As adept with military weaponry as she is at coordinating public relations for Michelle Obama, UBC MBA student Swetha Kola, 25, leads the MBA Women in Business Society at the Sauder School of Business.
If Kola seems unstoppably ambitious, there’s good reason for this assumption. Born in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India, Kola says social pressures led to challenges among her peers as a youngster. Undaunted she poured her focus on academics and community volunteering as a way to cope.
“I came top of my class every year at high school, and completed my education two years early,” she says. These efforts earned her government awards that helped fund her undergraduate studies.
However, life at home was tough. “I’m the first in my extended family to go abroad and do an MBA. And my relatives still objected and wanted me to get married instead,” says Kola.
Thanks to her progressive parents, Kola was encouraged to prove her worth. She went on to master four languages, work for Google in Hyderabad and co-lead a nationally acclaimed NGO, supporting orphans across India.
Resisting the gender disparity that she says she encountered growing up, Kola became a firm supporter of Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” concept. It's a perspective that she now advocates for in her role as leader of Sauder's MBA Women in Business Society. “I want to make it easier for women to feel like they belong to management and leadership,” she says.
Giving back has been an ongoing passion for Kola. While she completed her BA, majoring in mass communication and political science, she signed up for the Indian Air Force, as part of the National Cadet Corps and competed against thousands of her peers to become flight commander.
As she recalls, military training was as tough as any business leadership course. “We started at 4 a.m. with a five kilogram rifle slung across our shoulders, running for 10-to-15 kilometre. In the beginning I would fall unconscious, but from the second month my stamina improved enormously. I could run or stay in the sun as long as any guy.”
"Michelle Obama was interested in meeting the children we serve,” says Kola. “She went on to promote our NGO all over the country – I was personally inspired by her visit."
- Swetha Kola, President, MBA Women in Business Society
Afterwards, as an Associate in the Product Quality Operations team at Google, Kola worked cross-functionally with developers, analysts and product managers, and enjoyed what she calls a “luxurious” life with weekends off for the first time. But it wasn’t long before she devoted that free time to co-leading Make a Difference – an NGO that improves the care and education of disadvantaged children in over 21 cities in India.
Two years later she quit Google to join Make a Difference full time as National Operations Manager, and coordinated the PR for Michelle Obama’s visit during the Obamas’ tour of India in 2010.
“Michelle Obama was interested in meeting the children we serve,” says Kola. “She went on to promote our NGO all over the country – I was personally inspired by her visit.”
As Kola interacted more with senior industry professionals, she recognized a gap in her business management skills and was prompted to pursue an MBA, earning a Women in Business Scholarship at Sauder.
“I chose Sauder for its emphasis on creativity in decision-making and courageous leadership, and for its focus on sustainability in business,” she explains.
While she stays in close touch with Make a Difference, relaying newly learnt management concepts to her former colleagues in India, Kola’s long-term goal is to create a platform in the non-profit sector where all NGOs benefit through an exchange of knowledge, solutions and innovative ideas.
“I’m excited to see my vision of making this world a better place through – one with equal opportunities for all.”