Impact MBA student pursues her dreams in the face of uncertainty

Impact MBA Zeinab Rezaie smilesZeinab Rezaie was set to begin the Impact MBA program in August 2021, exactly in line with the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. She was still in Kabul when the Taliban took the city on Aug. 15.

“That was the day I wanted to take my [COVID-19] test,” Rezaie recalled. “It was just going to be a normal day.”

When she went to take her COVID-19 test, it was crowded and chaotic as everyone attempted to leave the country. Rezaie overheard people talking about how fast provinces were falling to the Taliban, and by the time she left with her test results, the city had an ominous feeling.

“Shops were closing, and everyone was just rushing toward their homes,” she said. “When I got home, I checked my social media and saw that the Taliban was at Kabul’s gate.”

Her memories from that point forward are hour by hour. Another Fulbright Scholar she knew had his flight canceled. A few hours later, the Afghan president fled the country. Then the Taliban was inside the presidential palace.

“That was one of the most difficult nights of my life. I couldn’t believe it,” Rezaie said. “I was with my sister, my younger brother and my fiancé. We cried and wondered what was going to happen to us. What was going to happen to our country and all it had achieved in the past 20 years?”

While the events she endured to get out of the city and make her way to the United States will echo throughout her life, they will not define her.

Overcoming adversity with luck and motivation

Rezaie was born a refugee in Iran. Her family returned to Afghanistan two years after American troops ousted the Taliban when she was only nine years old.

She was one of the lucky ones. Rezaie was the perfect age to start an education when the new, U.S.-backed government started letting girls attend school with the boys. She spent 20 years learning and growing in the country she loves – an opportunity those who came before her were not afforded.

That opportunity may never exist for women in Afghanistan again.

“I could study English. I could play sport. I could graduate from university,” Rezaie said. “I feel very lucky that I could study in my own country – I didn’t have to leave to be successful.”

Throughout her life, Rezaie strived to push beyond what was expected of her. Now, she is a Fulbright Scholar, ultramarathon runner and the first Afghan woman to complete an Ironman triathlon.

Her pursuit of excellence is unending.

Rezaie is halfway through the Impact MBA program, studying social entrepreneurship. One day, she hopes to return home to empower and support Afghan women.

Finding power through running

Rezaie completed her first marathon in 2017. She ran a multi-stage ultramarathon across 250 km of the Mongolian Gobi Desert in 2018. Then, in February 2020, she completed the Ironman 70.3 Dubai and became the first Afghan woman to conquer the grueling race.

Impact MBA student Zeinab crosses the finish line of Gobi March 2018
Rezaie at the finish line of the Gobi March 2018

It all began with a group of women she met in the dorms of American University in Kabul, Afghanistan, and the international NGO, Free to Run, that helped them train safely.

“There aren’t safe places for women to go and run,” Rezaie explained. “Free to Run was picking up girls from their homes and then dropping them back off so their families could trust them. I started running with them and within the year I did my first marathon.”

Most of the time, the women trained at the NATO military camp in Kabul. While there, Rezaie met Jackie Faye Burton, an American journalist who was in the midst of completing Ironman races on six continents in one year. The connection changed Rezaie’s life.

Zeinab and three others hold the Afghanistan flag in front of Ironman 70.3 Dubai sign
Rezaie made history as the first Afghan woman to finish an Ironman event at the Ironman 70.3 in Dubai, Feb 7, 2020

She joined Burton’s organization, She Can Tri, and was selected to join the team for the Ironman. Rezaie was thrilled by the opportunity. When she crossed the finish line waving Afghanistan’s flag, she became the first woman from her country to complete an Ironman.

She didn’t do it to be the first though; she pushed herself to complete the race because she needed to prove she could.

“Why should I be the first?” Rezaie said. “It’s not something I’m very proud of because there isn’t opportunity for women and girls to play a sport in Afghanistan, and there should have been others before me.”

Since that tearful, joyous moment, Rezaie was set on empowering other women through sports.

Becoming a Fulbright Scholar

Fulbright facilitates an international exchange program for scholars and university administrators to further international education and multicultural understanding. On average, about 20% of applicants are accepted to the program and placed with the best matched university for their goals.

Zeinab Rezaie volunteering at a race surrounded by children
Rezaie volunteering at Afghanistan’s only mixed-gender international race event, Marathon of Afghanistan, which added a new Mini Marathon for the local kids in October 2019.

Growing up in Afghanistan, Rezaie saw what Fulbright Scholars were able to do. They would leave to study abroad, then return to Afghanistan with high status and meaningful work. She knew that was the path that would enable her to make a difference.

“I have always dreamed of becoming a Fulbrighter,” she said. “So, I built my background so I could become a good potential candidate; I got my bachelor’s degree and worked hard to build extracurricular and work experience.”

She started volunteering with Free to Run in 2018 and became a program manager in 2021. Paired with her bachelor’s degree and prior business experience, her volunteerism and passions for running and empowering others made her a strong Fulbright candidate.

She received the status of “Fulbrighter” on her first application attempt. Because of her focus on advocacy and empowerment in a developing country, the program matched Rezaie with the College of Business’s Impact MBA.

Looking toward the future

This summer, Rezaie is focused on her venture practicum, the hands-on portion of the Impact MBA program in which students put theory into practice by developing a real-world startup venture. She and her teammate are developing a business plan based on their shared goal of empowering women through financial independence.

Zeinab Rezaie shares her experience during panel discussion at the ACT Human Rights Film Festival
Rezaie joins the ACT Human Rights Festival at CSU for a panel on female empowerment.

“There are traditional barriers for women around the world because they’re financially dependent on their husbands, fathers or brothers,” Rezaie said. “And we know, for example, when you become a mother, it’s difficult to go work and you lose your independence.”

The pair will execute in-depth research this summer to determine and build a viable business model.

“We’re exploring all of it – like providing more opportunities for refugee women while also helping U.S. women,” Rezaie explained.

Rezaie doesn’t know what will come after she graduates from the Impact MBA program in December 2022. Her family is scattered across the world, and her brother and husband are stuck in a humanitarian camp, unable to leave or make choices for themselves.

Zeinab Rezaie holds her bike above her head in celebration“I wanted to go back to Afghanistan after graduation to continue working with the NGO first, and then in the long run, I wanted to build a center to create more athletic and economic opportunities for women,” Rezaie said. “But now everything is changed. If I go back, I think I will be a prisoner. My hands will be tied.”

With less than a year left on her visa, one thing is certain: Zeinab Rezaie is going to run, swim and bike. She will train and compete in big races to leverage her own experience on behalf of Afghan women, raising their voices and promoting their right to learn, work, play sports and travel on their own.

Rezaie will travel to Utah in October to race in the 2022 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. Utilizing this platform, she also plans to fundraise for Afghan organizations working to provide women and girls access to education and empower those in conflict areas.

“I want to run to raise awareness, to raise the voices of the women and girls back in my country,” she said. “That’s all I’ve been thinking of – helping the women of my country get the opportunities and the rights they deserve.”

About CSU’s College of Business

The College of Business at Colorado State University is focused on using business to create a better world.

As an AACSB-accredited business school, the College is among the top five percent of business colleges worldwide, providing programs and career support services to more than 2,500 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students. Faculty help students across our top-ranked on-campus and online programs develop the knowledge, skills and values to navigate a rapidly evolving business world and address global challenges with sustainable business solutions. Our students are known for their creativity, work ethic and resilience—resulting in an undergraduate job offer and placement rate of over 90% within 90 days of graduation.

The College’s highly ranked programs include its Online MBA, which has been ranked the No. 1 program in Colorado by U.S. News and World Report for five years running and Report and achieved No. 16 for employability worldwide from QS Quacquarelli Symonds. The College’s Impact MBA is also ranked by Corporate Knights as a Top 20 “Better World MBA” worldwide.