Rana Nawas: The Corporate Game Is Rigged and I Am Always for the Underdog

Deals in High Heels met with sassy and fearless lady boss, Rana Nawas. Founder of the inspiring podcast show When Women Win and Dubai chapter President of Ellevate Network, a global organization that brings professional women together. Rana is a published writer and sought-after speaker on a mission to inspire women of all backgrounds to shine.

Rana Nawas

Thanks so much for allowing us to interview you, Rana. You have a 17-year corporate career working for the likes of McKinsey, Dubai government and GE Capital as SVP; how difficult was it to climb the corporate ladder?

I’ll focus on GE since that’s where I’ve spent the last 13 years. If you look at any large multinational corporation, you find a very competitive professional field, with dozens of candidates vying for every role and lots of variables determining your success.

It was difficult but I’m not sure that measuring the difficulty is the right approach. Did I have to work hard? Absolutely – very hard. Did I have to bring in the numbers? Absolutely – quarter upon quarter. Would I have got there without the support of powerful allies and sponsors? Absolutely not.

The corporate world is laden with unconscious bias, at every step of every process. From the wording of job descriptions to the scanning of CVs to double standards in interviewing and performance management. Nowhere is safe!

As an example, algorithms can tell you what % of job applicants will be female vs male based on the language you use in the job description. Algorithms are also better predictors of performance than in-person interviews. Software programs exist that can strip unnecessary demographic information from CVs to ensure that CVs are being evaluated purely on the quality of skill and experience. Such steps are necessary – we have to use technology to help us make better decisions in the workplace and to reduce opportunities for unconscious bias. There is actually no evidence to suggest that diversity training changes behaviour – so it is a massive waste of time and money. Money better spent on making simple process fixes that have lasting impact.


What made you decide to leave your corporate career and start your podcast When Women Win?  

After 17 years I just felt that I needed a change. In parallel to my corporate jobs, I had always worked on my passions, supporting women in the workplace. At some point, it hit me that perhaps I could make my mission and passion my job.

I started When Women Win to give women everywhere access to amazing female role models, the guests on my show. An avid networker, I constantly meet incredible women who enrich and inspire me – when I realised that most women don’t have this experience, I decided to capture all my enriching conversations and make them available to women all over the world.


We think it's a great podcast! Who did you interview that you feel most inspired by and why?

Thank you. Each one of the women I’ve interviewed has had a unique and powerful story. A story that I’m inspired and intrigued by. In fact, that’s how I end up finding them and that’s why the line-up is so diverse. One episode you’re listening to Professor Iris Bohnet who has dedicated herself to studying gender equity and the next you’ll learn the story of director and humanitarian Vibha Bakshi overcoming impossible odds to make a controversial movie in India. We go from super-mom Kristina Kuzmic on how she does it all to Mona Ataya building two massive online businesses.


Why do you feel so inspired and determined to help corporate women?

Because the game is rigged – and I am always for the underdog. It took me a while to understand the lay of the land… In my 20s I was just go-go-go… Then in my mid-30s, I started to see and hear things from around the GE Women’s Network that I myself had not experienced. As I read more, I realised that the entire corporate world was built by men for men decades ago, and really was not a level playing field for ambitious women. In fact, women have to work longer and harder to get to the same position as men – and we earn less all along the way. Once my eyes were opened, I could not look away.


How is your new life as an entrepreneur going? What is next on the cards for you?

Having managed a team in the corporate world for so many years, life as a cultural entrepreneur can be lonely at times. But I wouldn’t change it for anything - I’m really enjoying the journey… And I’ve received so many heart-warming stories about the positive impact my work is having on professional women that I am inspired to keep pushing forward.


What are three skills that you think are most important for us to develop in our careers?

Ask for what you want.
Listen carefully - always.
Manage your time unapologetically.


Many women mention how difficult it is to juggle their careers and children, with two small children, how do you manage?

It’s not easy for any working mom. Mo Gawdat says that Happiness = Reality - Expectations. So we need to augment our reality by leveraging a big support network (nanny, mom, husband, friends, sister…) and work for companies that support our needs. And we must reduce expectations of ourselves by giving up on perfection – it’s ok if I mess up from time to time. That’s been a huge learning for me, and a difficult pill to swallow.


You come across as a tenacious and fearless woman, which we admire. Have you always had this courage in your career?

Yes. I credit my parents with the confidence and courage they instilled in me. If something in my career did not feel right, I spoke up. I never worried about consequences because I figured that if I was not a good fit for the job or company, why would I want to be there?


About Rana Nawas, Founder of When Women Win and President of Ellevate Dubai

Born in England to a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother, Rana grew up like many Western-educated Arabs facing the dichotomy of liberal and traditional values. Rana’s education at Oxford University and Harvard Business School gave her a strong foundation to solve problems and negotiate effectively. 

Rana is a mother of two and a wife of one. You might find her at the top of Kilimanjaro, at the bottom of the South China Sea or salsa dancing in Cuba. Otherwise, find Rana on Instagram and LinkedIn. Her podcast is on iTunes, Stitcher, or here: whenwomenwinpodcast.com