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How #SimonStrong Community Builder Shabnam Popal’s Upbringing Inspired Her Focus on Uplifting Others

Shabnam Popal, seen on the right

Fostering an inclusive and empowering community has always been a priority for Shabnam Popal.

Raised by her mother, a refugee from Afghanistan, in Fremont, California, Popal had the unique opportunity to grow up within a close-knit Afghan community within the U.S., which helped strengthen her ties to Afghan culture. In a town often referred to as “Little Kabul,” she became accustomed to the sights, sounds and traditions of Afghan culture, developing a deep sense of belonging to her heritage.

Now, Popal proudly serves as an advocate for intentional and equitable community as a Consortium fellow, as well as a Consortium liaison, in the class of 2025 at the University of Rochester Simon Business School. While pursuing her STEM-designated MBA, Popal strives to uplift her peers’ perspectives and cultures to foster a more inclusive environment. Additionally, by leveraging her own early recruiting success to mentor others, she helps equip and support her Consortium peers in their pursuit of professional endeavors. 

It’s this selfless dedication that has earned Popal the recognition as a Fall 2023 #SimonStrong Community Builder. Nominated by their peers, #SimonStrong Community Builders are students who embody the #SimonStrong values — “respect one another, show humility, support each other, act with integrity, we are professional.”

Popal recently shared with The Consortium what it means to her to be a builder of community and an advocate for those who are marginalized, as well as how she’ll continue to do so no matter where she is in life.

How did your childhood and upbringing impact your views on community, equality and inclusivity?

The qualities of treating everyone with fairness and equality were instilled in me from a young age by my mother. As a refugee from Afghanistan, she faced numerous challenges, yet she always exemplified resilience, compassion and strength in the face of adversity.

Despite facing her own hardships, my mother always emphasized the importance of empathy, kindness and standing up for what is right. She led by example, demonstrating the value of treating everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of their background or circumstances.

My mother was not bestowed with the opportunity to complete high school in Afghanistan, and she emphasized the importance of education to me. I never took my opportunities for granted because the women of my homeland were stripped of their rights to seek empowerment through education. Growing up in a low-income household, I was the first in my family to obtain my bachelor’s degree. Despite my achievements, I strove for more and pivoted from my role as clinic manager at a free-clinic that provided healthcare to the underserved Latino population of Sacramento to work as a CCMA in the Covid Unit and Dermatology Department.

Shabnam Popal

In 2021, I was ready for change, so I took a leap of faith and waded into uncharted waters to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals. I landed a role as a Project Manager at Johnson & Johnson Innovation where I found my passion to build a business case for health equity. I channeled the lessons my mother taught me to advocate for marginalized communities and began exploring opportunities in EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) work.

These experiences led me to pursue my MBA at Simon Business School, where I am focusing on marketing, with a concentration on brand and product management. This summer, I will be a brand management intern at Kenvue (formerly the Consumer Healthcare division of Johnson & Johnson), where I’m ecstatic to grow professionally and uphold my views on community, equality and inclusivity.

What does it mean to you to be recognized as a #SimonStrong Community Builder, and how do you serve as one?

Being recognized as a #SimonStrong Community Builder holds deep significance for me. It serves as a reminder of the impact that small acts of kindness and community-building efforts can have within a larger academic and professional environment. I feel reaffirmed in the value of fostering connections, supporting others and contributing positively to the collective well-being of my peers and colleagues.

To help foster those small acts of kindness and community-building efforts, I decided to serve as a Consortium liaison. In addition to this role, I was selected as a first-year representative for policy & strategy for the EDI Student Coalition — a role in which I aimed to drive strategies that served the student body and understand hidden challenges that students faced (i.e. food insecurity, academic support and transparency from leadership at Simon). I am currently serving as a managing director for Simon Vision Consulting and a Benet Career Peer.

Being acknowledged as a #SimonStrong Community Builder motivates me to continue my commitment to nurturing a strong and supportive community within Simon Business School, and it encourages me to remain dedicated to promoting inclusivity, empathy and collaboration in all aspects of my academic and personal interactions.

What does it mean to you to be part of the Simon Business School community?

To me, community symbolizes a sense of belonging or fellowship with others who share common interests or goals. Within Simon, community is characterized by its warmth, inclusivity and genuine camaraderie. It’s evident in the smiles exchanged in the hallways, the supportive conversations happening in the classrooms and the collaborative spirit that permeates every aspect of our academic journey.

Being part of the Simon community means more than just attending classes or participating in events — it means being part of a family where each member plays a vital role in shaping the culture and identity of our school. It’s a privilege and an honor to be part of such a vibrant and dynamic community, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to its continued growth and success.

Why is it important to you to be a “community builder”?

I believe in the power of collective action and creating spaces where everyone feels valued, respected and included. Being a “community builder” is about fostering connections, building bridges and using my skills and resources to uplift those around me.

How is your recognition as a #SimonStrong Community Builder demonstrative of your commitment to The Consortium’s mission?

My commitment to The Consortium’s mission of promoting diversity and inclusion in business education and leadership is something I strive to embody every day within the Simon community. In all my interactions, I aim to uphold the values of respect and equality, ensuring that each person feels valued and respected for their unique perspectives and experiences.

Drawing from my own experiences, I take a proactive approach to mentoring others, as well as sharing insights and lessons learned to help prepare my colleagues for their own career journeys. I believe strongly in the power of lifting others up to reach their full potential. My motivation to empower others, along with my goal to reduce the underrepresentation of minorities in professional industries, is what inspired me to apply to be a Benet Career Peer. In this role, I’m able to advise first- and second-year MBA students and MS students on their internship and full-time recruitment strategies and negotiation tactics.

Beyond academic and professional endeavors, I am deeply committed to cultivating a sense of community and belonging within our school and I remain steadfast in my dedication to upholding the values of #SimonStrong. My empathy and support extend to those around me, and I’m always ready to offer guidance, motivation and practical assistance to anyone in need.

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