Coming into an MBA from the nonprofit sector

Although MBA candidates come from a range of different industries, it’s true that some (such as Consulting or Finance) are more prevalent than others. The nonprofit sector, however, is not one of the “traditional” MBA sectors. Canadian Azra Samji had been working in the industry for several years, with local charities and local government, before deciding to do an MBA.

For Azra, it was a chance to equip herself with the hard business skills she was currently lacking – and perhaps change a few stereotypes about the nonprofit sector along the way.

“The most interesting part of working in nonprofits is the innovation and the need to be constantly changing things,” she says. “Oftentimes we think of the nonprofit sector as maybe not as professional or not as slick, so me coming to do my MBA was really an opportunity to get some of those business skills.” (00:41)

“I didn’t have a background in business – I was a teacher and I had a background in science, so this was really an opportunity for me to learn about the basics and the things I needed to know,” she continues. “But more than that it was an opportunity to build a network, and I found that was one of the biggest things that I took away from my MBA.” (00:59)

Why Schulich walks the walk when it comes to diversity

It’s not uncommon for business schools to highlight diversity as one of their key assets. It’s understandable: a diverse cohort can expose candidates to a wide range of opinions, views, and cultures that they may never have experienced otherwise. But in the case of Schulich School of Business, where Azra did her MBA, they really do put diversity at the heart of everything they do.

“Schulich often looks for diverse candidates. [Business schools] say that a lot, but Schulich actually walk the walk…when I walked in everybody was so unique and different, and that’s really one of the strengths of the program. Now I have classmates who have backgrounds in different things, who’ve specialized in different things, and they really had the ability to grow in the Schulich program,” she says. (01:26)

“Last year Schulich actually put into effect a number of various diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies aimed at making sure that we were as inclusive as we could possibly be,” she tells us. “Then the students who entered the program really felt safe and respected and heard.” (06:08)

It’s clear that Schulich’s approach to diversity and inclusion has had a personal effect on Azra, but it has also impacted her professional life. Although she started her MBA with every intention of returning to the nonprofit sector, instead she now works with a private company on their diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy.

“I wouldn’t have thought I would have ended up [in this industry] at the start of my MBA,” Azra admits. “But I realized that the nonprofit area isn’t just for nonprofits anymore – there are social enterprises, B Corps, there are all sorts of things that have risen up.” (03:27)

An MBA is about putting yourself out there

It’s fair to say that Azra had some initial doubts about her ability to finish the program. Having come from a non-traditional MBA sector, and not boasting the business experience that other candidates may have had, she admits it was difficult to convince herself that she belonged.

She says, “For me, it was the first time I really stepped out of my bubble and went into something I wasn’t comfortable with or didn’t know already. So going into Schulich was terrifying! I walked into my first day of classes looking around being like: ‘Am I supposed to be here? Is this for me? Are you sure?’ And I would often come home and think about that.” (07:33)

Looking back, she says it took a change of mindset to overcome those doubts. And that change has allowed her to thrive on a personal, professional, and academic level – over the course of her MBA and beyond.

“I realized that half the MBA is just about putting yourself out there. So I went from someone who was really scared of doing a lot of things to President of the Graduate Business Council all because I changed my frame of mind and I was willing to put myself out there,” she concludes. (07:46)

It's not about being an expert, it's about applying yourself

Azra soon realized that successful MBA candidates aren’t necessarily business experts, or straight-A students, or even experienced professionals. In reality, the ones who are successful at business school are the ones who apply themselves 100% to the program.

“I think the most important part of being an [MBA] candidate and coming to a [business] school is really the idea of wanting to try. I think that’s the thing that myself and my classmates all had in common,” she says. (02:08)

“At the end of the day, that’s what they’re looking for in an MBA program,” Azra adds. “We don’t need subject matter experts, we need someone who is coming into the program, who is willing to share their life experience and their career experience with their classmates, but also is just willing to try new things.” (02:31)

Azra’s experience is proof that the true barriers to success come from within. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or which industry you work in. As long as you have a willingness to work hard, apply yourself, and step out of your comfort zone, you can overcome any challenge in life – including an MBA.