Education for a Peaceful World

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Tuesday, December 19, 2023
By Tricia Bisoux
HEC Imagine Fellow Lima Safi (Photo courtesy of HEC Paris)
The HEC Imagine Fellowship program supports students from conflict-torn regions as they seek educational opportunities and pathways to better lives.
  • The Business & Peace initiative at HEC Paris includes courses and activities that focus on the contributions that private sector organizations can make to achieving global stability.
  • As part of this initiative, last year HEC Paris and its foundation launched the HEC Imagine Fellowship program, which provides support and scholarships to refugees from war-torn nations.
  • The school hopes to expand the program in an effort to create a global network of scholars, entrepreneurs, and innovators who can contribute to the post-war reconstruction and development of their countries.


When business schools think of reaching out to students from disadvantaged communities, they often think in terms of racial heritage or socioeconomic status. But within these populations is a subgroup garnering more attention—refugees from countries affected by war and political conflict.

To serve the unique, and often urgent, needs of students from war-torn nations, HEC Paris now offers the HEC Imagine Fellowship in October 2021. Created in partnership with the HEC Foundation, the program was launched with the help of funding from HEC Paris alumnus Adrien Nussenbaum, co-founder and joint CEO of the cloud-based e-commerce software company Mirakl. Nussenbaum’s gift is in the form of an endowment, which will provide lasting financial support for the program. 

The HEC Imagine Fellowship program, along with related initiatives and courses, represents the business school’s intention to make supporting refugees an active part of its mission. The objective, say coordinators, is not only to make business education more accessible, but also to produce graduates who can leverage their business and entrepreneurial skills to help achieve global peace.

Understanding and Tolerance

HEC Paris promoted the Imagine Fellowship program with the help of organizations, media platforms, and other institutions in direct contact with potential students. The school welcomed its first Imagine Fellows at the start of the 2022–23 academic year and currently has 11 on campus.

Fellowship recipients are selected based on their academic and life accomplishments, as well as their commitment to promoting intercultural understanding and tolerance. They receive scholarships that vary according to their financial needs, covering up to 100 percent of their tuition fees and living expenses. While they must be from global conflict zones, they are eligible for the program whether they remain in their home countries or have already left.

Fellowship recipients are selected based on their academic and life accomplishments, as well as their commitment to promoting intercultural understanding and tolerance.

Being accepted to the program is only the first hurdle Imagine Fellows must overcome. Many then face additional obstacles as they try to travel to campus. For that reason, the school has assigned a project manager to help them with tasks such as obtaining visas, organizing secure travel, and completing administrative paperwork. But even then, not all students can make the trip. This year, two students accepted to the program—one from Afghanistan and the other from Ukraine—were unable to leave their home countries and had to defer enrollment. 

Despite the challenges, HEC Paris continues to seek financial support to reach more students and expand the program. In addition to Nussenbaum’s endowment, contributions from other donors have made even more funds available for scholarships. The school hopes to enroll as many as 10 fellows each year.

Highlighting the Impact of Business

The HEC Imagine Fellowship is part of HEC Paris’ broader Business & Peace initiative, through which the school is developing courses and other activities focused on how the private sector can promote global stability. The school launched the first of these courses in 2023—two 18-hour electives for students in its Master in Management (MiM) program.

The first course, Business and Human Rights, exposes students to global challenges such as child labor and forced labor. It features examples of challenging business realities in countries such as India, Indonesia, Mexico, Mali, and Ivory Coast, as well as in France.

The second, Business for Peace and Development, explores not only how the private sector might help mitigate global conflict, but also how NGOs, foundations, and other civil organizations can collaborate with the private sector and each other to benefit communities. The course covers the challenges related to building infrastructure, adopting new economic development models, and achieving sustainable development in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia, as well as those in Sub-Saharan Africa.

So far, these topics have struck a chord with MiM students. Both electives were fully enrolled to capacity at 54 students each the first time they were offered.   

Lima Safi’s Story

Among the current group of fellows is Lima Safi, a 27-year-old from Afghanistan, whose education and career aspirations seemingly ended overnight when the Taliban returned to power on August 15, 2021. With the government takeover, Afghan women lost their right to work, study, or even travel alone. “The swift and unexpected shift in power resulted in an abrupt disruption to not only my own life but also to the lives of countless other women,” says Safi.

Before the Taliban reestablished power, Safi already had earned her bachelor’s degree in English from the Kabul University of Education, and she had just graduated from the American University of Afghanistan in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in law. During her legal studies, she also had been working full-time as a human resources officer at the Mutahid Development Finance Institution (DFI) in Kabul.

As she began exploring avenues for leaving the country, Safi soon learned of the HEC Imagine Fellowship. After applying to the program, Safi corresponded with HEC Paris and conducted her interview remotely. But as she continued to work with program coordinators, Afghanistan’s internet infrastructure began to falter—Safi lost her connection to the school for several months. What’s worse, Taliban officers confiscated Safi’s passport during their systematic house-by-house searches.

In those months of no contact, however, Safi continued to support her community. She established a covert school in her home, teaching English to approximately 50 girls. Other women taught additional subjects, as well as skills such as sewing and embroidery so that the girls could support themselves while they were barred from formal employment.

Unable to leave the country via the airport, Safi eventually was able to cross the border into the Pakistani city of Torkham. There, she bribed an official to be able to leave Pakistan and travel to France.

“I hear accounts of girls who attempt to leave the country for educational purposes only to be turned away by the Taliban. Disturbingly, a recent incident involved around 70 female students who had secured scholarships in Dubai but were prevented from departing Afghanistan,” Safi says. “These experiences underscore the immense obstacles Afghan women face seeking education and opportunities beyond the country’s borders.” 

Eventually, Safi was able to reestablish contact with HEC Paris and pursue her educaton, but she emphasizes that internet access will be a crucial weapon against oppression for those who remain in war-torn countries. “While internet access persists in Afghanistan,” she says, the Taliban’s “strength and reliability have been notably weakened.” 

A ‘Diverse and Inclusive Landscape’ 

Influenced by her experience as a senior HR officer at Mutahid DFI, Safi is now pursuing her MiM degree, honing her skills in data analysis, team management, and complex problem-solving. She hopes that at some point she will be able to return to work in Afghanistan, where far fewer women than men work in management, so that she can “create opportunities, provide mentorship, and serve as inspiration for women aiming to excel in management roles.”

As an HEC Imagine Fellow, Safi has relished “the opportunity to connect with students hailing from diverse cultures and nationalities.” As a campus ambassador, she also shares her own experiences. For example, she recently delivered a speech at the HEC Gala Foundation event, where she met women business leaders. This experience “left an indelible mark on me,” she says. “Witnessing their triumphs and hearing their stories further fueled my determination. Their stories served as a vivid reminder of the possibilities and potential ahead.”

“Observing individuals within and beyond Afghanistan who continue to maintain hope and strive for positive change, even on a modest scale, reinforces my optimism.”—Lima Safi

After she graduates, Safi has two short-term objectives. First, she wants to allocate more time to her school for girls in Kabul and to collaborate with similar educational efforts throughout the country. And, second, she wants to work in the strategy and sustainability fields, an interest that blossomed as she worked in a two-month internship with Veolia, a water management company in France.

Her long-term goal is to establish an organization that provides guidance and inspiration to women in management. “By creating a platform that empowers women, I hope to contribute to a more diverse and inclusive landscape within the management domain.”

Optimism in Adversity

Throughout her studies at HEC Paris, Safi has received twice-weekly updates from her family via WhatsApp. Although her two sisters have had their educational aspirations upended—one had been a semester away from completing medical school—they have continued to educate the girls in their neighborhood, while Safi assists as she can from France. Doing so, she says, “allows me to contribute positively to education in my home country, even as I pursue my studies at HEC.” 

She also praises women throughout Afghanistan who have started similar grassroots educational initiatives. “These small-scale, undercover schools exist to provide education to women discreetly. In the face of substantial risks, these girls exhibit remarkable courage and a genuine eagerness to acquire knowledge. Their determination to pursue education despite the challenges is truly inspiring.”

The high-level loss of educational opportunity is overshadowed by the even greater humanitarian crisis. As Afghanistan’s economy worsens by the day, Safi says, many families are struggling to secure enough food for even a single daily meal.

“There are harrowing reports of parents selling their children as a last-ditch effort to survive,” she says. “This unimaginable choice underscores the severity of the crisis, highlighting the urgent need for international assistance and humanitarian efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people.”

‘Free to Live in Peace’

In spite of such disheartening news from Afghanistan, Safi remains hopeful. “Observing individuals within and beyond Afghanistan who continue to maintain hope and strive for positive change, even on a modest scale, particularly among the young generation, reinforces my optimism,” she says. Until she can return, however, she will continue her education and explore “any available avenues” to aid her fellow citizens from afar.

HEC Paris would like to be one of those avenues, says Eloïc Peyrache, the school’s dean and director general, in a school statement. The fellowship program, he says, is one way of “putting education and youth at the very heart of the solution,” even to a challenge as daunting as political and social unrest.  

Organizers of the Imagine Fellowship program see three critical reasons to bring more students like Safi to campus: 

  • The more the school promotes the program and graduates Imagine Fellows, the more it will strengthen the program’s reach and scale. The more the program grows, the more exceptional students from areas affected by conflict will be able to pursue their educations.  
  • Training the new generation of leaders for these countries is essential for the reconstruction and development of war-torn regions.   
  • Over time, Imagine Fellows will form a global network of future leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators who understand how to use the power and scale of business to end conflict and build developing economies for the better.

As the program’s primary benefactor, Nussenbaum continues to support the HEC Imagine Fellowship program and engage with the fellows. Through such programs, he emphasizes, higher education institutions can make substantial contributions to the world by improving access to education.

“We have to strengthen the societal role of HEC Paris so that higher education becomes a venue for dialogue between peoples,” he says. “The Business & Peace academic pathway and the scholarship program for students from conflict zones are only the first steps that will help us imagine a world where everyone is free to live in peace.” 

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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