Celebrating young leaders

Business Impact: Celebrating young leaders

Celebrating young leaders

Business Impact: Celebrating young leaders
A former AMBA MBA Student of the Year offers a case study in pursuing a career with impact, as described by the European Young Leaders programme on the occasion of its 10th anniversary

Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke is a British CEO and a towering figure in the world of women’s empowerment and information technology. She is also the founder of the Women’s WorldWide Web (W4.org) an online crowdfunding platform dedicated to protecting girls’ and women’s empowerment around the world, as well as promoting human rights and access to technology.

A member of the European Young Leaders (EYL40) network since 2012, Nefesh-Clarke has contributed to many policy discussions in Brussels, and brought women’s technological empowerment to the fore. Led by the think tank Friends of Europe, the European Young Leaders (EYL40) programme brings talented, established leaders that are aged 40 and under together each year. These are leaders who have made their mark in a wide range of fields including politics, science, media, NGOs, the arts and civil society as well as business.

Catalysing empowerment

To celebrate this year marking the 10th anniversary of the European Young Leaders programme, Nefesh-Clarke was selected for her inimitable feats in advancing girls’ and women’s rights and empowerment. It all started in Bangladesh, where Nefesh-Clarke embarked on an IT entrepreneurial adventure. There, she trained with Grameen Bank, founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, and studied the Grameen microfinance model’s impact on remote Bangladeshi villages. Inspired by Grameen ‘telephone ladies’’ leading of a wave of telecommunications connectivity via mobile phones purchased through microloans, Nefesh-Clarke decided to pursue a similar career in women’s empowerment through IT and further a fight she described as “really connecting Bangladesh to the digital era.”

“By harnessing ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) we can really catalyse girls’ and womens’ empowerment, and catalyse positive change. ICTs can yield vast benefits for girls and women, in terms of providing them with opportunities and resources. Of course, that requires access to ICTs, that’s on the one hand. And then today in our digital age, we have an unprecedented opportunity to advance girls’ and women’s rights and their empowerment.”

From MBA Student of the Year to pioneering access to IT training

Nefesh-Clarke has previously worked with Human Rights Watch, UNICEF and Enfants d’Asie. An executive MBA alumna of ESCP Europe, she received the MBA Student of the Year award from BGA’s sister organisation, the Association of MBAs (AMBA) in 2009. In 2016, Lindsey was selected as a Young Entrepreneur and member of the French delegation to participate in the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance Summit in Beijing. She has also been named a Woman in IT Role Model (European Commission), InspiringFifty female leader in Europe’s technology sector, and is the Simone Award recipient for the year 2020. She is now a board member of Women’s Economic Imperative and advisor of UN Women France.

She occupies the role of senior fellow for Friend of Europe’s Connected Europe programme. Today, she continues her pioneering work to provide girls and women in Kenya and also in rural Maasai land with access to IT skills training. W4.org is currently partnering with EmpServe, a youth-centred organisation, to implement training programmes which encompass basic and advanced IT skills and social entrepreneurship.

To today’s female IT graduates, Nefesh-Clarke is more hopeful than she has ever been. “This was a very challenging period for you, just emerging from a global pandemic, and you persevered, you were dedicated, you were assiduous. And today we were able to celebrate you […] But I hope this is just the beginning of your tech journey.”

Led by the think tank Friends of Europe, the European Young Leaders (EYL40) programme brings talented, established leaders that are aged 40 and under together each year.

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Gender means business: how to create real and sustainable gender equality


Making the case for the incorporation of gender measures into the study of business and the practice of entrepreneurship. Gender Rise’s Yael Nevo draws on lessons from her work with LSE’s entrepreneurial arm

Beyond the ample evidence clearly proving that gender equality and diversity (as well as other forms of diversity) lead to better businesses, I believe that it is crucial to the survival of our society, environment and the sustainability of life as we know it. To achieve this, we need to treat this issue just as we address any other business goal.

LSE Generate supports students and alumni in building socially responsible businesses in the UK and beyond, providing the infrastructure to develop and scale brilliant startups. I started my collaboration with Generate’s Head, LJ Silverman in 2018, while she was looking to set an example for gender equality and diversity and create a clear strategy for the programme as they develop, and expand their international presence.

In order to ensure that LSE’s programme is able to not only be clear on its actions but also gain consistency and sustainability moving forward, we created the LSE Generate Gender-Sensitive Code of Conduct (the Code). This document includes the programme’s values, vision, its connection to stakeholders, and most importantly, a clear action plan. The Code is a living-breathing mechanism that is subject to review and change. The version that you can see in the link above is a new one, following its recent review.

Impact of a clear action plan on gender

Since the creation of the Code more than 3 years ago, LSE Generate has developed exponentially. It grew from a staff of two to a staff of about 20, plus many ambassadors and collaborators across the globe. It runs several accelerators, funding competitions, regular events, mentoring and business support, and opened international hubs in 11 countries and counting.

Within the first year of the creation of the Code, some of LSE Generate’s achievements were:

  • 50/50 gender balance among its:
    • Board of Directors
    • Accelerator programme participants
    • Funding competition judges
    • Events speakers
  • Doubling the targeted funding from LSE, donors, and investors
  • Specific gender focus in its international hubs
  • Proud winners of two national awards for inclusive innovations:
    • National Enterprise Network Award for Innovation in Education
    • National Enterprise Educators UK

Since January 2021, I’ve been serving as Generate’s inhouse Gender Equality Advisor, delivering regular training in its various accelerators, participating in events, supporting the staff in their day-to-day gender challenges and monitoring the Code on a regular basis.

This work could help provide other institutions and organisations with an example of best practice, demonstrating how gender equality and diversity can be created and what it takes to bring about sustainable and long-lasting achievements, namely:

  • Commitment from leadership
  • Clear and measurable strategy based on expert knowledge
  • Accountability

‘The work has allowed us to embed gender equality into the very DNA of our programming so that it is the default position when anyone in the team organises a single event or a new series of initiatives. Ensuring our various commitments are baked in from the get-go rather than sprinkled over as we go along, sends a message to our stakeholders – be that students or staff – of the importance that we place on the subject. That we walk the talk and that we believe fully that by doing so, change can happen.’

LJ Silverman, Head of LSE Generate

With these elements in place, and LSE Generate’s achievements so far, we are now looking to the next stage of growth and international impact by launching an investor’s initiative that will bring about practical solutions and commitment, based on founder’s experience, to address the gender gap in the venture capital (VC) industry.

Inaction enforces a masculine model

To recognise how crucial this work is, we need to understand that the public sphere at large, and the business world more specifically, has been designed in the image of men, and in many ways is still attentive to their needs and views. What we perceive as ‘normal’, is in fact gendered.

Our current world and the acute problems we are currently facing is a direct result of having the bulk of power, decision making and access to resources at the hands of one gender group, and often of one race and social class as well. To solve the tremendous challenges we are facing, we need everybody at the table.

The masculine image on which the business world has been designed is an old one. Not only that it does not match our progressive social mindset and the reality of the incorporation of women and LGBTQI+ persons in every part of the professional world, but also, in many ways it does not serve men anymore.

Therefore, the incorporation of gender strategy, policy and training in Business Schools and entrepreneurial programmes is vital to the creation of gender equality and diversity in business and beyond. If we don’t actively engage in this work, we are, in fact, enforcing a model that is not neutral, but masculine in its essence. By integrating this topic, we can build healthy foundations, instead of solving problems further down the line. Without it, serious problems are likely to come.

My work with LSE Generate serves as evidence of what can be achieved when working towards gender equality, and when diversity is taken seriously and addressed with strategy and accountability. Imagine what will happen when others join.

Gender policy applications for Business Schools

What does the incorporation of gender measures in Business Schools and entrepreneurship programme mean exactly?

  • Strategy – identify your own internal gender gaps (staff representation, pay, communication, recruitment, retainment etc.), then create an action plan based on measurable benchmarks
  • Policy and culture – make changes and create policies to address your identified gaps (for example, blind recruitment, quotas, longer paternity leave, flexi-work etc.), make them known to all stakeholder and have leadership set an example
  • Training – engage with facts, discuss the various causes for current gaps and trends, and explore practical solution that engage with the core reasons of these issues
  • Accountability – make your commitment known, review and report on your progress, celebrate success and address challenges to find new solutions

By incorporating gender measures into Business Schools and entrepreneurship programmes, we are doing much more than creating room at the table for underrepresented groups. With this work, we are building solid foundations on which we can move away from destruction towards sustainable creation. It is a work of hope.

Yael Nevo (She/Her) is a Gender Consultant and Founding Director of Gender Rise, helping companies and organisations achieve sustainable gender equality and diversity through strategy, policy and training.

Sharing stories to empower women worldwide

The CEO of female empowerment platform, Smart Girl Tribe, talks about her entrepreneurial journey to redefine the media’s take on womanhood and to offer a resource through which women can share and access narratives that resonate and inspire

Harvard University is ostentatious,
majestic and a pioneer of education and in the autumn of 2019, I was there about
to speak at its largest annual conference as a ‘female empowerment expert’.
Having only just returned from Tanzania, quickly followed by Switzerland for
another speaking gig, you would think I was fatigued yet, as I studied my speech
notes, I thought about the unconventional journey it had taken to build a
fully-fledged business at the age of only 19, everything that had been required
to realise my dream and how far, collectively, the team had come.

Since grafting from a dorm room as
that wide-eyed teenager, Smart Girl Tribe has grown to boast a top-rated
podcast, an event series with the BBC and a published book.  My job involves arming women with the tools
and knowledge to live freely as their most authentic selves. As CEO of a
leading UK female empowerment organisation, it is easy to focus on the triumphs,
such as moving and making it as a journalist in New York, or walking the famous
British Vogue corridors – but there is a lot more to the story than this.  

Women deserved more

When I was growing up, women’s
magazines were only promoting three topics: body image, intimate relationships
and boyfriends. Desperate to be a writer, I struggled to accept the internships
I was offered as I didn’t follow the same ethos as these magazines. Women
deserved more from the media, an outlet to concentrate on mental health,
confidence, social issues affecting women and tangible ways to become the people
we are destined to be. At what price was my dream going to cost?

It was during a summer holiday in my
hometown in Italy that I had a monumental conversation with my mother and decided
to create my own magazine. Being in rural Le Marche, I had no internet or phone
connection and having spent the majority of my time at university in the
library striving to be an academic – no valuable mentor or real friends.
Persevering, I contacted my entire email list asking if anyone knew someone who
could help me build a website. After three months of designing and writing the
first few articles myself, the launch date was set with a Twitter account set
up to promote my endeavour. Within three days of launching, we had more than 40
applications from writers requesting to contribute to Smart Girl Tribe. At that
very moment, I knew we were onto something and realised how many smart girls
like me existed but didn’t have a platform to inspire, educate or entertain

Know your mission

Women were worth more
than what they were being sold. Major magazines perpetually had us buy into the
idea that we are not enough, they continued to undermine our intelligence and
innate power. Someone had to change the system, someone had to do something, and then I realised I
am ‘someone’. It was crucial for all women to have a
safe space online to lend a voice to the female experience. Even when having a
bad day with Smart Girl Tribe I wasn’t prepared to jeopardise its mission – to
redefine the media’s take on womanhood. We didn’t focus on the directions other
publications were following but stayed true to our subject matter – becoming
the change we wanted to see in the world and developing an all-inclusive
platform for every woman. As a result, we have worked with some incredible
organisations, including UN Women, HeforShe, Women for Women International and

Be obsessed

demands everything from you. You have to eat it, breathe it and live it. Being
an entrepreneur can also be risky, but not going after your dreams is even
riskier. During my final years at university, I began recording
my lectures purely because I would end up drafting ideas for Smart Girl Tribe
during them. Coding was initially a foreign language to me, but not having the
funds or investment to support my venture meant I had to learn everything
myself. In one day, I could find myself being editor, writer, proofreader, speaker,
photographer, model, activist, graphic designer and web developer. The
entrepreneurial life in itself can bring many challenges – it’s not about being
the smartest or the most experienced, it’s about being the one who can hold on
for the longest.

excuses at the door

I didn’t have an economics degree, business qualification or
experience when setting up Smart Girl Tribe. Its foundation was built on its
core principles, a strong mission and tenacity. At the end of the day, if you
don’t have the answers, Google does. You will either find a way or an excuse. My
approach to Smart Girl Tribe has never changed. How do you build a house? From
the ground up. I never focused on white noise, such as our following or how
pretty our site was, I homed in on the only trait I knew would help me get to
where I wanted to be – my hustle.

Know your audience and the times

For some businesses, the priority is
the client or customer. For us, it was our readers and later, listeners.
Getting ready to launch, I constructed the Smart Girl Tribe reader – their age,
hobbies, shopping tendencies and even minute details such as what she drinks,
who her friends are and where she travels to. We knew the reader inside and out,
so with every conflicting decision that appeared we could come back to that
same question – what would the smart girl want? Times have evolved but the
readership has remained committed. Everything we have created was a response to
what our tribe has asked for.

Max your dream

Women have been conditioned to shrink themselves
and apologise for taking up space.Smart Girl Tribe is essentially a
personal development community for women where they can heal, grow and become. Despite
its astounding growth, for years, I kept this platform to my dorm room, rarely
talking about it, even to friends and family, out of fear. It wasn’t until I
entered adulthood that I realised the detrimental effect this attitude would
have. Seeking validation or permission from anyone can only hinder and hurt, it
never helps. Indeed, one woman rising gives other women the courage to rise too,
so I started maxing my dreams and building everything on a larger scale. This
is how I have been able to work with international organisations and received
invitations to speak all over the world.

Smart Girl Tribe, the platform, has
served as a great terrain to share stories. They were always the fixture
throughout the journey – the magazine, podcast, events and book have really
always just been channels to feature narratives that resonate with people on a
deeply personal level. Often, we don’t want to be vulnerable or show struggle
but Smart Girl Tribe has been the quiet ally that says: ‘you are not alone’.

Scarlett V Clark is CEO and Founder of Smart Girl
Tribe and author of The Smart Girls Handbook (Trigger 2021).

Being a woman leader: ‘man – I feel like a woman’

In 2020, we should be creating organisations where all genders can thrive without adopting the dominant male stereotype, argues Veronica Hope Hailey

I went to university to study for my undergraduate degree in 1975, the same year in which the UK’s first Sex Discrimination Act was passed and the country’s Equality Opportunities Commission was established.

When I entered the world of business, I believed that ability, competence and hard work would get you where you wanted to go. I did not know what I wanted to do and was content that my own lack of direction might be a self-crafted obstacle. I did not believe my gender was going to be a problem. After all, we had an Act of Parliament to protect us against gender discrimination. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m sure I wasn’t conscious of it at that time, but looking back over my career I agree with Margaret Heffernan’s book, The Naked Truth, in which she says: ‘Being smart and working hard are entry-level requirements. But they won’t protect you from the weird experience of being a businesswoman in a world that remains dominated by men and their values. The companies we see today were built by men for men. Reluctantly, grudgingly, women were granted access – at first just to lowly positions but, when self-interest was served, to more powerful positions. We called this “progress”. But everything comes at a price. The price was that we had to behave in ways that men could be comfortable with: we mustn’t frighten them, threaten them, usurp them, or in any way disturb their universe.’

Maintaining perspective

As one reaches the top levels of management, these words remain true; perhaps even more so. Despite working in a seemingly more liberal non-corporate environment than most senior women, I still have the experience of walking into some meetings, dinners or board summits to find myself the only woman in the room. Or, if there are other women there, we are still a significant minority. 

‘Mansplaining’ remains rife. If you don’t know what this word means, Google the feminist author, Rebecca Solnit, who says, ‘men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologised for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t’. In the face of mansplaining, I find there is the risk that in sticking up for myself with evidence of greater knowledge, I will be seen as difficult, or boastful, rather than more experienced.

So what helps me persist? A sense of the absurd, a sense of perspective and a sense of humour are important qualities for any senior manager. I also have the blessing of a large family and the most unlikely feminist husband one could encounter who has been 100% supportive of me as a person, whether I want to be a mother, a rodeo rider or a vicar. He is my greatest critic and my greatest friend. 

I am very fortunate to have another life to fall back into when persisting seems too hard in a very male senior environment. This ‘other life’ has not only been a source of comfort for me, but also a rich source of leadership development. I have built the majority of my personal resilience through dealing with tragedies and challenges in my personal life. At an early age, I was forced into needed, but unexpected, leadership roles that later equipped me brilliantly, at a psychological level, with the mental strength required to be a dean. 

If I returned home stressed or moaning, my husband often asked: ‘Did anyone die, Vron?’ Of course, my answer was always ‘no’, to which he would reply, ‘well, it’s been a good day then’. Dear women readers – do not write off experiences in your personal spheres as tangential to your development and suitability for leadership.

Challenging bias

Leadership can be a lonely and exposed place for anyone, but it can be particularly so for those who find themselves in a minority. In addition, some of the pioneering women leaders of my generation have only succeeded, as Margaret Heffernan describes, by developing a Margaret Thatcher-like carapace as part of their leadership style, taking on extreme versions of the dominant male stereotype. This does not really tackle the problem and, even if women take on these extreme characteristics, they will still never gain entry to the ‘boys club’.

Instead, those of us who are even modestly senior must try to maintain a sense of our true self, use our positions to promote the cause of the next generation of women, and challenge bias (whether conscious or unconscious) when we see it. We also need to ensure that the new constellation of female stars have leadership development opportunities that enable them to achieve their full potential while maintaining an authenticity around their own set of values. 

I feel very strongly that, in 2020, we can, and should, expect our senior male colleagues to call out sexist behaviour not ‘for’ us but ‘with’ us. Men – don’t hide behind comforting words such as your ‘concern’ about the numbers of women in leadership roles. Do something about making those roles and teams healthy places for women to join.

I am hopeful that the paths taken by my five daughters and their friends will be easier than mine, and I want to support their career journeys so that they are increasingly able to develop organisations that have been created by men and women as places in which all genders can thrive. For me, ‘thriving’ would mean that my daughters and their partners could flourish in their workplaces without having to do daily combat with unconsciously held, but biased, expectations on how the two main sexes might contribute or should behave.

Veronica Hope Hailey is University Vice President for External Engagement at the University of Bath and the former Dean of the University of Bath School of Management.

Applying original thinking to business

Business Schools must encourage independent thinking and bravery in their students to help prevent future financial crises, says Fiona Devine OBE, Head of Alliance Manchester Business School. Interview by Jack Villanueva and David Woods-Hale

What were the key points of your presentation at AMBA’s 2018 Global Conference for Deans and Directors? 

I wanted us all to reflect on the global financial crisis of 2008 because the causes and consequences of that crisis are still being felt today and will be for some time. 

I wanted us to think about its impact on the world with a particular focus on leadership and management education. We have to produce the leaders of tomorrow who still take issues of corporate governance very seriously. There are many examples in the business world and in all aspects of life in which we have to think about fraud, accountability, corporate governance and how we address those issues. 

In light of that, how do you think Business Schools should be preparing MBAs to be leaders of tomorrow?  

Business Schools should be producing well-rounded people. By that, I mean people who understand business in the wider context – the social, economic and political environments in which businesses are operating. 

They need to understand this external environment as well as the environments of the organisations in which they’re working.
I think business leaders of the future need to understand how to manage change, how to lead change, and how to deal with risk and uncertainty. 

How can we be sure that the skills that are currently being taught are the right tools to safeguard against another financial crisis?

We’ll only know that when there isn’t another one. 

I don’t suppose we’ll never have crises in the future. But there should be people who will have the independence of mind to step up and say when there is uncertainty about issues. It doesn’t have to be a big crisis for people to draw attention to something. It’s about having the independence of mind and the courage and bravery to say something different – and not be part of group think. It’s about reflecting on and challenging things that come along if they don’t feel right. 

Do you think MBAs are being taught the necessary skills to succeed? 

I would hope so, as a Business School Dean. They will be taught what’s needed if the curriculum is up to date. An old curriculum doesn’t serve anybody, so we want an academic community that is abreast of the latest developments in the world of business and how it’s changing; and always bringing theory and practice together. 

Our strapline in the Business School in Manchester is ‘original thinking applied’ and it is really about defining theory and practice. Theory is often speculative and not grounded; it’s about connecting this to practice and this is very important and I know that many Business School Deans aspire to achieve it. 

How important is the continuation of learning after achieving an MBA? 

It’s hugely important. We all talk about it and we know that in a world of change, risk and uncertainty, it’s important to have the space to step out of your organisation, find a platform to talk to people about issues and challenges and get advice. 

Executive education and continuing professional development provide that space for you to do that. It’s easy when you’re in an organisation to think you’re the only person facing these problems and you’re the one who has to come up with novel solutions, but often when you join an executive education programme you’ll find yourself confronting similar dilemmas and challenges so it’s good to have those conversations and join that collective discussions about the best ways forward. 

In what ways have Business Schools adapted sustainable leadership into their programmes? 

Sustainable leadership is to do with resources and how you use them efficiently and effectively for the long term. One of our preoccupations is with environmental sustainability – but there are other forms – and in Manchester we have scholars working in this area. 

For example, there are lots of discussions at the moment about the need to move to a low-carbon future, but how do organisations get there? It’s a huge transition, especially if you’re a dominant player in a particular market. How do we get there? This has to be a core part of the curriculum [in Business Schools] whether it’s in the MBA or electives on specialist masters or undergraduate programmes. There’s a high demand for these programmes from students. 

What are some of the innovative teaching methods being used to prepare the leaders of tomorrow? 

Teaching has changed considerably over the past 10-20 years, most notably because of new technology. The days when you would go into a lecture for an hour of being talked at, as a passive audience member, are long gone. 

Technology has allowed us to do amazing things in the classroom and that learning engages students a lot more. It’s not about passive learning, even in large lectures. Material can be presented in innovative ways, using apps and gamification, to help people learn and think in active ways. 

Is the need for innovation a major challenge that Business Schools face? 

Like any other organisation, Business Schools have to think about change, evolution and relevance. Business Schools have to be useful to the business world, serving local as well as international communities. 

The biggest challenge is the politics of today – will the world remain as international as it has been for the past 20 years? Will we embrace people of all nationalities moving around the world and studying at Business Schools? Will people still feel comfortable to do this as the politics of the world changes? 

Which is the bigger issue for Business Schools: the volatile economic environment or barriers to student mobility? 

International mobility is important, not only for the Business School world but education in general. The academic world has enjoyed a surge of interest from students coming to Business Schools from all around the world and it would be shame if we lost that confidence people have to travel. 

We’ve got to think about keeping students up to date with current debates about politics, looking at international relations in terms of trade, how countries collaborate with each other, and all those sorts of issues. These are important for understanding businesses and what happens in the business world.

What innovations have you seen in Business Schools that have the potential to change the way businesses do things? 

There are lots of things out there and even as a Dean of a Business School, you hardly know the breadth of innovations happening in your own School. 

I’ve been interested in knowledge-transfer partnerships, in which Schools work with organisations. I have a number of colleagues working with legal companies at the moment, around legal tech. They’re exploring changes happening with legal technologies, how that’s disrupting the legal world and also how data is disrupting this sector, in the same way as fintech has disrupted the finance sector. 

Academics are bringing their expertise to the areas of solving business problems and helping companies through this. It’s important to be useful. 

How can a Business add value to a corporate with which it’s working? 

There are many ways we can work with corporates. Business Schools act as a platform to bring people together to discuss important topics. 

Manchester Alliance Business School recently held a talk on the industrial strategy in the UK, bringing people together to talk about this. What was gratifying about this event was that people were sharing business cards with each other. We can be a place where big ideas are discussed and we can bring solutions to problems as well.

Fiona Devine OBE is Head of Alliance Manchester Business School and Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester. 

Creating a beacon of culture in the darkness of war

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 [2008] 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.’ 

The field of change

Nino Zambadhikze, MBA graduate and Head of the Georgian Farmers Association, talks about her career journey, current goals and the need for greater investment in women in business

Nino Zambadhikze, Head of the Georgian Farmers Association, completed her MBA at Grenoble École Management in 2016 and was selected by the World Economic Forum as one of the most innovative and social-minded leaders under 40. In an interview with David Woods-Hale, she talks about her career journey, her current goals and the need for greater investment in women in business.

Tell us about your career so far

Shortly after I graduated from the Humanitarian-Technical Faculty at Tbilisi Technical University, I went to New York to further my studies and took up a course in marketing.

I decided to launch my first business in the US. I took out a bank loan to buy up GAP jeans and send them to Georgia where my father’s friend was selling them in his shop. However, my father’s friend vanished, and I discovered there was no shop. This was my first failure.

I also recall becoming angry with my country. But I knew that if you jumped on a plane and flew just a few hours, an absolutely different life awaited. This was the biggest motivating factor in becoming an entrepreneur. 

After returning to Georgia, I still had to pay back the $20,000 loan I had in the US. My family had to sell everything in order to pay the money. These hard times lasted for almost a year, but in 1998, I started working as an interpreter for a Greek businessman operating in Georgia. I learned a lot from my employer; however, problems quickly arose as the businessman was forced to leave Georgia.

I found a job at an audit company in Tbilisi, where I met Beso Babunashvili, my eventual business partner. We started to export non-ferrous metals from Georgia and also opened a coffee house. In 2005, we launched the first three take-away coffee booths in Tbilisi.

One day in 2007, Beso went to Akhaltsikhe and bought two cows. This led us to launch a cheese production business. We submitted an application to the Millennium Challenge project and received US$125,000 in funding. Then I moved from Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe and opened a farm. We created an agricultural company which is mostly in the milk-processing business, as well as animal-husbandry and food processing.

What does a typical day at the Georgian Business Zone look like for you?

I had already started my work with the Georgian Business Zone when I met Petre Tsiskarishvili, the Minister of Agriculture at that time. I told him I wanted to buy highly productive cows and start producing cheese. With the funds from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, we started to build a milk-processing plant. The only problem was that we couldn’t find a technician with modern knowledge in milk processing and cheese production. So I travelled to Turkey to study the profession, and also became a food safety manager. 

When September came, the cows stopped producing milk. I thought the cattle needed fodder, so I took out another loan to build a fodder-producing plant. But it turned out that the problem was due to the genetics of the cows. We eventually built our farm with the help of the Cheap Credit Programme and now produce 400kg of cheese daily. We have 100 cows, 70 hectares of agricultural land, 300 hectares of pasture fields, a five-hectare apple orchard, and a fish farm too.

Mornings start very early in Tsnisi. After breakfast, I start to make the rounds at my businesses. After that, I go to my office where I take care of clerical tasks. In the evenings, I visit my friends and we drink coffee and talk. Days are long travelling from Akhaltsikhe to Tbilisi and back.

Tell us about your involvement with Invest For The Future (IFTF)

I am an Honourable Country Coordinator of IFTF for Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Greece. IFTF was designed to focus on improving the economic situation for women across Southern and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and was initiated by the US Department of State. The IFTF brought women together to foster development and overcome barriers of gender inequality. I believe that while women are doing a lot of work, they are not being recognised properly.

Women’s talent needs to be discovered. At the Farmer’s Association, we feature stories about new projects on our Facebook page, and magazines also feature stories about our members. I think increasing their visibility will increase their sense of responsibility, which will result in their success. This is important because women’s participation in business helps economic growth, but it’s being overlooked in the region.

Furthermore, employed women are predominantly in low-paying sectors and the gender pay gap is high. I believe this can be changed by promoting women’s entrepreneurship by boosting access to finance for female-led businesses, improving local banks’ ability to serve the female market and help female entrepreneurs’ access business advice.

What were the highlights of your MBA and how has it changed your career trajectory?

I believe there are three key components for success: take risks, have willpower and, to some to extent, consider every failure a success. My MBA taught me how to use theoretical knowledge, how to learn from my mistakes, the importance of time management, and how to achieve my goals.

My goals include increasing agricultural productivity, defending farmers’ rights, developing legislative proposals in the field of agriculture, and strengthening farmers’ social and economic conditions. My MBA can help me to achieve these goals.

As for how my MBA changed my career trajectory, I started watching out for opportunities which come with the constantly changing business environment. This made me more self-confident and a more competitive businesswoman.

What was the most useful thing your MBA taught you?

The most important skills you can acquire in Business School are the abilities to adapt, make the right decisions, become a real leader, and learn how to be a good in business. I reached a new level of confidence in my ability to make a decision with limited information. I learned that the difference between a great idea and great change is in the execution, but the person who comes up with a great idea is just as important.

The MBA is a pathway to global leadership – how do you address the cultural challenges?

As cross-cultural management compares organisational behaviour across countries and cultures and seeks to understand how to improve interaction around the world, I want to reduce the cross-cultural differences and raise awareness of these, in order to have better communication and cooperation in the workplace. To do this, employees have to know each other’s cultures and languages. This keeps employees integrated within the organisation so they cooperate with each other and attain shared goals.

It’s necessary to recognise different business cultures across the globe too. Every country follows a different management style and so managers have to take into consideration the key elements of each country, such as its religion and history.

How do you ensure your messages get to the right people in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment?

In a fast-moving world, the challenge is to retain a clear vision of what you want to achieve. This vision should be flexible in responding to unfolding situations but hold a consistent message. This means you need to be ready for change. Change is about survival but is especially necessary in organisations that wish to prosper in a VUCA environment.

Therefore, the question is what you are going to do to initiate change? What role are you going to assume? If you play the right role, then you and your organisation will survive for as long as the environment tolerates that role. A successful leader knows which role to play at what time, and knows when to change roles.

As people communicate in different ways, marketplaces are becoming busier and silos develop. How would you address this in business?

Execution of a project is the result of thousands of decisions made every day by top management. However, the right decision is one that can guarantee a long stay in the marketplace by ensuring maximum satisfaction of the consumer’s demands.

Organisations need to concentrate on quality, not on quantity, share technological achievements, and keep up with innovations and development. This way, they will gain the consumer’s confidence and become a competitive company in the world market.

What should responsible [and sustainable] leadership look like?

Sustainable leadership is about leading an organisation towards sustainable development, implementing socially responsible methods and acknowledging a shared responsibility for preventing the use of unjustified financial and human resources, and the violation of the environment. A good leader should involve employees in the company’s decision-making processes. 

Sustainability is moving to the core of business strategy. What are the skills you’d look for in your team of the future?

It’s important to have friendly team where everyone has equal opportunities for development. It’s crucial to have team members who express their thoughts and ideas clearly, directly, honestly, and respectfully. Reliable team members are an important asset for any team, because they get work done. Also, good team players are active participants, fully engaged in the work of the team. They’re open to sharing their information, knowledge, and experience. 

A good manager knows the most valuable asset is the team. Sustainable business is created when each employee considers themselves part of the company. This means employees can work together to solve problems. They respond to requests for assistance and take the initiative to offer help.

What would your advice be to MBA students and graduates?

Make best use of this time, and gain theoretical knowledge and information about practical issues. Be results orientated and make an effort to achieve success in your career. Also, it’s important to ask questions until there are no more answers. After finishing each module during my MBA, I thought ‘that’s enough’, but that was exactly the time to move forward. Knowledge is the biggest investment you can have, and the practice is the most solid foundation. 

Do you think Business Schools and employers have sufficiently strong links?

Business Schools and employers have links, but it’s not enough. We all know how it should be but it doesn’t happen in real life. Business Schools have to keep up with modern trends and adapt their programmes to the latest innovations. I think it’s very important for Business Schools to be focused on giving their students more theoretical knowledge based on interesting and practical real cases. Obvious mismatches between Business Schools and employers occur when the Business School does not take into account the changing business environment. Also, when businesses are less involved with MBA programmes, their expectations for future employees’ skills are inadequate.  

As a successful female leader, what would your advice be to other aspiring women?

Never give up, never be afraid of the risk and don’t be afraid to make a mistake. 

I know the challenges women face every day because they’re ‘the weaker sex’. To achieve equality, we need more education, more support, more female involvement at governmental and non-governmental levels, and more women in leading positions. Especially, in terms of business, I would like women to have more educational programmes, more grants for projects, and more empathy from financial institutions.

Do you feel optimistic about the future of business and the global economy?

Yes, business is not just a way to gain money but a way to impose social responsibility and care about environmental problems. 

Businesses need to do this to stay in the world market, and make a financial profit in the long term. 

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