2020 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Shagita Gounden, University of Cambridge (Judge)

Shagita Gounden

Cambridge Judge Business School

Age: 36

Describe yourself in 15 words or less:

South African


Computer Engineer


Long-distance runner

Who values connection and independence.

Hometown: Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

Family Members: Supportive and encouraging parents. I am the eldest of 4, very close siblings. Two brothers and a sister who all reside happily in South Africa.

Fun fact about yourself: I am a Star Wars super-fan!

Undergraduate School and Degree: Bachelor of Engineering (Computer Engineering) from the University of Pretoria (South Africa)

Where are you currently working? I am currently an engineer working on a global collaborative project aimed at building the world’s largest radio telescope – The SKA (Square Kilometre Array) Organisation. The SKA Project is an international mega-construction scientific effort, involving 13 member countries and over 100 organisations and 20 participating countries, bringing together the best scientists and engineers from across the globe. The SKA telescope, once built, will be the most sensitive telescope in the world, exceeding Hubble by some margin and will allow scientists to see further into the galaxy, billions of light years, than ever before.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work, and Leadership Roles:

I am a qualified yoga instructor and conduct free twice-weekly lunchtime classes at my organization. I eventually plan to become certified to teach children.

Since 2005, I’ve been involved and have driven outreach activities aimed at encouraging and supporting students in STEM. I feel particularly passionate about the representation of women in STEM. I deliver lectures at schools, universities, science festivals, and other events aimed at students and experienced professionals. Opportunities to connect with women in STEM fields help nurture and grow a community, rekindling the passion and love for the work that we do, which can be dimmed by the isolation we sometimes experience.

Growing up under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, there were very limited options and resources available to my family and community. Education was the only avenue to personal empowerment. I share my story to motivate and encourage others who are faced with challenges in their studies, lives or professional environments. Through sharing my story, I try to promote the importance and power of education.

In 2015, I was named as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans (2015)

During the EMBA, I participated and won (part of the winning team) the University of Cambridge Women in Tech Challenge 2019 (sponsored by Microsoft, Amazon and GSK).

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? One of my classmates, Sinziana Muresan, a truly dynamic woman, arranged for another amazing classmate, Dr. Eugenie Regan, and myself to deliver a series of lectures and engagements in her home country of Romania to a varied audience. The theme was ‘Women Reaching for the Stars’ and we were asked to share our personal stories and experiences of working in STEM and initiate a broader dialogue on gender, diversity and education. This week-long initiative was fully organized by Sinziana and came together during an EMBA weekend in which we delved into the power of storytelling. Sinziana was inspired by our stories and felt that they were worth sharing. It was a wonderful experience as it allowed us to travel to Romania and experience a completely different culture. We had an overwhelmingly warm reception and had a chance to connect with remarkable people. I loved how the idea came together amongst ourselves and it gave Eugenie, Sinziana, and myself an unforgettable opportunity to bond.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am most proud of my current involvement in the SKA project. A project like this represents not just an engineering challenge, but has significant socio-economic impact, particularly to the host country, South Africa. I am very proud to be part of an international community of engineers and scientists that are realizing this lofty goal.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? This is a very tough question. The lecturers and teaching community at Judge are all stellar – experts in their field, delivering a wealth of knowledge in an accessible way with humility and an eagerness to engage with students. In every class, I never felt talked to; rather I felt that I was part of a dialogue. Lecturers created a safe space in which I felt included, heard, and thoroughly engaged.

However, if I had to choose a ‘favourite’, Dr. Kamal Munir and Prof. Shaz Ansari really brought the field of Strategic Management to life in our classes. The course was delivered with enthusiasm, illuminating insight, and charisma. Their tag-team delivery was coupled with sincere encouragement to engage openly in class. I was very grateful to have Dr. Kamal Munir as my thesis supervisor. Under his direction, I was constantly challenged and supported in crafting my research outputs.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? I spent the summer of 2016 in Cambridge to work with the astronomy faculty at the Battcock Centre for Experimental Astrophysics on aspects of the design of the SKA telescope. This was my first encounter with Cambridge and it was enough to cast a spell. I was taken with the dichotomy between the ancient setting and the progressive and liberal culture, attitudes, and people. This was more than just another ‘university town’. The air felt electric. I recall thinking, while out on my morning runs (particularly while running past Kings College), ‘How wonderful must it be to study here?’. The very idea seemed like a dream. I set that feeling aside (or so I thought) but it lay dormant in my heart and came to the fore in early 2018 when I was contemplating an MBA. I initially considered studying at school in South Africa and when talking with my manager about an MBA, he encouraged me to study abroad. At this prompt, memories of that special summer in Cambridge came into sharp focus and I could think of no better place than Cambridge. It was audacious but it felt right.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? The entire experience was expansive and illuminating. The highlight was connecting with the cohort. I am most grateful for the opportunity to have met and interacted with so many inspiring, brilliant, sincere, and kind people who I hope to know for the rest of my life.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? One of the biggest lessons was the importance of psychological safety as the basis for high-performance teams. We were made aware of the power that comes from showing vulnerability and encouraging related behavioral cues in building strong, enduring teams.

The upside of the part-time aspect of the EMBA is that I was able to litmus test and apply MBA theory and associated frameworks. I did my best to inculcate psychological safety within my own team by being open about my opinions and feelings and allowing myself to be vulnerable within the professional environment in the hope of encouraging others in my workplace to do the same.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education? The MBA was a constant juggling act, but what helped was having a strong support system – both at home and at work. My manager was very supportive and encouraging. I would not have been able to complete the MBA and enjoy the experience without the people in my life who have constantly encouraged and supported me, particularly my partner. He is always in the corner and had to pick up serious slack, especially when I moved to the UK to be based here three months into my studies. I recall studying for exams while packing up our life in South Africa. We landed in the UK on the day before I sat for an Accounting exam. I even recall studying on the plane.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Our last lecture was held online due to the COVID-19-related lockdown. During this last session, I realized that I took the face time I had with my friends and lecturers for granted. I wish I spent more time with them. It never seemed to be enough. I’m not sure if any amount would have been enough.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of such a talented and diverse cohort. I was inspired by them all. However, I was particularly inspired and motivated by the strength and ambition of the women in my cohort, particularly Ruth Anderson, who is steadfastly building an empire in Australia that makes an indelible impact on the medical community. Ruth flew in from Australia for the EMBA weekends every month and her drive, determination and work-life balance really inspired and motivated me.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I felt restless and in need of an adventure.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My ultimate goal is to pursue opportunities that continuously challenge me, inspire me to grow, position me to help and support others, and allow me to contribute to societal good.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? As someone who was authentic, kind, respectful, and interesting. I’ll take at least one of those things.

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

  1. To run (at least) one of the major ultramarathons in the world with my favourite running crew – my mum and sister.
  2. To be a qualified/accredited kids yoga instructor (I am already an accredited yoga instructor but I teach adults). I want to encourage more children to practice, especially children from disadvantaged communities.

What made Shagita such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2020?

“Shagita’s determination and drive made her an invaluable addition to the Cambridge Executive MBA 2018 cohort. During the programme, Shagita was a tremendous team player, consistently bringing out the best in her peers. She also showed dynamic and deft leadership skills that led her to academic success.

Shagita is a brilliant ambassador for women and girls in STEM, both in her career and through the outreach opportunities she pursues, and an inspiration to all of us. We are incredibly proud of her achievements to date and will follow her exciting and important work keenly.”

Khal Soufani
Director of the Executive MBA


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