2018 MBAs To Watch: Zehra Ali, IMD Business School

Zehra Ali

IMD Business School

“Curious and creative – with a passion for problem solving and finding reasons to dance.”

Age: 32

Hometown: Lahore, Pakistan

Fun fact about yourself: I learnt how to drive at the age 30, became a mother at 31 and learnt what it’s like to take exams again at 32.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering; Masters in Technology & Policy

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? Ghonsla (means nest in Urdu) – I founded the company in 2009 to provide sustainable building insulation to underserved markets in Pakistan.

Where will you be working after graduation? Borealis, Circular Economy Integration Manager  

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: I was a part of the sustainability cluster and presenter at the Navigating the Future conference.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Starting the program, I was nervous and unsure of being able to do justice to and keep up with the rigorous MBA and of being a ‘good’ mother to my 6-month-old daughter. While it was difficult, it was not a disaster – in fact far from it. I grew not only as a professional, but as an individual and with it my capacity to do more in both roles. However, this would not have been possible without the unfailing support of family (particularly my husband) and the IMD community for which I am extremely grateful.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Seeing the company I founded go on to serve and improve the quality of life for over 1,000 households and providing dignified employment for over 50 people in some of the harshest terrains of northern Pakistan.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? I enjoyed the various teaching styles at IMD and appreciated how different professors dissected the business cases and helped formulate our thinking around asking the right questions. While working on the consulting project, I was much inspired by Howard Yu, the professor of Strategic Management and Innovation, whose enlightening insights and contagious energy made it a memorable experience.

What was your favorite MBA Course There is not a particular course that I enjoyed most. Rather, it was the classes, integrative exercises and the projects that required thinking across different disciplines that provided the rigor and holistic approach which I particularly liked.

Why did you choose this business school? IMD’s focus on personal leadership, the unparalleled opportunity to work on diverse teams and the strong corporate learning network.

What is your best piece advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Be proactive about seeking change and more mindful about what drives you. While experience is important, passion and ability to learn on the go can open up a host of new opportunities and catapult both professional and personal growth.

What is the biggest myth about your school? Alumni had previously warned that the first six months of the program would be extremely rigorous and that it might feel like drinking from a fire hose. Social life and having time to think would be a luxury. While true, the intensive time spent with peers and also opportunities to engage with their families was key for building lasting relationships. Also, though gaining time to think was an acquired art – the leadership stream and the personal development elective were the perfect channel to introspect and think aloud.

What was your biggest regret in business school? While the small IMD class size enables close interaction, there is always the feeling of only having scratched the surface of getting to know and work with the people one has learnt to understand, respect and appreciate. In that context, I would have loved to have more time to explore, to challenge and to work on solutions to real world problems. I am hopeful that as active alumni we can do more of that.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I have been moved by the generosity, resilience and brilliance of my peers. As a young parent, I was particularly inspired by the other mothers in the program (Abeer and Sophie) and also the amazing partners whose support made it an enriching experience for all.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? There was a latent desire to pursue business education in a more formal context. I ventured into the realm of business with the attitude of learning on the job. While most startups have their growing pains, I soon saw that there was also a need to bolster my leadership. I saw the MBA as an opportunity to refine my thought process around business. More importantly, it was a gateway to joining a community of others who were committed to reflecting, understanding and reorienting to what it takes to lead and manage today.

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…continuing to manage the company that I founded and more proactively seeking advice from individuals leading change in the space and partnering with organizations that have a similar vision to grow the footprint.”

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the MBA experience? The MBA program takes pride in the strength of the IMD network. There is so much that can be learnt from and also shared with one’s peers. It would be great to see more interaction between the various MBA and Exec MBA classes. While there may be a difference in the level of experience, there is a common affinity for personal and professional development and an opportunity to nurture collaboration and create synergies in the future.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? I don’t have a bucket list as such, but hope to be more mindful in the present. One thing though that I have been meaning to try is sky-diving,

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? A friend with passion to make a difference, a believer in collective strength and a willing volunteer to help in any capacity.

What is your favorite movie about business? A few years ago I watched a documentary called Darwin’s Worst Nightmare, which shows how the European consumer’s demand for perch from Lake Victoria was impacting the ecosystem and economy in Tanzania on several levels. It challenged my thinking on business beyond mere transactions highlighting the need for consumers, the private sector, and governments to be aware, accept, and work together to reduce vulnerability instead of exploiting it.

What would your theme song be? ‘Electric Feel’ by MGMT

Favorite vacation spot: Seeking nature, I find the Northern Areas of Pakistan to be breathtaking.

Hobbies? I love to dance. Over the past few years, I’ve been dancing flamenco as I find it to be very soulful and also love the grace and strength that it embodies.

What made Zehra such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

“With 7+ years of experience in business development and operations management, Zehra has a passion for disruptive innovation that drives social change. Her vibrant and positive attitude mixed with passion and hard work has confirmed her to be an open, proactive and persuasive leader, an enthusiastic and brave entrepreneur. Proud and committed parent, she has expertly managed to balance the heavy workload and family life throughout the program.”

The MBA Office Team





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