Co-op’s first boss on ‘terrifying’ experiences of racism as a child, when her dad hit your dad


Shirine Khoury-Haq is the first female managing director of the cooperative in its 178-year history – in an exclusive interview with Der Spiegel she describes her own “terrifying” experiences with racism

Shirine Khoury-Haq has suffered racist abuse and says action is needed
Shirine Khoury-Haq has suffered racist abuse and says action is needed

A mother who is now being dubbed one of Britain’s top bosses has called for action to tackle the lack of ethnic minorities at the top of big companies.

Shirine Khoury-Haq became the cooperative’s first female CEO in its 178-year history.

Technically she will take over the interim boss, but she should get the job permanently.

In an exclusive interview with the Mirror, Ms Khoury-Haq, 50, described her own “terrifying” experience racismand said her employees still face it every day.

The mother of five-year-old twin girls is one of only a handful of female CEOs running FTSE 100 or equivalent UK companies.

For the first time in its history, the cooperative has a female boss


LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Co-op is Britain’s fifth largest food retailer with more than 2,500 stores. It has nearly 70,000 employees and is owned by its millions of members.

As of March last year, a fifth of the top UK companies still had all white boards

Ms Khoury-Haq, who is of Arab-Turkish descent, said there must be a “declared intention” to change this: “Does that mean a quota? One could argue both ways.

“It starts with being able to work with kids, helping them, knowing they can have a career, they can make the most of their talent.”

Her goal is to “normalize these types of conversations and allow people to speak up.”

Ms Khoury-Haq recounted a “terrifying” incident at an industry dinner just four years ago, when a man recognized her Lebanese surname and said, “Oh, you Arabs are a lazy, seedy bunch.”

Ms Khoury-Haq grew up in Australia and the US and moved to the UK in 2000, posting CVs under her then married surname Beikman. She said: “I got replies saying ‘come in for an interview’ and ‘look forward to meeting you next time’.

After remarrying, she used her maiden name Khoury with Haq, her Pakistani husband’s surname – and answers dried up. She said: “All of a sudden a name change and zero. It felt like one name was accepted and the other wasn’t.”

She said Co-op employees suffer from “everyday racism” from customers, adding, “You don’t have to go very far to hear how people experience it every day just based on their looks.”

She doesn’t believe Britain is inherently racist, saying: “I love the diversity in the UK. I think it’s great that people speak many languages.”

I was abominably abused as a child and my father was beaten

Shirine grew up in Australia and says she and her family experienced racism every day and were called “w**s” because they “looked a certain way”.

She added: “My parents had a gas station and a man walked in. He wanted to buy something but then said, ‘I’m not paying for that’.

“He used that term and then started beating up my father.

“The only thing that stopped him from hitting my mother was my sister getting between her and his fist.”

Nothing happened to your attacker.

The family later moved to a small town in the United States.

“People had never heard of Turkey or Palestine,” she said. “It suddenly made me ‘white’ or accepted by others.

“People before me have used openly racist terms about other minorities. There was an expectation that I would join them and then surprised me when I refused.”

your CV

  • Joined the board of Co-op in 2019. Chief Financial Officer and Chief Executive Officer of Life Services.
  • Chief Operating Officer, Lloyd’s Insurance Market, 2014 to 2019.
  • Head of Operations and UK Chief Operating Officer at insurer Catlin Group, 2007 to 2014.
  • Associate Partner at IBM from 1998 to 2007.
  • Chief Financial Officer and Operations Manager at McDonald’s from 1996 to 1998.

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