Preparing to lead in fintech

By Jenny Clare

“I regularly ask myself three questions: ‘Am I growing? Am I learning? Am I having fun?’ If the answer to any question is ‘no,’ I re-evaluate my situation.”

When she realized she wasn’t growing at the pace she expected of herself, Shazia Virji, MBA 23, general manager, Credit Services at Credit Sesame, decided going back to school would provide the growth she needed. But not just any school. Shazia earned her undergraduate degree in Business Administration from UC Berkeley and wanted to return to Haas as a student in the Evening & Weekend MBA program.

An additional, and unexpected, bonus to returning to Berkeley Haas for her MBA was Shazia’s ability to apply through Cal Advantage. Piloted in 2020, Cal Advantage allows applicants with UC Berkeley undergraduate degrees to apply to MBA programs through a streamlined process. While GMAT/GRE or EA are optional, Cal Advantage candidates are evaluated using the same criteria that are applied to other MBA applicants. “Applying through Cal Advantage added flexibility to my timing,” she said. “I was able to decide, apply, and be accepted on an accelerated timeline.”

Growing amid diverse perspectives

Returning to school 10 years into her career in fintech, Shazia relished the opportunity to grow and learn alongside classmates from a cross-section of industries and backgrounds. “In my study group alone, we have people who work in the medical device industry, sustainable food, finance, and a product manager and supply chain specialist at Tesla. They are introducing me to new perspectives and interests,” she said. “For example, one member of the group is very interested in sustainability. With her encouragement, we are entering the Patagonia Case Competition, working on a real-life corporate responsibility issue.”

As much as she considers herself a Student Always, Shazia admits to having “forgotten how to be an actual student,” complete with late nights hitting the books and competing deadlines. However, she found that “During the pandemic, our virtual classroom has been seamless. The professor paces around and writes on the whiteboard and discussions are lively. The collaboration on projects and among my study group is similar to how we work at Credit Sesame.”

Applying lessons learned on the job

Shazia already is applying lessons learned on the job. Having worked in business development, mostly in the B2B2C space, her Marketing class reinforced the power of customer data in driving decisions. She noted that she is now “much better equipped to assess the value of a customer relationship over time, and understand the long-term customer journey, not just anecdotally, but through data.”

She credits Professor Ross Levine’s Macroeconomics class for deepening her understanding of business cycles, in particular the ability to assess where a company is headed and how it might react to forces beyond its control—“not that we’ve had any of those to cope with recently,” she quips. She applies that lens on the job when she is evaluating potential partners and their business models. “I think I am more open-minded to opportunities that could make Credit Sesame more resilient.” Skills and tools she learned in Leading People informed her approach to some of the challenging transition management decisions made during the pandemic and continue to influence how she manages her team.

Using fintech to change lives

Whether her career path leads to a C-suite position or to her own entrepreneurial enterprise, Shazia is committed to the power of fintech to improve lives. That determination grows out of her family’s immigrant experience. “My family had limited resources when they arrived in the US from Tanzania in the 1980s. My parents worked very hard, and it would have made a big difference if they had had more financial awareness. Fintech has the potential to bridge that knowledge gap for so many people.”

She plans to target her electives and extra-curriculars toward expanding both her technical and leadership skills. She is benefiting from the insights and networking offered by the FinTech Club. “The guest speakers are terrific, and they address topics far beyond the space Credit Sesame is in, things like bitcoin and payment systems,” she said.

Going Beyond Herself to make an impact

More specifically, Shazia is “incredibly passionate” about empowering women to achieve financial independence and to take on leadership positions. To that end, she has long been active in Dress for Success as a speaker, facilitator and mentor. She also intends to participate in planning for the 2022 Women in Leadership conference.

Shazia has long been a leader in the Haas Alumni Network, serving on the San Francisco chapter board and now as co-chair of the Haas Alumni Council. “I am excited to support an engagement strategy that aims to cultivate meaningful connections throughout the Haas community,” she said. Growing? Check. Learning? Check. Having fun? “Absolutely,” Shazia said. “I’m making new friends, trying new things, working hard, and having the time of my life.”

Learn more about the Evening & Weekend MBA program

Posted on April 20, 2021
Themes: Finance  |  Technology
Jenny Clare
Jenny is Senior Associate Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA Programs for Working Professionals. She hopes these blog posts provide you with useful insights into the Berkeley MBA experience and answer questions you may have about the MBA in general.