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Integrating business and personal values: A story of two journeys

Even a casual glance at my LinkedIn CV would quickly reveal that, in many ways, I am not your traditional MBA student. I did not follow the conventional, tried-and-tested trajectory into an MBA.

Even a casual glance at my LinkedIn CV would quickly reveal that, in many ways, I am not your traditional MBA student.

I did not follow the conventional, tried-and-tested trajectory into an MBA. This is not me playing down the virtues and value of that pathway. Quite the contrary as it speaks well, I think, of a programme that embraces those who have gone off the beaten path. But there are times when I do wish I had walked the same course that many of my classmates have. It has taught them certain skills that I have had to learn, and they have had to coach me in.

But hopefully this is not a one-way exchange, that there can be reciprocity – I like to think that I have something to offer in return. That I have different experiences that they can learn from.

For one thing, I’m only 27 years old, and thus the baby in the class. I did not go the traditional schooling route, deciding instead, to pursue the traditional Islamic teaching method from the age of 11, so I could immerse myself in Islamic studies. This included studying at the An Nur Educational Centre in Gatesville – where I had to memorise the Quran in full. In mid-2016, after some years at the Centre and now aged around 20, I travelled to the town of Tarim in Yemen to study at the Dar al-Mustafa Seminary. I followed this with specialisation in Arabic and Quran through private studies. My strong Islamic portfolio granted me the opportunity to enter the International Peace College of South Africa to complete the bachelor’s degree in Islamic Studies through recognition of prior learning (RPL).

In 2021, I would turn my one-year ‘pilgrimage’ to Yemen into a book, ‘Road to Tarim’. This small and historic town, famed for producing many Islamic scholars of note, has had a lasting impact on me. In my book I have described this stay as “the journey of a seeker to knowledge, truth, and the people of God”. To this day, I consider Tarim as a town of unmatched spirituality, certainly compared to everything I have experienced since.

So hardly the stuff of your classical MBA student.

But barely a year into my MBA, these new studies have already inspired a sequel. It is about my road to Henley Business School Africa. Like Tarim, Henley took some getting used to. I struggled initially with the demands of formal academia, as I had at first struggled coming to terms with Tarim’s very ‘rudimentary accommodations and amenities. Both were, in very different ways, foreign to me.

But both were equally essential to my life. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to do an MBA. For me it represented the skills and networks and acumen – even the sophistication – to run a thriving and impactful business. Which is something I have aspired to do since my tweens.

I have been an entrepreneur since, at age 12, I sold my first cellphone. Inspired by my mother, who ran her own bakery to put food on our table, and the work ethic of my older brother who had to forfeit studies to work, I have run some or other business since then. This includes teaching Arabic or doing translations, managing my own construction company, and owning my own Uber vehicle.

Some would say that my journey to Henley was an act of serendipity, of pure chance. I don’t think so – I think it was always meant to happen. One day in 2020 while driving my Uber, who else would hail a ride but Mr Jon Foster-Pedley, Dean and Director of the Henley Business School Africa. He would ask me about myself and my life. And before his trip had finished, he had convinced me to come study at Henley.

Given my lack of formal studies I couldn’t jump straight into the MBA programme, of course, and he instead advised me to cut my business teeth on the Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice (PGDip). As it was, I struggled when I started the programme in 2021. My marks were poor and I failed the first three modules, largely because I had no sense of how to apply myself to the demands of business studies. I then did what I had learned to do in Yemen, where I had similar challenges – I learnt to break my study sessions into small chunks. Mr Foster-Pedley also encouraged me: “Trust the process”, he told me.

In time, my new routine paid off and could turn my marks around for the better. So much so that when, this year, I started my MBA, I had no troubles acclimatising to the workload.

And already I have learnt so much about running a business, things I wish I had known earlier. From the fundamentals of accounting on the PGDip or the principles of growing a business on the MBA, these are lessons I am applying to my current ventures.

What’s more, some have suggested that being a businessperson could be inconsistent with my Islamic beliefs. Not so: one of the many lessons The Muhammad Prophet (SAW) has taught us is about running a business ethically. And it’s a tenet very much in keeping with what I’m being taught at Henley, where I have seen the director of the school treat maintenance staff with respect and a generosity of time that is lacking in other spheres of our society.

I am not the only one struggling with this assumed tension between business and personal values, however. And in my private business, LABBAYK, a strategic management venture, it is a supposed clash of principles that I have been able to help others navigate.

In an Ayn Randian dystopia, rational self-interest (at the expense of altruism) can be said to be the ultimate objective of business. Altruism is not the business of business, or of business leaders, in this view; their only social obligation is to operate within the bounds of the law.

In this sense my ‘Road to Tarim’ and ‘Road to Henley’ are following near identical journeys.

Raees Mohammed is currently completing his MBA at Henley Business School.

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