In college, Maliha Khan kept her family's textile business at arm's length, preferring to follow a path that would lead to a PhD in political science. But as she approached graduation, the business changed dramatically. "Pakistan dropped its export quotas," Maliha says. "My family had built up its manufacturing business in anticipation of the new law, doubling our capacity in just one and a half years." Through growth and acquisitions, the business jumped in scale to revenues of $90 million a year with 3,500 employees.
"I decided that this was a huge opportunity to take on a lot of responsibility at a young age," says Maliha. "Academia can be slow and laborious; suddenly, I found myself in something very fast and action-oriented where I could see results immediately."
But as she directed the operation of three factories, she saw something that troubled her. "When I got to the factory floor, I found that the women there would never make progress — they could never advance in their jobs — unless they got the necessary education." Most of them, in fact were illiterate. Maliha was concerned, but she faced another challenge as well: she was young and the only female manager out of 3,500 employees, making it difficult for her to be taken seriously.
Changing course in order to lead
Maliha's initial plans for a literacy program met stiff resistance. "My colleagues said, 'We're a business, not a charity.' I had to make a business case for the program." She found it in the high employee turnover rates. "I repositioned the program as a way to reduce attrition, to save money on hiring and training new workers."
An initial six-month pilot program proved a huge success. Turnover dropped, not just among the participants, but among the workers who heard about the program. "Attrition rates plummeted from around twenty percent to just six or seven percent," Maliha says.
After a couple of years with the company, Maliha believed she had, "maxed-out what I could learn there" and turned to HBS for her MBA, making her the fifth person in her extended family to attend the school. "I wanted a school that stresses general management," says Maliha. "HBS also stands out for building leadership, right from the first semester. The entire curriculum forces you to focus on leadership from the outset: what would you do if you were the CEO or the CFO?"
Building relationships at HBS and beyond
Before her first semester began, Maliha participated in the pre-MBA program for international students. "I never expected that you could build such close relationships in just three weeks," she says. "They're like family to me. When I moved into my section, it was a little disconcerting, but after a semester, I'm as close to them as my friends in the summer program."
Maliha's summer internship will be at a major US retailer, working on an internal strategy project. After she completes her MBA, she sees herself working in the United States for a few years before returning to Pakistan. She may go back to the family business, but is also thinking about, "starting something of my own in the private education sector in Pakistan."