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Admit it, it will be very cool to have this under the ‘Education’ section of your LinkedIn or Facebook Profile regardless of which part of the world you are from. As a kid who was born and brought up in Bangladesh, I can imagine that this right here might seem impossible to you if you too were from that part of the world.
But what if I tell you that this screenshot right here has been taken from the profile of a fellow Bangladeshi? What if I tell you that this Bangladeshi spent her childhood years in Chittagong, grew up in circumstances similar to any ordinary Bangladeshi kid and then went on to graduate from MIT, Harvard Business School and will now start the next chapter of her life in Silicon Valley?
I know it might be hard to believe this, but truth is, these inspiring people do exist. Once upon a time, these opportunities were dreams to them too. But they decided to fight for it and strive until they could realize it. Sounds rather cheesy but a better way to simply state what they did will be hard to find.
By no means am I implying that studying at these institutions must be your only goal in life? In fact, most people I know who ended up graduating from these institutions aimed for different goals in life altogether and the education seemed to be a part of that journey only. The sole purpose of writing this is to share some realizations they have had on their journey so far, sincerely hoping that you too could learn a thing or two from them if you want to. I most certainly did.
So, without any delay, let’s dive into my interview with the one under the spotlight, Deeni Fatiha, one of the boldest women I have ever met and one of the most warm-hearted seniors I know. But before we get to know what inspired Deeni Apu (she is like the kindest sister I never had) to switch from engineering to business, the most important lesson she learned from Harvard business school or what was the hardest thing about being a woman in the business world, let me give you some context first.
HOW DID I HEAR OF DEENI APU?
When I first came to Harvard, I was a bit confused about what I wanted to study and my future career choices (I still am, to be honest). One side of me wanted to study the life-sciences because I had always found neuroscience fascinating while another wanted to study business because of the hands-on-thrill I feel while doing so (I argue about this with some of my closest friends at IBA of Dhaka University all the time, who absolutely hate studying business and brands BBA as the most boring subject on this planet).
So, I was looking for advice, ideally from someone who shares a similar background as I do (came from Bangladesh, studied in a science curriculum and also interested in business etc.). It didn’t take me long to hear about Deeni Apu though because she is very popular (in a wholesome way) among the Bangladeshis in that area. The reason of her popularity is because she has always been the heart of the MIT BSA (Bangladeshi Students’ Association at MIT) during her time at MIT and even to this day, she takes the first step in arranging get-togethers for the Bengali students in that area. In case you were wondering, yes, the get-togethers have Biriyani and now you know why I love Deeni Apu.
Side-note: The MIT BSA has been awarded the best student association at MIT multiple times, which is an amazing feat indeed and the Bangladeshi students of MIT deserve all the credit.
HOW DID I MEET DEENI APU?
And thus, I decided to send Deeni Apu a message on Facebook. I did what any lost boy looking for advice would do though. I spammed her with massive broad questions that can only be answered by writing an essay. In hindsight, I didn’t even deserve a reply, to be honest.
However, Deeni Apu actually took the time to reply to my messages despite being an extremely busy woman. Not only that, she also invited me for a dinner and a chat at her house. And finally, she also offered to introduce me to Zayan Apu (the only other Bangladeshi international student studying at Harvard at that time) who turned out to be one my closest seniors at Harvard in the year to come. And now I was definitely convinced about Deeni Apu’s justified wholesome reputation.
I will stop fanboying for now (I feel I can go on though) and jump right into my interview with Deeni Apu. Here’s what Deeni Apu had to say on what inspired her to switch from engineering to business, the most important lesson she learned from Harvard business school and what was the hardest thing about being a woman in the business world:
Seeam: What was the most important reason that inspired you to switch from Engineering to Business?
Deeni Fatiha: “Well I definitely wanted a Masters’ degree and I really wanted to learn more about business, government, and society, all of which pushed me towards an MBA. But I think more than anything, it seemed to be a good next step for my career trajectory, mainly for the following reasons:
I realized early on that I wanted to be in a decision-making role in a technically oriented company. Unfortunately, even in tech corporations, those in engineering roles are rarely in behind the steering wheel. But as a lifelong student of science, I didn’t have a solid background in the commercial aspects of running a company. I thought an MBA would be a good and accelerated way to delve deeper into all the different forces that actually help successfully commercialize a great piece of technology.”
Deeni Fatiha’s thoughts on what sets you apart in a professional life
“As you progress in your career, two things will really set you apart – your knowledge capital and your social capital. Knowledge capital is the wealth of information and experience you have acquired over the years through formal academics and informal learning. It’s what helps you develop expertise. Social capital comprises of your network and connections, which are incredibly valuable resources, especially as you are trying to build a company. I saw getting an MBA from a top-tier institution not just as a way to increase my knowledge capital, but also as a way to build my social capital with peers, professors, and alumni from all over the world and leading in their fields”.
Seeam: What is the most important lesson you learned at Harvard Business School (HBS)?
Deeni Fatiha: “I learned how much people underappreciate the capability of the business to create and drive change! I took quite a few classes that look at the effect of business and individual entrepreneurs on society and examine how business has worked sometimes with the government and sometimes despite it to create a lasting positive impact. In these classes, I’ve studied and debated many examples of individuals and how they utilized their agency to impact the world around them. In my second year, I conducted two research projects on some of the imperfections in today’s business world – the lack of capital allocation in slow but important industries like cleantech and the need to retrain workers as the nature of work changes. In both projects, I have come across many incredible examples of companies going an extra hundred miles to take care of the society around them. People tend to think you can either be a business or be a charity; the most important thing HBS has ingrained within me is that as a company you can do well while doing good.”
Seeam: What is the hardest thing about being a woman in business?
Deeni Fatiha: “I don’t have much experience as a woman in business just yet, but from my exposure to the corporate world and to the business classroom, one of the hardest things for me was to push myself to speak up. Let me explain briefly.
HBS classes are taught by the case method, where participation is mandatory. No matter what the class, you have to form an opinion based on all the information presented to you and debate it out with your classmates. This practice is helpful for many reasons, and one of them is to help you be vocal and comfortable speaking up even when you’re not the expert. Because unlike in math or science where you can often apply formulae to come to a neat answer, business is a lot more ambiguous and it’s very common to find oneself in new situations every day, so expertise only goes so far”.
Seeam: Any advice on how to overcome it?
Deeni Fatiha: “As someone with no background in business, it was really hard for me to push myself to debate with my classmates who were much more versed in the different subjects. My engineering background also meant I was used to only speaking up when I was the expert on the topic, so I had to break out of that shell as well. Additionally, I think compared to other cultures, both men and women from our culture tend to defer to elders and experts. On top of that, women are socialized to be even less confident and are less used to speaking up and more used to listening, compared to their male peers. I can’t tell which of these issues worked against me the most, but HBS has a lot of research on this and they often mention that in their experience, women across the board doubt themselves more even when they are more knowledgeable than their classmates. The good news is that we can train ourselves to overcome these issues. Over the last two years, I did exactly that by setting concrete goals on self-improvement and asking for feedback from trusted people.”
Deeni Apu’s next chapter
Deeni Fatiha has now moved to Silicon Valley in order to work as a Customer Success Manager at Bidgely, an AI/Data Science startup in hypergrowth phase, chosen by leading electric utilities around the world to transform how they leverage data and engage with consumers. She will be responsible for rolling out Bidgely’s innovative energy management service to strategic utility customers worldwide and also for tracking and report on key metrics post-launch to both internal and customer audiences.
Things I have learnt from this interview (plus my own assumptions):
- In order to be in a decision-making role in any company, even in tech corporations, having a solid background of education or experience in business will definitely give you an edge.
- Business has the potential to create and drive change. Throughout history, business and individual entrepreneurs have worked sometimes with the government and sometimes despite it to create a lasting positive impact. I personally feel business and entrepreneurship are at times undervalued in many parts of the society in Bangladesh.
- In business settings, it is essential to grow a habit of forming an opinion based on all the information presented to you and to always consider the alternatives.
- It is essential to learn to be vocal and comfortable speaking up even when you’re not the expert when it comes to business settings. Because unlike many STEM settings, the scenarios presented in business often don’t have precise solutions.
Some of the many things I learnt from Deeni Apu:
- Don’t be afraid to speak out when you are needed to
- Don’t be afraid to be the first to break glass ceilings
- Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone to explore things that fascinate you
- Always manage time for your family and the people you care about
- Always serve Biriyani in social gatherings
I hope you had the opportunity to learn something from this. I hope this was able to provide you with perspectives on barriers, business and boldness.
At the end of the day, only you can determine what paths you will choose to explore. Driven people can find inspiration from unimaginable places, find meaning where no one is looking, grasp opportunities where people don’t see one.
Here, I will quote Nazmus Saquib, a talented researcher at MIT Media Lab, Deeni Apu’s soulmate and an amazing human being: “It doesn’t matter where you study, your learning experience depends a lot on you. You can come to a big school and graduate without learning much or use the rare opportunity to shape yourself.”
This was taken from a beautiful Facebook status he posted on the occasion of Deeni Apu’s Harvard Graduation. You can find the full writing here.
People without college degrees can build billion-dollar empires. People from underprivileged areas can make it to the biggest academic institutions of the world. It all depends on you and your priorities. Your mentors can only guide or inspire. The rest is on you.
This article’s audiobook is read by Wasima Noor Iqra
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