My Story: From Saudi Arabia to Wharton

What adjectives would I use to describe Wharton? Impactful, innovative, and monumental. If I could, I would add “The Wharton Experience.” While obtaining a premium education, you’re sharing a classroom with the crème de la crème of students and professors. At the same time, you get an amazing level of support from administrators plus a great deal of experience from extra-curricular activities and through leadership training. Two years later, you’re a much better person than when you started.

What has been most surprising about the U.S.? I don’t think I experienced any major culture shocks for two reasons. First, my family and I are well-traveled and I have been to North America many times. Plus I lived in Canada for a year. Second, the American media has a very strong global presence; that by itself bridges the cultural gap. 

Being the first female student from Saudi Arabia, I would like to see Wharton’s presence strengthened in the Middle East. Wharton is known in the region, but not as well as it should be I feel. I don’t believe the school gets it fair share of publicity there. It is my hope that I can encourage every woman to get more education and to pursue their professional and educational goals; not limiting themselves because of social pressures.

If humans want to walk on their hands, they will. They just need perseverance. This advice came from a colleague when I was struggling with my application to get into Corporate Banking. The concept was very simple, but it sparked faith in my soul that you can dream as much as you can and make it happen if you are resilient.

The greatest challenge I faced was social acceptance at the beginning of my career. My main issue was dealing with extended relatives and conservative family friends. Ten years ago my parents were cautious about who they would let know their daughter worked with men. This was frowned upon and many traditionalists would express their disagreement with mixing genders at work.

Similarly, the crucial part of my career has always been the public’s reaction. Some of the companies we did business with were very supportive.  Others were neutral. But some were against it. Owners and business managers refused to meet with me and I needed to prove time and time again that I was good enough and worthy.

Change is always faced with rejection and, although social rejection was difficult to live through, it brings me joy that now society not only accepts working women, but expects women to work.

When I entered into banking ten years ago, Saudi culture was very male dominated—and it still is compared to other cultures—but there have been a lot of positive changes in a short period of time. In the Jeddah regional office alone, Banque Saudi Fransi went from just one female employee to now having 45. The government also supports women employment as shown by the appointment of the first Saudi woman as Minister of Education. Other countries take decades to see such changes.

Three significant events that have changed my life. The first event would have to be my promotion to Relationship Officer. This meant advancing from administrative work behind the scenes to working front and center and dealing face to face with clients.

Second, my father has real estate properties that I am currently managing. As the youngest of four children, my father’s trust is something that I greatly cherish. The fact that he has given me this responsibility has impacted my personality and the way I perceive things.

Finally, I would have to say when I got the call from admissions with news of my acceptance into Wharton.

Two things I am most grateful for. I am very grateful for all the wonderful opportunities that I’ve had in my life. I was lucky enough to be one of the first Saudi female professionals who encouraged many other women to pursue higher education. Second, I am grateful for having the opportunity to attend one of the world’s top business schools and to be a part of The Wharton School.

  • Mohammed Riazuddin Ahmed

    Hi, shereen, this Riazuddin Ahmed your ex colleague (your elder brother, well wisher & ex advisor) I have been reading your articles and I am very much happy that your dreams came true. As usual I wish you all success in the rest of your life. Give me a call on 0091 9885209498 with best regards. Riazuddin Ahmed (Hindi)

  • Patel

    Congratulations! This world needs parents like you. What a similarity. My mother was home schooled after marriage(adult). My father gave all (6 sons and one daughter)children best education and sold of all his belongings. We need people like to change/make worldwide law (regardless of religion one follow) against child marriage. How can you help? At this time I help Support-A-Child project. My goal is to make criminal law against child marriage (should be adult or minimum 16 year old.

  • Prashanth Idgunji

    We are from India and have 2 daughters both in Boston. We lived in Saudi Arabia – Khobar and Riyadh for 14 years and have very fond memories of Saudi Arabia and its friendly and generous citizens. Your story is really inspiring, I made sure my daughters read it and learnt fro your experiences.

  • Sheree Tawfiq

    Thank you Ahmed and Anmar for the emotional support.
    I certainly feel the change in the Saudi society. The social acceptance of women in the work force that took place in the last ten years is truly phenomenal.



  • Certain environments don’t have their opportunities exposed very obviously.. Mainly.. You need to dig ’em up.. It’s just that simple..

    Good Luck & Congratulations..!!

  • Excellent!

    She was lucky to have such enlightened and supporting parents. To have such ambition and follow through on it in SA is nothing short of epic. It is very easy to just give up.

    The sad part is that there are countless others like her that are put down by many members in their own environment. I pray for those who are left to atrophy.

    May you continue to find success Shereen, keep at it. The road ahead is still rocky.

    As I keep telling others in your situation, think like a big truck with no brakes hurdling down the highway. Don’t stop for anything.

    In a few years we will all look back at these dark times in awe.

    Good luck,

  • Shereen Tawfiq

    Thank you for your comment.
    I am considering Investment Banking after greaduation.

  • GK

    Fantastic article for such an insightful look into Shereen’s journey! I wonder what she wants to do after graduation?