Meet the MBA Class of 2023: Leah Azeze, Harvard Business School

“Citizen of the epicurean world passionate about social impact and tennis.”

Hometown: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia & Springfield, Virginia

Fun fact about yourself: I have implemented international development projects in 10 countries over 6 years, from promoting a peaceful political transition in Libya to increasing agricultural productivity in Zimbabwe.

Undergraduate and major school: University of Virginia, Global Development Studies & African-American and African Studies, French Minor

Most recent employer and job title: Senior Program Manager, Chemonics International Inc.

Which word best describes the Harvard Business School students and alumni you have met so far and why? Catalysts.

The students and alumni I have met so far are catalysts for change in the workplace and in their communities. Every day, they are inspired to translate their good intentions into actions and gracefully meet the most complex challenges of society.

What makes the case method so appealing as a way to learn and become a better manager? Leadership in today’s changing world requires thinking while staying true to your values. There is no better place to do this than in the HBS classrooms where you have to make decisions with incomplete information every day. The Case Method teaches you to lead with confidence in these moments by regularly immersing yourself in real-life scenarios that challenge you to adapt to seemingly overwhelming circumstances.

Apart from your classmates and your cases, what was the key element of the Harvard Business School MBA program that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? I was delighted to hear that Professor Brian Trelstad and the students at HBS recently created a Boston-area Minority Small Business Impact Fund. This was important to me because I would like to develop this and create a student-led, Africa-focused, global impact investing initiative. I am motivated by the opportunity to contribute to Harvard’s legacy of excellence.

What course, club or activity are you most passionate about at Harvard Business School? Course given by Professor Hakeem I. Belo-Osagie on doing business in Africa.

When you think of Harvard Business School, what’s the first word that comes to mind? Why? Opportunity.

HBS is the epicenter of higher business education where students can reinvent themselves by developing the skills to pursue their wildest dreams.

Describe your greatest achievement in your career so far: Managing a grant fund under a US government funded project focused on entrepreneurship development in the Ugandan agricultural sector is my greatest professional pride due to its broad scope and impact sustainable. By partnering with 41 Ugandan entrepreneurs, I have supported the creation of economic opportunities for more than 350,000 young people and mobilized $ 13 million in additional funds from the private sector. As we developed collaborative business plans that allowed each business to grow, I learned the importance of knowing when to take the lead and when the time is right to hand over the reins. Ensuring that existing companies lead our interventions has enabled us to avoid the all too frequent pitfall of foreign aid: offering makeshift solutions that disappear with the end of the project. It was only after this experience that I fully grasped the power of the private sector. Businesses are particularly good at scaling up sustainable solutions.

How has COVID-19 changed your perspective on your career and your life in general? In international development, COVID-19 made me realize that we need to empower those closest to work to get things done. Travel restrictions forced me to abandon outdated practices that emphasized US-based surveillance for work implemented thousands of miles away. It transformed my managerial approach, pushing me to lead with confidence.

Personally, the pandemic has changed my perspective on the need to always be productive. In my early forties, I was focused on figuring out what kind of environment and schedule was most productive for me. However, as the pandemic dragged on, I learned to forgive myself for those lazy days when I just wanted to sit still. Being kind to myself through unprecedented uncertainty has improved my mental and emotional health.

What drew you to pursue an MBA at this point and what do you hope to do after you graduate? I believe that social impact entrepreneurs will be major agents of change in the future of Africa. An MBA from Harvard Business School would improve my decision-making and communication skills through the case method, which is essential for making investment decisions. This would strengthen my quantitative analysis skills for optimal research and selection of transactions while ensuring that the yardstick used to judge African founders is consistent with non-African founders. Venture capital can bridge the funding disparities that have led to only a tenth of all startup capital in East Africa going to the region’s founders. After learning the intricacies of fundraising, my long term goal is to return to Ethiopia and start a sustainable honey export business. Given the low barriers to entry, beekeeping can have a transformative impact on women and landless youth. Although Ethiopia is Africa’s largest honey producer, the quality remains poor and there is untapped potential to broaden the market base while combating deforestation and conserving biodiversity.

What other MBA programs have you applied to? Wharton-Lauder, Stanford GSB, Darden, Ross, MIT Sloan

What advice would you give to help potential applicants gain admission to the Harvard Business School MBA program? Knowing yourself and knowing how to pass it on to others is a major key in this process. Dig deep and do the introspection needed to flesh this out. The different parts of the app build on each other, so be consistent – if you’re true to yourself, it comes easily.

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