Baheirah Khusheim MC/MPA 2020 wants to use her experiences abroad and her HKS education to transform the narrative of Saudi Arabia.
By Ralph Ranalli
May 21, 2020
Baheirah Hammam Khusheim MC/MPA 2020 was in Bangladesh working on a social housing project when a local girl told her, “I don’t feel safe walking here.”
“She was a textile worker and she didn’t feel safe walking from the factory to her home,” Khusheim says. “She lived in a slum area where we were trying to bring housing. That’s when we did some research and we realized if we just added some street lighting that would make it much, much safer.”
Khusheim says the girl hadn’t felt comfortable talking about her fears to her male colleagues, “but she felt safe saying it to me.” She says the experience taught her about being present and the need “to listen more.”
“I think the best way to serve people is by actually living with them and letting them be part of the solution,” she says.
Before coming to Harvard Kennedy School as a mid-career student and Emirates Leadership Initiative Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership, Khusheim built a career doing just that. As a senior global infrastructure development specialist at the Islamic Development Bank, she was the first female engineer from Saudi Arabia to lead project teams and field missions for infrastructure projects. She led and worked on projects involving water, transportation, energy, and especially social housing in more than ten African and Asian countries, including Bangladesh, India, Burkina Faso, Uguanda, Uzbekistan, and even Iran (before the country cut ties with Saudi Arabia).
“I believe in housing as a sector because it’s very interconnected with other basic needs. When you provide housing you provide shelter, a place for people to learn, to get energy and water,” she says. “It’s very worthwhile. But people kept saying to me, ‘Why are you doing all this work outside the country, when you could back home where the people need it more?’”
She finally returned home a few years ago to care for her father, Hammam Khusheim, who was battling cancer. He was an engineer and businessman and a big inspiration to her, she says. He nurtured her desire to become an engineer and use her life to make a difference. Both her father and her mother, Reem AlKhereiji, supported her desire to enabling women to fulfill their potential in Saudi Arabia.
“My dad was a problem-solver by nature. And my mom is a volunteer social worker,” she says. “So I got both.”
Attending Harvard Kennedy School had also been a long-held desire, she says and when her father finally passed away, she gave herself permission to apply. She calls the Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration program a “transformative experience.”
“You’re surrounded with passionate people,” she says. “When the instructor comes in, you feel that he or she is delivering based on love. They love what they’re doing. And it’s not only the instructor, but the classmates who surround you in this collective learning experience. When you’re in that classroom it’s not easy—you feel the heat and it can be stressful. But then after you leave that room, it’s been the most rewarding experience ever.”
Professor Ronald Heifetz, the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership, has been one of her most inspirational mentors, she says, but it has been hard for her to choose possible classes and instructors with so many appealing options. “There is a tension at HKS between time and resources,” she says. “There is a lot there, and no matter what you do, you can’t get enough.”
Khusheim says she is excited to keep working collaboratively with her classmates even after she is awarded her degree. “I’m now part of a network of people who do wonderful work worldwide,” she says. “It’s even more hopeful to be in the coronavirus pandemic with them because they are part of the solution worldwide in their own countries and we are sharing discussions and ideas.”
Her immediate future begins with the mile and a half journey down Massachusetts Avenue to MIT's Sloan School of Management, where she will earn her MBA. After that, she plans to return to Saudi Arabia with her fiance, Yousef Alguwaifli MC/MPA 2019, and to create her own philanthropic organization.
Tentatively called “Hemma” or “drive,” she says, her venture will work to channel philanthropic funds more ethically and transparently than they are now in Saudi Arabia. Saudis are generous by nature, she says, but they often don’t know exactly where their money is going. “I want to disrupt the region’s philanthropic landscape and to inspire hope.”
Khusheim says that, on the local level, there are also two critical issues in her home country that she plans to address: food waste (Saudi Arabia is one of the top countries in the world in terms of wasted food) and helping women fulfill their potential.
“We need to work on empowering women from a young age,” says Khusheim, who is a member of the steering committee for the Girl Guides of Saudi Arabia, a scouting organization. “From my own work, I realize that when you invest in women, you invest in family. When I see people fulfilling their potential, especially in vulnerable communities, that’s really my main drive.”
Ultimately, through her work both at home and abroad, Khusheim says she hopes to help transform the image of her homeland.
“I want to find a way to empower the narrative of Saudi Arabia, to show the good side of Saudi Arabia, the generous side,” she says, “and to create a platform that will inform people about effective philanthropic opportunities.”