Farah Ahmed, a student at Harvard Business School, shares her best career advice and what it's like to be a Muslim at HBS.
By Elizabeth Segran, Refinery29
From our series, What It's Really Like To Be A Woman At The Country's Most Prestigious Business School, these are highlights from conversations with four women from HBS’ class of 2015. In their own words, they tell us about their two years at Harvard, what they learned (including lots of amazing getting-ahead advice), and how they’re planning to conquer their futures.
HBS class of 2015
I came to business school because I wanted to explore: I'd been in one industry for three years, and I wanted to be exposed to more things, be surrounded by people from all different cultures and countries.
[post_ads]When I came to HBS, I was about to get married. On top of that, I’m a practicing Muslim, so I was in a completely different mindset from many of my peers who see these years as prime time for dating and partying. But, HBS was always very welcoming and inclusive, even though I was at a different life stage than many of my classmates.
Being Muslim means making certain choices about what environments I want to be part of. I don’t drink, for instance. I’m fine with being around people who do, but there are obviously certain things that my friends go to that are not fun for me because I’m not drinking. I sometimes wonder whether I am missing out on important parts of life because of my choices, but at the end of the day, this is me; it’s who I am.”In some ways, I’ve been trying to balance these competing identities my whole life. My family is originally from South India, but my grandparents moved to Pakistan in the late 1940s during the partition of India, seeking a better life for their children, my parents. A generation later, my own parents crossed the Atlantic and found their way to the US, carrying the same dream with them.
After college, I went into the energy sector, working for BP. After a year and a half in Houston, I moved to a field role in Amarillo, a rural area in West Texas. Part of my job involved going to operation sites, so I would drive out to rigs or pipeline jobs. Most of my colleagues were men, which made me stand out. And there was also the issue of how I looked — which is to say, foreign. I’d say I was from Houston, and people would say, “No, really, where are you from?” There would be a happy hour after work and rather than drinking a beer with the guys, I would grab a Sprite or something. I’ve found that if you’re a hard worker, a strong performer, and have a good attitude and personality, everything else doesn’t matter that much. I’m someone who hopes I have those attributes, so my background and my religion are part of me, but don’t have to define me.
[post_ads]In the South, there are lots of people who follow a faith of some kind. They talk openly about going to church, so it’s totally normal to bring up religion, and I can relate to people in a way that can be difficult in some secular environments, like HBS. In some ways, people there are more willing to listen to you and be open-minded when you talk about your faith, even if it is different from theirs.
Here at HBS, there are not that many Muslims. But, even if it’s not initially apparent, I’ve found that are also plenty of people who, like me, prefer to be more laid-back and low-key. At the end of the day, everyone makes meaningful relationships in different ways. Some people compete on teams and against friendly rivals in intramural sports; others travel together; I loved getting to know people through small dinners. I’d rather people just know me for who I am.