Palwasha Siddiqi is a woman whose casual elegance suggests someone whose manners were polished at an East Coast boarding school. But the truth is that Siddiqi’s early years were spent upended by the Taliban, with her family fleeing her native Afghanistan to live in Pakistan.
Her journey from Afghanistan to Fordham’s Executive MBA (EMBA) program challenges any and all assumptions. How, for example, did this young cosmopolitan market analyst find her way to American Express headquarters in downtown Manhattan? Surely, she must come from a well-to-do family that could afford to remove her from the violence.
Actually, her parents come from humble backgrounds and fought hard to obtain an education in pre-Taliban Afghanistan. Her mother is the only daughter out of seven to go to school and her father’s family expected him to work the family farm.
“My family is not like the typical Afghan families you hight have heard of. They’re interested in education, especially for girls,” she said.
Born and raised in Afghanistan, Siddiqi fled the country with her family when she was just six years old. They lived in Pakistan until after the American invasion in 2003, at which point they returned home.
“Like everybody else, we thought it was the end of the violence, so we wanted to go home and participate in rebuilding our country,” she said.
While many like-minded liberal Afghani families fled before the war, few returned after the American invasion. The country that she and her family returned to was far more conservative than when they left. And its educational system was in shambles. The culture, which allowed for her mother’s education, was far less tolerant in the new millennium.
“Everything was destroyed,” she said. “There were no teachers, no universities, no classroom materials. Plus, my family was not financially that well-off so they couldn’t afford to send me to college. Realizing the situation, I decided to get a full-time job.”
Siddiqi met American fashion designer Sarah Takesh, who owned a clothing line called Tarsian & Blinkley.
“She was a very inspirational role model and had a huge impact in my life,” she said.
Siddiqi was Takesh’s first hire in a firm that would go on to hire nearly 300 women to do hand embroidery. Siddiqi eventually became Takesh’s right-hand assistant, working late hours almost every day. As women were rarely seen outside of the home past 5 p.m., Takesh provided a car to pick Siddiqi up and drop her off at home in her very culturally conservative neighborhood.
Takesh encouraged Siddiqi to perfect English and took her to conferences organized by the United Nations for women entrepreneurs. It was through one of those events that she found Business Council for Peace, which helps emerging entrepreneurs in war-torn regions.
“Sarah convinced them that even though I didn’t have my own business I was involved enough with her business to be considered for the program,” she said.
Business Council for Peace provided training, mentorship, and an opportunity for Siddiqi to attend Bucknell University, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Siddiqi said the college town was perfect for what was sure to be a culture shock on many levels. The first shock came after her host family picked her up at the airport—she fell asleep in the car and awoke in the verdant hills of rural Pennsylvania.
“I was shocked because the only other time that I had seen so much greenery like that was in cartoons as a kid,” she said. “I was born and raised in a war zone. But from the time that I stepped out of the plane, there was always someone to take my hand and be sensitive to my culture and values. I have met nothing but good-hearted people.”
After graduating from Bucknell, she competed in seven rounds of interiews with American Express personnel before landing the job. She now wears clothes she only dreamed about wearing back home.
“I always wanted to wear bright colors, and when I came here I was free,” she said. “I could also make decisions without having to think about so many institutional barriers.”
One recent decision was to attend Fordham’s EMBA program, which she said gelled with her personal experience that business could be a catalyst for good.
“At Fordham the focus and values seemed to include social responsibility in business,” she said. “I’m interested in social entrepreneurship, and that’s really encouraged here.”
Siddiqi’s parents both work for the Afghani Ministry of Education. She hopes to return to her homeland and, like them, make a difference by sharing knowledge.
“No one is really educated in Afghanistan, and that’s why the Taliban are able to recruit young people so easily—because they don’t know any better,” she said. “My country will never get better without education.
“The best gift you can give to someone is to open their mind.”