Maria Fernanda Virués, a Laidlaw Scholar at London Business School, on pursuing childhood dreams and helping people be the best versions of themselves as a leader.
I was born and raised in Queretaro, 3 hours away from Mexico City. After graduating with an Actuarial Science degree from Universidad Anáhuac in Mexico City, I joined A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm. There, I started as an analyst and built a 5-year career, working in industries ranging from Oil & Gas, Chemicals, Retail and CPG’s, and different locations: Mexico, Colombia, Germany and UAE.
Midway through my consulting career, I decided to take some time off and pursue a personal dream: live and volunteer in Africa. I did a volunteering program in Zambia, during which I lived in a local village with a host family and was a Maths teacher in a community school. Later, I moved to Karongwe, a private reserve close to Kruger, South Africa, and did a wildlife conservation volunteering program, specialising in cheetah tracking.
Last year I decided it was time for the next great step in my career—pursuing an MBA at a top school. I got accepted to London Business School; however, financing my education was getting complicated in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Without expecting it, I got a call informing me that I was being offered the Laidlaw Scholarship just hours before heading to climb Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain in Mexico. Besides economic support, it offered me the opportunity to join a network of people making a difference, focused on crafting better opportunities for women everywhere.
What is the biggest life challenge you have overcome, and what did you learn from it?
Back in 2015, something changed me while I was sitting in a hospital corridor, waiting for the inevitable to happen. After eight months of a good fight, one of my college best friends was losing their battle with cancer. During her last day, when I came to say farewell, she told me: "Don’t dare to cry or you are out, I want you to smile," and so I did. We sat around the bed, her family and friends, laughing about the crazy things we used to do. And then, she left.
After that, I had hard moments. I couldn’t understand how everything crumbled so fast. During my healing, I realized that until that moment, all the great things in my life that I wanted to achieve were still to come. I promised myself to live such a life that I would be proud and satisfied with it if I knew I would die tomorrow. I decided to end relationships that were no longer fulfilling, booked a flight to Africa and took an absence from work. I was determined to fulfil one of my childhood dreams—being a wildlife and children volunteer in Africa. Since that moment, I have pursued every dream that has crossed my mind.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
“It is not you; they are just not ready for you.”
The lack of women representation is still a fact in Mexico. Women fight daily to be recognized, empowered and included. The best advice they gave me was to stop fighting in a certain place with certain people, understand that people have limitations, and sometimes you need to let things go.
What is the worst piece of advice you have ever been given?
Avoid conflict! I think that sometimes conflict is necessary, and it creates progress.
Top 3 tips that will help someone become a better leader
- In Spanish, we would say “la palabra enseña pero el ejemplo arrastra” – the word teaches, but the example drags. Teach with actions and be congruent and consistent with what you ask people to do.
- Remember that we are all human beings. Have in mind that every person has their own struggles and problems at any given time, which you may not know. Try to be patient and understanding when things don’t turn the way you expected. If the result is not what you were expecting, it does not mean people didn’t give their 100%.
- It is okay not to know everything, it is okay to feel sad or despaired, and it is okay to take time off. Rome was not built in a day. Resilience is one of the greatest qualities of leaders. Things will not work as you expected, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad outcome. You need to try, fail, learn and try again, and give yourself some time after every failure to learn and recharge energy.
Which leaders in the world inspire you the most and why?
Nelson Mandela is my key leader role model. Mainly because of his congruency and no retaliation policy. The more I learn about his story, the more I’m impressed with him. He was able to put aside his pride, fear and anger for the greater good.
Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
I see myself leading a diverse, talented team in which no one feels like a minority, and everyone is empowered to challenge and communicate their views. I see myself creating an environment in which everyone can be the best versions of themselves. Working with a team full of people who succeed both personally and professionally: working moms who lead teams; working dads who go home early to make dinner; enthusiastic young professionals who are willing to take months off work to pursue a personal goal or to work in a volunteering program, and senior professionals who wanted a change in their career.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
It is an honour and a responsibility.
It is an honour because when I talk to my fellow Laidlaw Scholars and read their stories, I feel lucky to be a part and comparable to those talented women.
It is a responsibility as well. Being a part of the Laidlaw community shows me that someone is placing high expectations on me and that I have the responsibility to meet them. After completing my education, it is my turn to give back to society, especially to women and minorities fighting to be recognized and paving the way for those who come after.
📺 Currently binging: This Is Us
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: The birth of my nephew
Maria is a Laidlaw Scholar at London Business School. The Laidlaw Women's Business Education Scholarship aims to help build a pipeline of future women leaders through access to best-in-class education, resources and global networks by providing full and half scholarships to women who would not otherwise be in a position to reap the benefits of attending an outstanding school.
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