2017 Best MBAs: Ashley Thomas, Oxford (Said)

Ashley Thomas

Oxford Said Business School

Age: 30

Describe yourself in 15 words or less:

Hometown: Colorado Springs, Colorado (though I’ve lived in East Africa for my entire professional life)

Fun fact about yourself: I’m a broze medallist in the International Camel Triathon (running, biking, and camel racing), despite my camel giving up halfway thorugh.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mechanical Engineering

University of Oxford, MSc Water Science, Policy and Management

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? MKOPA Solar, Product Development Manager

Where did you intern during the summer of 2016? I interned with UNICEF as part of my MSc dissertation helping to develop metrics for the Sustainable Development Goals #6.1 access to safe and affordable drinking water.

Where will you be working after graduation? To be determined

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Scholarships and awards:

  • Skoll Scholar
  • Pershing Square Scholar
  • School of Geography and Environment Scholarship

Leadership roles:

  • 1+1 Class Rep
  • Oxford Seed Fund Director
  • Skoll Scholar Summit board member

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Winning the internal SBS Nespresso Sustainability MBA challenge. We have won the opportunity to represent Said Business School at international event in March, after competing against 9 incredibility talented teams. I hope our team holds up the SBS reputation and takes first again this year!

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I love seeing products I have designed being sold and used. I have worked on or designed three products that have gone to scale. In total, they are being used by over 3 million people in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Marc Ventresca is fantastic. I have had the privilege to know him for two years, as he is a faculty mentor of the 1+1 (a program where students study a complimentary Master’s degree prior to the MBA). He is also a great advocate for women in the program- ensuring that we have equal representation in classes and speakers.

Why did you choose this business school? For me, its wasn’t a choice of Saïd Business School or another MBA program, but SBS or no MBA. The Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at SBS has been instrumental in my desire to get an MBA and my experience of the MBA while here. The focus on socially responsible business means SBS attracts a unique cohort- one that is international, entrepreneurial, and committed to tackling world-scale problems. Additionally, I knew I wanted to do a dual degree with a technical MSc for the first year, meaning the 1+1 programme fit me perfectly.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general?  I am constantly astounded by my classmates. From Tony, a computer scientist from Dominica who is working to develop an online outsourcing platform to develop Caribbean coding skills, to Gill, a South African designer whose advice on quiet leadership has been some of the most insightful of my year.

What was the most surprising thing about business school for you?How many people I have genuinely connected with. I was expecting to love the niche part of our class interested in social impact, but I have found the breadth of perspectives refreshing and inspiring. It’s been a privilege to get to know everyone.

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Be genuine and tell your story. SBS prides itself on having a diverse class, many who are non-traditional MBA students (like me!). Don’t try to fit yourself into the “MBA” box, but focus on what makes you uniquely talented.

What was your biggest regret in business school? That I didn’t do a 2-year program. I’m not quite ready to admit to myself that I’m already half way through.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Our class is so incredible! For example, Ndakuna Amidou grew up in a village in Northwest Cameroonian, where he didn’t start formal school until age 10. He qualified as a mental health nurse and then worked for the NHS in the UK while studying for a BS in Electrical engineering. After working for Vodphone, he decided to get an MBA and joined the 1+1 program, first studying for an MSc from the Internet Institute. Last year he was named the top black student in the UK by the House of Lords. Ndakuna has achieved all this while running a healthcare clinic in Cameroon that serves over 100 patients per day.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I was working in my workshop in Ethiopia and a colleague told me about his plan to apply for the Skoll Scholarship and study at SBS. He got me hooked and I’m here (albeit 6 years later).”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…working as a product manager for M-KOPA solar, an incredible social enterprise in East Africa that provides pay-as-you-go solar energy and associated financial services to more than 400,000 customers in East Africa.”

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the MBA experience? If there’s anything I learned from the MBA is that change doesn’t happen in a day, particularly in an 800-year old university.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? Ultimately, I want to be running my own business in East Africa providing access to clean water and safe sanitation for the poor.  

Who would you most want to thank for your success? I couldn’t have done this without the support of my family. In 2008, I turned down an offer at Apple to move to Ethiopia to do product design for my dream company, International Development Enterprises. This started my 9-year career in product design and management in East Africa, and I haven’t looked back. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to do that without the unconditional support of my family.

The other person to thank is my fiancé. He pushed me to take every international opportunity, meaning that we have survived 5 years of long-distance. He moved to Kenya for my job, and has been unconditionally supportive during the 1+1 MBA. It is our 10-year anniversary next week, and I can’t believe I am so lucky that our 19-year old selves decided to go for it.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I hope to be an active member of their life, not just a memory.

Favorite book: Embassy Town by China Mieville

Favorite movie or television show:The West Wing

Favorite musical performer: Jimmy Hendrix

Favorite vacation spot: Uzbekistan. Seriously, check it out.

Hobbies? Making things. Usually involves breaking other things first.

What made Ashley such an invaluable addition to the class of 2017?

“Ashley Thomas is a leader in her class, serving as the class representative this year (2016-17) for our 1+1 MBA programme. Ashley completed the Oxford MSc Water Science Policy and Management with distinction last year (2015-16) and is now pursuing her MBA with us. She is both a Skoll Scholar and a Pershing Square Scholar (1+1 scholarship programme).

Ashley believes that the future of the clean water technology sector will require an integrated approach that includes governments, business and academia. Her goal is to work at this interface, translating knowledge into tangible on-the-ground solutions that will achieve large-scale impact, and ultimately to become a leader in this next generation of development by drastically improving water and sanitation services for the world’s poor.”

Dina Dommett

Director of Student & Programme Services


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