It’s been a good year for Maria Ismail. She won the Dean's Academic Achievement Award. She won the Outstanding Marketing MBA Student Award. Most importantly, she wasgranted the MBA degree she sought through the accelerated program at the Weatherhead School of Management, and walked across the stage in May with the rest of the Class of 2010.
A dedicated and successful student at the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences (NUCES) at home in Lahore, Pakistan, Ismail had many options open after she obtainedher bachelor's degree as a member of the university's very first class of management science undergraduates. Some of her professors and mentorsat NUCES encouraged her to consider Ivy League universities for her MBA. But Ismail wasn’t sure.
As Ismail read more about the prominence of entrepreneurship and sustainability in Weatherhead's MBA curriculum, she became convinced that this was the right choice for her.
"Many other business schools give the impression of a ruthless, business-oriented mentality," she says. "Getting beyond strictly profits is very important to me, so Weatherheadseemed to be a better fit."
At the top of her mind when Ismail selected Weatherhead's MBA program were the interdisciplinary initiatives offered, Manage by Designing and Sustainable Enterprise. After a year's immersion in the school's unique culture, does she still stand by herdecision to pursue her degree at Weatherhead? By way of answer, she takes a step back in time.
"It sounds like a cliché, but—you know when you have those life-changing moments? Well, I did my undergraduate degree in business management. I expected to get a position in brand management with a multinational corporation dealing in fast-moving consumer goods—I was as specific as that. Now, it's not so clear-cut," Ismail says with enthusiasm. "Now, I want to figure out some of the ways that I can use my business skills to help alleviate the worst poverty."
Ismail has not rejected the idea of working for a multinational corporation, but she feels drawn to a different job description than before. "The direction of my ambition has shifted," she reflects. "Now, if I don't work in an industry or a business where I know that sustainability and social responsibility are part of our ethos, I won't be adding value as I know that I can."
Ismail's take on sustainability is directly related to her focus on poverty. She maintains a holistic view of the challenges that face any society, a view that is shaped by herfirst-hand knowledge of Pakistan's unique strengths and difficulties.
"In the part of the world that I'm from, if you don't get enough to eat, you're not going to have time to think about the environmental sustainability of your actions," she says. "I believe if you address the problems of poverty first, people will have the chance to start thinking about their impact on the environment." An elevated standard of living, therefore, is the necessary precursor to a greener approach to daily life.
Over the course of her MBA studies, Ismail felt that as she had hoped, she learned a great deal about advancing social and environmental progress through business. In addition, she found herself accessing an existing set of skills and interests that she had not anticipated would be of use in the program: her artistic background.
While many students on the accelerated track for the MBA choose to study one Weatherhead theme or the other, Ismail decided to do both Manage by Designing and Sustainable Enterprise, completing three courses in each subject area in the 11-month program.
Ismail arrived at Weatherhead eager to master the implementation of sustainable business policies, but she also found that studying management as a subset of design was a novel and intriguing idea.
"I'm always for learning new things," she says. "Manage by Designing sparked my curiosity because my conception of design at that time was very narrow. I’ve always loved painting and drawing, and making things like three-dimensional greeting cards. But now, when I think about design, it's about more than just aesthetics, more than just artifacts. In fact, design doesn’t have to be tangible or physical. It can be a way of planning or organizing or structuring. It encompasses designing experiences and interactions, or even whole organizations—hence the link with management."
Indeed, Ismail deems her team's awareness of Manage by Designing one of the factors in their success at the Aspen Institute 2010 Business & Society International MBA Case Competition. The Weatherhead team, including Ismail and teammates Nicholas Anasinis, MBA '10; Patricia Jurca, MBA '10; and Lei Yang, MS Finance '11; overcame a record number of competitors to win the prestigious case competition, the largest focusing on social, ethical, and environmental issues.
The students were flown to New York City to compete in the Aspen finals against teams from Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University, the School of Business and Economics at Finland's University of Jyväskylä, and Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. They presented their submission, focusing on a complex case study of the Tata Group, an Indian multinational company operating in seven sectors, to a panel of judges from Fortune 500 companies and an audience of over 100 business, nonprofit, and academic attendees. The Weatherhead team won a cash prize, plus $3,000 to donate to a 501(c)(3) charity of their choice. The team chose to donate the money to Remember Nhu, a charity that combats the child sex trade worldwide.
Ismail explains the dilemma at the heart of the real-life case in question.
"The study highlighted tension about the Tata Group's need to maintain its identity and values in terms of sustainability and communitydriven initiatives while becoming increasingly global. They do a lot in India for schools, hospitals, and other important organizations," she explains. "The question is, if they go global, will shareholders recognize the value of that work?"
The team members threw themselves into the project with gusto even though, "initially, we didn't feel like we'd go that far," says Ismail with a smile that still suggests delighted surprise. "This was the first time Weatherhead participated in this competition, and neither we nor our coaches knew what to expect. Still, our coaches told us we had all the tools."
So it proved: the team created a 10-year strategic sustainability plan that, in Ismail's words, "linked profits with purpose." While Ismail and Jurca, both strong adherents of the design approach to management, concentrated on brainstorming strategies, Yang and Anasinis, each of whom specialized in finance, focused their efforts on "crunching numbers, translating the strategies into their impact on Tata's bottom line through the Economic Value Added (EVA) approach," says Ismail.
"Patty [Jurca] and I both took sustainability and design courses and felt they helped us think through the demands of different stakeholders," she continues. "We were also very cognizant of not having premature closure—and that was something we learned from design, probably without even realizing it."
Ismail elaborates on what managers can learn from the design field. "Designers are very good at starting from scratch. When they see that something isn’t working...." She mimes crumpling a piece of paper and tossing it out. "In business, my impression is that people usually diverge, converge on an answer, and stick to that. To me, design means being able to diverge, converge, and diverge again before finally synthesizing what was learned."
The sustainability curriculum in the MBA program, Ismail feels, becomes inextricably linked to ostensibly unrelated courses like strategy and marketing, as well as to design, over the course of a year.
"Now that I think about it, could I have taken sustainability courses and not design? I wouldn't want to try—I struggle distinguishing what I learned from which course, because there is so much overlap," she muses.
With their grounding in both subject areas, the team's four heads proved better than one. "That's the advantage of teamwork, and in terms of team dynamics, we had just the right balance between questioning each other and coming to an agreement," Ismail says. "No one could have asked for a better team."
Ismail reveals a behind-the-scenes moment at the Aspen competition finals that thrilled the four students.
"Before the results were announced, Tata's representative approached us to say that he thought ours was the best presentation," Ismail says, smiling. "He said, 'I felt that you really understood the complexity of the challenges involved.' For us, that was it—we felt so good, it was like we had won already."
Now that she has returned to Lahore, Ismail will miss close friends she made through the Accelerated MBA program.
"During orientation, a panel of Accelerated MBA alumni claimed that the program was a 'boot camp,' where you became really close because you really need others' support," she recalls. "We new students looked at each other, thinking, 'Sure, whatever.' But they were right!"
Maria's immediate plan is to find work with a company or corporation that will allow her to use her business skills to improve standards of living for the poorest people. But is she open to pursuing further academic study?
"It’s funny—I was talking to my dad recently, and he said, 'You're so ready for the PhD!' Then, my uncle posted on Facebook, 'I think the U.S. hasn’t seen the last of you!'" Ismail smiles with amusement. "It's really flattering to hear that, but I'll have to see how it goes! Someday, I would love to get involved in the academic world to share knowledge of what I've learned. I do feel the need to spread the word back home that there are things you can do with these tools and skills to improve lives."