Aparna Shrivastava









By Aparna Shrivastava

A Year Out: My Biggest Learnings From the Oxford MBA

Soon I will complete a full year since formally graduating with a Master of Business Administration from the University of Oxford. Most things about that sentence still are hard to believe sometimes but it’s certainly prompted a lot of reflection.

Oxford has a way about holding seemingly contradictory truths simultaneously. It’s both inspiring and disheartening. Majestic and barbaric. Friendly and intimidating. Wise and detached from reality. Effortless and challenging. Exclusive and luring. The business school’s modern existence itself can feel like a contradiction against the backdrop of the centuries old wider institution. As MBA students, we’re forced to navigate all these layers at the same time.

The MBA program has a way of breaking folks down entirely. Deconstructing so many of our assumptions, our fears, our plans, our friendships, our coping mechanisms, our very selves. I saw it happen to countless peers while also dealing with it myself. The school’s marketing brochures often refer to the year as “transformative” and only from experiencing it did I realize how true that claim actually was. In the day to day realities of running to lectures, writing papers, going to talks, running off to events in London, attending college dinners, working on case competitions, getting involved in college life, trying to stay healthy, or having silly nights out, it was hard in the moments to recognize all of the deconstructions taking place. It is only with time that we can begin to recognize how many pieces we were broken into. We then have the incredible opportunity to pick these pieces back up and put together much better versions of what we’d each first arrived as.
Below I share some of the key things I’ve carried with me from the year. You’ll note that none of them are classroom learnings. It’s not that those were not horizon-expanding as well (I proudly tell people often that Accounting was the most mind blowing class I ever took— Thanks, Dr. Barker!), but the scale of learnings outside the classroom was unexpected and has fundamentally reshaped how I approach opportunities altogether. Surely there are countless more things that will come to light as life continues to unfold but this is what I’ve managed to identify and articulate so far.

How to own myself to navigate high level/ ridiculously posh settings

Whether a several course plated and served meal or a crazy fancy old venue, I now don’t feel self conscious about or unsure about how I carry myself. This was certainly not the case when the year started. In my first month, I was once so nervous about what to wear that I left a dinner right upon arrival to change into different clothes. I don’t know how but through the crucible that was Oxford, I’ve gotten very comfortable in feeling comfortable taking space exactly as I am regardless of whether I actually have any genuine entitlement to do so. This has also included holding my own in settings shared with folks that have ridiculous amounts of wealth and power. $20,000 wristwatch-wearing classmates certainly shook up my understanding of norms in different circles. All this has come in handy time and time again whether through my engagements at the UN Climate Change negotiations (COP24 & COP 25), giving a talk at an OECD Roundtable at the Asian Development Bank Headquarters or pitching for £150 million for the company I co-founded with two former classmates. I never dreamed of navigating such realities myself with such ease before that year.

I stopped treating closed doors as completely closed

Oxford has a way of making you painfully aware of all the the doors not open to you even though you’ve managed to get into the university and your program of choice. Whether it’s not getting access to certain common rooms and libraries or not getting special scholar status from various funding opportunities, not sitting at the high table or not getting invited to specific events, the amount of red tape and closed doors can certainly be disheartening. For me, the amount of closed doors (whether opportunities or seemingly inaccessible hierarchies) I encountered ended up planting seeds of defiance to test what is actually closed and what could be nudged open with some strategic prying. All these “closed” doors create an incredible opportunity to take stock of all the things you do bring to the table and own yourself in ways you hadn’t before to try and access them in other ways.

Seeing the humanity in people no matter how different they might seem

At some point it’s really helpful to realize that everybody’s faking it and/or simply doing the best they can. The program brought together people from drastically different backgrounds, geographies and beliefs and leveled the playing field since we were all pushing through the same academic year together. This dynamic ends up allowing us to see the human/vulnerable person behind everyone no matter how different, put together, or privileged they might seem. What I may have judged or assumed as being a certain type of character was turned completely upside down. The profiles of some of my closest friends from the MBA is not something I could have guessed beforehand. But I guess that’s exactly the point and the power.

Coming to terms with the privilege that is forever bestowed from pushing through that year is one I’m still making sense of. Especially as a queer woman of color, it has felt exceptionally challenging to reconcile what to do with what feels like tremendous amounts of unwarranted privilege and access that will likely continue to build off itself. In many ways I still feel like an outsider or other in the spaces I want to influence, but I thankfully have had a year of tangible practice on how to exist as myself and voice what may not be considered or heard otherwise.

My year as a student at Oxford will forever be a defining characteristic of not only me but also how others see me. I feel a great sense of responsibility to leverage all this to catalyze needed systemic shifts and do justice to my time there. Working at the intersection of climate change and finance through Mercy Corps and Fettl, while continuing to support LensShift feels critically important and I’m excited to keep at it one step at a time.

This post was originally published on Medium. Read more from Aparna here.

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