Meet The MBA Class Of 2023: Leah Azeze, Harvard Business School

Leah Azeze

Harvard Business School

“Epicurious global citizen passionate about social impact and tennis.”

Hometown: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia & Springfield, Virginia

Fun Fact About Yourself: I implemented international development projects in 10 countries in 6 years from fostering a peaceful political transition in Libya to increasing agricultural productivity in Zimbabwe.

Undergraduate School and Major: University of Virginia, Global Development Studies & African-American and African Studies, French Minor

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Senior Program Manager, Chemonics International Inc.

What word best describes the Harvard Business School students and alumni you’ve met so far and why? Catalysts.

The students and alumni I have met so far are catalysts for change at work and in their communities. Every day, they are inspired to translate their good intentions into action and tackle society’s most complex challenges with grace.

What makes the case method so attractive as a means to learn and become a better manager? Leadership in today’s changing world requires thinking on your feet while staying true to your values. There’s no better place to do that than in HBS’ classrooms where you are required to make decisions with incomplete information every single day. The case method teaches you to lead with confidence in these moments by regularly immersing yourself in real-life scenarios that challenge you to adapt in the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

Aside from your classmates and cases, what was the key part of Harvard Business School’s MBA programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? I was excited to learn that Professor Brian Trelstad and HBS students recently established an impact fund for Boston-area minority small businesses. This was important to me as I would love to expand on this and create a student-run global impact investing initiative focused on Africa. I am motivated by the opportunity to contribute to Harvard’s legacy of excellence.

What course, club, or activity excites you the most at Harvard Business School? Professor Hakeem I. Belo-Osagie’s course on doing business in Africa.

When you think of Harvard Business School, what is the first word that comes to mind? Why? Opportunity.

HBS is the epicenter of graduate business education where students can reinvent themselves by building the skills required to pursue their wildest dreams.

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: Managing a grants fund under a U.S. government-funded project focused on increasing entrepreneurship in Uganda’s agriculture sector is my proudest professional accomplishment because of its wide reach and lasting impact. By partnering with 41 Ugandan entrepreneurs, I supported the creation of economic opportunities for over 350,000 youth and leveraged $13M in additional private sector funds. As we collaboratively crafted business plans that enabled each firm to grow, I learned the importance of knowing when to take the lead and when the time is right to hand over the reins. Ensuring that existing businesses led our interventions enabled us to avoid the all too common pitfall in foreign aid: offering band-aid solutions that disappear with the project’s ending. It wasn’t until this experience that I fully grasped the power of the private sector. Business is uniquely effective at scaling sustainable solutions.

How did COVID-19 change your perspective on your career and your life in general? In international development, COVID-19 made me realize that we have to empower those closest to the work to get things done. Restrictions on travel forced me to let go of outdated practices that emphasized U.S.-based oversight for work implemented thousands of miles away. It transformed my management approach, pushing me to lead with trust.

Personally, the pandemic changed my perspective on the need to always be productive. In the beginning of quarantine, I was focused on figuring out what kind of environment and schedule is maximally productive for me. However, as the pandemic prolonged, I learned to forgive myself for those lazy days where I just wanted to be still. Being kind to myself through the unparalleled uncertainty improved my mental and emotional health.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point and what do you hope to do after graduation? I believe social impact entrepreneurs will be major change agents in Africa’s future. An MBA from Harvard Business School would enhance my decision-making and communication skills through the case method, which is key to reaching investment decisions. It would strengthen my quantitative analysis skills for optimal deal sourcing and selection while ensuring that the yardstick used to judge African founders is consistent with non-African founders. Venture capital can close the funding disparities that have resulted in only a tenth of all capital for startups in East Africa going to founders from the region. After learning the complexities of fundraising, my long-term goal is to return to Ethiopia and start a sustainable honey exporting business. Given the low barriers to entry, beekeeping can have a transformative impact on landless women and youth. Though Ethiopia is Africa’s largest honey producer, quality remains poor, and there is untapped potential to expand the market base while combating deforestation and conserving biodiversity.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? Wharton-Lauder, Stanford GSB, Darden, Ross, MIT Sloan

What advice would you give to help potential applicants gain admission into Harvard Business School’s MBA program? Knowing yourself and knowing how to convey that to others is a major key in this process. Dig deep and go through the introspective work required to flesh that out. The application’s various parts build on each other so be consistent – if you’re being true to yourself, that comes easily.



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