Co-op's first woman boss on 'terrifying' racism experiences as a child when yob beat dad

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A mum today named as one of Britain’s top bosses has called for action to tackle the lack of ethnic minorities running major companies.

Shirine Khoury-Haq became the Co-op’s first female chief executive in its 178-year history.

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Technically she will take over as interim boss, but is expected to get the job permanently.

In an exclusive interview with the Mirror, Mrs Khoury-Haq, 50, detailed her own “terrifying” experiences of racism, and said her staff still face it every day.

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

Co-op's first woman boss on 'terrifying' racism experiences as a child when yob beat dad
© LightRocket via Getty Images A Co-Op store sign seen at the store, One of the Top Ten Supermarket chains / brands in the United Kingdom

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The Co-op is the UK’s fifth biggest food retailer with more than 2,500 shops. It has nearly 70,000 staff and is owned by its millions of members.

As of March last year, a fifth of the UK’s leading firms still had all-white boards

Mrs Khoury-Haq, who is of Arabic and Turkish heritage, said there must be a “stated intention” to change this: “Does that mean a quota? You could argue both ways.

“It starts with being able to work with children, help them to know they can have careers, they can flourish to the best of their talent.”

She is aiming to “normalise these sorts of conversations and to enable people to speak up”.

Mrs Khoury-Haq told of a “terrifying” incident at an industry dinner just four years ago when a man recognised her Lebanese surname and said: “Oh, you Arabs are a lazy, shifty bunch.”

Growing up in Australia and the US, Mrs Khoury-Haq moved to the UK in 2000, when she sent out CVs using her then married surname, Beikman. She said: “I was getting responses saying, ‘do come in for an interview’ and ‘be great to meet you next time’.

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

She said Co-op staff suffer “day-to-day racism” from customers, adding: “You don’t have to go very far to hear about how people experience it every day, just based on how they look.”

She does not believe Britain is inherently racist, saying: “I love the diversity in the UK. I love that people speak lots of languages.”

I faced vile abuse as a kid and yob beat up dad

Growing up in Australia, Shirine 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 service station and a man came in. He wanted to buy some stuff but then said, ‘I’m not paying for this’.

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

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

Nothing happened to their attacker.

The family later moved to a small town in the US.

“People hadn’t heard of Turkey or Palestine,” she said. “Because of this, I suddenly became ‘white’ or accepted by others.

“People openly used racist terms about other minorities in front of me. There was an expectation I would join them, and then surprise when I refused.”

Her CV

  • Joined the Co-op executive in 2019. Chief financial officer and chief executive officer of Life Services.
  • Chief operating officer for the 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.
  • Finance and operations manager at McDonald’s from 1996 to 1998.
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