2022 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: Sana Mohammed, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

Sana Mohammed

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

Age: 36

“A Mother first, and someone who is passionate about life, laughter and continuous learning.”

Hometown: Chicago, IL

Family Members: Kamran Khan (husband) and two daughters, Sofia (7) and Sarah (4)

Fun fact about yourself: I love to learn and use different languages. I have learned French, Hindi, Arabic and Urdu at varying levels of expertise. I’ve also just started learning German in my free time. I’ve only struggled with Slytherin’s parsel-tongue (if you know, you know)!

Undergraduate School and Degree: Sociology Specialist (B.A. Honors), University of Toronto

Where are you currently working? McDonald’s Corporation, Director of Global Loyalty Strategy

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

At McDonalds Corporation:

  • Winner of the prestigious Center of Excellence award for the Global Loyalty team
  • Co-lead for APMEN (Asia Pacific Middle East Network)
  • Active member of WPBN (Working Parents Business Network)
  • Active member of GWLN (Global Women’s Leadership Network)
  • RMHC volunteer

Fundraising, participant and volunteer work at:

  • Kellogg Executive Women’s Network (KEWN)
  • Kenya Works
  • World Food Programme (WFP)
  • International Rescue Committee (IRC)
  • Helping Hand Relief & Development (HHRD)
  • Local Women’s shelter

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? For an academic achievement, I have to say completing the Strategic Financial Management course is something I am proud of. As someone with a non-quantitative background, I thought it would be the craziest curricular decision I would make in this program – and it was! “Fin3” as we have grown to know and love, was the most challenging and rewarding part of the executive MBA degree for me. It taught me that Finance is just as much an art (of financial narratives) as it is, a science. I read the textbook at least twice and dropped other courses I could to have more time for it. Of course, I asked for help – a lot of it, from the TA, my classmates and of course, Professor Mitchell Petersen. I have no shame in saying I cried tears of joy & relief, a few times for Fin3.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? At McDonald’s, we call our employees, the Mc Family. And it is here, I have been able to really realize the true magnitude of this business and the extent of our Mc Family! Our Global Loyalty Team won the Circle of Excellence Award this year, which recognizes cross-functional teams that achieve significant and measurable revenue-generating results that contribute to our business, from market to global level. A winning team must support our purpose of feeding and fostering communities, drive our mission of making delicious feel-good moments easy for everyone, and bring to life our values of Serve, Inclusion, Integrity, Community and Family.

The Global Loyalty Team’s efforts are bringing in these big results. Our team was able to grow the Loyalty business from 12 markets in 2020 to over 40 today! It’s on track to be the largest loyalty program in the world.  After just nine months in the U.S. for instance, there are more than 26 million loyalty members earning rewards with over $1 billion in sales going through the program! Winning the Center of Excellence award this year means a lot because it is the highest honor given to a team for their revenue-generating contribution to the business – and it was well deserved!

Members from five global functions and over 20 global teams across the organization came together to create a feel-good, inclusive, engaging loyalty program that gives guests points for simply purchasing the food they love to redeem for free food. It’s another way we’re giving value to our communities who give so much to us.

Building and executing Loyalty took herculean efforts and unprecedented collaboration, as the team wrestled with shaping an on-brand program that stays true to our values, mission, and goals; is globally consistent but locally flexible; valuable for guests, Owner/Operators, and McDonald’s; and operationally simple, improving guest and crew experience. Once the program construct was baked, the work had just begun. It included creating a new training simulator and crew incentive program; building an inter-disciplinary hub and its processes; managing a brand-new vendor to crafting 10+ market guides and manuals; developing a turnkey fraud plan; and continually iterating on the program functionality itself —all while consulting folks from every corner of the organization to do so. In the process, the team readied everything markets needed to launch successfully. They then worked with markets individually to sell loyalty into leadership and franchisees, create a tailored plan—including technology, operations, and marketing, leverage learnings and best practices from other markets, pilot, and launch, step-by-step.

This journey proves that if you can remain humble enough and focus on growing the business and growing people, you will organically grow as a professional.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Kellogg professors are of the highest caliber – it is very difficult for me to choose only one that I have had the privilege to learn from. Kellogg professors have helped me learn how to bring a business case to life with a story of shared purpose, understand the value of brand equity, the complexities of global markets, and the power of people in the most remarkable of ways. But if I had to choose, I have to say, Professor Mitchell Petersen is the one that leaves a mark, in every class and every encounter!

Prof. Petersen taught me how to read a financial statement and make insightful inferences, justify my assumptions, build financial narratives, and ask the right questions. He has an uncanny ability to help you connect the dots from reading that financial statement to instantly understanding marketing, technology, operations, or R&D decisions for any business. It was hard work; and it took every bit of discipline and commitment from both of us to stick through the rougher case studies (i.e. all of them)! And it was worth it – because Prof. Petersen invests in his classroom and each of his students with so much love and humility, it really changes everything.

He makes it an experience, not just a class. Beyond the academia, he fills the room with an endearing nature and many finance jokes. Some memories I take with me are of him wearing a different tie each class that holds the answer to what each class is about, and telling us about his sons, rightfully nicknamed Debt and Equity.  Of course, he wrapped up the class with a session on Finance in Life, which will bring out the most heartwarming side of being a human and making profit & loss decisions in our lives, with the people we live for. I’ve never seen or learned Finance this way before and am forever grateful to him for his investment and belief in me.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? When I stepped foot into my first admissions event at Kellogg, I knew this was it; there was no reason for me to consider any other school! Of course, there being a campus in Evanston, IL as a Chicagoan was the icing on top!

This program makes character development a part of the core curriculum, not a single class. From the alumni I have spoken to before the program, to the students in the program, everyone has laughed, cried, questioned their abilities, and have risen above to shine through their experiences at Kellogg.

The Kellogg borne set of leaders believe in shared learning and inclusive visions. They are empathetic leaders who can make tough business decisions. The study groups at Kellogg allow for breadth and depth in my learning while providing a network of leaders to share with and learn from around the globe and for years after the program.

Kellogg’s culture and its people feed my appetite to learn and lead every day, to become a high impact, low ego individual, practicing a core value we hold close to our hearts. It has helped me design my own vision for my personal and professional growth, recognize opportunities and encourage me to bind together the collective energies and intelligence of teams. I was raised to be inclusive and champion positive change – something Kellogg’s values align with directly.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? I knew I was a self-aware person going into the program. However, the executive MBA program brought me to self-awareness on steroids! The most important thing I have today, is my confidence. I understand my privilege of education, network, and resources. And, I understand that leadership is only the ability to influence, which comes only from the ability to relate to people.

I have learned questions like “Where do you come from that’s not a geographic location?” from Prof Buck and have seen and felt the game-changing impact of asking this question while building teams at work.  I learned that negotiations are a discovery process of questions and answers, and not a battle, from Prof. Thompson.  Finally, I have learned to be comfortable being the last person to speak in a room. In fact, if you listen and collect differing viewpoints first, you are better equipped to ask questions and be a positive change agent as you lead teams instead of being perceived as a bulldozer of a leader, thanks to Professor Uzzi.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? A big part of practicing leadership through this program had to do with being obsessive about self-discipline and prioritization. I had to constantly practice planning ahead, recognizing what resources are around me and when to ask for help. I simply could not have done this program without my support network. I count my blessings as the people in my life who have been and continue to be my champions and cheerleaders. This starts with my husband who is my friend and my coach, my in-laws, my parents and girlfriends who were there for me through every hiccup of life with family, school and full-time work.

I once had to organize my daughter’s birthday party during the same time as launching the MyMcDonald’s Rewards program in four new countries and, of course, it was a tough semester at school with readings to do and individual and group homework to complete. I had to make it all work.

First things first: For my daughter, I could do what I had done in the past with an elaborately-themed celebration. But, these last two years, it was important to celebrate her and sustain myself too. I learned the hard lesson of doing what is enough. And seeing my daughter glow with pride and joy at an intimate gathering, while getting to savor every moment of priceless memories with her our family, was enough.

Next, I started waking up an hour early, using two commute hours on the train and blocking every lunch hour at work. I had “created” these extra four hours in the day to take care of my homework, readings, and assignments sufficiently. And of course, my study group always had my back!

And finally, when I was at work, I learned to be at work. I was present and unapologetically strategic – I gathered a team around me and dedicated team members to countries that were launching so that I could become the point of escalation more than day-to-day management. I spent more time building strategic partnerships within cross functional teams so that my team was set up for successful and accelerated collaborations for every launch conversation. I made it my job to build a great team, nurture a learning culture, and provide coaching and oversight instead of extensive direction.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? I had just given birth to my second daughter and was barely surviving from nursing her. My husband asked me one day why I wasn’t applying, because we both knew I always wanted an MBA. I was taken aback by this question and almost offended! I told him I’d need a minute since I had just delivered a baby, so was a bit busy! He chuckled and said something I will never forget, and I think of every time I question myself when taking a step forward: “Why are you pretending you already got in?” Boy, what a question! This single phrase made me realize I am my own biggest obstacle. I was saying no to my own application before I even give myself a chance. So, to anyone considering applying, give yourself a chance. Let someone else say no, if they must, and only make a decision when you have an offer in front of you. Choose to be your own cheerleader, not an obstacle.

For those already in the program, the more you give to the program, the more you will get from it. And, it’s only two years, so don’t blink for too long! You’re going to miss this before you know it!

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? The biggest myth is the management of “school life”, and that you won’t have the patience to sit in a classroom for long or make new friends or keep up with homework or exam preparations.

Yes, it is different than the regular routine for many executive MBA candidates. However, managing these different priorities is not nearly as impossible as it may seem! The classes are with like-minded, hand-selected, amazing individuals who are there to learn just like you.

The executive program has learning formats and enhancements designed for the executive candidate. Throughout class, strategic breaks are planned for recharging (with snacks!) and networking. Every homework assignment is a chance for you to reflect on and practice frameworks and concepts from class. Every exam ensures you’ve absorbed content that you will use right away, at work.

This program becomes an indulgence of an experience – somewhere your employer and family does not need you for a weekend and you are fully engaged in learning, exploring, and growing. It’s a privilege and creates the most crave-able of journeys if you open your arms and soak it all in while it lasts.

What was your biggest regret in business school?  To be honest, I studied hard, I networked hard and spent time enjoying my classmates inside and outside of the classroom. I don’t think I could regret a single day!

I do have a couple more months before I graduate and I think I will spend more time meeting with our professors and faculty – especially ones who have transformed me as a leader – to thank them, sincerely, for investing their time and heart into this program (and me).

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I have learned something from everyone I have met in class. My classmates were a priceless part of my Kellogg journey. These friends never fail to encourage or challenge me, give me new ways to think or new ideas to consider and of course, make me a better person and professional, every day. And someone I consistently learn from and admire is Jennifer Cruz. She is a mother, wife and VP at Discover Financial Services. I am drawn to her because of her ability to articulate effortlessly, build relationships easily and contribute to classes with a clear, concise, inclusive and yet tremendously different opinion than I would have for any particular topic.

Jennifer makes me think and see things differently – and as I’ve gotten to know her better, we realize we are able to build upon each other’s ideas cohesively and in fun, interesting ways – which is exactly how diversity of thought could play out successfully, anywhere! What’s amazing about Jennifer is that, apart from being incredibly smart, she is absolutely funny, down to earth and very generous as a human being.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? I had completed my bachelors in Sociology and had learned to leverage that to understand people through my career thus far. As I became a Director at McDonald’s, I needed a way to ensure I understood multiple parts of the business that I may not typically interact with day-to-day, but I knew these parts of the business impact leadership decisions. I needed to learn about organizations laterally and cross functionally and I needed to learn about peer leadership at these higher levels in the organization.

The executive MBA program provides a strong foundation of concepts that an “executive” should know and would be able to question appropriately, along with frameworks that help in decision making and gaining buy-in. Academically (from professors), this was easy to learn. However, with the executive program, I also got to learn from real life experiences of other executives in my class.

This was a time in my life where I could contribute to the class and classmates as much I could learn from the class and classmates. It is why Kellogg’s executive MBA stood out as the right option for me.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I am passionate about continuously learning, consciously breaking barriers for underrepresented communities and intentionally normalizing representation of diversity in revenue-generating leadership roles. I don’t want to be an exception to the rule. The status quo must change for businesses to continue to grow in global, diverse and constantly changing competitive landscapes and for an equitable world for our children.

And personally, I want to be a role model for my daughters. I want to learn and lead every day to enable corporate transformations while staying open and humble enough for personal transformations. I want to move the needle at an organization that provides more than a product – a purpose and passion. And I want to inspire and be inspired by, the consistent power of people around me. When I tell my daughters they can succeed at anything they put their mind to – I need to demonstrate that myself as their mother. I want my daughters to grow into smart, strong and kind women that know they can lead a family as a mother and wife and also lead an impactful organization, bigger than themselves. I want my daughters to see their identity as their internal strength and not an external obstacle. If I can break these barriers and accomplish my dreams with my identity and my family intact, my daughters will know that their world really is, full of possibilities.

What made Sana such an invaluable addition to the class of 2022?

“Sana is driven and has the quiet assurance that she can conquer any mountain, and she can. We met prior to my Strategic Financial Management course in the Kellogg Executive MBA. By reputation it is challenging. Sana came to see me prior to class, informed me she was “not a quant person” and would do whatever it took to succeed in the class. She wanted a roadmap for her and others who had similar concerns.

By force of effort and shining intellect, she didn’t just do well in my Strategic Financial Management class, she crushed it. Her humility did not hide her ability. Her ability to crunch the numbers was overshadowed by her ability to see the key business issue behind the numbers, no matter where it lay. This ability is readily apparent in the way she continues to take on new challenges in her career in areas that are far from her prior experience.

She is never a solo traveler. From our first conversation, through her questions in classes of me and her fellow students, to her advice and introductions after class, she leads by promoting others. She is not the kind of leader that stands in front and gives directions. She stands in the middle nudging, encouraging, and pushing others, myself included, to better ourselves. She is forcefully generous with her time and care. When I floated the idea of some of my EMBA students coming to lunch with my full-time students to give them a different perspective and a view into a possible future, she told me she would be one who would volunteer and gave me suggestions of others in her class that she thought would serve this purpose well.

Just as I try to push my students outside of their comfort zone to grow, Sana does the same with me. I am a better teacher, and her classmates are more successful, because of her efforts.”

Professor Mitchell Petersen
Glen Vasel Professor of Finance
Director of the Heizer Center for Private Equity and Venture Capital

DON’T MISS: THE BEST & BRIGHTEST EXECUTIVE MBAS OF 2022

 

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