Meet The Oxford Saïd MBA Class Of 2017

Laura Johnson Blair

University of Oxford, Saïd Business School

Describe yourself in 15 words or less: Driven intrapreneur, passionate about developing solutions to emerging market challenges and jumping into new cultures.

Hometown: Upper Arlington, Ohio

Fun Fact About Yourself: I grew up raising and showing rabbits, sheep, pigs and ducks in Ohio at county and state fairs – I can tell you the breed of most rabbits and poultry from just a photo.

Undergraduate School and Major: Cornell University – BSc Applied Economics and Management – Agribusiness Management (Major), Plant Biotechnology (Minor)

Employers and Job Titles Since Graduation:

Self – Employed – Independent Consultant on Agricultural Insurance Strategy for companies, INGOs, and governments in East Africa and South East Asia

ACRE Africa Ltd. – Senior Strategic Consultant; Chief Development Advisor

Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture – Principal Advisor to Agricultural Insurance Solutions Group; International Consultant

Kilimo Salama Project – Head of Business Development; Business Development Advisor

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: In July 2011, I was invited by the founder of a non-profit microinsurance project, Kilimo Salama (now ACRE Africa Ltd), to develop their business strategy in Nairobi. Staying for five years, I worked to transform a project reaching 10,000 farmers into a dynamic, impact-oriented social enterprise reaching 400,000 farmers across four countries. Through leading local teams, interfacing with clients, developing risk mitigation solutions for farmers, and leveraging networks to scout and set operations in new countries, I’ve experienced the challenges and rewards of entrepreneurship in emerging markets; I found my passion.

As Head of Business Development at ACRE Africa, I lead our expansion into new countries. I had the privilege to collaborate with diverse African and international teams willing to rapidly learn new approaches and tackle traditional challenges with out-of-the-box thinking and team spirit.

Between 2012 and 2014, I was ‘first boots on the ground’ with Kenyan colleagues carrying out the Business Potential Studies that lead to incorporating businesses in Tanzania and Rwanda. These branch companies now reach over 120,000 smallholder farmers in Tanzania and Rwanda with innovative, tailored climate risk mitigation products. I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to overcome challenges around hiring and training local teams, developing relationships with governments, and adapting products to meet local farmer and client needs. We also developed a ‘first-in-market’ insurance for smallholder dairy cows in Kenya and Rwanda, designed to incentivize farmers to undertake animal health care to lower mortality, increase milk yield, and provide a safety net if the cow dies.

Looking back on your experience, what advice would you give to future business school applicants? Stand out by identifying and articulating how you are unique – top MBA programs are all about diversity and bringing together an extraordinary cohort. Whether it’s your geographic origin (and subsequent shaping experiences), earlier studies, career path, special interests or passions, take the time to reflect on what value you can add to the diversity. Be sure to highlight this in your essays and admissions interviews.

Seek out former alumni of your top choice MBA programs through business, personal or undergraduate university contacts and take the time to meet and discuss their experiences with the program. In addition, be proactive by investigating faculty profiles and identifying those whose interests align with your own.

What led you to choose this program for your full-time MBA? I followed my gut instinct, finding a program that fit my personality, values, and goals. Rankings were a consideration, but by far not the most important factor. I spent two years tossing around ideas on a graduate degree and honestly an MBA was not at the top of my list. As I researched programs and visited schools, I realized for my particular aspirations – emerging market innovation and entrepreneurship with a diverse global cohort – could only be met through the MBA program at Oxford Said.

I was initially drawn to the program by an alumna who was able to pursue her interest in social entrepreneurship in emerging markets based on the strong support and network established during the MBA. The Entrepreneurship Center offers an excellent resource – and program-wide focus – that I felt would help me explore the space, conceptualize venture and potentially launch while pursing the program.

The Business school’s position within Oxford makes it truly unique compared to most top MBAs and was pivotal in my decision to attend. With the college system, MBAs have a second home within the university at a private college. For me, Lincoln College offers the opportunity to competitively row on the Thames, frequently dine in a hall built in the 1400s, and to develop friendships with graduate students from across the university. I feel the MBA from Said isn’t just a business school experience, but integration into the greatest university in the world.

Tell us about your dream job or dream employer at this point in your life? I would love to continue working for myself and to start building businesses relevant to emerging markets. I have been independently consulting for the past two years in Africa and Southeast Asia and enjoy the freedom of setting my own schedule, working with select clients and having direct control over outputs I’m producing on contract. The MBA is a transition for me; I aim to dive further into the emerging market entrepreneurship space, potentially bridging my business and science backgrounds. Through collaborating with graduate student researchers within the university interested in taking their promising technologies further, I hope to conceptualize and build products and services the world needs. Foremost, this is a year of exploration. Surrounded by a diverse cohort, peers at my college spanning all disciplines that’s famous international visiting speakers, and unparalleled faculty and staff support, I am open to what the year inspires.

What would you like your business school peers to say about you after you graduate from this program? “She crafted her own path to discover and pursue her passions.” The road less travelled is not always easy to find or to follow out of an MBA as your peers are taking top roles in management consulting, finance, and with other top global companies. If you’re drawn to a different path, use the MBA to explore a diverse array of career paths – your cohort is an invaluable resource for this pursuit. One main reason to pursue an MBA is for the global network; I also hope to be collaborating internationally with the cohort in the decades to come.

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