2020 First Generation MBAs: Areeba Kamal, Stanford GSB

Areeba Kamal

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Class: 2021

Hometown: Karachi, Pakistan

Fun Fact About Yourself: I like long-distance running and ran my second New York City marathon last fall.

Undergraduate School and Major: Computer Science, Mount Holyoke College

Most Recent Employer and Job Title:

Product Manager Intern, Apple

Senior Associate, Charles River Associates

What did your parents do for a living? My mother was a TV writer and my dad works in Advertising in Pakistan.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and father? High school

Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? My mother. My mom never finished a four year degree, came from a very modest background, and spent much of her youth dealing with illness. That said, she was a highly respected executive in Pakistani TV and media, and spent her life writing songs, ad campaigns, and TV dramas all while raising and educating two daughters in an environment where women are more likely to get married young and have lots of kids, than build a career and future independently. She passed away at age 53 earlier this year.

My mother never let her lack of a formal education or her increasingly ailing health stand in the way. She worked her way up from being a copywriting intern to running marketing campaigns at some of the largest media companies in Pakistan. When her health worsened and she lost the ability to walk, my mom decided to write TV dramas and soap operas as a freelance writer from home.

She poured every dime she made at work into her girls’ education, putting the two of us in schools she could barely afford and cutting back on her own food and clothing so we could have a brighter future than anyone in our family could even begin to imagine. She worked through our homework assignments with us, urging us to focus on our strengths instead of fixating on perceived weaknesses. Always a beautiful writer, my mother especially encouraged the two of us to write essays, pen poetry, take part in debate competitions, and get comfortable sharing our words and views with the rest of the world.

When I asked to leave Pakistan for the first time at age 20 to go pursue a scholarship-backed degree in the US, she didn’t hesitate to let her beloved eldest daughter move to the other side of the world. Instead, she found ways to be a part of my journey, discussing my college classes with me over the phone, helping me navigate tough internships by giving me advice from her own career, reading my senior thesis proudly, and making sure I never felt alone or unsure of myself. When I graduated with the first college degree in my family and gave my class commencement address, my mother, who was by then too frail to travel, live-streamed the ceremony and wept with joy as she watched me address thousands of people, wearing a graduation gown and cap.

My mother passed away earlier this year peacefully in her sleep. Her last words to me revolved, as always, around being brave and hopeful, and holding my own no matter how intimidating or unfamiliar the surroundings. In my education and career, I will always try and emulate her unwavering faith and determination. She is my hero.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? I grew up in an environment where physical, mental, and financial security were not guaranteed for women, especially women from modest backgrounds. It was difficult for women around me to have basic choices — choices like whether you wanted to get married or have kids, whether you wanted to have a career, what you wanted to wear, and how you wanted to spend your time. For many women around me, the expectation was to accept a suitable marriage proposal in your late teens or early twenties, and then spend your life prioritizing that marriage – no matter how unfulfilling, violent or painful it might turn out to be – over your own well-being.

I watched my mother fight these structures her entire life with every ounce of her being. I watched her courage, conviction and grace, her drive, her hopes for her girls. I also watched her fatigue, her sorrow and her grief at not having the same agency men around us were effortlessly born with. When female friends around me started to get engaged and married in my late teens, I decided I wanted more from my own life. I took a year off after graduating high school to help run a local nonprofit and apply to as many colleges as I could around the world in the hopes of getting enough financial aid to build a different kind of life. I applied to 35 schools, got rejected by 29 and waitlisted by 5. One accepted me with a financial aid package that covered 95% of the cost of attendance.

At 20, I left Pakistan for the first time in my life, with little more than the savings from my year-long job, and my mother’s lessons and prayers.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? My biggest worry and challenge, then and now, is a fear of losing my sense of self. As an international student, you deal with a plethora of complications – from picking industries and jobs that can offer you visa sponsorship to recognizing subtle discrimination based on things like your accent or nationality – and coping with at times debilitating homesickness. It’s not easy to build a life with next to no money in a part of the world as alien to you as another planet, where you know absolutely no one. I have had to work hard to brave these challenges and make pragmatic choices, to build a network of friends and supporters, not to mention credibility for myself. Through all of this, I have lived on the other side of the world, far from scores of loved ones, and it’s taken a lot of effort to try and hold on to my mother’s legacy and sense of self with the sheer volume of change and tumult in my life.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher experience that you wish they would understand better? It might sound a little hard to believe but my parents, in spite of never having gotten four year college degrees or even traveled to the US, never questioned any part of my experience. They were proud of my choices of what to study and where to intern during school, with the only unspoken complaint the lack of time I was able to spend at home in Pakistan as I spent every break working in the US. It was my privilege to be a source of pride for my family, and to support them financially along the way.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? I wanted to go back to school in part because it was an opportunity my ancestors, let alone my parents, never got to have. Seeing me continue my education was a huge source of pride for my parents.

I was also curious about making a career and geographic pivot. I worked in the financial services space for three years in NYC before the GSB, helping industry incumbents adapt to competitive headwinds from scores of new tech and fintech companies. While the work was highly engaging and challenging in the best of ways, I was always curious about what it might be like to work on the other side of this field.

I decided to go back to school to understand how technology that centers the needs of human beings is crafted and created and how we can make everyday tech products more inclusive of people from different countries, languages and cultures.

How did you choose your MBA program? Prior to coming to the GSB, I spent 7 years on the East Coast, and was always curious about life in the Bay Area. I also heard friends and colleagues describe the GSB as a community of people who genuinely cared about social equity, progress, and change. The combination of a community that was passionate about building a more equitable society, and a location I always wanted to live in was irresistible. I knew this was the place I was going to be the day I got the acceptance phone call.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? I was worried about whether I would be able to send a sum of money back home every month for my mother without having a steady income. I chose to live in a dorm that cost half as much as the official GSB residences, and avoided expensive events and trips when I got to campus. To my relief, I found out that there were other folks making similar choices and that the community was so generous, warm, and intellectually engaging that it was possible to make wonderful friends without stepping out of my financial means.

My set of worries has changed drastically after coming to the MBA program. As mentioned earlier, my mother died of a sudden stroke earlier this year in January. I am now trying to understand how to cope with the loss of my biggest champion while completing a rigorous MBA program and crafting a new career path. The unimaginable strength of the GSB community has made things more bearable for me along the way – friends who took me to the airport and made sure my fridge was stocked, housemates who continue to check on me, professors who helped me manage classwork and grief all at once, administrators who helped me finance a last minute trip around the world and take time off from school for the funeral, and so forth.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? I received generous financial aid from Stanford and am using the fellowship along with student debt to finance my education. My personal savings have always been earmarked so I can support my family in any capacity they need.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? I help run the First Gen / Low Income Club at Stanford GSB and serve as a Peer Mentor for incoming MBA students as well. I am also an elder sister to another amazing first gen college student – my sister who graduated from the same school as me in the US a few years ago. As part of these roles, I get to speak with others like me, and I like to tell them that they aren’t alone. It can be so isolating to be the only one in a friend group who is stressed about money, who is not used to having heating or air conditioning because they grew up in a low-income home, the only one who is choosing a job based on how much money they will send back home. But there’s more of us out there, fighting familiar battles. And it makes a huge difference to my mental health to just remember that even in my most lonely moments, I am not alone. So I like to share the same message I repeat to myself with others as frequently as I can.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I plan to work in the Tech industry and adapt mainstream technology products to the needs and nuances of users from low-income backgrounds as well as users from developing countries.