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Betting On Yourself Will Always Pay Dividends – Fatima Arabzada, MIT Sloan MBA Class of ’23

June 20th marks World Refugee Day – an internationally recognised opportunity, organised by the United Nations, to recognise, honour and celebrate refugees from around the world whilst shining a much-needed spotlight on the conflicts and crises which have forced people to flee their homes in order to seek safety. 

Going further, each year, World Refugee Day champions the right for refugees to find economic and social inclusion, as well as to visibly advocate for finding solutions to the root causes of their plights. 

Business schools and universities – institutions which exist to educate the next generation, shape future society and find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges, support refugees through education access and support, outreach initiatives and research. 

In recognition of World Refugee Day, BlueSky Thinking speaks to students around the world who have been displaced by global events and conflict, using their experiences, voices and actions to help make the world a better place…

  • Name: Fatima Arabzada
  • Country of origin: Afghanistan
  • Occupation: Recruiting for PE-backed startup CEO positions
  • School: MIT Sloan, MBA Class of 2023

Can you tell us about your experience of being a refugee and how/why you sought refuge? 

I faced a low ceiling that capped the extent of my personal and professional growth, and I was an outcast as a female entrepreneur or founder in a highly conservative province of Afghanistan. 

What gave you the decision to study at business school? And have you faced any specific challenges have you faced as a refugee student? 

To receive exposure various career paths and gain an invaluable network of like-minded individuals on the same career trajectory, building innovative solutions to solve inefficiencies. 

Are there any unique skills, perspectives, or experiences that you feel you bring as a refugee student? 

There are a couple points that stand out right away: first is the diversity of thought and exposure to various markets and social and legal systems. The other is the initiative I have to consistently push beyond expectations. 

What advice would you give to other refugee students who are considering pursuing business education or starting their entrepreneurial journeys? 

I have three pieces of advice: First, focus on expanding your horizons and allow curiosity take you to places that will provide you growth and exposure. During my time at MIT Sloan, I took AI, quantum computing, and entrepreneurial courses that will allow me to stay highly competitive anywhere in the world and fed the curiosity of my inner child.

Second, as a refugee, you are born into a cause that is significant and urgent; however, your commitment to the cause does not have to be immediate. Often survivor’s guilt can create mental blocks against embracing certain new experiences. Focus on healing and growth so that you are able to serve in a much bigger capacity.

Finally, betting on yourself will always pay dividends. Find the right mentors and learn what it would take to minimize the risks of building a startup before you commit to that path. For example: I approached a business man I respect greatly, Don Belinsky, to be one of the founding members of his startup and I not only gained valuable insights but also gained a life time mentor. 

How can business schools and the broader community better support and empower refugee students in their pursuit of business education and career opportunities? Acknowledge the skillsets refugee students acquire outside of their resumes as well. Two days before my MIT Sloan orientation began, I rescued 15 members of my family and 25 athletes two days. I operated with incredible levels of ambiguity, stayed extremely calm under pressure, ingested large sums of information to make life and death decisions all while managing more than a hundred friends and family helping in the process.  It is often seen as unprofessional to mention personal experiences in interviews, especially since it is unrelatable but it is the most accurate depiction of my capabilities. This is not an isolated story, unfortunately. The refugee students have to both successfully overcome such hardships and acquire experiences that are relatable to corporate America. That is a significant hindrance when refugee students already work at least twice as hard for the same opportunities and recognition. 

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