Nothing out of their league

Madeleine Diagne is an International Business Senior and a driven professional who has never let the expectations of others guide her life’s journey – she has gone her own way. This drive to succeed led her to take charge of her future from Houston to Senegal and back, which eventually earned her a place in Harvard Business School’s (HBS) Summer Venture in Management Program.

After graduating from high school at the height of the pandemic, Diagne faced numerous early-life challenges that prepared her to face her future. One of them was growing up in a community that didn’t support her in achieving her goals. “Because I wanted to make my own way, I was perceived by some of my family members as stubborn and impractical,” she said. “When I didn’t want to get the attention and insight I needed from those around me, I was determined to find my own way.”

Although she was born and raised in Houston, Diagne’s family is of Senegalese heritage. The first in her family to pursue a college degree, Diagne attended Lone Star College via online classes from her childhood home in Senegal, despite the six-hour time difference. “I originally went into medicine because I wanted to be the light and positivity in someone’s corner, but my heart wasn’t in it. International business was a better fit for me.” She felt her international experience was a plus for an international business program. “The degree would allow me to broaden my horizons in relation to the business sector,” she added. “UHD provided a solid financial support package that really benefited our single-income household.”

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Despite some family objections, Diagne switched to UHD and returned to Houston in spring 2022. She quickly adjusted to the intimate campus atmosphere, her first time on a college campus, and felt right at home. She received an email urging interested students to join the Black Student Association, which was inactive at the time. She immediately jumped at the opportunity and ran for the BSA presidency. “I wanted to fill this need to build the connection between black students, faculty and the community,” she said.

Diagne credits her mother for being the most supportive voice in her life: “She raised my sister and I all by herself and I have a lot of respect for her for shaping me into the strong woman I am today. She was there in the good days and in the bad. She was there with her support for every new project, every trip, organization or venture.”

Joining HBS’s Summer Venture in Management Program came about through a simple Google search when Diagne was looking for educational opportunities. Diagne immediately spoke of the opportunity to delve into senior management, although she was nervous about applying given the prestige of HBS.

“The whole point of the program is to introduce younger students of color to the MBA environment. It told me I had a chance to go to Harvard, it’s not just for those with the funding. Just because you’re a black woman doesn’t mean you can’t go here. I never thought about Ivy League schools because I thought only privileged kids with financial resources and connections went there,” she shared. “Three years later, I was part of the 180 students chosen from thousands to take part. This beautiful opportunity followed a clear rejection and I was so, so happy.”

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The week-long program took place on Harvard’s scenic campus, with a busy schedule of class hours, meeting with professors and scholars, and interacting with their cohort. One class that resonated with Diagne was entitled Harambe: Mobilizing Capital in Africa.

“The course focused on developing African leaders. When Professor Sikochi first entered the room, he told us he analyzed the program’s student directory, which included our names, majors, and schools,” she said. “He scanned the classroom and pointed out a student who had the coolest major. Then he pointed at me and told me that he thought I had the best headshot and that I looked like a boss. And then he dived into the lesson for the day. It really removed the perception that these professors were untouchable.”

Overall, Diagne felt the experience was life changing. “This journey fueled my personal growth and lit the flame to become a well-rounded, influential leader,” she said. “The whole experience changed my attitude. There is nothing out of my league.”

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