2020 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Hema Vallabh, University of Oxford (Saïd)

Hema Vallabh

Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Passionate and empathic social activist. Driven, fierce, ambitious professional. Loyal and dependable friend. Adventurous traveller.” 

Age: 36

Hometown: Johannesburg, South Africa

Family Members: My dog Nacho, Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother-in-law, 2 nephews (ages 4 and 7) and my co-founder who even though isn’t related, is certainly considered family.

Fun fact about yourself: I have done bungee jumping, paragliding, parasailing, canopy tour zip-lining above forests and canyons, but have an irrational fear of heights when coming down as escalator!

Undergraduate School and Degree:

BSc Engineering (Chemical)(Hons), University of Cape Town, 2005

MSc Engineering (Catalysis), University of Cape Town, 2008

Diploma in Ontological Coaching, Newfield Network, 2013

Where are you currently working?

WomHub, Co-founder and CEO (Social Enterprise, pivot from NPO from 2016)

WomEng, Co-founder (Non-profit founded in 2006)

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work, and Leadership Roles: My greatest passion lies in the work I do that involves building organizations that create lasting impact. This extends from the activities directly related to building my own business (which certainly transcend the regular 8 – 5) to extracurricular activities such as advising on a number of non-profits and social enterprises and mentoring – especially young upcoming female entrepreneurs and leaders. I am fortunate that this has resulted in a number of accolades in recognition thereof. These include being awarded South Africa’s Most Influential Woman in Engineering title, branded as a “Change-Maker” by Oprah Magazine, named as one of the Top 200 Young South African’s by Mail & Guardian and selected as one of 27 women globally for the Fortune Global Women’s Mentorship Exchange. I am also a Vital Voices Global Leader; a member of the African Leadership Network, a community of dynamic and influential leaders in Africa; and a member of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) committee for Women in Engineering and Capacity Building. I was recently named as one of South Africa’s Inspiring Fifty Women in Tech, and am a fellow of the prestigious Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship, and winner of the Fortune/Goldman Sachs Global Women Leader’s Award. I serve as board member of Ping Lady and ALA Student Enterprise Program. However, it is not these accolades that define me, but rather the impact that I am able to have through my work.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school?  I am most proud of having participated as a speaker in the Entrepreneurship in Africa Townhall hosted by the Africa Society and Oxford Foundry. It is an incredible initiative focussed on building innovative businesses, linking the expertise and experience at Oxford with the needs on the African continent. I also serve as a mentor for African start-ups which bring me immense pride and joy as I see them grow and evolve.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? It would be building a global social enterprise that started from humble beginnings as a non-profit in South Africa, to today having run programs in 22 countries around the world and is currently on an aggressive growth trajectory. This has also enabled me to be part of changing the narrative around the capabilities of women engineers and entrepreneurs in Africa (and globally, in fact), and to serve as a role model and thought leader when it comes to innovation and merging social impact with building a global empire. This is important to me because I believe in the power of story-telling and role-modeling. There are too many young girls out there who don’t believe that their dreams are valid or who succumb to the societal stereotyped enforced upon them. My message to them through my work is that that I’m nothing special – so if I can do this, then so can any of them.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Dan Snow, Technology and Operations Management course.

I loved his teaching style and interactive nature of his classes (a change from the often very academic and theoretical nature of other courses). I thoroughly enjoyed the selection of case studies and his thought processes in imparting lessons and key learnings in a relevant, practical and implementable manner. Being a chemical engineer, the content was relatable from a process perspective but made a powerful link to business application which I found extremely useful in my current professional life. I also really enjoyed his quirky sense of humour and found him very personable. Not your typical professor!

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? I’m pretty head-strong. Once I decided that I was going to pursue my EMBA, I was very clear about what I wanted from my school and program. I wanted to be part of a global and diverse class (on all accounts nationality, gender, industry, experience). I wanted a program that wasn’t only focussed on the typical (historical?) investment banking and consulting audience, but rather one that looked toward innovation, entrepreneurship (including social entrepreneurship), and leadership beyond the boardroom. I wanted a program that included a good scope of international learning and modules, which includes experiential learning on emerging markets. I wanted a program that would give me exposure to a network of leading professors, industry experts, and trailblazers. And of course, I wanted to go to one of the top schools in the world. SBS fulfilled all these criteria right from the onset. I only applied to Oxford and only for the EMBA program – it’s the program and school that I knew I wanted and hasn’t disappointed on any account.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? Hands-down, it was my fellow classmates. To be part of a cohort of 70 incredible people, coming from 40 different countries, makes for an extremely enriching experience. The invaluable interactions range from the deeply intellectual conversation to exploring blue-sky wild ideas, to sharing ideas on how we can change the world. We would just simply have immense fun winding down at the end of the day during an otherwise intense and demanding module week. I couldn’t have asked for more in this regard and am most grateful for the relationships and friendships that I have made that I know will transcend way beyond the program.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? From an academic and tangible perspective, the most valuable courses were business finance and accounting. As a self-starter entrepreneur with an engineering degree, I have built my business from pure gut-feel and intuition. I have grown my organization quite organically with a LOT of learning on-the-job. Not having a business or finance background has oftentimes proved challenging. Although, never letting that hold me back, I found that after doing these courses (and a few others too) has shifted my business mindset, skill-set, and expertise to the benefit of my business.

However overall, the biggest lesson was in fact not academic. It was more around a new way of looking at the world. The exposure and experiences gained, from both the classroom and my peers, introduced me to a whole array of opportunities and possibilities that I could only have dreamed of, as well a deeper belief in myself and my own capabilities – which has proved to be even more invaluable.

The combination of above has had a direct impact on the way in which I run and, more importantly, am able to scale my business.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education? As I do not have kids, I am one of the fortunate few who did not have to juggle family as much. I have an incredible support network and am grateful for the role they have played in supporting me during my studies. My struggle however came in having to juggle my work and studies. Being an entrepreneur, one can argue that your business is just like your child. As a founder who is at the core of building and growing a global organization, it was incredibly difficult to take a step back and away from my business. But with the demands that my studies placed, especially knowing I wanted to get the full value out of the program, this was necessary. I am grateful for having a co-founder who has played such an integral role throughout my journey. In particular in stepping in and alleviating my workload where necessary during my studies. I also have an incredible team who has stepped up in a big way as well. The travel also places a massive constraint but having put in the right systems and processes prior has served us well. This also spearheaded a more flexible and remote way of working for the whole team, which has proven to be so valuable given the Covid implications that have now become the new normal.

What was your biggest regret in business school? With my EMBA program being a part-time modular program, I was largely only at school during my module weeks. As these weeks are jam-packed, it leaves little time to explore and enjoy the other facilities, activities and opportunities that a university like Oxford has to offer. That includes the business school itself as well – including the career and coaching support, thought-leadership sessions, networking opportunities. I also wish I had more time for extracurricular activities, spending more time at my college (Keble) and being able to engage more with the incredible innovation and social impact branches that Oxford is home to, such as the Skoll Centre, Oxford Science and Innovation, etc.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Shawn Ruggeiro.

From very early on in the program I realised that Shawn struck a special cord for me. She reminded me of my mom, one of my greatest inspirations, who also embarked on her EMBA in her fifties – at a time when it was really not the norm for an older woman of colour in South Africa to even dream of such things. I know how challenging it was for my mom, and how much she had to sacrifice and put in to be able to complete her program. Like my mom, Shawn is not someone who is happy to just sit back and do the required. She has gone over and above displaying her leadership capabilities, experience, and compassion, which has been such a great value add to our whole class. I also had a pleasure of witnessing Shawn as the mother of two bright, ambitious girls (who I also had the pleasure of meeting during the program), which further reinforced my respect and admiration for her and likened her to the way my mum raised my sister and me.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…the opportunity was presented to me during my time as a Tutu Fellow in 2017, when I visited Saïd Business School. I would’ve simply laughed it off if someone had told me before that that this girl who grew up in a previously disadvantaged community in very recent post-Apartheid South Africa and has had to fight her way for almost every opportunity she’s ever had would one day be studying at executive level at one of the top universities in the world. It has been a huge privilege and honour to have made it this far and I look forward to what’s next after this.” 

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? While my non-profit is already 14 years old, my business, WomHub, is still in its early stages – I would like to grow this into the most respected and impactful incubator, tech hub, and investment fund for female founders in Sub-Saharan Africa. I believe that women are the missing link in the entrepreneurial and innovation puzzle, especially on the African continent. My goal is to support and fund high-potential founders who are otherwise marginalized because of their gender and the cultural narratives that exist around this and to build a generation of women entrepreneurs and leaders on the continent who will be in the driving seat of Africa’s journey to prosperity.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? As someone who is committed to making a positive social impact and who will take the learning and opportunities she has had at business school and use it for the greater good of others.

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

On my travel bucket list (having been fortunate enough to have already travelled to over 65 countries) – doing the trans-Siberian railway journey.

In general – to retire early (from my day job) and work on an animal sanctuary for rehabilitated elephants and rhinos (or wild animals in general).

What made Hema such an invaluable addition to the class of 2020?

“Hema has an awe-inspiring entrepreneurial spirit and an incredible list of accolades to her name. Yet she combines her drive for success with a thoughtful nature and an openness to new ideas and concepts. Her passion for mentorship and desire to change the world for the better shines through in her work, studies and attitude. Hema strives not just for her own success, but for others too. We are honoured to accompany her on her journey.”

Bettina Kosiel
Executive MBA Programme Director


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.