Heather McGregor, a household name in the UK – author of the Mrs Moneypenny books and longstanding column in the Financial Times – believes her latest career move to academic and provost, is her greatest yet.
And she certainly has an impressive track record. Working as an investment banker, McGregor was headhunted for an advertising company by the executive search platform Taylor Bennett, at just 23 years old.
“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, was a desire to contribute in education, and experiences such as running a business school led McGregor to eventually 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,” she reveals. “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.
As a woman, McGregor is vehement that she does not believe in the glass ceiling, and this has endured throughout her time in Dubai, she confirms.
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.
Heriot-Watt has invested £110m into its Dubai campus
“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.
She was first offered the role of Heriot-Watt chair of Court in 2014, and the hiring process was, in her opinion, what helped her really begin to understand the university.
Although timing constraints prevented her from taking that role, she explains, “I was passionate by this stage about Heriot-Watt.”
Known as the MIT of Scotland, “I’ve always thought it was an amazing university because it championed widening access from the day it was founded,” she says.
“I love challenger brands – why join the leading brand? All you have at that point is a position of defence,” she muses.
By 2016, McGregor had become the executive dean of the Edinburgh 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 Heriot-Watt Dubai (now a wholly owned ultra-modern campus near the Palm) 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 [business school] graduation ceremony – so I did eventually get to wear it.”