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Syrian-born businesswoman, Shireen Atassi, stepped away from a career in banking to launch a non-profit foundation in Dubai, promoting Syrian artwork and artists. She talks to David Woods-Hale about her unconventional career path, post-MBA
As part of AMBA’s 50th anniversary celebrations, we conducted 50 interviews with MBA graduates from across the globe, to celebrate the diversity of a global network of post-graduate business students.
These stories showcase bravery, entrepreneurship, achieved ambitions, goals reached, careers changed, borders crossed and boundaries broken down.
But, considering the global geopolitical environment, one story stands out from the rest.
It’s the story of a woman who left her village in Syria – currently the world’s most violent country, according to the Global Peace Index – to complete her MBA, and then moved back to the Middle East in a bid to protect and promote the art and culture of her homeland.
Shireen Atassi, CEO of the Atassi Foundation and an MBA graduate of Imperial College Business School, picks up her tale.
‘I grew up in a little town in the middle of Syria,’ she says. ‘My father was a partner in a construction company and my mother was a gallerist. I graduated from school, spent a year in Switzerland and then moved to Manchester, where I did a BSc in economics. I went back to Syria for three years. By this stage, my parents had moved to Damascus and my mother had another gallery there. I worked in a consultancy firm, and in the evenings, I worked at my mother’s gallery.’
Atassi is thankful for this experience, explaining that it gave her access to the worlds of both business and culture; but by 1996, she was ready to leave Syria for the second time.
‘Everything was too small for what I wanted and the opportunities were too few,’ she says. ‘I had a privileged childhood with access to lots of things, because of who my parents were. This wasn’t a path I wanted to go down and I wanted to open my own doors. I’m not someone who had a plan and worked according to that. All I knew was that I wanted to open doors and tick boxes on my own.’
Atassi opted to do a full-time MBA in London at Imperial College Business School.
She explains: ‘A lot of people who do MBAs don’t know where they’re going. Some people want to change careers – from engineering or medicine to business. Others are like me with no masterplan and want to use the opportunity to regroup and broaden their horizons. Did the MBA give me a masterplan? No – but at the time it wasn’t an issue for me. I wasn’t keen to tell people where I wanted to go.
‘Instead, my MBA gave me a completely different perspective on business. As a consultant, you scratch the surface of business but you don’t lead companies. You talk big, but you don’t get your hands dirty and manage a business. The MBA gave me a well-rounded idea on the elements of how you would manage a business.
‘Back then, if you had an MBA it was either to be a banker or make money. It was almost surreal how students were motivated to think the bigger the words you use and the bigger your salary, the better your programme was.’
She pauses, before adding: ‘In saying that, the year I spent at Imperial was one of the richest in my life, academically, culturally and socially. It opened my eyes to a lot of the business questions that I hadn’t been able to answer when I worked in consultancy. I learned about the nitty gritty of managing and actually being in a business.
‘I met my husband while I was doing my MBA and tried to find a job in London, but had to move to Dubai.’
Atassi received two job offers in Dubai, one from a young venture capitalist and one from established corporation Ernst and Young (EY).
‘I chose Ernst and Young,’ she tells me. ‘It was a safer bet and I already had some experience as a consultant. This seemed the more conventional way to go. My hunch was telling me not to take it – but I did. But Dubai at the time was very young. Being a consultant is only as interesting as your clients and I have to say, my clients were not that interesting.’
In 2000, Atassi applied to work for Mars, which had built a factory to produce chocolate in Dubai; she was offered a different job to the one she applied for, finding herself on the operational side of business for the first time. She found it played to her skills.
‘I think I’m made for that kind of thing,’ she explains. ‘I loved operations and procurement. I managed a number of markets and was in charge of direct and indirect materials.’
In 2007, she decided to set up her own business – a consultancy firm for training and software around procurement and supply management.
‘With hindsight, there were a few mistakes in my execution,’ says Atassi. ‘The timing was wrong. There were a couple of accounts that were close to being signed, but the  recession materialised.
‘This was a male-dominated society. I walked into a boardroom of an oil company in Abu Dhabi to give a presentation on my software and it was a room full of men. One said to me:“where’s your team?” I was offended and replied“I am the team.” Had I taken a partner who was a male, who wore a suit, it might have worked better, but I have no regrets. Part of your success as a person is to accept these facts and deal with them because the world is not perfect.
‘Even if I had set up my company in the US or UK, I should have understood that my clients were not small businesses,’ she continues. ‘They were large corporates and to walk into these big organisations, you need to have an appropriate corporate image. You need to play the game: I had big plans but I didn’t act like a big deal – this had an impact.’
A couple of years later, in 2010, Citibank in Dubai invited Atassi to come on board for six months, a contract that became nine months and then a permanent job.
She says: ‘I loved it and I did damn well with them. I managed the Middle East and North Africa. I also co-managed Africa. My career was going well, but in 2014 it plateaued. I’d had a career path and I was worried about career progression.’
It was at this point that Atassi’s Syrian roots, and her immersion in the arts, through her parents, impacted directly on her career path. Like many ambitious business leaders, she came to realise that ‘sometimes life happens’, drawing you in a particular direction.
Due to the conflict in Syria, her parents had moved to Dubai in 2012. Her mother had been forced to close down her gallery in Damascus and had brought with her a sizeable collection of precious Syrian art and curiosities.
‘I wanted to keep an open mind and an open heart,’ says Atassi. ‘I’d lived with this [art] my entire life. My parent’s home had been a cultural saloon, full of playwrights, artists and moviemakers, so it was something I’d always had in my life.
‘We felt it was appropriate to counteract the narrative about the killing, blood and destruction in Syria, so we decided to put the collection online to show the world that Syria is a lot more than we see in the press. Syria is a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious country that has existed for thousands of years, in which people have lived together.’
The family had accumulated a sizeable collection of 500 pieces of artwork and decided to create a non-profit foundation to promote the artwork and the artistic production of Syrian artists all over the world.
Atassi explains: ‘We wanted to tell the stories over and over again, because we were privileged enough to do this,’ she says. ‘With privilege comes responsibility towards the environment, family, country and friends.
‘I’m privileged to have been able to go to Imperial College Business School. I felt like I lived in a bubble in Dubai – but I’m a normal person and when I feel strongly about something I find it hard to sit back and watch.’
The Atassi Foundation was incorporated in 2015. Dubai’s legal structure doesn’t allow the existence of not-for-profit organisations, so the company was registered in Lichtenstein and launched in March 2016.
‘It’s just me and my mum,’ says Atassi. ‘We have a small team and we work from home. We do everything from inventory and stock through to curating, marketing, launches, websites and making contacts.’
She adds: ‘I went against everything the Business School taught me and set up the business without a strategic plan. I just needed to start.’
Since its launch, The Atassi Foundation has collaborated with museums and leading art galleries in Dubai, Toronto and London. In Dubai, it produced the biggest Syrian art show of all time and has commissioned research into the Syrian Cultural field.
‘It’s been surreal,’ says Atassi. ‘But now, 14 months after launch, I’m taking a step back.
The first year was great in terms of PR – we set ourselves on the map. Anything that’s happening in the arena of Syrian arts and culture is landing on my lap, so I’m taking a step back, to re-strategise.
‘We need to think about funding,’ she admits. ‘We need to use our budget in the most sensible way. If we spend money in
the wrong place, we can’t replace this, so we want to build funds to do what we need to do.’
Does Atassi feel she made the right choice to forgo financial services for the world of art?
She considers the question carefully. ‘I don’t have a big ego,’ she says. ‘But I was developing this at Citibank – I didn’t recognise myself. I could have gone places with that career, but it felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes. At the time I wasn’t aware of that. It felt strange. Now, my commissioning committee and my board of directors are my parents and myself. I have teenage children. I’m able to do what I love.
‘I’m telling a story and it can’t get more personal. It’s my life story and the story of my mum’s art business. This is a beacon of culture. I’m talking about my country and I’m telling my story. I’m privileged because I can tell the story, but I’m just one of many people trying to tell it.’
She pauses again before adding: ‘I understand how humanitarian education and human development is a priority. We’re talking about millions of displaced Syrian people and I can’t begin to tell you about the level of hatred this war in Syria has created. It’s like opening a Pandora’s box of evil. But none of this [evil] has any relevance to Syrian people. ISIS has no relevance to us – they’re not home-bred. It’s out of our hands.
In spite of this she adds: ‘It just takes more people to do what we’re doing. I was speaking to a non-governmental organisation in Lebanon, setting up schools in the country. They’re doing marvellous things.
‘When you decide to do something like this – and I can’t decide whether I’m a social entrepreneur or a cultural patron – you’re taking a very uncalculated risk. You have no idea how your career is going to go. If I decided to go back into employment, what would I do? Where has this put me on the career map? I’ve spent 20 or more years working in a corporate environment.
‘No one in this part of the world sets up an art foundation. I didn’t know how it would be perceived. In Syria, entire streets were being wiped out and I was setting up an art foundation, but I’m doing this based on a very important conviction. Art and culture hold a mirror to society; they tell stories. There’s a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the artists themselves. They bring people together. In the situation we’re in it’s taken a completely different meaning.’
Given Atassi’s experience, her passion for art and the dramatic change from working in banking, to telling the world about the threatened artwork of Syria, virtually single-handedly, does she see herself as part of a new breed of ‘socially responsible’ MBA?
She says: ‘I don’t think there’s ever one-size-fits-all for an MBA graduate. We need capitalists, bankers and entrepreneurs in the world, but from my perspective, Business Schools needs to nurture an awareness among students. I came to an MBA to open doors, not knowing what doors I wanted to open. Business Schools are evolving like everything else.
‘When I went to Business School, the internet wasn’t available to everyone. The world was different, but we have to put everything into perspective in the right setting. Education doesn’t stop when you leave Business School, you always have to be on top of things or you’ll be left behind.’
So what is her advice for her MBA student and graduate peers?
‘In terms of thinking about investment for an MBA student, you’ll ask a lot of questions,’ she says. ‘Will the MBA open your eyes to things you’ve never considered doing before?
‘I think I listened to my head too much and not my heart. When I think about it, it was always open to me to join the art business, but I wanted to tick boxes on my own – it was my head and not my heart. I didn’t know any better then.
‘My advice is to dig deep and question yourself about why you’re doing things. Don’t get stuck in corporate stress – you could realise you’re on the wrong track.’
As our conversation comes to an end and Atassi considers the next chapter of her story, for herself and for Syria, she muses: ‘Where would we be if we weren’t optimistic. I’m not expecting miracles but I’m definitely optimistic.
‘What I’m doing is not selfless – it’s incredibly selfish. I’m buying myself back. I used to cry, but not anymore. I know I’m doing something worthwhile; I’m not changing the course of history; I’m not going to stop the war in Syria. I’m not going to remedy the agony of the mothers, the fathers or the children who have lost it all.
‘What I’m doing now doesn’t just excite me; it gives me the oomph and strength to make this work. It’s more than a challenge. What’s the worst that can happen to me [in Dubai]? We’ll still have food on the table.
‘I owe this to my children. If you ask them, they might not have a Syrian passport, but they’re Syrian. I owe it to me and I owe it to them.’
How Mumbai’s Athena School of Management aims to change the parameters of traditional management education in India
India’s burgeoning young and aspirational population ensures an ‘insatiable’ demand for quality business education, according to Aditya Singh, Director of Athena School of Management in Mumbai.
This underlines the importance of the place held by the country’s Business Schools in society, their responsibility towards it, and their potential to make an impact.
‘A good business programme is not only about a qualification,’ says Singh, cautioning against the ‘commoditisation of business education’.
In the following interview, with Business Impact’s Content Editor Tim Dhoul, Singh outlines the approach and ambitions of Athena School of Management, encompassing the importance it attaches to internships and experiential learning as well as the value of community work.
Demand for places at top Business Schools in India is high. Are there any particular qualities Athena looks for among its applicants?
The phrase we use constantly is ‘marks don’t make a business leader!’. While we do give weightage to academics and scores, we follow a profile-based admissions process.
We evaluate applicants equally on the basis of their extra-curricular achievements, including achievements in sport, social impact projects and volunteering activities, as well as their work experience and any prior international exposure. Most importantly, we evaluate their desire and hunger to succeed in making a positive and sustainable impact both in business and society.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing Business Schools in India and the surrounding region, in your opinion?
Indian Business Schools have to be extremely careful to avoid commoditisation of business education. A good business programme is not only about a qualification!
With a huge young and aspirational population below the age of 25, there is an insatiable demand for good education [in India]. However, it is critical that Business Schools keep their eye on the ball and realise that the final measure of our success is going to be borne out by the number of our graduates that excel in the corporate world and the world of business.
How many entrepreneurs are we truly able to create?! Business Schools have to create actual and tangible management and leadership skills among their students.
What do you think makes Athena’s Post-Graduate Programme in Management (PGPM) programme stand out from others that are available in India?
The Athena PGPM is designed to be an experiential-based pedagogy with a focus on real-world and practical learning. Our goal is to ‘positively impact the world through our students’.
The programme’s key features include: multiple internships with some of India’s top companies and startups; international immersion programmes across Europe, Asia and Canada; a faculty that includes top corporate leaders at CEO, Director and VP levels; a campus in Mumbai, the commercial capital of India; and small class sizes to ensure quality teaching and a keen focus on the students’ personality and soft skills.
Can you tell me how internships are incorporated into Athena’s PGPM programme and why the School places so much importance in them?
Internships are an integral and important part of the Athena PGPM. The programme includes a two-month long internship in each semester, which works out at a total of six to seven months of internships during the whole programme.
Interns are expected to implement their learnings from class, and to improvise and execute on a real-time basis. Each intern has a mentor attached from the company who guides them.
Alternatively, some students choose to pursue an international internship where they work with organisations in different geographies, along with understanding and appreciating different cultures and societies. Athena students have interned in different countries in Europe and Asia, including Italy, Turkey, Germany and Nepal.
Aside from internships, how else does the School facilitate experiential learning?
Experiential learning is a constant form of learning where the student is the ‘centre of gravity’ and the faculty are enablers and facilitators of learning rather disseminators of information. In order to facilitate, we include design thinking, action learning and project-based learning.
Students pursue live projects with companies and NGOs, case study competitions, multiple internships along with consulting assignments. Students also have to work with projects in the social sector and with non-profits in order to truly understand business impact at all levels of society.
Do you think that PGPM/MBA curricula should be developed in collaboration with employers?
At Athena, we believe that potential employers have an extremely important role to play in the design and implementation of our programme. We follow the end-user process of curriculum design in order to keep our modules relevant and at the cutting edge of business practice and innovation.
Inputs and guidance are taken from senior stakeholders representing potential recruiters along with roundtables and conclaves that are held to discuss the changing and rapidly evolving business environment.
Can you tell me a little bit about Athena’s international immersion modules?
Global exposure and cross-border learning experiences go a long way towards creating future global leaders. While the international immersions are not mandatory, an increasing number of students are embracing the opportunity.
This year, we have students travelling to Singapore, Germany, Canada and the US for modules on topics ranging from leadership and entrepreneurship to analytics and Industrial Revolution 4.0. The experience of studying at these global institutions as well as interacting and living with students from across the world is a truly life-enhancing experience.
I note that community service and personal development initiatives are actively encouraged at the School. Can you tell me of any programme requirements here and/or what options are available to students during the programme?
While prior experience in community and/or social development is not mandatory, it is preferred. At the School itself, we actively partner with organisations such as Rotary International, AIESEC, Rotaract and other NGOs to make a positive impact on society.
Athena is also an academic partner of the United Nations Global Compact which reinforces our vision to contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It is mandatory for all Athena students to complete at least one live project towards community/social development.
What are your hopes for the School in the next five years – what do you want to see happen?
Our vision is to challenge the limits and change the parameters of what traditional management education has been in India. We see trending areas in business education that include entrepreneurship, analytics and design thinking, and we wish to establish a centre of excellence in each of these.
We also hope to increase the trend of international students studying with us in Mumbai. The hope is that, in the next five years, an Athena business graduate can create value for their organisations or create their own venture anywhere in the world equipped with experiential and innovative learning, international exposure, and a desire to excel and contribute to society.
Is there anything you’d like to see change among Business Schools both in India and in the rest of the world?
In a rapidly changing socioeconomic context, we have to become nimbler and more flexible in delivering solutions to our students which are relevant to the business environment.
We need to be able to predict change effectively and stay ahead of the curve rather than playing catch up. Business Schools also need to shift focus from extremely theory-centric learning to practical and real-world learning while encouraging students to become change agents in their future organisations. We have to harness new technologies so that they can complement and, in some cases, supplement current learning methodologies.
Aditya Singh is the Director of Athena School of Management in Mumbai, where he currently teaches leadership and differential thinking. He has more than 15 years of experience across the corporate sector, consulting, entrepreneurship and academia. Aditya is a graduate of the Wharton School’s Accelerated Development Program (ADP) and holds an MBA (PGP-FMB) from the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai.
With Africa’s population projected to grow to 2.4 billion by 2050, there is an urgent need for the emergence of more social innovators, operating at scale, to address pressing problems in sectors from education and healthcare to employment and housing, writes Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli
Oiginally labelled the ‘dark continent’ and largely unknown to the rest of the world, Africa is now being described as the ‘last frontier’.
Following decades of slow and uneven economic growth, the average growth rate across African countries is estimated at 5%, and more than two-thirds of the countries in the region have enjoyed 10 or more years of uninterrupted growth.
The majority of the countries are recognised as democracies and internal and cross-border strife has diminished significantly. An average African woman’s life expectancy rate has risen from 41 in 1960 to 57 years in 2017, and more than 70% of children are in school, compared to around 40% in 1970. Many of these advances can be linked to the work of a growing number of passionate and committed social innovators: individuals who have identified novel solutions to the continent’s most pressing problems that are affecting the masses. These innovators operate in the public, private and non-profit sectors and are concentrated in the health, education and energy landscapes, with a growing number emerging in financial services, agriculture and sanitation.
Their work is being propelled by the rapid advances in mobile technology, which facilitates mobile health, mobile education, payment systems and mobile money. In addition, they are gradually being supported by a range of initiatives including innovation accelerators, hubs, prizes, and fellowships.
The most popular Africa-based social enterprises include the African Leadership Academy and African Leadership University, Ashesi University, Bridge International Academies, One Acre Fund, Riders for Health and Sanergy. These organisations have received numerous local and global awards and prizes for their pioneering efforts, and have strong links to the international community, which has provided funding and support for their work.
There is also a growing number of organisations operating on the African Continent, which are essentially home-grown initiatives with minimal global recognition. They include:
Challenges faced by social innovators
Social innovators operating on the African continent face challenges that are not unique to Africa, but are often more severe, with higher stakes. My interviews with more than 80 African social innovators have raised four critical shared challenges:
Prerequisites for success
All social innovators need to invest in critical building blocks for success – rooted in sound management principles: clear missions, visions, and values. However, there are at least four prerequisites to establishing successful social innovations in the African context which deserve significant attention.
1 Compelling business models: Social innovators need to develop compelling business models, defined by six critical components: demand driven, measurable impact, simple, engages the community, leverages technology and low-cost. These six components differentiate initiatives which die at the pilot phase or when the donor funding ends, from initiatives that are sustainable and able to achieve scale, spanning communities and even countries. Innovations that are demand driven essentially meet the needs of individuals, who value the product or service and are willing to contribute their time and financial resources, regardless of how minimal, to obtain them. In addition, the innovators have determined the most cost-effective approaches to deliver at scale and developed effective systems and structures to support their scaling effort. They often use simple payment mechanisms using mobile technology and support from microfinance partners, where applicable. These tools are highly dependent on a robust data – tracking system to gauge impact and usage. Two examples from the energy sector that demonstrate the power of demand-driven and sustainable business models are M-KOPA Solar and Off Grid Electric, which both operate in East Africa. They provide solar solutions to more than 550,000 households using a pay-as-you go model, and have demonstrated the tremendous potential at the bottom of pyramid
2 Talent for scaling: Talent on the African Continent remains a huge constraint for all growth sectors given the weak education systems and the global opportunities that are available to the best and brightest. As a result, every social innovator needs to invest in attracting and retaining a dream team composed of mission-driven high achievers. They also need to invest in recruiting a committed and independent board of directors, and engage volunteers, short-term consultants, and fellows. Organisations such as EDUCATE! In Uganda and Sanergy in Kenya, have designed and implemented creative strategies for attracting, retaining, and developing talent. They have also invested in building a culture of innovation and excellence, which attracts individuals from the private sector to their organisations.
They offer tailored training programmes, travel fellowships and significant job responsibilities for their team members and have also developed modular approaches for scaling talent.
3 Funding for Innovation: There is a broad range of financing options available to social innovators in Africa, depending on whether they operate for-profit, nonprofit or hybrid organisations. These financing options range from fee-for-service and cross subsidisation to externally generated funds such as grants, awards, fellowships, challenge funds, crowdfunding, impact investments and loans. In addition, the funding landscape, especially for impact investments, has expanded dramatically over the past 10 years, with cities such as Nairobi hosting more than 60 impact investment funds and other investment vehicles, where only a few existed 15 years ago. In-spite of the plethora of funds, most local social innovators struggle to obtain financing for their ventures, while funders complain that they cannot find initiatives that are investment ready. Indeed, external funders are only interested in engaging with organisations that have strong credibility, governance structures, financial management systems and controls and can demonstrate the ability to use the funds to achieve results.
Social innovators operating in Africa have obtained financing work diligently to establish and communicate a strong business case and theory of change, backed by sound data that establishes a clear need and sustainable demand. They also amplify their impact work through creative communication strategies to raise broad-based awareness and effectively differentiate themselves. In addition, they demonstrate strong transparent systems and structures, a culture of ethics and accountability, attractive return on investment ratios and exit options for impact investors, where applicable.
4 Partnerships with key stakeholders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors: Social innovators cannot achieve impact and scale without cross-sector collaborations, rooted in shared values and a desire to achieve collective impact. This is especially relevant in highly regulated sectors such as health and education.
Sadly, there are few examples of partnerships in the African context, largely linked to significant distrust among actors, the intense competition for the perceived ‘small pie’ of resources and support structures and the fear of giving up control. Partnerships are also challenging in an environment where there is a high level of bureaucracy and red tape within government institutions which ordinarily should serve as catalysts for collaborations and innovations. In reality, social innovators who successfully collaborate in this context, actively map the ‘ecosystem’, determining which stakeholders can serve as champions, opponents or even beneficiaries. They then develop strategies for interfacing with all key actors, proactively shaping their ecosystems and forming strategic cross-sector collaborations that foster impact and scaling.
Preparing for The future
With Africa’s population projected to grow to 2.4 billion by 2050 – more than 70% under the age of 30 years old, with 60% in cities and towns – there is an increasing need for the emergence of more social innovators, operating at scale. These individuals will essentially need to develop creative and innovative solutions in education, healthcare, employment, sanitation, security, electricity, transportation, and housing to meet the needs of the people.
The social innovators will need also need critical leadership and management skills, as well as the talent, financing and partnerships required to surmount the obstacles they will face to pilot and scale interventions.
Indeed, Business Schools in Africa and around the globe will have to play a critical role in preparing this next generation of social entrepreneurs and innovators.
The Bertha Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town is just one example of the numerous institutions in Africa and across the globe that are working to inspire, empower, and equip the social innovators.
I am convinced that the ability of more social innovators to pilot, establish and scale their initiatives to solve Africa’s most pressing problems will transform the continent and continue to ensure that Africa progresses from the last frontier to the brightest continent over the next decade.
Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, Harvard MBA 1999; Wharton Undergrad 1995 is a serial social entrepreneur based in Lagos Nigeria. She is the founder of LEAP Africa – www.leapafrica.org, co-founder of AACE Foods Processing & Distribution Ltd. – www.aacefoods.com and co-founder of Sahel Consulting & Advisory Ltd – www.sahelcp.com. She is the author of – Social Innovation in Africa: A Practical Guide for Scaling Impact, published by Routledge in 2016.