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Shira Kaplan is an MBA student currently studying on the part-time programme at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland while working for a Swiss private bank. As a recipient of a women in business scholarship, she has reinstated the school’s Women in Business club and set up regular mentoring sessions for other female students with women from leading companies and organisations. She hopes an MBA will help her move into a high-profile management role.
Born and raised in Israel, Ms Kaplan spent two years as a sergeant in the Israeli Army before moving to the US to study for a degree in politics at Harvard University. In 2008, she returned to Israel to run her own admissions consultancy before moving to Teva Pharmaceuticals and then into wealth management.
In her spare time, Ms Kaplan enjoys writing poetry, running and skiing.
1. Who are your business influences?
In my third year of college I was fortunate to participate in the Harvard Women in Business delegation and met Warren Buffett for three days in Omaha. As I learnt more about value investing, I was introduced to one of my favourite businessmen and mentors in Zurich, Guy Spier who runs Aquamarine Capital [an investment partnership closely modelled on the original Buffett partnership]. Guy has been incredibly inspiring at using his network to advance goals that are far greater than business profits, such as promoting entrepreneurship in Israel.
Across the gender line, I have been greatly inspired by two female chief executives of Israel’s Leumi Bank: Galia Maor and Rakefet Russak-Aminoach. Both are strong women who have never let their gender slow them down.
2. What academic achievement are you most proud of to date?
In my first two years in college I studied Chinese in the hope of opening a cultural gateway to China in politics or business at a later stage in my career. For two years, I would start my classes at 8am with an intensive Chinese course taught by strict teachers. By the end of my freshman summer in China, where I attended the Harvard Beijing Summer Academy, I could explain in Mandarin to the cab drivers the political situation in Israel. I remember how proud I felt.
3. How do you deal with pressure?
When things look grim I put on my sneakers and go out running. My husband Itay, an ex-combat soldier, also helps me deal with pressure by putting everything in perspective. To him, having gone through life and death experiences on an almost daily basis while in the military, very few things truly look daunting or stressful.
4. What would you do if you were dean for the day?
I would attract young professionals from emerging countries to attend the programme and make scholarships readily available to those who cannot afford paying the entire tuition fee.
5. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?
My parents are my closest teachers. The best advice my father has ever given to me was to put my family before my career. That is, to make sure I first had a family and then focused on my professional growth. To me this was an excellent advice as I have met many women along the way who – being so driven – have neglected their roles as wives and mothers. Following this advice, I married at the age of 27 and have been a proud mother to my first baby girl for the past three months.
6. What is your biggest lesson learnt?
Throughout my career I had to learn to become more patient. I grew up in an environment where academic and athletic rewards were immediate. But in the real professional world, rewards have not always come so easy, especially while working for large, hierarchical organisations. Part of the game has been to clench my teeth and delay the desire for immediate gratification. This is something I am still working on.
7. What advice would you give to students applying to business school?
Business school is an ideal environment for you to experiment with ideas and innovation. You are surrounded by driven classmates who want to make a difference, by professors who are experts in their fields and by opulent funding opportunities. Use every chance you have to brainstorm new start-up and business ideas and every resource available to make these ideas happen. If you use your time effectively enough, you may well find yourself leading a great company by the time you’ve graduated!
8. What do you hope women in business will achieve?
I’ll tell you what I hope men in business will achieve: I hope men will understand that since nature has not enabled them to bear children, they should bear with women who do . . . One of the greatest dangers I see today, especially in Europe, is educated people choosing not to have children. How will our world look in 50 years if educated people stop reproducing? I genuinely believe that it is our duty and responsibility to bring into this world children who are empowered to take on leadership roles in society.
Once men realise they should be happy with career women who are also driven mothers, I hope women in business will feel less apologetic about being pregnant, going on a maternity leave, or leaving work earlier than their male colleagues to spend time with their children. I hope businesswomen will spend more time mentoring each other and opening doors in their organisations to other qualified women. I hope to see women serving not just as members of boards but also as members of executive boards. From there, the path to seeing more women in leadership positions in the corporate world will be much shorter.
9. What is the last book you read?
Being a new mother, I spend most of my time these days reading educational books relating to raising children effectively. The most recent book I read was Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother by law professor Amy Chua from Yale. Prof Chua, a Chinese-American married to a Jewish law professor, recounts in a vivid and controversial family memoir how she has raised her two gifted daughters to become exceptional students and musicians, by not allowing them to have sleepovers or play dates with their friends, or get any grades lower than an A . . .
There is no doubt this strict schooling could take these wonderful girls very far. And intuitively, one could only envy a mother who is so fully dedicated to her daughters’ success. But I do not see how raising children in a pressure cooker environment is conducive to their mental health in the long term. These beautiful girls will have a lifetime of pressure ahead of them where they will [constantly] push themselves to outperform. I would have given them a few peaceful years as children to enjoy themselves before engaging them in the brutal rat race that awaits them outside home.
10. What are your future plans?
In the medium term, I hope to facilitate European (ideally, Swiss) venture capital investments in cutting-edge Israeli technology, thanks to my background in one of the technological units of the Israeli army. My MBA thesis on this topic argues that Israeli companies, particularly in the field of cyber security, can bring unmatched value to Swiss corporations and investors. In the longer term, I hope to take a public position that will contribute to the growth and success of the Israeli start-up nation.