Poverty and Prosperity

Evening UST MBA student, Mustafa Omar, says, “I look at poverty as an untapped asset, not a social liability,” and he would know.

Mustafa Omar was born in war-torn Afghanistan to an academic family. His father was a nuclear physicist and oncologist, his mother an educator and school principle. Given this rich academic upbringing, it is no surprise that Omar entered one of the two leading medical schools in Afghanistan, Kabul Medical University, straight out of high school.

Four years into the program, in December 1998, Omar was forced by the Taliban to leave the country, becoming a refugee in Tajikistan. He immediately created opportunity from the chaos by establishing a small business of buying and selling dried food products. His professional success, however, proved life-threatening.

“Tajikistan had just come out of its own civil war, so as a refugee, especially a refugee that had a source of income, (my) security was easily jeopardized…. (I was) a target of corrupt police, the emerging opposition forces, the military and the thugs,” Omar recounts.

He remembers traveling to a local shop and being stopped by men in military uniforms who demanded to see his documents. Producing the documents exposed a USD $10 bill in his shirt pocket. One of the men put a pistol to Omar’s head and demanded the money. After he gave it to them, they told him to walk away and never look back.

This and other experiences led Omar to seek a safer profession. At one fifth his previous salary, he accepted a position with a Danish aid agency that provided recovery efforts for the widows of Tajikistan’s civil war. Omar reveled in this new field of work. He said, “As I immersed (myself) in the humanitarian work, I identified a passion in economic and market development.”

This passion launched him into a career with Shelter for Life (SFL), where he managed projects ranging from renovating schools to executing seismic hazard reduction initiatives to microcredit and small business projects. Since that time, Omar has moved to the United States, completed a degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, married his wife Jennifer, and gained the position of Director of International Program Development for Shelter for Life, headquartered in Minneapolis.

Omar’s interest in market development and international sourcing was the primary driver for him to obtain his MBA. He chose The University of St. Thomas due to the outstanding faculty involvement and their three-fold approach to business education.

  1. Training and educating the student to manage and lead economically profitable businesses,
  2. Embedding the value of ethical business conduct in the curriculum, and
  3. Promoting social responsibility as part of sustainable business conduct.

“The marriage of these three is what makes businesses truly successful, profitable and ethical, (and they) are the main reasons I chose St. Thomas,” he explains.

Omar expresses gratitude for his fortune in having been born into an educated family and for their safety through times of war. When asked how his unique history has impacted his outlook on life, he replied, “Life in both extremes—wealth and as a refugee—has helped me understand two factors. 1) Grief, uncertainty, frustration and angst are temporary cycles that are necessary for building character and worldview. They only last for short periods of time and are always followed by tremendous joy and happiness. 2) Survival during conflicts gives its victims an amazing resilience and creative spirit that can be harnessed for tremendous economic and social prosperity.”

That spirit is what Mustafa Omar brings to the Evening UST MBA program, to his work, and to the world.