Want to go to Harvard Business School? Here’s how these African women made it happen

Maimouna Diakhaby

Harvard Business School is arguably the world’s most popular and influential institution of business education in the world. With alumni leading the globe’s most powerful companies, it’s no wonder that many Motherland Moguls have HBS at the top of their list for their MBAs.

We’ve caught up with two HBS students to learn about why they chose the school, the strategy they used for their applications and their best resources during the application period.

Maimouna Diakhaby - Harvard Business School

Maimouna Diakhaby

MBA Class of 2016

Country of Origin: Guinea

Pre-MBA Job: Business Analyst at Rio Tinto

Favourite Class: Managing International Trade and Investment

Why did you think an MBA was the right step for you in your professional journey and why did you think HBS was the best place for you?

After 4 years of work experience, I knew it was time to round my analytical skills with leadership and management skills. I was also looking for an education that would give me a comprehensive understanding of how different parts of an organization fit together to create value.

While there are amazing programs in the US for any aspiring student, my first choice was Harvard Business School for 2 keys reasons:

First, the school’s leadership focus was not only used for promotional reasons but also embedded in the entire curriculum. At HBS, every case discussion puts you in the shoes of a leader (CEO, head of state…) and forces you to make a decision that could change the course of an organization. The school attracts, selects and shapes individuals who are striving for technical excellence and looking to have an impact and influence the environment they live in.

The other reason I chose HBS relates to the school’s branding in Africa. As a woman looking to contribute to the continent’s development, I wanted to get a degree from a school with a strong reputation. In fact, women are too often relegated to more “feminine” roles and rarely taken seriously in some regions. The HBS network and reputation in Africa will hopefully allow me to break those barriers and focus on creating value.

How did you stand out in your application and show the admissions committee what you could offer the school?

It’s really hard to isolate what made me stand out. The admission office states that it looks for a well-rounded applicant and that all aspects of an application are equally important. In my application, I just tried to convey my story in a coherent and comprehensive way. I made sure to present all aspects of my background- strength and weaknesses included.

I strongly believed that if HBS was truly a place where I would thrive, my true ambitions and flaws would be accepted. I also believe that showing that I was a “balanced” prospective student played an important role. The typical HBS student has had a successful career coupled with strong extra-curriculum involvement that truly reflects their passions.

What area of your application did you spend the most time on and what was your strategy?

I spent the most time crafting my essay. I must have read it a thousand times (no jokes). I really wanted to make sure that it was an accurate reflection of my personality and would effectively allow the admission team to assess the kind of leader I was aspiring to become.

It is really important for prospective students to make sure their essay is coherent with the rest of their application. Also, use it as a platform to introduce yourself without exaggeration or disguise.

What resources/websites/programs were helpful for you during your application process?

GMAT Club is a fantastic resource. Most MBA students I know have referred to it at one point or another. People use it to ask questions, share information with other applicants or just learn useful tips on the gmat. The Manhattan GMAT preparation books were also my go-to reference while prepping for the test.

READ MORE: Founder of MBA Mama shares with us her advice on successful family planning during your MBA

Sola Olaniyan-Bright - Harvard Business School

Sola Olaniyan-Bright

MBA Class of 2016
Country of origin: Nigeria
Pre-MBA job: Adidas Group Finance, Germany
Concentration at HBS: We don’t have official concentrations but I’ve had the most electives in the fields of Entrepreneurship and Start-up Finance.
Favorite classes so far: Three come to mind:
1. Entrepreneurship and Global Capitalism: a business history course that studies the lives and journeys of successful businessmen and women from the 18th century till date. I loved this class because it challenged us to study different aspects of the world’s biggest entrepreneurs and to form our own opinions on the decisions they made from a financial, moral, and ethical standpoint which, of course, ended up being very personal for everyone who took the class.
2.  Entrepreneurial Finance: We studied the mechanics of businesses, mostly start-ups, from idea to execution primarily through the lens of investing and other financing decisions.
3. Business, Government, and the International Economy (popularly known as BGIE): It’s macroeconomics in practice where we study a different country every class to understand the underlying drivers of their performance and sometimes predict the future of their economies over time.

Why did you think an MBA was the right step for you in your professional journey and why did you think HBS was the best place for you?

Pursuing a graduate degree is something I’d always known I wanted to do. Having studied Accounting at university and completed the ACCA exams (chartered accounting qualification), I was initially looking to do an MSc in Financial Engineering or something along the lines of strengthening my roots in finance.

However, after 5 years in asset management and management consulting across various industries, I knew I wanted to go for a degree that would be much more than an academic exercise. I wanted a degree that would better equip me to be a rounded business leader by exposing me to as many different aspects of business as possible while keeping me globally competitive and this made an MBA a clear choice.

I chose HBS for 3 reasons the brand, the learning style (case method), and the network.

  •  The brand is very strong especially on the African continent and of course beyond.
  • The case method puts you in the driver’s seat of the some of the world’s biggest organizations in the most complex situations and it forces you to think critically about key decisions to be made while teaching you the frameworks behind how to think through those problems.
  • As far as the network goes, it’s pretty great, especially in Africa compared to many other schools. The school has graduated very successful alumni that you have easy access to just by virtue of being a member of the network.

How did you stand out in your application and show the admissions committee what you could offer the school?

I spent a whole lot of time reflecting on my life and writing my essays at the same time. I really wanted to make sure I was true to my own voice in my application and I didn’t want to compromise on clarity of thought during reflection.

So I spent about 3 hours every week for about 12 weeks writing down answers to questions I believed were important in showing the real me and telling my own story and then prioritizing based on what I knew my resume or recommendations wouldn’t be able to demonstrate. I also got a few trusted friends and colleagues to read through and give honest feedback along the way.

What area of your application did you spend the most time on and what was your strategy?

Definitely my essay. Having graduated from a Nigerian university from where no graduates had ever been admitted into Harvard, I knew my grades wouldn’t be enough. I knew I was up against stiff competition globally (with a 12% acceptance rate at HBS) and felt I had to work to overcompensate with the quality and authenticity of how I told my story.

I also wanted to make sure what I shared was different from but at the same time complementary to what my recommenders had to say about me in showing a full picture of who I was as a person. I know it takes some successful applicants a much shorter time to write their essays but that was certainly not the case for me.

What resources/websites/programs were helpful for you during your application process?

Number 1 would absolutely, positively be http://www.beatthegmat.com/. The learning plans, the success and failure stories, the info on upcoming admissions webinars, and many other aspects I’ve left out made it an invaluable resource for me, especially as I didn’t know very many other people who were planning to attend b-school at the time.

Also, for GMAT prep, the entire Manhattan GMAT series as well as the Official GMAT review really helped build my confidence. With those resources and consistent practice, most people are already well on their way to a good score.

Twitter Chat with Yasmin Belo-Osagie: Getting Into The Graduate School of Your Dreams (Mar 14)

Missed this event? Make sure you don’t miss the next one by joining our community today.

Click here to follow She Leads Africa on twitter

Applying to graduate school can be an exciting but nerve wrecking time. Graduate degrees have the potential to help you add advanced knowledge and credentials to your CV and move up in the rankings at work. However, competition is stiff for the best programs and even qualified candidates can struggle when it comes to convincing admissions officers to allow them entry.

Join us on Monday March 14 for a Twitter Chat with our very own Yasmin Belo-Osagie where she’ll help us figure out how to get into the graduate school of our dreams.

Follow She Leads Africa on twitter and use the hashtag #SLAChats to ask your questions and participate in the discussion.

Topics that we’ll cover:

  • How to develop your application strategy
  • The best study tools to help you prepare for the entrance examinations
  • How to get letters of recommendations to help you stand out
  • Tools to help you manage all of the different deadlines and requirements

Yasmin-Twitter Chat-Twitter_Card

About Yasmin: 

Yasmin is a co-founder of She Leads Africa where she leads the events and offline programming team. Prior to starting SLA, she worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company where she focused on developing multi-year growth strategies for large organizations. She graduated from Princeton University (majoring in history) and is now mid-way through a JD/MBA at Harvard Law School and Stanford Business School.

What you can learn about leaps of faith and other career lessons from Isis Nyong’o Madison

isis nyong'o madison

Isis Nyong’o Madison is a tech entrepreneur, investor and influencer in the African entrepreneurship scene. Aside from being named as one of the youngest power women in Africa, she is a principal at strategic advisory and investment firm Asphalt and Ink and previously served as the Vice President and Managing Director at InMobi and Google’s Business Development Manager in Africa.

With numerous nods, including several acknowledgements from Kenya’s Business Daily’s Top 40 under 40 Women, Isis Nyong’o Madison is someone all young African women need to look up to. We went through some of her interviews and learnt a few career lessons.

1. Take a leap of faith

Kenya in recent years has been touted as the hottest tech hub of Africa but in 2002, this was not the case. Isis chose to come back to Kenya against the advice of a career officer at Harvard in order to pursue tech opportunities in the market.

 Even if the steps you want to take in your career do not look like the correct ones to others, you need to be able to critically review advice from others and draw your own conclusions. Coming back to Kenya was a leap of faith for Isis and it has paid off.

isis nyong'o madison

2. Take a chance on you

While she was still a student, Isis flew out to London on her own dime, to meet with MTV Africa head Alex Okosi. This is because she felt that she was the right person for the job. Taking a chance on yourself means not giving up on an opportunity you think suits you no matter the obstacles.

3. Make a decision and stick to it

To achieve anything in life, clear decisions need to be made. Once you have decided what direction your career should take, it is important to stick to it. Isis has said in numerous interviews that there are no quick wins.

Success takes time; you need to give yourself time. Isis has declined higher paying jobs in her career that did not meet her own personal goals of challenging work, responsibility, and growth.

4. Build/create/do something worthwhile

It is not enough to just focus on moving up the ranks, you need something to show for it. It is just as important to build a track record or building something on your own or within a company no matter what role you are in. This is definitely something that can be said of every role Isis has held.

Isis Nyong'o Madison

5. Be confident

No one is going to hand it to you. You need to go after the career or promotion you want. Once you have taken the time to build something worthwhile, do not be afraid to show it.

Use it as a portfolio to show just what you have accomplished and make it hard for anyone to pass you up for or question your promotion. Isis has been asked several times by people with more seniority than her whether she can do the job and her response as always been yes. You’ve shown you can do it, now prove it.

6. Be open to learning

You can never learn anything enough and Isis knows this. Take every opportunity you can to learn something new. As Isis puts it, “learn about new ideas, build a new skill or deepen your understanding about a subject you are already familiar with.”

7. Be committed

After it’s all said and done, Isis truly does commit to her work. In an interview with Forbes Africa magazine, Isis said about her former firm, “As we are a global organization (InMobi), there are often conference calls in the middle of the night and early hours of the morning. InMobi never sleeps.”

To grow your career, you should be willing to give that level of commitment to your career.