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Michelle Monteiro is an MBA student at Thunderbird School of Global Management in the US and team leader of Chipo, one of the seven teams shortlisted in the FT MBA 2014 Challenge with UK charity World Child Cancer (WCC). For the challenge, her team needs to write a business plan that shows how WCC can improve the training of local healthcare workers, in particular paediatric oncologists.

There are seven other MBA students on Ms Monteiro’s team. Three are also from Thunderbird while the others represent Nanyang Business School in Singapore, the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in the US and Warwick Business School in the UK.

Ms Monteiro has worked as a management consultant for various projects and is currently focused on the ExxonMobil Initiative for Economic Empowerment of Women Entrepreneurs. In her spare time she is a horse rescue volunteer and enjoys camping, hiking and oil painting.

1. Why did you enter the FT MBA Challenge?

When I initially heard about it, I confess to thinking about how it would benefit me. I considered that it would be an interesting way to apply my professional skills and that it would look impressive on my résumé. However, once I started to delve into the project and the complexity of the issues, I became personally invested.

One of our team members is a Ghanaian doctor who helped me see the plight of paediatric oncologists fighting every day to accomplish miracles with severely limited resources. I worried about the children and wondered what could our little team do in the face of such a monumental task? I am so impressed by WCC’s will to do something. What they have achieved in such a short period of time is truly amazing. My primary desire now is to know that we helped them improve the lives of children.

2. How have you found the experience so far?

The experience has been challenging at times but rewarding. The Ghanaian doctor represents the Ghanaian medical community with a desire for hands-on intensive solutions. He also has the more emotional perspective of what it is like to work in-country under the adverse circumstances described and so for him this is not just an academic exercise. This was in contrast to the MBA-approach of other members, who focused on financials and the business structure.

The third perspective was more aligned with the NGO stance, focusing on ideals and geopolitics. Our team is a microcosm of what WCC will encounter when working to implement solutions. This lent a relevant perspective that flowed into our overall proposal. Distinctly different cultural perspectives were also at play as our group is represented by six nationalities. Each team discussion rotated between these sometimes competing positions before reaching a decision and the entire process involved much flexibility because of the virtual team environment and the complexity of the task. The time involved was extensive but for the most part I really loved working on this with my team and our mentor Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Hanover Housing Association.

3. Who are your business influences?

Three names come to me immediately: Shukria Barakzai, a female Afghan politician both hated and admired in a country not known for having highly visible, strong Muslim women, Erik Weihenmayer, an American athlete and adventurer, and Olatunbosun Obayomi, a microbiologist and inventor. I am inspired by people with indefatigable spirits when faced with adversity. People with courage. There is no courage without distress and risk – acting in spite of them is true bravery.

Ms Barazai, at the age of 25, began an underground school for girls after being publicly flogged for walking without a male escort. Mr Weihenmayer scaled Mount Everest – blind. Mr Obayomi is tackling massive sanitation issues in Lagos using his entrepreneurial spirit and training in microbiology.

4. How do you deal with pressure?

First, I picture myself as water flowing around a boulder or washing away pebbles beneath it; patiently working my way around the impediment towards my goal. Second, I ask myself the question: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. These two metaphors have helped me through many high-pressure situations both professionally and personally. A calm frame of mind permits you to reassess the situation and adjust as necessary, using calculated risk. Know when to walk away. Sometimes, this is actually the best solution and should not be considered failure if the decision is made based on logically considered evidence. Finally, find the humour in the situation – laughter breaks tension and helps you to reset.

5. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

It is the same lesson learnt by ultimately successful entrepreneurs – when you fail, try again. If you fail again, pay attention and try again. Every failure really is an opportunity to learn and grow. Someone can lose absolutely everything but with hard work, the encouragement of others, faith and yes, a little luck, they cannot only recover but surpass their prior position. In fact, the lessons learnt from prior failures are critical components to assessing future risks and prospects.

6. What is the worst job you have ever had?

Being a door-to-door Cutco knife saleswoman. I detested everything about it, particularly marching around in a suit in 36 Celsius with 90 per cent humidity in Florida. I sold one knife and after another three tortuous weeks, Cutco and I gratefully parted ways.

7. What do you hope women in business will achieve?

Women in business have the ability to achieve economic power, which creates autonomy and increased freedom for them and their families. In countries where women are repressed, their businesses are often the only places where they have authority over themselves – where they have voices. In high-conflict areas, it is often the women who remain and work, which helps to keep the economies afloat and maintains the day-to-day activities of villages, towns and cities around the world.

In countries where women have substantial power and influence already, I would hope they can finally achieve full parity. Some claim we are already there, but consider this: some are annoyed at the thought of a female US presidential candidate, and horror of horrors, that this time she could win. I would like to see more women highlighted for innovation in technical fields – we should point our scientifically minded girls in that direction. Ultimately, I hope that business women reach normalised levels of success so that if you ask the question, “What do you hope women in business will achieve?” you would receive puzzled looks and hear the response, “Well, anything they want of course, just like anyone else. What a weird question.”

8. What is the last book you read?

I just read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr on a long plane ride. I am often intrigued by the motivation of people from opposing positions. I wonder how they came to hold those beliefs that trigger them to act the way they do. The book takes place during WWII and follows the stories of a young German soldier and a blind French girl from Paris. They eventually meet in Saint-Malo in August 1944. What makes the story so interesting is that it does not use the typical caricatures employed in many WWII plots. The main characters are very human on both sides of the battle lines – just like in real life although we do not necessarily prefer this perspective of our enemies. I suspect some might be uncomfortable with some of the more thought provoking scenes [but] I highly recommend it.

9. What is your favourite business book?

Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us by Daniel Pink is a book that challenges the predominant business thought processes about how to motivate people with “sticks and carrots”. It revisits the tests performed by psychologists Harry Harlow and Edward Deci when “intrinsic motivation” was identified as a driver of human behaviour and provides the science behind these findings. It discusses the gaps between the business world’s interpretations of how to create motivation strategies and packages as well as how we should actually motivate people. Understanding this additional aspect of human motivation and how it is integrated into the human psyche can change levels of productivity and creativity, which leads to more revenue downstream. I am intrigued with this research and intend to integrate it into my own management strategies.

10. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

The list is very long – as they say: hindsight is 20/20. Professionally, I would have pursued the field of innovative sustainability, it is interesting and important. Educationally, I would not be finishing business school now, I would have completed it sooner. Personally, I would have held on to some people I allowed to drift away and tossed out some of the ones I kept. I would have spent more time learning to paint. I definitely would rethink some of my clothing style choices. Most of all, I would be aware that time is not an infinite resource and I would use it with more discretion. And yes, some of what your parents tell you as a teenager is actually correct. Who knew?

Read about the other team leaders:

Onyanta Adama, an MBA student at Lagos Business School in Nigeria and team leader of Ripple

Ingrid Marchal-Gerez, an MBA graduate of London Business School and team leader of Cut out Cancer

Gabriela Galvano, an EMBA graduate of IE Business School in Spain and team leader of Green Light

Sophia Arthur, MBA graduate of Imperial College Business School and team leader of Angel of Hope

Kate Battle, MBA student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and team leader of The Fuqua Scholars

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