Business schools nurture many of tomorrow’s business leaders. Jaleh Bisharat explains how talking her way into a scholarship halfway through her Harvard University degree allowed her to continue her studies and develop a career. Her story demonstrates where a business school education can lead you if you also learn along the way.
What motivated you to attend Harvard Business School?
When I was 19, attending Harvard University, my family lost everything during the Iranian revolution. I still had a year of university and no funds for tuition. I went to the financial aid office and talked my way into a scholarship for my final year.
Something my father always said to me came to me: “The one thing no-one can take away from you is your education. Everything else can be taken away, except what’s in your mind.”
I applied to Harvard Business School and felt very fortunate when I was admitted.
What did you learn about business and life?
At 23, I was one of the youngest in the class at Harvard Business School. I think older students with more work experience gained more from the course than me. I recommend having at least four years of work experience before going to business school.
My marketing professor was hard as nails. Halfway through term I was warned I was heading for “a low pass”. He told me I was not aggressive enough; I didn’t speak loudly or with conviction. Many women on the course struggled with this. We saw him as disproportionately rewarding aggressive male characteristics. But I pushed out of my comfort zone to be more confident, ending up with a respectable grade.
" The one thing no-one can take away from you is your education "
Did your career motives evolve along the way?
My career motive has been to love my work; this goal has never been tied to a specific position or company. If you love what you do, you’re more likely to progress naturally.
Has your education brought opportunities you might not have had?
Yes and no. My education is important to me but we live in a rapidly changing world where we need to be students every day.
Some of the best business people I know learned on the job.
What was your first role after business school?
I spent a year in the Middle East, teaching business skills to talented young Palestinian and helping to set up worker-owned cooperatives. On returning to the US, I received offers from several companies. My criteria were two-fold: working with colleagues I could learn from, and doing a job I’d love. I joined a small company that offered less money than the others. Its team members went on to become some of Silicon Valley’s legendary leaders. I’ve never regretted the decision to forfeit income for professional growth.
What has been the defining moment in your career so far?
I was working with a poorly performing start-up. The culture was one of fear, set by the CEO. When a new CEO joined, the culture shifted dramatically: they genuinely wanted people to be happy. Everyone began to focus on customers and competitors and the company emerged as the leader in its space. If there’s one thing every business should take seriously, it’s building a happy culture, not a fearful one.
What leadership traits have you identified?
First, by demonstrating that customer experience is king, the culture is infused with the need to delight customers as a core value.
Second, great leaders are egoless.
Third, people do their best work when they feel confident and the work is meaningful.
How might the CMO role develop?
There was a time when marketing emphasised the broad powers of persuasion. Excellence in advertising, public relations, customer segmentation and brand were core to the job. In today’s highly measurable world, a new kind of marketer has emerged. This person is quantitative and skilled at experimentation, analysis, interpretation and iteration, to construct the optimal formula for growth. These two skill-sets are often viewed as distinct. I believe the CMO of the future should be able to knit them together and that business schools should embrace this as an objective.