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Learning to lead responsibly

Posted 2020-04-30
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Shweta Desai was first drawn to the UBC Sauder School of Business because of the ethics and sustainability course offered as part of the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program. A chemical engineer by training, Desai had been looking for a graduate degree that focused on equipping candidates with the skills to lead responsibly. When she received the prestigious Madhu Varshney MBA Entrance Scholarship, her academic pursuits were all of a sudden within reach.

Desai’s interest in responsible leadership can be traced back to the start of her career when she worked in product design at Unilever and was part of a team tasked with creating a laundry detergent that saved water. Based out of Mumbai, she visited homes in rural parts of India and analyzed consumer behaviour across remote parts of Africa. After observing the long walks required to reach communal taps in many communities, Desai became hyperaware of the value of every single drop of water.

“That changes you, it impacts how you look at things,” says Desai. “It made a strong impression on me and I became passionate about working on projects that brought true value to consumers.”

While with Unilever’s sustainability program, Desai routinely worked closely with the company’s Marketing team. In addition to her penchant for responsible leadership, she says she became fascinated with the nuances of branding – the power of a single word and the market research that goes into choosing the colour of product packaging.

This interest in marketing was further galvanized by her next position at the global biotechnology company Novozymes. As a creative scientist in charge of building a product launch team that developed videos and demonstrations for customers, Desai learned valuable lessons in communicating product benefits to consumers.

Armed with her newly-discovered love of marketing, Desai recognized that she would need a firm foundation in business knowledge in order to progress into senior leadership roles that could influence responsible behaviour. Having obtained her undergraduate degree at the R.V. College of Engineering in Bangalore, India, she set her sights on finding an MBA program abroad.

Focus on ethics and sustainability a main attraction

Now finishing her first year of the MBA program, Desai recalls researching UBC Sauder and being impressed by the fact that Ethics and Sustainability was not only a standalone course, but also interwoven as a theme throughout the entire MBA curriculum. “When I started looking for schools, I was interested in programs that talked about sustainability because I see this as the future,” says Desai. “We cannot just have the bottom line as our agenda on everything – I wanted a school that believed in it and didn’t just teach it.”

Having completed the Ethics and Sustainability course, Desai says it met every expectation. Under the guidance of course instructor Tamar Milne, a lecturer in UBC Sauder’s Marketing and Behavioural Science division, students examined case studies and research that showed purpose-driven brands that place an emphasis on sustainability often do better than their competitors.

“The course not only touched on sustainability and ethics, but also how employers need to be aware of risks related to human rights violations and labour issues,” says Desai. “We learned how sustainability is going to be an important metric going forward and that a focus on sustainability can go hand in hand with profits and growth.”

An easing of the financial burden

As a recipient of the Madhu Varshney MBA Entrance Scholarship, which is dedicated to students who demonstrate exceptional aptitude and academic excellence, with preference given to international students, Desai says she’s been better able to manage the pressure of school without the distraction of student loans.

“The scholarship really helped me focus on my studies and it eased the burden on me and my parents,” says Desai. “When you know that your student loans are multiplying and you’re always worrying about that, it can be a lot to handle on top of the course pressure and having to manage your time.”

Desai also says the generosity of donors through scholarships like the one she received has a domino effect on students’ families. Since her parents didn’t have to finance all of Desai’s MBA education, it meant there were more family resources available to fund her sister’s academic pursuits as well.

A responsible leader in the making

Looking forward, Desai says she wants to have an impact on people’s lives and work for companies that drive a sustainable agenda. In fact, she hopes her MBA studies eventually bring her full circle with a return to Unilever in a more senior role focused on responsible management.

“I would love to go back to Unilever as I’m very fond of consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies and it’s a pioneer in the field,” says Desai.

In addition to her professional aspirations, Desai says she intends to lend both her time and financial support to future students who are looking to break out into the world of business. “Ten years down the line I would also like to be in a position to give back, both through mentorship and financial resources,” she says.