penn and decided to switch into Wharton undergrad and was intrigued by the power and the empowerment of being in business and investing money. I started on Wall Street, but really most of my career has been in private equity and venture capital investment. I started my own firm in 2002 to buy equity stakes in other investment firms, but I sold it to National Bank of Canada in 2006, and I stayed on as CEO until 2013. Since then I’ve invested on my own, both in the U.S. and overseas. I am also fortunate enough to sit on boards for financial services and other growth companies. I also care quite a bit about access to education and healthcare. I also have the privilege of sitting on the board of your school, The Chapin School, as well as FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and International House. I also sit on the advisory boards of a number of organizations that focus on innovation technology and financial inclusion.
You spoke a bit about how access to education is very important to you, and I was wondering if you could talk more about the work you do with the various institutions that you’re part of.
Serving on the board of your school, like serving on the board of any school, is really such a privilege– being involved and having a view into your child and other children’s education –so I really cherish that luxury. Even though I grew up in the financial sector, I have been interested in the creative arts and the creative businesses. As a woman, I care quite a bit about the business of fashion and how fashion retail, apparel, beauty and lifestyle products have a disproportionate impact on women.
You spoke about how your main job is investing into different companies but I know that you used to be a CEO of your own company. So I’m wondering how you made the decision to sell that company and why you think it’s the right decision for yourself?
I sold it because I saw a great opportunity in the marketplace for investing in a certain kind of financial company in an industry where there were not a lot of investors. I love private equity and the fact that you can really get involved in companies for the long-term. I believe it’s a terrific industry for women as well. I was able to convince my boss at the time to put a little money in, and he gave us great space to start working from and from there we further developed a business plan and we found investors, great investors, and we launched our company and got going.
At first we didn’t mean to sell it. We were interviewing bankers to see if we could raise money because we were investing. In the financial industry, we needed a lot of money to invest, obviously. And so we went to meet with bankers to see who we could hire to raise money for us. One of the bankers that we met said, actually, our bank (the National Bank of Canada) wants to do something like this. So it turned out to be a one-stop conversation and National Bank of Canada ended up buying our business. So I became President and then later CEO of that company and stayed there until 2013.
I would like to hear more about the work you do with FIT as a board member! You spoke a bit about the education side of it, but I think it would also be interesting if you could talk about what the future of FIT looks like as fashion continues to become more sustainable and more ethical.
Well, actually your last few words are really what defines the future, because it really is the Fashion Institute of Technology and that “technology” means that our students today are doing such incredible work and innovation and research in terms of sustainability, business ethics, the business of running fashion and creative companies, and health and wellbeing. So I think FIT is far more than fashion. It goes into a far wider set of industries and the health of those industries as well as the health of ourselves and our planet. The student body continues to be very diverse, very accomplished, and very well acknowledged by global companies and authorities in these industries. It’s really such a great testimony to FIT that over 90% of its students have jobs at graduation.
I know that you’re also involved in the Arab Fashion Council, and I was wondering how you got into that and how that’s different than the work that you do with FIT?
It’s very different. The Arab Fashion Council is a great promoter of local talent as well as local markets. They basically host and conduct fashion weeks in the Arab world, especially in the UAE, specifically Dubai. I first got involved after they found me and asked me to join. It’s such a great passion of mine to not only highlight the beautiful things that are in the Middle East, but also the great talent. There are so many important things to focus on that people don’t see in fashion, for example the workforce which in some places is predominantly women and sadly, sometimes children. I felt like this was an interesting opportunity for me to have a voice into, not only the beauty of fashion, but also in to ensure that fashion businesses and apparel manufacturing is done in a way that is sustainable and ethical.
Why do you think fashion is important?
Clothing is a necessity. Fashion and fashionable clothing, whatever that might mean to you is a form of expression, and a form of art, as well as necessity. I think fashion can accomplish a lot of positive things, but obviously we see how it can also accomplish very negative things. It’s my hope that with a great emphasis on education and terrific members of communities like that of FIT and other great schools, we can really focus in on how fashion can be helpful, how it can be a productive and positive form of expression and of art.
Do you think there are ways to make clothing more accessible while still keeping it sustainable?
Yes, I do. One of the most amazing things to do at FIT is not only to visit its gem of a museum, but also to come look at some of the student projects, especially the senior projects, and you’ll see how many of today’s students really think so thoughtfully and innovatively about how to accomplish exactly that. We’ve seen that at times fast and inexpensive accessible fashion is produced in a way which is not humane or ethical. By marrying technology to this industry, I think there are great opportunities to be able to produce things in a way where it can reach people all over the world, but to do so in an ethical sustainable way.
How did you get to where you are? Did you always see yourself pursuing these things?
I used to joke with my friends when I was a young investment banker marching in protests on the street that I was a capitalist with a cause, because I love my profession, investing. I also recognize that the financial sector provides the opportunities to earn really incredible amounts of money, which is very unusual. It gives us an opportunity that is different than what most people’s opportunities are. And I believe that also means that we have a responsibility to use that good fortune for people that may not have the same voice or the same resources as you. Ever since I was in high school, much less when I was working and able to make my own money, I’ve always dedicated myself to causes as a volunteer– and now as a board member as well as a volunteer. I especially care about access to education and to healthcare. For example, before it became trendy and fashionable, St. Jude’s for decades has been providing access to the world’s best quality pediatric oncology and cancer treatment to anyone regardless of what their financial abilities are – there is never a bill. I think it’s so important for all of us to understand that it’s okay to work hard, be fortunate, make money, and have nice things for yourself and your family, as long as you believe, as I do, that you need to also give back to that same community that gave you such opportunities.
What is one piece of advice you would give to the younger generation?
I think it’s a wonderful thing to, first of all, know that no decision has to be a lifelong decision. I was pre-med and then within a year switched to Wharton undergrad. My career and my activities have morphed. I was very fortunate that because I started my own company, I was able to have four children. I didn’t work less. I was working at two and three AM every night, but I was able to spend time during the day with my babies. I was able to have those babies, and to be close to their schools. I believe the best advice might be to just do it! I really believe in talking yourself out of your fears and really taking chances, especially when you’re young, to do things that you’re passionate about and that you care about. That doesn’t mean do things without thinking, or without being thoughtful or working hard, you always have to work hard. You should always be more prepared than anyone else in the room, and you should never let opportunities pass you by.