Originally published by poetsandquants.com
Interview by Erik Schlie, Associate Dean of the MBA Program, IE Business School.
“An eternal optimist who believes that every problem comes with many solutions.”
Hometown: Mumbai, India
Fun fact about yourself: I am bitten by wanderlust and have travelled to more than 40 countries.
Undergraduate School and Degree: Bachelor’s in Engineering, University of Pune, India
Where did you work before enrolling in business school?
Ticking the Bucketlist, India- Founder
Yes Bank Limited, India – Senior Vice President, Strategic Accounts
GE Capital, India – Asst Vice President, Corporate Accounts
ABN AMRO India/Middle East – Relationship Manager, Corporate Banking
Where did you intern during the summer of 2017?
NA (1 year International MBA does not have a summer internship)
Where will you be working after graduation? After a decade long career as a corporate banker, in 2016, I founded my company in the travel space to cater to the needs of the Indian woman traveller, as many Indian women are now educated and financially independent, but it does not mean true empowerment. They are not free ‘to do whatever they want,’ including travelling alone. Travel becomes an expression of freedom, but the patriarchal social structure does not give a solo woman the confidence to travel. When an Indian woman wants to travel, she looks for like-minded company. Often, she is unable to find company due to various reasons – different interests, financial constraints and vacation time mismatch. If she does find company, lack of travel experience makes planning difficult and time-consuming, making execution of the trip a challenge.
After graduation, I intend to grow my start up to help the Indian woman explore the world.
Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: I am an IE ambassador and am closely working with the IMBA team to strengthen the IE brand though following key projects:
- Strategy to identify career opportunities in specific geographies: The project is underway and the recruiter network for India is being strengthened to include top tier domestic firms. Considering that only a handful of economies are growing at over 5%, this project becomes crucial to provide students with opportunities to work in a geography that still has a high growth potential.
- Road map to organise an international business plan contest, hosted by IE: With an aim to highlight the entrepreneurial spirit of the school, the project tasks include reaching out to sponsors, participants, judges as well as logistics and operations for the event.
As the elected Class Representative, I am the voice of the students in the Start-Up Lab. I act as a bridge between the students who are budding entrepreneurs and the IMBA team to ensure that every student in class in able to access the plethora of facilities provided by the school to make their entrepreneurial dream come true.
Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Academically, I was amongst the top three students from my class in the previous semester and am a strong potential candidate for the Beta Gamma Sigma Society (top 20% of the batch). However, I believe that every day is a learning experience and that grades reflect a very small part of the same. As I worked through unending cases, I realised that my professional experience made certain subjects easier for me to learn as well as to teach to my fellow classmates. I spent weekends teaching lawyers and software engineers how to balance ‘Balance Sheets,’ thus developing more than my pure academic faculties.
My passion for travel made me start a travel blog Ticking the Bucket List a few years ago. Regardless of the demanding schedule at business school, I continued to run the travel blog by writing regularly and made it to the list of the top travel bloggers from India. I was interviewed by local media in India as well as in Pakistan, regardless of the Indo-Pak tension.
What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? In 2009, as a corporate banker at ABN AMRO Dubai, I handled a portfolio of approximately 50 diamond merchants in the Middle Eastern region. I was assisted by a team of two resources – an operations clerk and a credit analyst. The operations clerk was a lady who was 40 years of age. While, she was very good at her job, I often heard her say ‘I wish I could analyse a balance sheet. I could then be an analyst and send my daughter to a better school’. She was sharp middle-aged woman, who had never had a chance to pursue quality education due to lack to funds. While I was inspired to help her develop as a credit analyst, inspiring her to believe in her own abilities was challenging task.
The situation developed me into a friend, mentor and coach. Together, we chalked out a learning schedule over the weekends and stuck to it with her little baby playing by our side, as we crunched financial ratios. It took 8 months for her to acquire credit writing skills. Over the next few months, she scouted the market, looking for credit analyst roles and soon landed herself the ‘dream job’ of a credit analyst, which tripled her salary. Possibly, this is one of the most satiating ‘achievements’ that I have ever had.
Who was your favorite MBA professor? The marketing mantra states that no business is ever successful if there isn’t a customer who is willing to pay for a product. My marketing professor Ana Rumschisky has given me the ‘secret sauce’ to help me put the above mentioned mantra into practise. Ana has taught me a two pronged approach to marketing, which has made me realise that marketing is as much of an art as it is a science. A marketer needs to have the perfect balance of emotional as well as intellectual quotient. As every human action has an emotional element, Ana taught me to get inside a consumer’s mind and to truly ‘feel’ the needs, wants and desires of a potential customer. She also ignited the logical and rational side of my brain by making me interpret data; ‘Numbers talk to you’, was an oft repeated statement in her class.
Ana has had a successful career with marquees names like Kraft Foods and Gillette, which makes her a knowledge repository of instances that demonstrate marketing successes and failure. She is approachable to all and is eager to teach as well as to learn. Over the past few months, I have developed a bond with her that goes beyond academics; she is now my mentor and I reach out to her whenever I need to discuss new ideas and concepts.
What was your favorite MBA Course? My favourite MBA course was titled ‘Leading People and Teams’, which made me re-look at business situations with people, not mere financial numbers and statistics.
As one progresses though corporate life, it is evident that one’s interpersonal skills become ever so important. Every individual has different strengths, weaknesses, learning abilities and people management skills. The social set up in every organisation requires people interaction. While organisations are mindful of such interactions with external counterparties, many times, they forget the impact that internal interactions can have on the organisation culture, which, at times, determines the success and failure of a business. These dots were linked during the course, which has made me a better negotiator and an even better communicator.
Why did you choose this business school? If you have ever had an entrepreneurial spark in life, IE will ensure that the spark turns into a roaring flame and that you follow your passion, transforming yourself from an employee to an employer.
In 2016, I started my travel company to help Indian women travellers travel across continents. With no background in the tourism space, armed with my passion to travel and my experiences from around the globe, I took the punt. I successfully piloted trips to China, Russia, Kenya and Myanmar. Scaling the business was the next step. While the initial phase was a roller coaster and I enjoyed the ride, I needed a more structured approach to ensure that my venture could indeed root itself in the market. Thus, I was looking for school with a strong entrepreneurial focus that provides me the apt environment and support to dream and execute. IE’s focus on entrepreneurship, which included the ‘customization’ of the MBA for entrepreneurs drew me to the school.
What is your best piece advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? There is no ‘ideal MBA’ program. Each applicant has different aspirations and hence, different schools appeal to different candidates. Thus, the first step of the MBA application process is introspection to understand one’s skill sets and ambitions. Be true to yourself and aspire to get into a school that has values which resonate with your values.
Diversity, humanities, entrepreneurship, technology and innovation are the core value of that school. Instances where an applicant has been able to demonstrate one of more of IE’s core values will surely highlight a natural fitment and inclination to be part of the global IE family.
What is the biggest myth about your school? I had heard that the IE IMBA is for those who think outside the box and challenge conventional ways. It’s true – IE has students that are out of the ordinary, who aspire to create value in the world and are not blinded mere by monetary goals. Diversity and unconventional thinking truly is the soul of the institution.
What was your biggest regret in business school? I came to business school with a strong focus to develop myself as an entrepreneur and laid down goals for the upcoming semester as the course progressed. In the first semester, I concentrated on building a strong academic foundation. The next semester was focused on putting the learnings into practice at IE – internally and externally. I put together an informal group to ensure that students are aware of a plethora of inter-college events and helped form teams of people having complimentary skills sets and interests. I myself took part in international competitions and would be representing IE at Columbia Business School and at HKUST later this year. My line of sight then moved from academics to careers, with dedicated efforts to strengthen the IE brand in India and creating a separate segment in my start up to develop international immersive educational experiences. Thus, I have no regrets on the professional and academic front.
However, if I had to do the IMBA all over again, I would engage myself much more socially with my peers and hop on board more often for various cultural gatherings, especially as IE is home to students from over 70 countries.
Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I met Ines Bescos on the first day of school. She was a bubbling ball of energy, optimistic to the core. Having her around made people laugh and put things at ease. Initially, I liked working with her due to her sheer positivity. I started admiring her after a few weeks in the program when I saw her grit and determination to learn subjects that were out of her comfort zone. She made learning more important than grades. My respect for Ines grew when I saw her shouldering responsibilities above and beyond her peers. Ines took on the responsibility to guide prospective students from Latin America and spent hours counselling young minds. She interacted with the IMBA administration extensively to facilitate the academic learning of her class.
However, my respect for Ines grew multi-fold when I became aware of the fact that she had had a childhood that was very different. She had been through situations that would break down many in my home country, including myself. Yet, here she is – a woman who inspires many. Ines has a spine of steel and the heart of a child. More people like her would make the world a better place.
Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? I always believed that I am a people person. B2C businesses drive me and make me tick. However, I spent over a decade in corporate banking – a B2B business. While I did well in the financial services sector, I worked in a space that was not aligned with my natural instincts. A decade later, I was burnt out and decided that it was never too late start again. Hence, I founded my company in the travel space and headed to business school to pursue my dream.
My pillar of strength who stood by me and pushed me to follow my dreams is my husband, Ankur. Not many head for a full time MBA at the age of 37 to be an outlier in class. My husband helped me get over the mindset that I was ‘too old’ to go back to school. While stereotypical Indian males would think twice when their wife would put forth such a proposition, my husband worked tirelessly to arrange for funds and convince my parents. I am blessed to have a him in my life as a friend who knows me better than I know myself.
“If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…travelling the world with my backpack.”
If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the MBA experience? If I were dean for a day, I would change the student mix to admit a higher number of students who are seeking entrepreneurial challenges and dream of starting their own venture, be it technological, consumer-focused or socially-driven. IE is laced with excellent faculty, venture connects and facilities that promote and teach entrepreneurship. Admitting students who are already excited about the entrepreneurial journey will allow them to get the best that IE has to offer and cater to unmet market needs across sectors.
What are the top two items on your bucket list?
- Grow from a start up to an organisation
- Visit 100 countries in the world
In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? A good human being with a kind heart and a sharp mind.
What would your theme song be? “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship
Favorite vacation spot: Any beach where I can hear the waves and watch the sea and the sky kiss at the horizon
Hobbies? Photography, travelling, writing
What made Sonia such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?
“It is a great privilege to write a recommendation for Sonia Sahni. Sonia is a truly impressive woman with a remarkable professional background. A true entrepreneur, she went from Senior Vice President of Yes Bank (5th large Private sector bank in India) to launch a start-up on women travel, profitable from the beginning. Just a year later, she started her MBA at IE (her second MBA), and despite her being involved in many extra-curricular activities, she managed to maintain a 3.83 GPA. As class representative, her entrepreneurial and leadership attributes are flourishing, among her peers she is the go-to person for guidance and motivation. In response to anxiety and stress, Sonia was one on the most visible supporters of the “Positive Movement,” which had a remarkable impact amongst her fellow students. She has a tremendous belief in herself and confidence gained from a well-rounded professional background, and it shows as we see her interact with peers and professors, as well as the IE Student Ambassador that she is. Sonia is a stand-out individual that we are certain will continue to do great things in the future and leave a positive mark wherever she goes.”
Associate Dean of the MBA Program
IE Business School