When Anjum Tahirkheli signed up for an Executive MBA at Bradford University School of Management in the UK, she never thought she would later be deploying her management skills in Haiti after the devastating effects of the 2010 earthquake.

She had intended to use her EMBA to help develop the law firm she runs with her husband in Bradford in the north of England. But media reports about martial law in Pakistan in 2009, part way through the course, were the inspiration she needed to establish Basic Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation, aiming to protect the most vulnerable groups of society. Its first assignment was dealing with the aftermath of the Haiti disaster.

She remembers asking herself: “What do I know about aid?” Yet as soon as she arrived in Haiti she was able to assess the situation using skills already learnt on her EMBA.

“I hated operations management (a core component of her EMBA), it just didn’t click with me. But supply chain and procurement etc, used for charity work, all sit within that.”

This business acumen is something she now values highly in her work as chief executive of the NGO. Focusing primarily on children and women affected by violence, poverty and natural disaster, the organisation involves local people to ensure basic needs such as education, jobs and healthcare are met.

Though her choice of career may no longer be that of a conventional MBA graduate, her business strategy certainly is.

“In business, if I’m losing money, if I’m not achieving my goals and targets then I’ve got a certain amount of time before I’m out of business,” she says, arguing that the mission of eradicating poverty should be subject to these same business principles.

A determined businesswoman, Ms Tahirkheli is often exasperated with NGOs, believing that their failure to think strategically wastes valuable time. She is keen to deliver aid, which she prefers to call “direct investment”, within short timescales. Long-term sustainability work is brilliant, she adds. But for those who are starving an immediate response is needed. She believes it is important to analyse how donations to the voluntary sector are spent and so she is grateful when she comes across other MBA graduates. “We talk the same language [which] helps a great deal.”

She now prefers to take on MBA interns in her NGO, as opposed to her original plan of hiring graduates or masters students from charity-related industries. She believes that the results achieved by an MBA student are far more productive and relevant.

Although she accepts that she does not have development experience, for example, what she does have, she says, is the knowledge of how to deliver high-impact value within a certain timeframe; how to take the macro-environment into consideration. “That’s the kind of thinking that’s needed.”

Ms Tahirkheli is well equipped to deal with challenging situations. Married at the age of 20, she went on to have four children, three while she was studying on three courses, including a degree in business and management at Bradford university.

“There’s a standard joke, actually, that every time I enrolled on to a programme, I got pregnant,” she says. That early period was undoubtedly the making of her time-management skills as well as her commitment to furthering her career.

As well as aid work in Haiti, Ms Tahirkheli is also managing projects in Kenya, Libya, Pakistan, Uganda and the UK. Last year she raised £70,000 for disadvantaged women and this year she has helped launch a five-year sports and education scholarship programme for poverty-stricken children in Pakistan.

She spends considerable time fundraising across the UK, but is wary of becoming what she describes as “donor-led”.

“If you start chasing donors, they have a certain agenda to follow so you can’t rely on them otherwise you lose your vision,” she says. The grassroots are her primary concern.

Given her high level of education, her motto in life – “I know nothing” – may seem self-deprecating. Nonetheless, she is considering studying next year for a PhD in Islam and development. This time however, she does not intend to accompany her studies with another pregnancy.

These days she dedicates herself to her NGO, which, if she is successful, might yet become a competitive recruiter of MBA graduates.

Get alerts on Executive MBA when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article