Faculty Member Areen Shahbari '11SM on Making Change in the World

February 09, 2016

Areen Shahbari

Areen Shahbari '11SM offers mentorship and entrepreneurship training programs to fight unemployment amongst Arab women in the Middle East and North Africa.

This article first appeared in its entirety in the Fall 2015 SOM Management Magazine. Interview by Enrique Graber Nieto and Disha Patel.

Why did you choose to pursue your MBA and why at Simmons?

In August 2009, I was admitted to Simmons and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

The MBA program at Simmons not only provided me with a great education, but I was able to make friends of whom I am still in touch. Simmons connected me to people from different countries, different nationalities, and most importantly friends who I can count on even after graduating form the program! 

What are some of the skills you learned at Simmons that were transferrable to your work?

Simmons taught me how to succeed in the business world, a world that is still mainly dominated by men. The entrepreneurship class with Professor Theresa Nelson was one of my favorite classes. I was passionate about women's leadership and my focus was on starting a business that would empower women. I learned how businesses function, how to write a business plan, how to pitch and present myself, and how to grow my business. I also won the Silverman Business Plan Competition for the TV channel  idea I had at that time.What made my experience even more valuable is Professor Nelson's mentorship and continued support that helped me launch Cactus. 

How did you start your own organization, Cactus? 

While conducting market research I found out that although 60 percent of university students in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are women, the participation rate in the MENA workforce is the lowest in the world at only 25 percent. This is mainly due to lack of jobs coupled with legal and cultural barriers. To change this, women need to learn how to create their own jobs. 

Through Cactus I teach women how to start sustainable and scaleable business practices. Since February 2013, I have provided entrepreneurship courses, business training, workshops, lectures, and counseling services to over 1,200 women. Fifty percent of the women who were enrolled as full-time students in the entrepreneurship courses started or grew their businesses and have three employees on average; 90 percent of their employees are women. Currently, I continue to provide MENA women with online business consultation. In addition, I will be launching online and onsite business training in the coming year.

What were some obstacles you faced when starting your organization Cactus? How were you able to turn those around?

I was conducting my market research and talking to different professionals about my intention of launching Cactus, I received discouraging reactions such as, "What are you doing, are you crazy?" "You have an MBA degree from the US; you should work for an international company and earn a high salary;" "Women will not enroll in your courses or pay for your services." To turn this negativity around, I talked to my friends in the MBA program who had supported me and encouraged me to launch my business. 

The other struggle I had was convincing women to enroll in my classes. The concept of entrepreneurship almost did not exist back then, so I used social media to increase awareness about how my courses can help women start their own businesses. After the success of my first two classes recruitment became easier. 

The third struggle I encountered was that providing training alone was not enough - I had to provide emotional and psychological support to participants to increase their chances of success. Each one of these struggles provided an opportunity for me and for Cactus to become successful. In the end, it is all about understanding the needs and wants of my main target market and providing them with the value that they need. 

What advice would you give to women who want to pursue higher education and/or start their own business?

For those women seeking an MBA, make sure you take an entrepreneurship class to earn how to write a business plan. Also, do not quit everything to work on your business without financial support. It might be a good idea to aim for a part-time job or freelance work that will make you feel secure and financially independent, until demand goes up and there is a justification for you to quit your job and focus solely on your business. In case of unemployment, women have nothing to lose and they can have the time to invest in conducting market research, writing the business plan, and launching the business. 

Lastly, I advise women to invest their money in the business wisely. Test your idea first and make sure that you are providing a needed product or service. Only when there is proof of demand invest money into your business. 

What's your biggest takeaway in life?

You have one life to live and you will never get a second chance, so follow your passion, be optimistic, and enjoy the journey of life. Always have hope that things will fall into place and that there is a way. Do not act out of fear, be brave, take initiative, and work hard to achieve your goals in life. 

Click here to read the full article in Management Magazine.