Tawanda Michael Mahere was in Thailand two years ago and there was much to celebrate: The startup he’d been working at was being acquired by Google, he had a job offer from there, and he’d just applied to Stanford GSB.
After a late night in Bangkok, Mahere returned to his hotel room to three missed calls from an unknown number. An email came in the early hours of the morning. Stanford GSB admissions was trying to get a hold of him — he’d been accepted into the MBA Class of 2019.
“The founder of our startup was in Thailand with me and I told him right away,” Mahere recalls. “Then I called my mom. I was sitting on the floor of the hotel room and I started crying — I hadn’t cried for years. I never could have imagined I would be in such a fortunate position.”
Mahere didn’t accept Stanford GSB’s offer right away; could he really go back to school and turn down a product manager role at a top-ranked company where he could continue the work of making computing available and affordable across the world?
“It was the hardest decision of my life,” he says.
Despite the emotion Mahere felt as he sat alone on the floor of the hotel in Bangkok, he approached his decision with reason. And research. First, he reached out to all eight of the Stanford GSB alumni from Zimbabwe, his homeland, to ask about their experiences at the school. Then he contacted five alumni from other African countries. Next, he got in touch with five current MBA students to solicit their advice on the program. Finally, Mahere sought input from other mentors he’d had during his career. Then he traveled to Malaysia, alone, to think.
“The thing I’ve found most meaningful and impactful in my life has been education,” Mahere says. “Nevertheless, I thought, when I’m 80 years old and I look back at my life, what will I regret more — not going to Stanford GSB or not going to work for Google?”
Mahere’s decision was also one of timing, he says. He felt a job at Google would be a comfortable path — but one that would be hard to veer away from. “Going to Google at the age of 28 would have probably tied me to that career for the next decade,” he says. “But it felt like it was my last chance to make a big pivot and try other things.”
Pivoting would appear to be something he’d be a fit for. Leaving Harare, Zimbabwe, at the age of 19, Mahere moved to China and learned Mandarin, co-founded an English-language school in Beijing, and created a recruiting platform for African students in China. He later led growth for a computing company there called Jide.
“I’d been in scrappy teams, in startup culture,” he says. “I wanted to learn in a more structured way and be a more analytical thinker.”
When Mahere arrived at Stanford in the fall of 2017, he quickly found that he had to make other hard choices: between classes, meetings, and co-chairing the GSB Entrepreneur Club. He recalled advice he’d sought from Frank Hawke, director of Stanford Center at Peking University, who stressed the importance of setting priorities once he was on campus.
“You have to say no sometimes and slow down,” Mahere says. “There’s no way you can go to, and be involved in, every single thing.”
One thing he’s focused on is organizing the 10th annual Stanford Africa Business Forum. The event will bring more than 300 people together for discussion and networking. Mahere is on a team with 15 other students running the May 12 event.
“I want to continue my own education about the continent I come from and opportunities for transformative business there,” says Mahere.
Looking forward, Mahere is considering working in consulting for a few years before starting his own venture. Planning to spend his summer working at McKinsey, he is interested in the intellectual challenges of the work, he says, both on the startup level and at a large scale.
“I have had experience leading small teams, but I’m curious about what it’s like to be in a very different environment, like a billion-dollar company,” Mahere says. “What I’m here to learn is how to move with my company as it scales up and be a good leader at every step of the way.”
Photos by Kiefer Hickman