2018 Best EMBAs: Shafeena Yusuff Ali, University of Oxford (Saïd)

Shafeena Yusuff Ali

Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

“Entrepreneur, world citizen, helping unlock human potential, and striving for a world with equal opportunities.”

Age: 32

Hometown: Nattika, Kerala, India

Family Members: I have a husband (Adeeb Ahamed), 9 year-old son (Ayaan), 5 year-old twins (Azaan and Ayat) and a 3 year-old (Arham).

Fun fact about yourself: I collect antique books, Swarovski crystals, and Starbucks mugs from around the world.

Undergraduate School and Degree: BSc in Management from University of Phoenix

Where are you currently working? I am Chief Executive, founder and chair of Tablez Food Company which combines my passion for food and traveling. Since starting the company in 2010, I have introduced a variety of home-grown as well as franchised food and beverage concepts across the UAE and India.

Tablez has introduced world- renowned food & beverage, toys, lifestyle and apparel brands to the market of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and India. The company has successfully developed two home grown brands that include Bloomsbury’s (global kitchen and bakehouse) and Peppermill (a fine dining colonial Indian themed restaurant).

I am also a director at Twenty14 Holdings, a hospitality investment firm which has properties worth $650 million spread across GCC, UK, and India. In 2015, the company opened its first five-star hotel in UAE at Business Bay in Dubai, managed by Steigenberger Hotel Group, a leading German-based hospitality firm. Some of the recently acquired prestigious properties include Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian, and Sheraton Oman. The company has also entered into a £110 million agreement with property developer Galliard Homes to transform Great Scotland Yard, the former headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police force, into a high end luxury boutique hotel, set to open in 2018.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: I have been involved in charity work in my local community, which includes supporting educational initiatives for underprivileged children in Kerala, India who lack access to education and healthcare. Though the help has so far been financial, I would like to get involved at a higher level.

I am also working to implement a philanthropic initiative through my company Tablez, in conjunction with the World Food Programme by October 2018.

Recent achievements included receiving:

  • Indo-Arab Women Entrepreneurship Award in January 2018. The awards recognise Indian and Arab women entrepreneurs who have turned passion into reality and created a mark through the exemplary work carried out in support of the local economy and society.
  • Achiever of the Year Award at the Emirates Woman of the Year Awards 2017. The awards recognise leaders in their fields, each making a marked difference to the UAE and beyond.
  • Outstanding Contribution for Excellent Services to the Society Award at the Kerala Social Welfare Awards 2015

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school?  I was extremely proud to share my knowledge and experience of doing business in India when my Executive MBA cohort visited Bangalore as part of the ‘Global Rules of the Game’ module. We discussed a number of recent business scenarios that I have faced in the Indian market and I shared in detail how my business runs in India, including its shortcomings and challenges that the business faces. It was a humbling and proud moment for me.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Although winning different high profile awards in recognition of my personal career achievements was extremely humbling and will always fill me with pride, my proudest achievement would have to be the first time one of my team won an award for her career and tenure in my company. I believe it is truly the people that make a company. When you see staff grow, learn new skills, and come into their own in your organisation, I cannot imagine anything that can compete with that feeling.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? My favourite course was Business Strategy. As CEO of Tablez Group, I am witnessing a period of growth and expansion both in the Middle East as well as in the Indian subcontinent. The Business Strategy course has helped me to sail the waters of expansion relatively easily and deal with the growth challenges in a positive way. It has also helped me realise the importance of having the right team to implement the strategy we have set, so that I can continue to concentrate on ideation and our future vision. We are looking at a 5-year phase of expansion and needless to say the power of strategy has helped everyone progress to where we need to be. The course also helped me realise that innovation is key and crucial to our future growth.

Why did you choose this Executive MBA program? The magic of Oxford is amazing. Just being in the city offers you a recluse from the chaos of work, so you can completely immerse yourself in your Executive MBA studies.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? I really enjoyed the cosmopolitan learning environment, project work, and interaction with people from different parts of the world which helped me to develop a truly global business outlook. All of these factors meant that the learning atmosphere was great fun.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work?I learned that business is more of a living entity, far ahead of a mechanical image built on the sole idea of profits. Business has to do with purpose, values, lots of passion, and the right people. I learned that investing in the right people is key and, more often than not, with the right leadership, they will fulfill your expectations and build the business in ways that might surprise you. This is the philosophy we follow at my company. Communicating to employees the freedom to innovate is also crucial, and I increasingly see that companies that fail to do so find progress difficult. Ultimately, a business should create value for the customer, and that can be done only through a continuous daily process of innovation. The various modules and speakers inspired me to change my thinking in this way.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? Being a mum of four children while also being an entrepreneur in an extremely fast-growing business, on top of studying an Executive MBA, is a constant everyday struggle. Having so many roles means it is inevitable that you drop at least one ball a day. However, I prioritise accordingly, compromise, accept how life is, and move on.

Having Executive MBA coursework due in while my son was in hospital and I had work calls every 15 minutes was one of the hardest times of my Executive MBA. However, I got through it all through commitment and perseverance.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? An Executive MBA programme would greatly benefit a student who already has extensive work experience and wants to develop their leadership potential. The Oxford Executive MBA helps senior managers connect the practical learning derived from one’s industry experience with the theoretical framework of business management. With absolutely no experience, the theory will be tough to understand and, in truth, you are unlikely to be accepted onto the programme.

The Executive MBA is an intensive and highly aggressive programme that requires hard work and diligent time management to stay on top of the work load and readings in addition to your job and family life. The important aspect to realise is to prioritise, compromise and be proactive.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? The biggest myth is the so-called difficulty in returning to the studying mode. However, the transition was easy for me since I consider work to be a continuous learning process. It was all the more enjoyable because I was also able to gain new perspectives that helped me understand my business process better and find solutions to some of the problems I constantly faced at work.

What was your biggest regret in business school? That I could not devote more time to stay and soak in the experiences that Oxford as a city and the amazing people in it could offer.  The truth was that I had to return to Abu dhabi to work and juggle that alongside being a mother and wife.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I greatly admire Amel Najar, the founder and Executive Director of the Children of War Foundation.  She changed my perspective on what one person could do. Her passion, vigour, and strength inspires me to keep moving and work towards adding value not just for myself or my company, but also for the greater community that we are a part of.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I realised that clearer understanding of the theoretical business framework and increased learning from the collective wisdom of sharp minds in a cosmopolitan classroom will help me lead my business in a much better and productive way.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…doing business without the benefit of the knowledge and insights that you can learn from an MBA which you won’t know exists as gaps until you study it.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? To make a success of my business in terms of the value it creates for our society. Most importantly, I wat to make a lasting and effective contribution to business in terms of an effective approach that will help entrepreneurs to succeed in their line of business.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I want my peers to remember me as someone who is compassionate, who believed in her vision, the power of womanhood and never gave up on her dreams.

Favorite book: As The Crow Flies by Jeffrey Archer

Favorite movie or television show: Baahubali

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

  1. Ice trekking in the Perito Moreno glacier.
  2. To climb the K2

What made Shafeena such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

“Shafeena has combined her studies with a demanding career and family commitments. She has been a thoughtful peer for her cohort, stepping forward to help with contacts for overseas trips and remaining humble about her own achievements, running a complex international business. When she received Achiever of the Year Award at the Emirates Woman of the Year Awards 2017, we were all delighted.”

Kathy Harvey
Associate Dean, MBA and Executive Degrees 

DON’T MISS: THE ENTIRE LIST OF 100 BEST & BRIGHTEST EXECUTIVE MBA GRADS OF 2018