The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed our lives fundamentally and irreversibly. As its ramifications continue to upend our lives, I have learnt to appreciate the silver lining under these circumstances – the opportunity to consider my life holistically and re-evaluate my mission and purpose.
This re-evaluation encouraged me to revisit my past, and I was able to acknowledge the tremendous impact that being a Saïd Business School graduate and alumni has had on my life and career.
When I started the postgraduate Executive Diploma in Financial Strategy in 2013, my goal was to use it as a stepping stone for the Executive MBA (EMBA). However, post-graduation, life moved in the classic fashion — marriage, moving from London to New York, starting a family, and a demanding job with a tier bank on Wall Street. Like many professionals out there, I coasted along — going through life day after day, week after week, month after month without asking myself too many questions, until the pandemic and the resultant lockdowns hit.
My initial feelings in the early days of the pandemic were panic, then anxiety and, eventually, a full-blown depression. What was I supposed to do? Or rather who was I supposed to be? A full-time mother taking care of my two-year-old daughter because the daycare centres were closed or a full-time employee working from home with responsibilities and tight deadlines which did not care that I spent the day chasing after a toddler? A feeling of helplessness exacerbated my depression. When my friend lost her mother at the height of the pandemic, I stood there, helpless. Seeing her sob uncontrollably, I could not reach out and hold her hand to comfort her or give her a hug. No, we had to maintain the required six-foot distance between us. To make matters worse, the funeral took place on Zoom a few days later.
Soon after, another neighbour lost his life to Covid-19. I called to comfort the family over the phone as there was no point visiting in person. The same distance of six feet had to be observed and, once again, there was no option to attend the funeral in person.
Amid all this suffering, I humbly contemplated my own mortality. ‘If I died today, what would I want written on my tombstone?’, I asked myself. That I was my employer’s greatest employee? Of course not. ‘If I died today, what would be my biggest regrets?’, I probed further. I acknowledged that my first regret would be to have not reached out and expressed my gratitude to those who truly touched my life. My second regret would be not having used my skills and potential to make a difference. I pondered the words of Steve Jobs — ‘We are here to make a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why else even be here?’ Stretching further, I questioned the meaning of life, and the words of Pablo Picasso provided some answers: ‘The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.’
By the time 2021 rang in, I had pulled myself out of depression by focusing my attention more on gratitude and began to find small ways and reasons to be grateful. To initiate my role in giving back, I volunteered to take a Non-Executive Director role in a family business in Central Africa focused on developing large-scale housing. Given that the business was struggling to raise funding locally to scale up, I began to build a business plan and an investors deck to help me pitch the business to foreign investors and DFIs.
As I sifted through a massive amount of data to write the business plan, I was shocked to discover that the housing shortage in Africa has become a real crisis threatening the development of the continent. Research published by Shelter Afrique, a pan-African real estate finance company, showed that the overall shortage of housing in Africa is estimated to be 56 million housing units, out of which more than 90 percent (45 million units) are in the affordable housing bracket.
Besides this shortage of habitat, Sub-Saharan Africa also faces large-scale energy deficits with over half a billion people on the continent still reliant on kerosene lamps, candles, and battery-operated torches for power. This situation compelled me to research the banking sector to see if there was anything I could contribute only to discover that the housing shortage on the continent is largely due to a lack of affordable financing. This factor, coupled with a rigid banking system still behind in terms of digital transformation, is making the situation worse.
By the time I completed the business plan, it was clear to me that if I intended to live the rest of my life with a sense of purpose and wished to focus on giving back, I had to go back to formal education. Undoubtedly, before the pandemic I would have said that, if I ever returned to Saïd Business School, the goal would be to undertake an EMBA or a DPhil. Those decisions had been purely motivated by my ego. However, Covid-19 had made me acutely aware that no one has a permanent lease on life.
I thus understood that I could go back to Saïd Business School and pursue a degree that is more suitable for me at this time of my life and career and, more importantly, which will give me the necessary skills to develop large-scale programmes in housing, energy or digital transformation in my native Africa.
This is the main reason why I chose to study the MSc in Major Programme Management. Those of us who are already alumni of the University know its commitment to lifelong learning. The added bonus are the friends that one makes for life. To this day, I am still connected to my classmates from the 2013 Diploma in Financial Strategy programme via a WhatsApp group. We celebrate birthdays, share pictures of our kids, seek advice on new ventures etc.
My advice to anyone considering an executive programme at Saïd Business School is ‘just do it’. If you failed at your first attempt, take a step back, strengthen yourself and your application, and re-apply the following year.
Saïd Business School is not just a great brand, but behind this brand are real people, professors and classmates who stand ready to support and encourage you throughout, whichever venture you are engaged in.