2017 Best EMBAs: Simone Saleh, North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

Simone Saleh

University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

“Health and fitness nut aspiring to re-grow culture-rich experiences in this technology-dominated world.”

Age: 26

Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina

Family Members: Mounir and Lisa Saleh (Parents), Noelle Scott, Gabrielle and Cecile Saleh (sisters), Jaden Saleh (brother)

Fun fact about yourself: Training to enter Women’s Health “Next Fitness Star 2018”

Undergraduate School and Degree: North Carolina State University, Bachelor of Business Administration (Concentration in Entrepreneurship)

Where are you currently working? Sassool Mediterranean Café, General Manager, Cary, North Carolina

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

  • Cooking Classes at Sassool: Founder and coordinator of monthly cooking classes for the public. Designed to promote retail items used in Mediterranean cooking and strengthen the company brand as a family-centered, authentic Mediterranean restaurant, serving up healthy fare as well as rich Lebanese culture through the colorful menu.
  • Mentor for Fostering Wellness: This is a program from Community Partnerships, which is designed to coach foster youth in their journey to get a degree. I was assigned as a mentor to a young lady named Shakira who aspires to develop her career in the foodservice industry. I meet with her each month, share my foodservice experiences with her and check in on her education progress.
  • Captain of “Team Sassool”: Organized fundraising team to participate in and donate to local charity walks and runs including The Walk for Hope, Race for the Cure, ADA’s Tour De Cure, St. Jude’s Ride for a Reason, and Umstead Coalition’s annual walk.
  • Volunteer for Wake County Schools: Promoted reading at the elementary school level by reading to kindergarten class, donating books to school libraries, and hosting interactive author readings at Sassool.
  • Marketing advisor for Outdoor Adventure Kings, North Carolina, outdoor lifestyle startup: Design prints for t-shirts, coordinate outdoor recreation events, and create Facebook and website content.
  • Member of Chamber of Commerce for Raleigh and for Cary: Attend networking and guest speaker events
  • Member of North Hills Networking Group, largest professional networking group in NC: Attend monthly events and hosts a yearly event at Sassool.
  • Volunteer at St. Sharbel Catholic Mission: Volunteer for annual Christmas party fundraiser and spring golf tournament
  • Volunteer for Keep America Beautiful: I pick up trash with my fiancé around Falls Lake on my day off from work.
  • Member of local meetup groups Triangle Hiking and Outdoors Meetup, Culture SHOCK Meetup, and Healthy Wellthy and Whole Meetup: Help coordinate events and attends monthly meetups and connect with like-minded individuals.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of my mentorship with Fostering Wellness, an advocacy program for foster youth that I started participating in during my time at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

I connected to Fostering Wellness through a writer who interviewed me for a piece he was creating for Women’s History Month. Through the Fostering Wellness program, I have had the opportunity to share my story to other businesswomen in the Triangle and paired up with a young lady who is considering the foodservice industry for her career. My father emigrated from Lebanon when he was 19 years old without knowing English or anyone except his family unit (who came over with him). Mentorship provided by my great uncle, who was the curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art then, gave my dad and his uncles the guidance to start their own business. Forty years later, my dad still works full-time, loving every chance that to connect with customers and spread Lebanese hospitality.

Growing up in the family business, I share that same passion for hospitality and culture, which motivates me every day. My experience of entrepreneurship and restaurant life from an early age and being in school while managing all operations in a restaurant have been immense learning experiences learning for me. I am privileged to be able to meet and mentor the young lady through her journey. I feel that I have a well-rounded perspective about most areas of the foodservice industry, and I love being able to share both the rewarding and challenging experiences with her. If I’ve learned anything thus far, it is that PASSION is the most important piece to being successful in your industry. Passion is something that drives me to constantly improve myself and my family’s restaurant. I look forward to continuing this mentorship for this program and others for many more years.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am most proud of starting the cooking class series at our restaurants because it has evolved into something so much more impactful than when it started. Several years ago, my father started a new restaurant venture with my sister, my mom and me. In addition to my role as general manager at one of our restaurant locations, I am head of marketing for the company.

An interactive cooking class was an idea that I had to connect our customers with the authentic Mediterranean ingredients that we sell in our market section of the restaurants. At first, I did this purely for product promotion purposes. Serving healthy Mediterranean food every day is one thing, but demonstrating to your customers how they can embody healthy cooking and entertaining at home was another point of engagement that I wanted to tackle. I started teaching the cooking classes to groups of 30 each month, highlighting key ingredients that we sell in the market. But standing in front of 35 people with a burner, cutting board and a chef jacket allowed the customers a cultural experience filled with stories of my childhood from memories of cooking with my dad and grandmother. I quickly found out that stories and experiences behind the recipes were a cultural piece to which my class attendees connected. More than five years later, we are still offering cooking classes to our customers, but more importantly, we are connecting our customers to the passion behind the food.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? I chose the EMBA program at UNC Kenan-Flagler, first, because of the reputation of the program. I know a few people who have graduated from the program and highly recommended it. I also knew that a key component of this program was the business network you build throughout your time at UNC Kenan-Flagler, and it was a goal of mine to establish myself in the community among other business men and women. Being given the opportunity to connect with many people from different industry and stages of business was an attractive component that has proven even more valuable now that I anticipated. The cohort class structure was also something that I loved about UNC Kenan-Flagler’s EMBA program.

Finally, and most importantly, being able to work full-time while getting my MBA was a necessary requirement of committing to this venture. I need my MBA to grow into the business woman I aspire to be, but my family and our family business need me too. The balance between school and work is a challenge that I’ve learned to juggle, but without either, I wouldn’t have been able to acquire tools that I need to excel in my career and make my own mark on the world.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? I enjoy the cohort atmosphere that the program offers. Not only are you surrounded by highly-driven, highly creative individuals, but everyone understands the struggle of work/home/school life balance. The team atmosphere is very strong and there is constant support and encouragement from your classmates. I’ve also made some very valuable business connections among my cohorts. I feel that if the class structure was set up differently, I would not be able to extract as much value or receive as much support as I do now.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? My family and work are an integral part of my well-rounded education, so one example would not give justice to the juggling act. However, the moment that I finally felt that I belonged in business school was when these three things collided in front of my peers.

A few months after starting my MBA, my father was invited to speak to my class about starting a business after emigrating from Lebanon. Prior to this I have to admit that I was VERY intimidated by the talent and professions of my classmates. I felt that everyone was possibly more qualified to be in the EMBA program than I was. Hearing my dad talk to my peers, telling them his story that I have heard so many times, it finally started to mean something different to me. I realized that I was not just the daughter of a restaurant owner, nor was I just a manager at a Mediterranean café. I realized that I was part of a growing operation, where every business decision counts and I was part of the success of the company that my family was building. I was reassured by my cohorts when they started coming to me with questions about operations, human resources, and how to run their own operations leaner. Finally, I felt that I belonged and I could really bring valuable experience to the group. After that day, I was prouder than ever to have the opportunity to get my MBA and continue the journey my dad started, and make it so much bigger and greater than he ever imagined.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? Before starting my MBA at UNC Kenan-Flagler, a few family members trying to offer encouragement said, “Oh it will be easier now that you’ve done it before!” That myth could not be more wrong. When I was in undergrad at NC State, I worked three jobs, took a full schedule of school, and still found time to make friends. Now going back to get my MBA with only one job, I found that it took a considerable amount of time to get used to the school/work/home life balance. Having school and my job at a more advanced level, it takes more focus and more hours to get all the work done. Managing myself and my school work, my employees and coordinating team assignments and meetings has been a learning experience! I can say with full confidence that even though it took a little while to get used to juggling, I have grown immensely and have become a better manager because of the challenges on my plate. So no, going back to school is not easier than the first time BUT I am so thankful for the challenge and everything I’ve learned from this more difficult experience of getting my MBA.

What was your biggest regret in business school? My biggest regret is not being able to attend some of the workshops offered and guest speaker appearances that happen during the day when I’m at work. I have been able to attend a few of them. When they are in the middle of our busiest time of day at the restaurant, it has been hard to separate and make it to these events. I could really benefit from some of these events. However, I am committed to making the most of all my classes and the events that I am able to attend.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? The classmate that I admire the most is a woman named LaChaun Banks. She amazes me with her contagious enthusiasm that she brings to every class. Not only does she have an amazing attitude, but she has also had a baby while in the program and has been able to balance taking care of the infant while still in school. She works full time and has pitched a very serious business idea that she’ll be going after in the near future. To be able to have priorities in place and get her MBA with so many other milestones and responsibilities in her life is something that I don’t think many people could do. She does it flawlessly AND with a smile.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I would scan the business news on the internet each morning and try to find solutions to many of the problems discussed in the articles. Throughout my work day, I would continue to think about solutions in the business world for companies and innovations that would make life easier. I knew that I wanted to learn more if I was to make these solutions into concrete plans.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…half way through my third “business ideas and opportunities” notebook that I keep. I keep a notebook in my purse and on my desk at work at all times for when a business venture or product idea pops into my head. After I record it, I wait a few days and start to add details to the pages. Without business school, these ideas would keep piling up, and I would maybe begin to launch one or two of them. Business school has made that idea development and launch process so much more within my reach. I feel like I am now better prepared to assess opportunities and lay out the steps needed to make ideas come to life. I also feel that I have been equipped with a much larger and more valuable network than when I began this journey. When I’m challenged and need assistance or advice, I know have the right professionals to ask for help.”

What is your favorite company and what are they doing that makes them so special?  My favorite company is called Eataly, which is an upscale indoor market founded by Italian Chef Mario Batali. Eataly is a sensory experience in Italian cuisine and culture, all under one roof, serving authentic Italian cuisine but segmented into separate stalls to highlight the specific type of food featured. One area is the cheese counter, with hundreds of gourmet cheeses and a man carving away at a large wheel of cheese as you walk by. Another section is the bakery, with the wood-fired oven, constantly cranking out baguettes and focaccia — the aroma filling the air of the entire building. I love Eataly because it is a complete cultural immersion and it brings experience back into the ordinary process of grocery shopping. I also admire Eataly because it is always busy and has several locations in the New England area. Eataly makes you appreciate the products they are selling and provides experts at each counter to make that experience so much richer. It is not a billion dollar high-growth tech company, but walk in the door and it will make just as big of an impression on you.

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the executive MBA experience? If I were the dean for a day, I would set up partnerships with different departments of UNC and the MBA students. Some of my most enjoyable experiences while getting my MBA have been directly working with companies to help them better a certain part of their business. The real work I’ve done for the companies has also been the biggest learning experiences. I would implement an ongoing program for the MBA students to help better the university’s departments while increasing the amount of time for hands-on business training.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? Long term, I would love to grow Sassool into a national chain of healthy Mediterranean food, and then move on to boutique hotels and resorts. I would also love to start at consultancy with specific expertise in creating culture-rich experiences, services and products.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? I want to thank my parents for my success. Since day one, they have encouraged me and have supported me in this journey to get my MBA. My father has also helped wherever possible to alleviate some of my responsibilities as work, making it more possible to have time to do school work, analyze case studies, and meet with my study groups. From the business point of view, they are interested in what I’m learning and help me bridge the skills I’m learning at UNC Kenan-Flagler and bringing them into play under the roof of the restaurants. That constant encouragement to apply myself and to focus on school while in the program helps me stay disciplined and balanced with work/school life. To top it all off, my parents are the best executive business team that I know. The way that they balance each other’s talents to grow the business and keep operations running like a clock is the best model of a business partnership that I know.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I would like my peers to remember me as the woman they KNEW was going to make a big mark in the business world and a part of their network that they will need in the future.

Favorite book: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Favorite movie or television show: Lethal Weapon

Favorite musical performer: John Legend and Olly Murs

Favorite vacation spot: Beirut, Lebanon

Hobbies: Working out, fishing, hiking, DIY décor, cooking, scrapbooking, making content videos for the restaurant, writing

What made Simone such an invaluable addition to the class of 2017?

“Simone Saleh has been a stand-up citizen of the Executive MBA Class of 2017 at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. She has been a dedicated student who is committed to learning and participating in the dynamic classroom environment. Professionally, Simone is a critical piece to her family’s business, a locally renowned Mediterranean café. Simone’s passion for success and her MBA skills, will help the restaurant continue to grow and thrive. While at UNC Kenan-Flagler, Simone has been a strong contributor by sharing her experiences of helping expand and shape a business. She demonstrates a calm enthusiasm which has made her successful both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Holly Rice
Director, Evening Executive MBA Program
UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School