AACSB Influential Leader honorees Mamta Saikia and Tillmann Henssler

Set Up for Success: Influential Leaders Address Access in Education and the Workplace

Honorees from the 2019 Class of Influential Leaders discovered both a passion and an aptitude for helping others overcome obstacles to success.

Two of AACSB’s Influential Leader honorees, Mamta Saikia and Tillmann Henssler, have always appreciated their education and the knowledge and skills it gave them to succeed. They realize how fortunate they were to have support systems and resources to guide them to success and recognize that not everyone is so lucky. This recognition and appreciation have driven them to dedicate their work to ensuring that people disadvantaged by circumstances are equipped with the necessary tools to reach their full potential.

Coming from a family of academics, Mamta Saikia’s parents encouraged her to explore teaching. However, Saikia was determined to pursue a career in management. The Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad (IMT) was one of the top higher education institutions in India and was close to home, making it the right fit for Saikia.

During her time at IMT, Saikia discovered her natural talent for planning operations and managing project timelines—something that continues to be one of her biggest strengths. While taking operations planning courses, Saikia also attended lectures on lateral thinking. One class focused on logical sequencing while the other emphasized a creative, thinking-outside-the-box method. This paradox initially caused some internal conflict for Saikia. However, she ultimately learned from the internal conflict. It changed the way she thinks about operations and helped her learn to analyze problems with an open mind. She realized that if she looks at all of the possibilities, she can be ready for any unexpected challenges she may face.

Saikia began her career in management consultancy. While she enjoyed the work she was doing, she was always drawn to the idea of using her work to make an impact. Saikia originally struggled with the decision to pursue nonprofit work and how it could affect her career, as she had no background or training in social work. Ultimately, her desire to use her skills to bring about change and make a difference overpowered any hesitation.

Saikia’s first experience with nonprofit work was with Child Rights & You (CRY). Saikia was brought on to run the newly established Direct Mail Cell. The position encompassed everything Saikia was looking for—meaningful work where her skills were also useful. She was able to take her marketing and management background and translate those skills to raising money for children. Throughout Saikia’s time at CRY, the organization raised funds and developed impactful partnerships. Saikia left CRY in 2001, and by that time it was well established as the country’s leading fundraising charity with donors across numerous countries. CRY set the standard and served as an example of best fundraising practices for other Indian charities. With this one taste of nonprofit work, Saikia was immediately hooked. She enjoyed advocating for children through her work at CRY, but decided she wanted to work with childhood education specifically.

Saikia grew up in a family of academics and was always encouraged to prioritize education, to study, and to excel. She learned from a young age about the importance of education and the positive role it could play in her future. Seeing the impact her education had on her career, Saikia felt passionate that education was the greatest gift she could give to underprivileged children. Saikia was compelled to tailor her advocacy passion to education efforts so that all children were equipped with the tools and knowledge they needed to succeed.

Saikia went on to join the Bharti Foundation, which was created to help underprivileged children in India realize their potential. Over the years, Saikia has been involved in education programs of the Bharti Foundation, including the Satya Bharti School Program and the Satya Bharti Quality Support Program. These programs address education issues by providing free quality education and enhancing overall school experience.

Through her work with the Bharti Foundation, Saikia said she “feels fortunate to have led one of the country’s largest school opening operations.” In this operation, over 250 schools were being opened simultaneously with land acquisition, construction, teacher hiring and training, material purchase, curriculum design, creation of standard operating processes, regulatory clearances, budgeting, and development of positioning plans for schools and HR processes. Saikia enjoys seeing the impact that these school openings have on individual lives by providing opportunities that these children might not otherwise have received.

Tillmann Henssler similarly believes in the importance of equipping people with the tools they need to succeed. Henssler chose to attend The Open University (OU) because he liked the concept of supported distance learning. He could learn anytime, anywhere, and at his own pace. Though he enjoyed the remote learning, he was also able to connect with other students at the university who lived nearby.

Like Saikia, Henssler credits a lot of his career development to the courses that taught about creativity, innovation, and change. Henssler learned various techniques and innovative ways to solve complex issues. The lessons in creative problem-solving coupled with a flexible learning environment contributed to an impactful education for Henssler.

The flexibility that was so instrumental in his education was not always as apparent when Henssler entered the workforce. Born with a disability himself, Henssler noticed that managers did not always know how to handle their employees’ disabilities. Additionally, he found that employees were uncomfortable asking for support or resources, as they felt it could be seen as a sign of weakness.

Henssler felt a personal connection to the issue, driving him to get involved with his company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Sixteen years ago, Henssler was elected as Disability Counsellor at the local German site of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, where he currently works as a sourcing manager.

Henssler is also part of the company’s Global Disability Leadership Team. The team serves as a virtual forum for people all over the world to talk about what actions they have taken in their market and what has been successful. They hold events where they exchange best practices as well as host workshops with exercises to teach others what it is like to have a disability. Henssler finds these exercises extremely important because he believes the best way to reduce unconscious bias is to stay open-minded and work to understand others.

Henssler wants to help managers see their employees’ disabilities as strengths instead of impairments. He encourages people to not look at the disability, but instead the person. He says that when managers recognize their employees’ unique skills, they can provide the resources to optimize those talents and help all employees feel better integrated in the company and reach their full potential.

Henssler says he is proud to be at a company that has made impressive strides to be accommodating to those with disabilities. He now sees open dialogue between managers and employees, and employees know whom to approach and what resources are available for them.

As Henssler works to reduce unconscious bias in the workplace, he is proud to see his alma mater pursuing similar efforts. “I see a bright future for The Open University. In the 2017–18 academic year, the OU learning model enabled over 24,500 students with disabilities to study, making it the largest provider of higher education for people with disabilities in the U.K.”

He continues, “Access to education is so important these days, and no disability should be a hinderance.” Henssler enjoys taking his work experiences and contributing to OU, where he delivers webinars on diversity and inclusion and inclusive leadership.

Both Saikia and Henssler realize there are a variety of barriers people face when developing their careers. Recognizing that their educations set them up for success, Saikia and Henssler have worked to provide people with diverse backgrounds the tools and resources they, too, need to excel.

An annual initiative, the AACSB Influential Leaders challenge recognizes business school alumni creating positive, lasting impact in their industries, communities, and society. Learn more at aacsb.edu/influential-leaders.