Can you share a bit about your background and where you grew up?

Zainab Raji

I am one of four children born to my Nigerian parents. I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest commercial hub, and in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. I have fond memories of my childhood such as learning about Nigeria’s history on my grandpa’s walking tours of Lagos Island, celebrating Eid holidays with family, and working on craft projects with my twin sister.

My family bonded over storytelling. Older family members recounted tales of their past experiences over shared meals, emphasizing the transformational role that education, hard work, and generosity played in their lives. One story I often reflect on is my grandpa’s path to school. During his childhood years, children could not attend school until their right hands could reach over their heads and touch their left ears. Even when he could eventually perform this task, he frequently got in trouble with extended family members for choosing formal schooling over the family trade and lost sight in his left eye due to a fight on the issue. Armed with the lessons from such stories, I learned to be driven, empathetic, and compassionate.

I left Nigeria to attend college at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, and I enjoyed the mix of the liberal arts, inquiry-based learning, and specialized accounting & information systems instruction.

What were you doing before grad school and what led you to apply/enroll at HBS and HKS?

MPA-IDs at the Nutcracker Ballet in Winter 2019

I joined Deloitte’s Risk Advisory practice in Atlanta shortly after graduating from Emory with the goal of deepening my accounting expertise. At Deloitte, I designed and tested risk controls for leading Enterprise Technology companies. During that time, an Ebola outbreak ravaged West African countries. I feared that during and after the outbreak populations living in poverty would be much worse-off and new populations would fall into poverty because the outbreak was taking away lives, sources of income, foreign investment, and community stability. My short-term response to the outbreak was to coordinate donations in cash and volunteer hours to organizations involved in the Ebola relief effort. I realized my long-term response needed to help prevent communities in Nigeria and the rest of West Africa from falling deeper into poverty every time disease outbreaks and other macro shocks occurred. I discovered a pathway to economic development in management consulting after learning about the huge impact that strategy advisory firms in Africa had helped create. I transitioned to McKinsey after successful rounds of interviews.

At McKinsey, I had the opportunity to support Ministries of Finance across Africa and the Middle East on topics such as tax revenue improvement, expenditure management, and economic planning. I also advised commercial and development banks on revenue growth strategies in new segments. I came to realize how intertwined macro-economic policies and development are when I witnessed the debilitating impact of Nigeria’s flailing macroeconomic outlook on once thriving businesses in 2016. Subsequent macro events made it increasingly clear that I needed more grounding in economic theory, development policy, and general management to become a more effective development professional. Fortunately, I discovered the MBA/MPA-ID program while working on McKinsey engagements with HBS and HKS alumni such as Amandla Ooko-Ombaka (MBA/ MPA-ID 2016) and Philip Osafo-Kwaako (PEG PhD 2012) and I decided to apply towards the end of my business analyst program at the firm.

Jointees at the Vermont Retreat in 2019

What are some of your most memorable moments from the first year of the joint degree program?

I spent the first year of the MBA/MPA-ID program completing the core curriculum of the MPA-ID. While the core courses were rigorous, they sharpened my critical reasoning and quantitative skills substantially and I am better for it. Four events in my first year are unforgettable: learning my husband, Abdul-Rahman (MBA 2022), was admitted to HBS in March 2020; meeting Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former Finance Minister and Chairwoman of GAVI, at HKS; bonding with jointees over apple cider and fresh ice-cream in Vermont; and seeing the Nutcracker ballet live with my MPA-ID cohort. I am keen to deepen the friendships I built in my first year in coming years.

Where did you work for your summer internship? Did that experience shape your current career plans in any way?

This summer, I interned at CDC Group, the oldest impact investor in Africa and South Asia, and at EquaLife Capital, an East African investment fund. I found the role of value creation in investing to be extra critical during the unfolding coronavirus pandemic and more broadly, I gained a deeper appreciation of the role that private sector growth plays in economic prosperity in developing countries. I also enjoyed getting exposed to and supporting a wide array of companies in Africa and South Asia. I will continue to explore economic development pathways during the school year through coursework and extracurricular involvements.

How has the first month of the HBS RC year been?

I have been blown away by the quality and diversity of my section mates and professors! Even on the busiest days, I look forward to learning about their perspectives and passions in class and over shared meals. This year feels extra special because my husband is completing the same coursework & community activities and we are bonding over these shared pursuits.

Beyond academics, what are some other activities that stand out from your time in grad school?

HBS Africa Business Club members at Cape Cod Retreat

The HBS Africa Business Club has a special place in my heart. I currently serve as the CFO of the club and it has been great to plan events for the school year with other devoted executive team members. Some memorable club events have been the annual Africa Business Conference, which brings together over 1,200 attendees to explore a salient theme on Africa, and the fall retreat in Cape Cod.

I also serve as a board member of the HBS Women in Investing Club, as an admissions representative for the HBS/HKS Joint Degree Leadership Council, and as a Business School Prep Coach at Young African MBAs, a non-profit bridging the gap in management talent in Africa.

What advice would you give applicants deciding on the program?

Me and Abdul-Rahman (MBA 2022)

At the risk of sounding trite, I believe first and foremost that giving yourself enough time is the most important thing to do. Doing so enables deeper introspection, ample time for exam preparation, and participation in helpful information sessions and coffee chats, which culminate in a strong application.

Second, it is critical to realize that there are very diverse interests and backgrounds represented in the MBA/MPA-ID program and so you should feel confident about staying true to yourself in your application.

Lastly, generous scholarships for jointees and the need-based nature of HBS Financial Aid make the MBA/MPA-ID program a lot more affordable. The program truly strives to mitigate the cost barrier for most jointees.

After HBS and HKS, I hope to use the lessons I have learned from my family’s history and the MBA/MPA-ID experience to help transform the arch of development back home.