Nouss Bih, a Laidlaw Scholar at Saïd Business School, on building a pipeline of female entrepreneurs and leaders and confronting her fears.
I love seeing women succeed. The past few years have shown me more than ever, that gender is far from being a neutral element in business. A private equity professional previously based in Cote d’Ivoire, I have worked at an investment fund for 6 years before starting the MBA. I come from a space where women are still underrepresented. At the time I left the fund, I was one of the only 20% female investment team members, a reflection of the industry. In my job as an investor, accessing a pipeline of female entrepreneurs was a constant challenge, as the abundance of barriers standing in the way of women to start and scale their business led to the scarcity of these profiles.
However, being surrounded by successful women and seeing them as role models was a powerful source of inspiration for me. I witnessed their achievements leading their organizations and driving change in our country while always being a wealthy source of advice. I joined some of these wonderful women in my industry and we organized informal dinners where we discussed topics related to our industry and women's career development. A big part of my motivation to do an MBA was to relate to more of these inspiring professionals and to accelerate my career progression.
When I got an offer from Saïd Business School, I couldn’t be happier to learn about the existence of a new scholarship not only emphasizing the power of women leaders but also aiming to lift those like me, for whom this scholarship made possible a dream of accessing a world-class MBA. I immediately realized the size of the opportunity, and since I’ve started the program, seeing the potential and caliber of the other selected scholars made me realize that networks and intentional support are instrumental for women to achieve their full potential.
What is the biggest life challenge you overcame, and what did you learn from it?
After a very rewarding work experience in Chile as an investment banker, I decided to take a gap year to achieve some personal goals: experience solo travel, discover a country and culture I had long dreamed about (Cuba) and learn about myself through the process; then take a training followed by fellowship at an impact investing job, so that I could break into that competitive space. But shortly after leaving Chile, a real estate investment that I had made turned into a bad one, leaving me with a significant debt I had to pay while being unemployed. This challenging situation made me question the bold choices that led me to this misfortune: leaving a comfortable life, spending money on a long trip, investing early in a foreign country, and threatening my financial security. But I refused to let it ruin an occasion to enjoy an exciting and unique year, and I did well since I lived an incredible experience traveling, my fellowship led to a very fulfilling job, and I was able to reverse the situation with my investment. It taught me several things:
- Always prioritize investing in oneself and in transformative, unique experiences over accumulating material things;
- Acknowledge that bad things will happen and get better at scenario planning; make decisions considering the worst-case scenario;
- Trust your ability to make the best decision for yourself;
- Embrace uncertainty, this is where the magic happens!
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
This quote, attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, was a powerful call to action to me: reflecting on it has allowed me to confront my fears. I realized that sometimes, fear was getting in the way of my accomplishments: fear of the unknown, fear of failing, fear of what people would think, fear of not being enough or too much. I embrace risk with more confidence and believe in my ability to make bold, transformative moves. This piece of advice has helped me build my self-confidence in tremendous ways.
What is the worst piece of advice you have been given?
It was a time when I was told to give up a passion or a hobby because it doesn’t look good in a professional setting. We should all be able to express our full selves, and developing our talents makes us more complete, interesting, and happy people.
Top 3 tips that will help someone become a better leader
⚡ Learn to listen and be worthy of trust: leading others requires a capacity to hear a diversity of views, and make people feel like they are heard. People value a leader who values their opinion, understands them, and supports them when needed. I am convinced that the more people trust you, the more you can bring the most out of them and reach your common objectives.
⚡ Be patient and trust the process: when times get rough, when I am impatient to see the result of what I’m building, I remember that the best things in life take time and that only the finish line matters. Being able to stay focused on the end goal when processes are lengthy and filled with obstacles is a mark of true leaders.
⚡ Leverage your network and supporters. I believe that it takes a community to succeed. Build a support system and get to know it perfectly; know who’s rooting for you unconditionally, who will find the right word when you’re in doubt, who’s the person who will tell you things with brutal honesty or will find the resource you need when you’re stuck. And don’t forget to be that key person for others!
Which leaders in the world inspire you the most and why?
I draw inspiration from Michelle Obama, who is a relentless advocate for finding one’s story, acknowledging its value and power, and sharing it with the world; I admire Oprah Winfrey for becoming the trusted voice of a whole nation, and raising to the status of an icon and a successful businesswoman despite the adversity, through her hard work and charisma. As an African citizen, I find a model in figures like Patrice Lumumba or Thomas Sankara, who have paid with their life their unapologetic quest for Pan-Africanism and their bright vision for the continent. But as I’m on my MBA journey, I drew a new level of inspiration from being part of a cohort of ambitious, global leaders, and I can’t wait to see what we all accomplish.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
I am deeply grateful to be awarded the Laidlaw Scholarship. It is one of the worthiest pledges of support that I have ever had in my professional life. It’s a recognition that I’m on the right path, and that I can take up the space I need to be an impactful leader. I am deeply grateful for the incredible opportunity to become part of the Oxford community and to be able to receive world-class training, explore the latest trends of business and impact, while joining an impressive cohort of bright and insightful leaders.
Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
A young female entrepreneur walks confidently into her banker’s office, to sign a loan that will help accelerate her business. She’s been running her company for a few years now, after being supported by seed funding that has become abundantly available for promising entrepreneurs like her. The tremendous growth of her business was made possible by a thriving African economy, and she was spoiled with a choice of young talents to build her team, all trained locally in tech careers, with a surprising proportion of girls. The youth of the continent, long seen as a risk, is proving to be one of its key assets. In fact, they have become so much in demand in her local “Cocoa Valley” that she fears they will be poached by some global tech giant; luckily, they are committed to the future of the business and their country! While she’s waiting for her banker, she envisions the next big thing for her company and her own success, with no fear of being held back by her family obligations…
📺 Currently binging: Insecure: This brilliant show about the life of an African-American woman and her group of friends, explores themes that will be relatable to people in their 30s: love, friendship, making choices…
🎵 My current anthem: I fell in love with this R&B version of “How Deep is Your Love” by PJ Morton.
📚 My top book recommendation: I started a book club just before the pandemic and was fortunate to discover amazing books and authors. The one that impacted me the most was Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. This phenomenal book follows the fate of two half-sisters separated by slavery and their offspring over 300 years in Ghana and the US… Breathtaking!
🎧 Podcast obsession: “Kiffe ta Race” is a podcast (in French) that explores the issues of race in France. I am fascinated by this podcast and have learned a great deal about feminism, racism, biases, and intersectionality. I am sharing one special episode in English that compares the experiences of non-White persons in France and the UK.
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Doing a jam session with classmates. Playing music always makes me feel joyful!
Nouss is a Laidlaw Scholar at Saïd 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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