MBA student perspective: choosing a graduate degree to maximize my social impact

By Sarrah Nomanbhoy

As I began thinking about graduate school, I knew I wanted to choose a program that would help me combine my two passions: entrepreneurship and international migration.

These two forces of creative disruption—driven by risk and ingenuity— seem to me to be the clearest and most hopeful forms of human agency. Yet for far too many of the 245 million people on the move today, constraints undermine their ability to secure their own futures. My ambition is to build a company that develops technology and data-driven solutions to help address emerging migration challenges.

Off the beaten path

I started down this path as an undergraduate, when human migration emerged as a common thread through many of my experiences. I worked on a social enterprise to help migrant workers in Thailand remit money home efficiently; researched humanitarian coordination for the internal displacement crisis in Sri Lanka; took classes on international migration policy; and wrote articles about the challenges facing undocumented students on campus. 

However, it was not yet clear that I could turn this growing interest into a career. When I graduated from Stanford in 2012, I decided to move to Sri Lanka to help foster an ecosystem for innovation. I worked to launch a seed accelerator which, backed by Sri Lanka’s largest apparel manufacturer, invested in technology-driven apparel startups. While this work was exciting, I knew that apparel was not my passion.

As strange as it sounds, it was a news aggregation app called Flipboard that made me realize it was time to move on. I noticed that almost every article I bookmarked over the course of a year was about international migration. These were the stories that kept me up at night. The ones I revisited. The ones that made me angry. It was clearly time for me to answer this calling.

MA or MBA?

To make this career transition, I considered many types of graduate programs: MBAs, but also public policy and even a master’s in international migration studies. Ultimately, it was one of my mentors, a professor of political science, who helped me decide. I expected that he would recommend an academic route, but instead, he broke it down to a simple question: Which of these programs gives you something that has no substitute? 

The answer was obvious: Haas. If I pursued a degree that gave me a deeper understanding of international migration trends, I’d miss out on opportunities to work on a solution. I’d miss out on applied innovation classes like Lean Launchpad; working on teams for entrepreneurship competitions; gaining exposure to the tech scene at Berkeley; and being part of a community of doers. Meanwhile, if I came to Haas, I could still gain a deeper understanding migration issues through my own self-study and initiative.

Sarrah study group.jpg

Unanticipated support

During my first semester at here, I’ve learned more about the latest technological trends and acquired valuable skills through the Technology and Data Science clubs. I’ve built a team to take on the Hult Prize Challenge on Refugees, and we’re now working on a solution to address the information gaps faced by forced migrants.

Lots of programs offer classes on social entrepreneurship, but I see social impact at the core of Haas’s identity: “Beyond Yourself” is one of the school’s four defining principles. I expected to meet other Haasies who had social ambitions that went beyond themselves, but I never anticipated the level of support I’d receive from my peers. For example, one classmate, the president of the Berkeley Entrepreneurs Association, recently asked how the club could support the startup I’m working on. Other classmates have offered to help with valuable leads, introductions, and advice.  

Before coming to Haas, I wondered whether an MBA was the right choice for someone who preferred the unbeaten path. But from my experience pursuing a non-traditional career goal, Haas meets you where you are—at your starting point. I started my MBA with an unusual ambition, and I credit much of my progress this semester to Haas’s unique support.  

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Posted on December 23, 2016
Sarrah Nomanbhoy
Sarrah Nomanbhoy is a student in the Full-time Berkeley MBA Class of 2018.