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My Story: From Saudi Arabia to Wharton

“If humans want to walk on their hands, they will.”

This advice came from a colleague of Shereen Tawfiq at a time in her life when it would have been easy to become discouraged and give up. Instead, the quote taught her the power of resiliency and the courage to dream in the face of rejection and prejudice in Saudi Arabia. As The Wharton School’s first ever female student from Saudi Arabia, Tawfig has courageously challenged a Saudi regime with centuries old cultural values rooted in male dominance. With relentless determination to be independent, educated, and successful, this first-year MBA student has played a small part in bringing about change in her native country.

Her story:

Growing up in Jeddah, I was the youngest of four daughters. Both of my parents have always been passionate about education for my sisters and I. My mother was homeschooled because there were no schools for girls as she was growing up and my father is a retired professor of Microbiology. Even in such a male dominant society, my father strongly emphasized the importance of independence and security in life for his daughters.

I graduated from the King Abdul-Aziz University in Saudi Arabia where I studied English Literature. Afterward I wanted to do something challenging that could have an impact on life. But women employment was limited. The only options were found in women-only environments such as teachers at girls-only schools and tellers or customer service representatives at the women-only retail branches of local banks.

It was around this same time that the Saudi government had begun implementing new quotas to increase Saudi employment at large institutions such as banks. Banque Saudi Fransi in Jeddah used this as an opportunity to hire women to replace lower paid expatriates.

I applied for and accepted an administrative position at the bank. I learned the job in a month’s time and I knew there was more in me to give. I needed something more demanding so I searched within the organization and set my sights on Corporate Banking. I sought out opportunities to gain experience working with company accounts and I took advantage of courses offered in-house to enhance my credentials. Then, when I wanted to gain exposure to more complex aspects of the industry like financial modeling, I pursued a credit analyst position.

I applied, but I was rejected many times.

The bank’s management didn’t say it was because I was a woman, but I think society just wasn’t ready. I kept pushing and, at last, eight months later, I got the job. My manager congratulated me, yet he candidly told me not to look for any promotions. The business community wasn’t ready to accept women and business owners may have felt uncomfortable dealing with them directly. “I’m not willing to jeopardize the bank’s reputation,” my manager said.

After three years, I was more than ready for a promotion to a Relationship Officer. In 2005, I got the promotion and was the first female Client Relationship Officer in the bank’s history. Two years later, I moved up again. Although I had subordinates in my previous position, this time I was managing four male employees. It was tough, but my subordinates were understanding and I was supported by managers who wanted to see change happen.

I started thinking about an MBA in 2004 right before I got my first promotion. I was annoyed that I wasn’t advancing when I was doing such a good job. After receiving my first promotion, I had to postpone my MBA plans as it was a milestone not only for me, but for female Saudi bankers in general. Following the second promotion, I wanted to expand my horizons even more so in 2008 I thought to myself, “Now I’m ready for the MBA.”

I did in-depth research, taking the time to visit each of the eight schools that topped my list. I also met with alumni from around the world. After meeting with Wharton alumni, the choice went from a few schools to just one. Wharton graduates impressed me because they consistently exhibited the same set of characteristics. They were all very supportive and approachable. Then I realized that this is the Wharton brand. The more I learned and read about the school, the more I wanted to enroll. I applied to Wharton, Yale, and UCLA and was accepted into Wharton and UCLA.