2019 Best & Brightest: Asini Wijewardane, Babson College (Olin)

Asini Wijewardane

Babson College, F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business

An action-orientated, eternally optimistic change agent, passionate about making a positive impact on others.”

Hometown: Colombo, Sri Lanka

Fun fact about yourself: By 20, I had completed two undergraduate degrees and worked for three organizations! (This is because I skipped two grades in school; and then did the majority of my two undergraduate degrees simultaneously through distance learning while working at Ernst & Young and then at two local NGOs. My mother told me recently that when I was young, I had a quote on the cover of my notepad along the lines of, ‘Don’t ever say you don’t have enough time – you have the same number of hours in a day as Mother Theresa, Gandhi, and Helen Keller and they had enough time to save the world.’ Looking back, I think I definitely might have taken that to heart!)

Undergraduate School and Degree: (Include Graduate Schools and Degrees If Applicable)

  • BA (1st Class Honors), Middlesex University, UK
  • LLB (Hons), University of London, UK

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? The year before business school, I was a manager at the Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation in Sri Lanka, heading up their fundraising and special projects operations. This was really special for me. My love for the social sector had started in Sri Lanka when, at 14, I co-founded a society called Interfaith in my school to help reduce religious intolerance among youth through education and engagement. The success of this society in Sri Lanka was what really motivated me to work in the social impact space. It also resulted in me pursuing a career primarily in the social sector in UK following my undergraduate studies, where I worked for seven years to improve local and national healthcare services. After that, I also worked as a Business Analyst at a strategy consultancy firm, working mainly on market entry and growth strategies for companies in or entering Asia.

To be able to use the skills I gained through all of my experiences to benefit the incredible Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation over the last year in Sri Lanka, the place where my passion for social impact began, was an absolute privilege. This pioneering foundation was the first to develop and bring the traditional dances of Sri Lanka to national and international stages 75 years ago. As someone passionate about the arts (as a singer-songwriter in my spare time), being able to use my skills to enable this inspiring organization to significantly increase its revenue-raising funds for a new building and new scholarship programs of the foundation. In the process, I spearheaded the first traditional arts festival of the foundation, while being in an office that was constantly surrounded by music and dance all day was a real treat!

Where did you intern during the summer of 2018? N/A – I am a One-Year MBA, so I didn’t do an internship during the summer of 2018 – as we started our MBA in May 2018 and had classes all summer!

Where will you be working after graduation? Undecided but currently recruiting for roles and organizations at the intersection of business and social impact.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • Dean’s Scholarship Recipient
  • Member of the Beta Gamma Sigma Business Honors Society (Top 20% of Class)
  • VP of Events – Net Impact Graduate Club: I have led the club’s event management and partnership building activities, including forging a partnership with the Net Impact Undergraduate Club and organizing joint events with the undergraduate club for the first time.
  • One-Year Ambassador – Babson’s Association of Women MBAs: My role has focused on marketing the club’s activities and working with the rest of the leadership team to plan our events.
  • Speaker Engagement Lead – Babson Entrepreneurship Forum: I was on the organizing committee of Babson’s flagship annual conference, with my role including designing panel sessions, securing and managing relationships with speakers and facilitators, drafting briefings and marketing communications about the sessions, and recruiting and managing volunteers to support speakers on the day
  • Board Member – Babson’s Student Leadership Initiative Fund (SLIF): I am a member of the board that manages and makes funding decisions of SLIF, a fund that students from across the graduate schools can apply to for funding for leadership endeavors.
  • Babson Board Fellow – Commonwealth Shakespeare Company: I am a non-voting member of the board of this local arts nonprofit.
  • Student Representative – Leaders Quest Day at Babson: I was one of 10 graduate students chosen to work with 10 global partners from PwC to develop solutions to challenges faced by a local nonprofit.
  • Student representative on multiple feedback sessions at Babson: I have been a student rep at a number of sessions including retreats to redesign divisional portfolios; feedback sessions with the Trustees on student experience; and focus groups with the Center for Career Development on new products.
  • Consultant to a local CPG social enterprise as part of Babson’s Management Consulting Field Experience: My team and I worked with a social apparel company for four months to develop a marketing and retention strategy to help them expand their millennial customer base.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? There are two things.

The first is the consulting project I worked on as part of Babson’s Management Consulting Field Experience. We worked with a social apparel company who wanted us to develop a marketing and retention plan for millennials, a segment they had had significant difficulty reaching. Although this was an industry and area that neither my team nor I didn’t have any experience in, my incredible teammates and I worked tirelessly to carry out extensive primary and secondary research to help us formulate a strategy and actionable roadmap for the company, while also developing frameworks to synthesize and present our research and recommendations indigestible and memorable ways to help get management buy-in. After four months, all our hard work paid off! The president and senior leadership of the company loved our final presentation, after which they even said they were all excited to start implementing our recommendations immediately, a result my team and I were all so extremely proud of.

Secondly, from an academic point of view, the achievement I am most proud of has to be making it through the summer semester of our one-year MBA program. Babson’s one-year MBA involves completing the core modules – which Babson’s two-year program completes over one year – in three months over the summer semester. As I came from a non-traditional background – having worked eight of the last nine years in nonprofits without much, if any, interactions with financial skills – this was definitely one of the most challenging experiences for me. Through the semester, I worked as hard as I could but often wondered if I’d be able to keep up as I regularly had to return home from classes and re-read cases and look up definitions just to understand the content of the classes and cases. However, I had help from our absolutely amazing quant professors – including Professors Bob Turner, Mark Potter, Dessi Pachamanova, Frederic Chartier, and Lidija Polutnik. I also received help from tutors and my incredible peers, all of whom I feel so grateful. In the end, I managed to not only survive the summer semester but do so successfully, completing it with A/A-s in all 15 classes!

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? The professional achievement I am most proud of is spearheading the East London outreach project, a project I set up in my first job after undergraduate studies. In 2009, I was hired as an intern at a small nonprofit in London that had been providing support and awareness services to women who were affected by cancer in North London for 25 years. While carrying out research during my internship, however, I found out that East London (an area 30 minutes away from North London) had one of the highest mortality rates for cancer due to the lack of local cancer support and awareness services. To understand more about this problem, I started carrying out interviews with East London community groups, healthcare professionals, and patients in the area. They validated this need, but were skeptical that our nonprofit would be able to help as they felt it would be difficult, if not impossible, for us to build trust within these polarized and diverse communities.

However, with the support of my Chief Executive, I managed to secure a small grant for a pilot and developed a three-part localized plan – which involved partnering with the local university to train local students to run awareness sessions in their communities; partnering with local hospitals to train up local patients in remission to provide support to newly-diagnosed patients; and running support sessions in local community centers and health clinics. The first year was tough – as we expected, it took a lot of hard work to forge relationships and build trust with the local community leaders, charities, and members. I still remember that we found it so difficult to get attendees for our first local events that sometimes we just walked down the streets of the local area, handing out flyers just to connect with local people! However, it was soon all worth it. Within a year, we managed to successfully implement all parts of our project. Within five years, it was a flagship project of the charity, with an independent evaluation report showing that project had benefited 1000+ women in the area during that time. However, I am most proud of the impact we made on those women. Many of the women who came to our sessions had not been able to speak to anyone about their cancer as it was such a sensitive subject in their communities; in fact, I still remember a patient telling me our sessions were ‘a lifeline’ for her and a place where she ‘laughed for the first time in three years’ – and it is those impacts that still make me proud today.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? The Babson program has had so many brilliant professors whom I am so grateful for that it is so hard to pick! If I had to pick one, it would be Professor Bob Turner. He was the professor of the first finance/quant class I took at Babson. As I mentioned above, I didn’t come from a financial background, and I had always considered myself ‘not a finance person.’ However, he managed to find a way to explain everything so clearly and simply, and almost literally carried us all through his course – which resulted in me getting my first A in a quant class! He was also one of the nicest people at Babson – constantly taking the time to encourage us, support us, and really build our confidence, which has been invaluable for me during the rest of my MBA studies.

What was your favorite MBA Course? It would be Leading and Managing Sustainability with Professor Sinan Erzurumlu, another great professor at Babson who was recently named as one of the Best 40 B-School Profs Under the Age of 40 by Poets & Quants. As someone passionate about social and economic impact, I learned so many crucial insights in his class about how to deliver both financial and societal value simultaneously and successfully. One of the biggest learnings is his class involved making sure we always started with the problem – not the solution – when solving social challenges. Following on from that, we also learnt how we could use systems thinking to identify the root cause of social problems and how we should always develop multi-faceted approaches across both public and private sectors to ensure a lasting impact – learnings that will be invaluable in my future career.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Babson for a number of reasons.

  • Firstly, Babson felt like the type of school that provided a more personalized experience. Regardless of my background, I felt that the program wouldn’t make me fit in a box, but instead let me tailor the experience to my interests and goals. This has been extremely true for me. Firstly, I have been able to tailor my electives (with courses such as Leading Social Value and Leading and Managing Sustainability) and my extracurriculars (for example, with the Net Impact Club and Babson Board Fellows program) to my interests in social impact. Secondly, Babson’s Lewis Center for Social Innovation – which has been like my second home – have constantly held events, activities, and workshops on areas of social innovation/impact, with their amazing director and associate director Professors Cheryl Kiser and Emily Weiner always available for advice and guidance anytime I need them.
  • Secondly, Babson was known for its Entrepreneurial Thought & Action® approach to teaching, and its ability to shape leaders who thought differently and creatively, which really appealed to me. Over the last year, I have learned that Babson doesn’t teach us what to think, but how to approach problems and take action, which I feel has really made me become more strategic, innovative, and braver.
  • Further, Babson had so many great lecturers and classes. Over the last semesters, professors have really driven the most complex concepts into us in not only simple ways but also practical ways, using speeches by entrepreneurs in classes, group projects, or simulations to bring concepts to life.
  • Finally, Babson’s culture is one of the key reasons I came to the school, and Babson really is what it says on the tin in that regard. Babson attracts students from so many different sectors and countries, which really adds value to class discussions. Babson also feels like a family to us all. I’ve met some of the kindest, most helpful and nicest people at Babson. Everyone I have interacted with – be it a peer, student, or teacher – has always been so supportive, always had time for others, and always built others up, which has definitely helped my confidence and inspired me every single day.

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Be passionate about what you might want to do in the future – what do you want the next chapters of your story to look like? Share this with Babson and show them how business school (and Babson itself!) will help you get there.

Finally, chat with us! Students and alumni are always happy to help so find us on LinkedIn or through the school admissions team and speak to us – I’m sure so many of us would be more than happy to answer any questions and help in any way we can.

What is the biggest myth about your school? That Babson is only a school for entrepreneurs. In my experience, this is not true at all. It does have great resources and courses for entrepreneurs, but it also has some great courses across finance, marketing, management, and operations for all leaders! What it also focuses on is the ‘entrepreneurial thought and action’ approach which, in a nutshell, just pushes us all to be braver, more creative and take action – something I think is invaluable for any leader in any sector, country, or career.

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Be confident about your story – regardless of your background, everyone has a story to tell that can be unique, different and compelling. So, shape and share your story proudly, and don’t forget to include not just what you have done but why you have done it.

Think back two years ago. What is the one thing you wish you’d known before starting your MBA program? The one thing I wish I’d known was that the one-year program would be more intense and challenging than I thought was possible (two years’ worth of work in one year is as hectic as it sounds!). However, if I remained patient, paced myself and always asked for help from everyone around – especially from the ever-helpful professors and class – it would all come together in the end as everyone is in the same boat. And don’t forget to enjoy it from day one too as it goes by so fast!

MBA Alumni often describe business school as transformative. Looking back over the past two years, how has business school been transformative for you? Business school has been entirely transformational, academically and personally. Academically, I have learned more than I thought I was capable of learning at the start of business school, in particular in terms of finance and analytics. I also gained a really deep understanding of how to simultaneously create economic and social value, which will be vital in my future career. Babson also constantly teaches us to be bold and try things out through their entrepreneurial thought and action approach, which has definitely made me braver and more willing to lean in and take action and chances.

Personally, my friends and family tell me that I have really grown in confidence. I feel this is not only from the classes and extracurricular activities but also due to the constant encouragement of my amazing peers and lecturers. People at Babson always take the time to say a kind word or give you positive feedback, which has really helped build my confidence. We are also constantly pushed into activities that are outside of our comfort zone to help us grow and develop. For example, in our entrepreneurial finance class with Professors Les Charm and Jean-Luc Boulnois, one of the activities involved us ‘pitching’ our story to the class, something I had never done before and was terrified doing – and yet something I found so valuable to do to help me shape how to communicate and connect through my story with any audience.

Finally, I’ve learned so much from all the incredible entrepreneurs and leaders I have met at Babson through their stories, advice, and wisdom. For example, at one of Babson’s conferences, I met Sara Minkara, an incredible entrepreneur who lost her sight at seven and went on to set up a social enterprise to enable people with disabilities to integrate into the workforce. In her speech, she told us to embrace our weaknesses as what we might think of as our weakness could be our biggest strength, a sentiment that has stayed with me and truly transformed the way I think.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? It is so hard to pick one! The graduate school is filled with such incredible people who inspire me every day with their hard work, help, and support, many of whom I am lucky to call friends. However, if I had to pick one, it would be Ted Kirby as he is truly one of the kindest, most hard-working, and smartest people I’ve met, and a true favorite of everyone in our one-year MBA class.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? My family – my parents and my sister – were the biggest influencers of my decision to pursue business school. They are all doctors and do not have any experience in business, but have always been my biggest cheerleaders. Applying to business school was extremely scary and one of the hardest things I’ve done – everything from the GMAT to learning to ‘sell’ myself through my essays was completely new to me and entirely out of my comfort zone. But they constantly encouraged me, always believing in my ability (often more than I believed in myself!) and supporting me all the way.

What was the goofiest MBA term or acronym you encountered – and what did it mean? Babson (and business school!) seems to love a good ‘catchy’ acronym – and the chi square test was one that sticks out for me. Firstly, the ‘acronym’ or shorthand for the chi-square test (x2) didn’t seem to relate to its name. Secondly, it didn’t help that I could never remember how to pronounce ‘chi’ (was it chai like lie or chee like bee?!!). It didn’t take long for me to become part of the problem though. In my final exam, I tried to save space on the cheat sheet by writing the acronym for the chi-square test on my sheet next to the equation for it. Imagine my surprise when one of our exam questions was, “What is the name of the test used commonly to test for relationships between categorical variables?” I probably spent more time trying to remember the term ‘chi square test’ than on any other question in that paper!

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…working for the nonprofit sector, reading way too many business articles in the hope of figuring out how to create economic and social value together.”

What dollar value would you place on your MBA education? Was it worth what you paid for it – worth more or worth less? It sounds cliché, but it is impossible for me to place a dollar value on my MBA as it has given me so much more than I could put a value on in terms of knowledge, opportunities, confidence – and some of my best friends and mentors in my Babson family.

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

  1. Start my own social enterprise to provide business, law, and other foundational training and resources to social organizations, in particular those in developing countries.
  2. Record an album of my original music – and set up a fund to enable other original artistes to pursue their creative passions as well.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? Someone who really cared about treating people with love, kindness, and respect, working hard, and making a positive impact.

Hobbies?

  • Singing, songwriting, and playing the ukulele – I’ve been singing and writing songs since I was 10, and been performing with my ukulele for the last few years. I absolutely love it!
  • Traveling: I love traveling – to me, nothing beats the beauty of a sunset or sunrise somewhere new!

What made Asini such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2019?

“Asini Wijewardane has taken on her MBA experience at Babson the same way she has taken on most experiences in her life. She skipped two grades and graduated from high school at 15 with straight As, and received two undergraduate degrees by the age of 20. At Babson, she’s chosen to accelerate her pathway again by accomplishing her MBA in just one year, and even with this accelerated timeline, Asini always finds a way to seize opportunities that arise with her usual style of exuberance, curiosity, and generosity of spirit.

Asini is that go-to person not just for her classmates, but for many of us in the Babson administration. She has been designated as a student representative for a number of committees, initiatives, and events at Babson and beyond. She was invited by our Technology Operations Information Management Division to redesign their course portfolio; was a key participant in listening sessions with Babson’s Trustees to speak about the student experience, and was sought after to provide feedback in sessions with our Graduate Center for Career Development on new products and offerings.

When Leaders’ Quest came to us looking to connect 10 MBAS with PwC for their Boston program, Asini was the very first person who came to mind. Along with her colleagues, Asini delivered new value, ideas and ways of thinking that far exceeded the global PwC team’s expectations. They repeatedly shared their astonishment at what the Babson team accomplished in two hours, particularly given that Asini and her colleagues were not previously familiar with the challenge and teams they would be working with.

The Lewis Institute for Social Innovation clearly benefits from Asini’s deep concern for creating both economic and social value simultaneously, but we are not the only center or organization that has benefitted from her commitments and efforts. She is a Babson Board Fellow with the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, the VP of Events for Net Impact, the One Year Ambassador for the Babson Women’s MBA club, a Board member of the Student Leadership Initiative Fund, and a lead of speaker engagement for Babson’s annual Entrepreneurship Forum. In addition, she is a regular contributor at The Lewis Institute’s Uncommon Tables which curate conversations about business and society.

Asini is one of the most multi-dimensional people we have met. It is obvious to us that she is an exceptional and committed student. But it is also obvious that Asini continually brings an optimistic, creative, and very relational approach to all the experiences that she seeks. These qualities are what attract so many to seek out her perspectives and guidance on a multitude of issues. Asini is an animated and passionate person who can jump into a conversation about analytics, operations, and strategy, and then quickly integrate her deep concern for social justice, people, and the changing role of business and society to elevate and advance the conversation with new thinking.

And if that’s not enough, Asini is a singer/songwriter who plays the ukulele. And even though performing in public terrifies her, she’s managed to overcome her fears to be a regional finalist at Open Mic UK and has performed at The Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka.

Asini is that person who always seeks experiences that put her outside her comfort zone and then brings her whole self to that experience. All of us within her orbit, whether we are faculty, administration, or students, benefit from her exceptional talents, curiosity, and courage.”

Cheryl Kiser and Emily Weiner
Executive Director and Associate Director of Babson’s Lewis Institute for Social Innovation

DON’T MISS: POETS&QUANTS’ HONOR ROLL OF THE WORLD’S 100 BEST & BRIGHTEST MBAs GRADUATES IN THE CLASS OF 2019