After a stint as an investment banker, McGregor was headhunted at just 23 for an advertising company by executive search platform Taylor Bennett.
Despite the interest in Taylor Bennett herself, she says, headhunters had to insist that she accept the interviews they gave her at target firms.
“I actually realized that executive search was somewhere between a management consulting firm and a private detective agency—and I was amazed,” she recalls.
“At the age of 23, I thought that not only did I like this business, but I wanted to buy it one day. I decided to come back and buy the company.”
Buy it she did – at the age of 42 she bought Taylor Bennett as a whole and stayed on as its CEO until 2016.
But what came next led her into the education sector, eventually leading to her taking the helm at Heriot-Watt University’s Dubai campus – a job she says she prepared with unusual tactics.
“I think the most useful thing I did before I came here was reading the Koran. I have pages of notes for almost every four verses. Reading this will help you understand where the cultural norms are embedded.
“It was an incredibly useful and educational experience,” he explains.
McGregor has been on record saying that she doesn’t believe in the glass ceiling, and this has continued throughout her time in Dubai.
Despite issues surrounding women’s rights in Islamic countries, McGregor insists she has never felt threatened as a woman in the UAE. In Dubai, she notes, every board must have a woman by law.
“As an environment for women, it’s incredibly supportive. Having visited many Emirati houses and palaces, I find that it is the same everywhere [in the UAE].
“Why join a leading brand? All you have at that point is a position of defense”
“I think respect is key. I have lived in many other countries – Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan – in any case you should respect the views and opinions of the people in whose country you live,” she says.
Her association with Heriot-Watt did not begin at Edinburgh Business School. Before that, she had several different jobs at the institute. She was first offered the role of president of the court in 2014, and she says the recruitment process was 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 I had to turn it down due to time constraints.
“I was excited about Heriot-Watt at this stage. I’ve always thought it was a wonderful university because it has championed widening access since its inception. I love challenger brands – why join a leading brand? All you have at that point is a defensive position,” he muses.
He jokes that it has always been referred to as Heriot-Watt as MIT in Edinburgh. “Everything about Heriot-Watt spoke to me because I was so passionate about the career.
The recruitment process, although unsuccessful, left a good impression on McGregor and it wasn’t long before she was approached again.
She became executive dean of the business school in 2016 after selling Taylor Bennett and moving fully into higher education.
During her time there, the team created a brand new MBA that completely overhauled the long-standing distance learning MBA that the school had.
“We explored a lot of strategic options with it, because without merging with the main university, we had very limited options,” he recalls. So the answer was to close and reopen the entire entity in 2019, merged with the university itself.
“It was a combination of chalk and cheese… I was suddenly in charge of all these academics, so it was completely different. This whole merger coincided with the arrival of Lucy Everest, who originally joined as our Director of Marketing Recruitment.
“She has brought two absolutely shining lights, one is modernization and the other is student recruitment and retention. I was lucky that we went through that connection not long after she arrived,” McGregor said.
“Everything about Heriot-Watt spoke to me because I was so passionate about the career”
McGregor’s eventual move to Dubai to become campus provost has been long in the making. It was one of the professions she had in mind when she entered a major university.
She recalls her frequent visits to Dubai, not only during her time in business school but also during her time as a stockbroker, and once a position became available at the end of 2021, her fate was sealed.
McGregor reflects on his path to higher education – all symbolized by the story of the graduation gown.
After completing a PhD in finance in Hong Kong, she returned to the UK. She already had three children and worked as a stockbroker for a long time. She turned down the chance to go to graduation. Instead, she bought the dress with a promise.
“I thought I wasn’t going to cross the stage this time. But I will buy a dress because I did this degree to work at the university and I think I will one day. I never wore it because what would I wear it for?
“I first took the dress out of the plastic in November 2016 to attend my first graduation – so I ended up wearing it.”