As part of our OLEADA Lounge series, our brand features many accomplished women leaders, or as I’d like to call them, our wavemakers of change. But this Fall, we had the thought—what can we do to showcase those pursuing their dreams instead of those who’d seemingly “made” them already happen?
The answer was simple: we had to feature MBA candidates, because, who knows the struggle of pursuing their dreams better than them? With that, we took to the massive college campus that is Columbia Business School, our Co-Founder Tiffany’s alma mater, to find and showcase two students pursuing a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at the Ivy League school.
Meet Yasmeen Morais from São Paulo, Brazil, and Sarah Li from Handan, China. Pre-MBA, Sarah worked as a financial consultant as KPMG Deal Advisory and Yasmeen was a Management Consultant in NYC. Primarily focused on the Consumer Goods industry, Yasmeen has been working with the firm BCG since 2018.
When asked what motivated them to pursue an MBA in New York City, they both explained the degree helped define and shape the kind of leader they wanted to become post-graduation.
“I wanted to accelerate my career and prepare myself to be a dynamic leader who can make positive impacts to both business and people,” Sarah said.
“I want to be able to become a more well-rounded business leader,” Yasmeen stated. “And to be honest, I just love New York. It is so full of opportunities: socially, culturally, and professionally speaking.”
Sleep, academic rigor, or valuable networking: you can only get two when you’re completing your MBA. While Sarah prefers prioritizing academic rigor and valuable networking, Yasmeen applies the 80/20 rule to academics, focusing solely on networking and a good night’s sleep.
For those who don’t know, a key part of any MBA program is learning to market yourself constantly. Not only does the program enhance your business acumen and leadership skills, but it provides invaluable networking opportunities and first-rate resources. But the Columbia program isn’t what makes both Sarah and Yasmeen excellent networkers: it’s the fact that both of them have worked in different continents across the world.
I gave each of them the opportunity to describe working outside of their native country with one word. To that, Yasmeen immediately responded “Butterflies”.
“Because moving to an unknown place and adapting to their professional setting is very scary and everything feels uncertain. I always feel so many butterflies in my stomach when I move to a new city,” Yasmeen explained. “But, at the same time, it makes me feel free and independent. As if wings are giving me the power to fly.”
Sarah, agreeing with Yasmeen, says the experience of expanding your comfort zone and living abroad is nothing short of “fulfilling”. However, she can also attest to her experience in different workspaces altering her leadership styles throughout the years.
“Initially, I was quite hands-on, involved in every detail. However, as I gained more experience, I’ve transitioned to a more empowering approach. I now place greater trust in my team, providing them with full authority and support to take ownership of their roles,” Sarah says.
From working with groups both big and small in China, Amsterdam, and now New York City, Sarah says her experience learnt at CBS and serving as Co-President of one of the largest CBS student clubs helped ease her transition into a more team-based leadership approach.
Yasmeen, on the other hand, started her career in Brazil where there wasn’t a lot of international people at her firm. After some time, she moved to Dubai: a cosmopolitan city with people from all around the world.
“I think my key learning from my time in Dubai was that it allowed me to better understand different cultures and better tailor my leadership style to everyone,” Yasmeen admits.
Which is true: some cultures prefer blunt and honest feedback, while others prefer alternative options and suggestions laid out to them. With a flexible sense of leadership, Yasmeen recognizes this so-called “sensitivity” helps her understand how teams can be most effective, especially where her career in New York City is concerned. After all, she traded one diverse metropolis for another!
Post-MBA graduation, Yasmeen sees herself rejoining BCG’s New York office to work as a Project Leader for a couple of years. After that, she states she would “love to take on a leadership role in a strategy position in a Retail and Luxury brand.” Sarah says she will join Jefferies Investment Banking Healthcare Group for the time being, but as for the future, she plans to shoot for the stars.
“Who knows, I might one day become the CFO of a large corporation!” she says. And to that, we know she’s manifesting something well within reach.
Despite where they see themselves post-graduation, both women address the elephant in their corporate boardrooms: the challenges of being a woman establishing her career in business.
“In my opinion, most challenges for women in leadership roles in the business world are the gender bias and stereotypes, as well as the underrepresentation of women in senior executive positions, especially in the male-dominated finance world,” Sarah says.
Similarly, Yasmeen states unconscious bias and lack of representation in leadership roles in the business world are what make it significantly harder for women to create connections, find role models, and in rare cases even formulate hostile work environments.
“For those not aware, the number of women as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies has never risen above 8%,” Yasmeen says. “Personally, I have mostly worked with men during my entire career working for Fortune 500 firms…”
The problem, as both Yasmeen and Sarah find it, is cyclical. Women are constantly being overlooked for promotions and jobs, but at the same time they’re being looked at too much: scrutinized over every little detail they bring to the roundtable. And here at OLEADA, we’ve founded a network of corporate women whose stories sound so similar at times it’s almost as though it were textbook case-scenarios.
So, what is their advice to future MBA students headed out to climb the corporate ladder?
“When I was interviewing for Columbia I asked my interviewer for advice on how to maximize my MBA experience,” Yasmeen says. “I was told to try out different things that actually are not aligned with my trajectory. My interviewer works in Fashion but did a Python class and a startup lab.”
Trying new things can open up your world view, and help you maximize your career for what it’s worth. Taking classes outside your expertise will do just that: whether you’re in an under-graduate, graduate, or doctorate program.
“These classes are a great way to get familiarized with a topic you don’t know, interact with guest speakers, and get to know peers who work in these sectors,” Yasmeen states.
To Sarah, she acknowledges the importance of finding the perfect mentor.
"I can’t say enough thank you to my mentor who played a pivotal role in guiding me through my banking recruiting process,” Sarah says. “The patience, encouragement, industry insights, and assistance in building my network all have been instrumental in my journey.”
A true mentor, as she finds it, will not only show you how to excel as a leader. They will teach you how to lead an effective team, one that delivers exceptional performance while providing unwavering support to your cause for a project or project(s). The best part? A mentor will offer you pieces of advice you’ll come to remember for years after you graduate. For Sarah, one was “always ask for feedback and just do your best, whatever percentage you can give.”
Lastly, as two women in the pivotal moments of their careers, I asked them both to define women’s leadership. To Sarah, women’s leadership is to be the very best parts of yourself: brave, genuine, determined to cross a finish line, and an inspiring role model to other women. To Yasmeen, women’s leadership is strength and unwavering resilience coupled with adaptability: like bamboo.
“Bamboo is a fast-growing plant that can bend without breaking. They are a symbol of strength, perseverance, and flexibility,” Yasmeen states.
To us, women’s leadership is without a doubt flexible: it’s part of the reason why we juxtapose it to ocean waves. We are elastic—gentle yet fierce, poised yet mighty, all at once—exactly the words we’d use to describe Sarah and Yasmeen. And I for one can’t wait to see them both make waves in what’s to come of their careers.