A collaborative research project between New York University Abu Dhabi and Tharawat Family Business Forum


Leveraging History – A Family Business Superpower

Family histories are an integral part of multigenerational continuity; stories of triumph, defeat, and overcoming adversity allow family members to learn from the past and maintain family values. According to Communications Strategist, Mai El-Kinawi, family histories also represent an opportunity to connect with others through relatable experiences – for family and non-family members alike.

Interview with Mai El-Kinawi

When families document their business legacies, they’re doing more than just recording past events. Family histories are an integral part of multigenerational continuity; stories of triumph, defeat, and overcoming adversity allow family members to learn from the past and maintain family values. And according to Communications Strategist, Mai El-Kinawi, family histories also represent an opportunity to connect with others through relatable experiences – for family and non-family members alike. But Mai also asserts the key to fully leveraging family histories lies in how they are ultimately used. If frequently referenced and incorporated into a family business’s DNA, Mai believes family histories can become a powerful communications tool with the capacity to inspire, impact, and motivate all stakeholders in any organization.

As a communications expert with over 23 years of experience in the MENA region’s fast-moving consumer goods sector, Mai has developed a comprehensive business perspective, which is also shaped by her own family’s business legacy. Established in 1927 by her great-grandfather, Mai represents the fourth generation of one of Egypt’s oldest enterprises. Consequently, she has experienced her family’s extraordinary journey through the very storytelling that she encourages other family businesses to embrace.

Q: As a member of a historical family business, how valuable do you think a family’s business history is?

Family business histories are invaluable resources. I grew up hearing stories about our factory and how my father learned about the business from his grandfather. He saw how his grandfather spoke to people and how he conducted his business. My father ended up taking a different path and didn’t work in the family business. Still, he was so connected to it through the stories and experiences he enjoyed with his grandfather that I think he may have been the only grandchild in his generation who actually wanted to work in the family business. As my father’s daughter, I too heard about our rich business history through him and other family members, but I didn’t think working in the family business was an option for several reasons, chief among them was that no female members of my family had ever worked in the company before.

It was only later in my career, when I started working in a different family business, that I truly began to understand what it meant to be part of one and how the stories I had heard and values I had learned connected me with other family members. I think it’s unfortunate that many family business members don’t reflect on how their family business story impacts them or the business unless they’re specifically asked about it or encounter similar family dynamics elsewhere.

Q: Are there also disadvantages to a family’s business history?

Everyone’s history contains a little of both good and bad. My great-grandfather established our guiding principles for the business when he founded it in 1927. He was a visionary who saw an opportunity and capitalized on it. He wanted everybody in the El-Kinawi family to benefit from the business he was building, and his principles focused on that in many ways. But he also advanced ideas that became difficult for family members to contend with over time and generations. For example, my grandfather wanted the women in our family to profit from the business but didn’t believe they should work in the business. And one of his more dangerous rules was that the eldest son should always lead the family business. By default, that would mean that the family couldn’t necessarily leverage the person with the most knowledge, passion, or talent to run the business.

Working with your family can be an enormous weight to carry, and some decisions seem poor in retrospect when viewed objectively. And when you point that out within a family, it can often be taken as an attack on the individual who made the decision rather than an honest situational assessment.

Emotions typically come into play, but it’s important for everyone involved with the business to understand that the goal is not criticism; it’s improving decision-making for the benefit of learning and future success.

Q: What are the positive effects of a well-documented and structured family business history?

Let me give you some examples from a company I worked at for 13 years. It was a well-known global family business with around 65,000 employees operating in over 100 countries, at the time. In the first week, when new employees get inducted into the company, they are also presented with the organization’s history. Later, when someone becomes more senior at the company, they visit its head office and tour the company’s museum, where they learn about its milestone successes as well as its mistakes and the impact these events had on the organization. Their history is well documented and displayed for their employees for a very good reason: they want everyone in the company to understand and relate to the journey. They want their employees to feel they are part of that journey as well. And as a result, we did.

And perhaps even more important than the documented and visual history was how everyone in the company regularly talked about it — taking the company’s story beyond something anecdotal and relating it to their experiences.

When this happens, it can even drive people who are not directly part of the family to begin identifying with it. I saw firsthand that recording your family history is only just the beginning; it’s what you do with it that is truly important.

Q: Why do you think family businesses in the MENA region struggle with documenting their legacy?

I believe many families don’t understand why it’s essential to document their past. There can also be a fear that bringing their history into the open will reveal flaws about individuals they feel should be respected and protected. And in some cases, it could simply come down to families not feeling like they have a story worthy of telling.

The next barrier families confront is the daunting task of documenting their history and experiences factually and objectively. It can be tough to identify and convey stories told by people with differing perspectives.

Lastly, I think there is a natural tendency to focus on the future and not dwell on the past. As a result, many want to leave the past behind. I think societies within the Arab world have been conditioned to respect the past but also let it rest and not disturb it. However, we need to recognize the value and knowledge that exists in our pasts, and leverage it to drive us and our businesses to better futures.

Q: How can families overcome these obstacles and become more open to the process of documenting their business history?

It’s important to collaborate with the right partners in the process, whether it’s an association, university, or freelancer. This archivist should be thought of as someone caring for a family heirloom — something very precious. Families need to trust that the person hearing this confidential information will not use it in a harmful way. Families should look for someone who is passionate about telling their story. It could be a next-gen who’s excited to share the accomplishments of their grandfather or grandmother and hopes to follow in their footsteps. The greater the enthusiasm surrounding the project, the easier it will be to convince others to participate. But equally important is how families use their documented history, and that alone can go a long way to diminishing resistance and engaging everyone.

Publication Date: 14-March-2023

The Interviewee

Mai El-Kinawi, Communications Strategist, Founder of True North Consulting FZ-LLC

Mai is a 4th generation family business member and has worked alongside family businesses for most of her career. Integrating her technical expertise in strategic communications and multi-stakeholder leadership, with her understanding of the unique nature of team dynamics within a family enterprise, to deliver a solid culture of dialogue, engagement and performance. With her deep understanding of the intricate nuances of global business, government entities and public sentiment, her communications counsel proved instrumental in advising senior leaders as they navigated through complex ecosystems.