That was in Switzerland, where she lived for 10 years and attended high school and university. It was before that though, while in her native Saudi Arabia, where her passion for baking rose. Her grandfather was a chef, the inspiration behind Amna’s culinary pursuits.
As a kid, she remembers waking up to bake while everyone else in the household was asleep. No oven or fire though—her mother’s orders.
Her grandfather’s influence was always there. She describes the excitement he had with a spoon of sauce in his hand, Amna always his tasting assistant.
It’s no surprise that she’s now developing her own bakery in Saudi Arabia. A female-only business venture intent on providing skills and opportunities to those less advantaged.
The key to her success lies not in Switzerland, or Saudi Arabia, but Barcelona, where Amna has recently graduated, last month, with an MBA from IESE Business School.
Overcoming oppression, the hard way
Amna graduated from hospitality management in Switzerland in 2010.
She then returned to Saudi Arabia, where she soon discovered prospects for women in hospitality were as stable as a tepid panna cotta.
“I found out as women we were not allowed to work in the hospitality operations side of things. We couldn’t work in restaurants or hotels that served male customers,” she says.
So Amna started a job at ALBAIK Food Systems, one of the most widely recognized fast food chains in Saudi. She worked her way up to corporate communications section head, but after five years explains she reached her learning peak; it was time to launch her own business.
How IESE Business School transformed me
Amna used a six-month sabbatical from ALBAIK to attain a patisserie certificate from Le Cordon Bleu, the world-renowned culinary education institute.
When she knew she wanted to start her own bakery the penny dropped. The skills and expertise an MBA degree provides is also what she needed to become an entrepreneur.
Amna applied to many European and US business schools over two application cycles. As an applicant, she thinks it’s important to go and see the schools for yourself. Though she couldn’t do this with IESE, they still stood out.
“The way that the team from admissions were so approachable I genuinely felt the school’s values,” she says. “It’s the reason I liked [them] in the first place, they were actually walking the talk.”
On arrival in the MBA classroom Amna recalls feeling overwhelmed.
“For me, going to IESE and being in a classroom of 70 students after seven years of not studying was a huge challenge,” she says.
“I was too shy to speak, didn’t have confidence, and felt everyone else was way smarter than I was.”
But that soon changed, after Amna realized that to start her company and be successful she had to stop comparing herself to everyone else, and focus on learning for the sake of the bakery.
By the end of the MBA, she had cut out social media to give herself more time, changed her lifestyle, and gone from a C-grade to an A-grade student.
“I realized hard work and perseverance are the main ingredients of making an entrepreneur successful.”
With a little help from my friends
During the IESE Business School MBA, Amna explains that she was able to narrow down her business idea to something tangible—a female-only bakery with the aim of training and upskilling less advantaged women in Saudi Arabia.
Her entrepreneurship classes were her favorite, but she says real value came from her fellow MBA peers, her friends.
“I took away from the MBA an advisory team,” Amna explains. “If I have financial challenges or competition, I have a solid team of people who are brilliant in their fields and able to help. They believe in what I’m launching.”
This year IESE also hosted the 16th annual Doing Good Doing Well conference, Europe’s biggest focused on responsible business. From that, she learned that if you care about corporate social responsibility, your whole business encapsulates those values.
That’s why she says she wants to tackle the roughly 30% female unemployment in Saudi Arabia, by giving women the skills and business knowhow to work.
Returning to a changed Saudi Arabia
“There’s been a huge change,” Amna asserts, “and it’s one of the reasons I was compelled to start this journey.
“I’m so proud of how much has changed because I feel, now I’m at home, I can be myself and not ashamed of it.”
Labor laws have been changed so women now have more working opportunities. Amna hopes her bakery can continue to push for more equal rights.
“I want to challenge them on a business level and make them as active as men are in Saudi today.”
Would she be where she is today without the IESE MBA?
“Definitely not,” she says.
Amna explains that what it gave her was self-confidence, awareness, and the strength to launch her own business.
“Today, everything I’m passionate about when it comes to launching the bakery wouldn’t have come about if it wasn’t for IESE, and I wouldn’t have realized how much I’m able to achieve if it wasn’t for the challenge I went through academically.”
On top of the IESE MBA, Amna’s success in the kitchen will always come from her original inspiration, her grandfather.
“He taught me how to be patient in the kitchen,” she says, something she’s always carried with her.
“When I went to pastry school he had already passed away, but I know he’d be so proud, because, if he knew I was opening a bakery, well, I can’t even imagine!”
All images credited to ©Amna Alyamani