12 Feb 2016

Creating Common Ground in Communities of Conflict

Volunteer group looks for ways to encourage peaceful relationships in regions of strife
Re: Scott Spencer (MBA 2009); Amy Flikerski (MBA 2009); Herman Leonard; Nitin Nohria
by Jill Radsken


Photography by Gary Laufman

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Umaimah Mendhro (MBA 2009) was visiting her native Pakistan, working for a microfinance education nonprofit, when she was tasked with photographing students in a school. Peering through her camera lens, she would ask each child about their career dreams when a bright-eyed 11-year-old boy shared his plan to be a scientist.

“I want to bomb the enemy,” he told her. Mendhro pressed him about his response until he confided: “I don’t know anyone from this country.”

“This was what he had grown up hearing. He didn’t know the people he wanted to hurt, or why he must hurt them,” she recalls.

That moment in December 2007 set in motion Mendhro’s vision for the Dreamfly, a global initiative designed to educate, expose, and empower people living in communities of conflict. A volunteer network sustains the San Francisco–based organization, which has helped to facilitate peaceful relations in India, Pakistan, Colombia, and Rwanda.

In India, for example, the Dreamfly built a high school computer lab in a neighborhood in West Bengal that was a site of Hindu/Muslim conflict. Each computer station is set up to be shared by two to three students, so the children can work with each other with minimal direction from a facilitator.

The result was immediate, Mendhro says. “One of the Hindu children told us his new best friend was a Muslim boy named Mohammed, to whom he had never spoken before. He told me, ‘We are going to start a software company and build video games together.’”

The Dreamfly’s mission is a return to a starting point for Mendhro, who was raised in rural Pakistan as the daughter of the village’s first physician, who founded the area’s first hospital. Her village, Akri, didn’t have a school, and though Mendhro grew up with a desire to learn and experience the world, she had no formal opportunities to do so.

“My brother and I would wake up in the morning and explore. It was self-learning,” she says. “Education became a personal goal and interest.”

In 1980, a military coup forced Mendhro’s family to flee to Saudi Arabia, where they lived in exile for nearly a decade. They eventually returned to Pakistan, and she was given the opportunity to follow her brother to the United States for education and eventually attend Cornell University. After college, she joined Microsoft’s Startup Business Group as director of product, where she oversaw the launch of Xbox Kinect incubation.

“Many days I would say, ‘This isn’t work.’ There was a lot of ownership of the project. People would refer to it as ‘my business’—that was super-cool,” she recalls. “It was a large corporation and a huge responsibility, but I felt there my first sense of being an entrepreneur.”

Mendhro left Microsoft for HBS in 2006, but struggled with the adjustment while facing an acute health issue, which led her to take a break to return to Pakistan. “HBS was a dream. I gave up a lot to be there. But I didn’t feel like I belonged there,” she says. “What I wanted to do was reconnect with my village, so I started working with Citizens Foundation to build schools.”

She was drawn to the idea of bringing people together from other countries around a cause that benefited them, work that formed her vision for the Dreamfly.

Having the concept for the Dreamfly allowed her to leave her homeland roots and return to HBS, where she was greeted with enthusiasm and support for the idea. “I somehow felt authentic being there. The HBS experience felt more real, that I could be more myself,” she says.

She connected with professors Raymond Gilmartin and Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard as well as Dean Nitin Nohria—so deeply they became her personal mentors. Section mates Scott Spencer and Amy Flikerski joined her as the Dreamfly’s board member and CFO, respectively, and Gilmartin built a library in her hometown of Akri.

“The first year [at HBS], I raised half of the money to launch. The community at HBS has been continued to be amazing,” she says.

Supporters are drawn to Mendhro’s vision of connecting dreamers to dream makers and, ultimately, to other dreamers.

“The stories that have come back are incredible,” Mendhro says, recalling an early anecdote in Pakistan that has stayed with her.

A 5-year-old boy came late to school in tears. Though his father told him to work in the fields, the boy really wanted to go to school. “The day before, his father had beat him up, but that day he ran as fast as he could so his father couldn’t catch up,” she says.

Questioning the status quo has also inspired Mendhro to launch VIDA, a venture-based ecommerce platform based in San Francisco that connects designers across the globe with producers, to manufacture original apparel and accessories. In its first year of operation, in 2014, VIDA helped create tens of thousands of products representing more than 150 countries. The designers share in the revenues and the company offers literacy programming to its manufacturers.

“For me, what I wanted to do the most is question how things are done and see if the most common assumptions can’t be reimagined to build something exponentially better,” Mendhro says. “When we use business to create a positive impact, we create a virtuous cycle where everyone wins.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2009, Section J
follow @umaimah

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