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Karima Hirji


“My unusual background suddenly became an asset - I felt that the School saw something in me they really wanted.”



Applying for an MBA at just 24 years of age, Karima Hirji was determined to study at a top business school. “I come from a family of social entrepreneurs and I’m really passionate about development work,” she says. Heading straight from university to a small non-profit in the energy access sector, Karima quickly found herself doing everything from fundraising to capacity building. But, she says: “Even though I quickly developed my managerial skills, I wasn’t developing the hard quantitative and analytical abilities that a lot of my friends in the private sector were gaining. I felt an MBA could fill that gap.”

Karima’s research led her to make a list of top global schools across both Europe and the US. “I decided that if I couldn’t get in to one of the top business schools with my current experience levels, I’d work longer and re-apply.” But there was more to her decision making process than rankings and reputation. “I eventually realised US schools wouldn’t offer me enough of an international class. I’d grown up in Nigeria and South Africa, gone to boarding school in Scotland and spent a year in France. I wanted a school that reflected that diversity.” And after speaking to London Business School students, she says, her story suddenly seemed almost commonplace. “I realised everyone at LBS is a global citizen - it felt like the right fit.”

Applying late in the admissions season, Karima had just a few weeks to make a decision about her LBS offer. “By that time I was getting nervous – not about my academics– but about being young for my class. I also knew the learning curve was going to be really steep since I didn’t have the same experience that my banking, consulting and corporate classmates would have.” Then, less than a week after receiving her acceptance letter, she was awarded the LBS Carlsson Family Scholarship, a fund that supports women of merit applying to business school. “The scholarship made me feel valued and encouraged,” she says. “My unusual background suddenly became an asset - I felt that the School saw something in me they really wanted.”

Although still considering another school, Karima says the scholarship also made it much easier to accept her LBS place. “Coming from a non-profit background I had zero savings. I didn’t have a lot of time to look for funding, and I wasn’t willing to accept all the money I needed for LBS from my family.” The scholarship took care of a large chunk of first year fees, and by the time the second year payment was due, Karima says, “I had an offer from BCG in hand, complete with a signing bonus and a 300% salary increase. So I was hugely grateful for the financial assistance it offered me.”

Pre-MBA, strategy consulting was not on Karima’s radar. “I came to LBS thinking that I would go back to the development sector, and perhaps move to South Africa to join my family’s social enterprise.” But a summer internship with The Boston Consulting Group’s Dubai office changed everything. “During my MBA I was exposed to all these different organisations and two of my study group colleagues were from top consulting companies. They helped me see that I could still do public sector work if I joined an MBB firm.”

Karima says her BCG internship – working for a Middle Eastern government ministry pursuing a women’s workforce participation initiative - was an incredible experience. In her final week, Karima helped organise a large conference on labour market reforms. “At the last minute the BCG Partner who was supposed to present the female participation piece, came up and asked me to do it instead. So I got to stand up in front of about 100 senior ministers and present. It was a stand out moment for me - something I’ll never forget.”

And that, says Karima, is the real beauty of the MBA experience. “My MBA hasn’t changed my motivations as such, but it has made me aware of a new way of doing things. Consulting in Dubai still allows me to focus on the public sector, but will help me to build the hard skills I want; I’ve found a more impactful way of being involved.” As for those who lack confidence to embark on their MBA journey? “Being young, or being a woman, or coming from an unusual background, it’s difficult to put yourself out there and you may doubt you’ll be good enough. But if you think that about yourself, there’s a really good chance that LBS is going to value you – exactly because you’re humble, you’re willing to take a risk, and you want to learn. Just go for it.”