Nhat Nguyen, Riana Shah, and Olga Timirgalieva are members of the MIT Sloan MBA Class of 2021, and co-presidents of the new student club FLI@Sloan. These three dynamic leaders connected in the spring of their first year as panelists in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) event focused on socioeconomic background. This experience ignited an unanticipated spark of camaraderie among students from a first generation, low income background—and served as the catalyst to building a community for those who share the “FLI” identity.
Why did you decide to create FLI@Sloan?
Olga: Last year, as we were preparing for a socioeconomic AMA, we started exchanging stories. It felt so great to realize that others shared my same reality and similar struggles. There was such a great energy during the event that we realized we needed to build a community.
Nhat: Being a first generation, low income student can be a difficult thing to talk about. After the AMA last year, a lot of friends reached out to me and thanked me for sharing my stories—they realized how drastically different my childhood was and appreciated the opportunity to learn.
Riana: There can be shame, isolation and embarrassment around socioeconomic status. One thing that makes it so hard is that it’s invisible, especially in business school. There’s the assumption that once you make it here, you no longer have financial or family struggles, but that’s not the case.
What is your vision for the FLI@Sloan club?
Riana: Right now, we have about 40 FLI members and allies and are actively building the community. Our first step is outreach and generating visibility about our group. Once we get folks together, we want to provide a space for FLI students to feel connected to one another and safe asking questions. We also wanted to put a label on this and make it less of a taboo subject. One of our other goals is to help prospective students on their path to an MBA—people who are considering Sloan as well as those who haven’t even considered business school as an option.
Olga: We want to remove any stigma associated with low socioeconomic status and replace it with a sense of pride. I want first-gen or low-income students to show up at Sloan and be proud to be FLI. It's an incredible accomplishment that shows grit, ambition, and perseverance. FLI@Sloan can then provide support and resources to help these students further build on their success.
Nhat: We want Sloan to be the place that is known for creating an inclusive environment for FLI students. Any FLI student who thinks of applying for an MBA program would think of Sloan first. Our community is creating the foundation for the sense of inclusiveness, and we hope to get additional financial support to FLI students as well.
Speaking of paths to an MBA, can you each talk a little bit about how your FLI identity has shaped your journey to MIT Sloan?
Nhat: I came to the U.S. from Vietnam. I worked several jobs, including as a housekeeper and nail technician, in order to support my education. After college, I entered the world of finance and experienced a huge culture shift in working with private wealth management clients. I often felt like an outsider, and it was hard to know what to say and how to act. One thing I’ve realized is that both of these professional experiences bring real value to our discussions in the classroom at Sloan.
Riana: I moved to Queens when I was 14, and did similar service jobs to support my mom and younger sister. My journey was prompted by the desire for socioeconomic mobility. After college, I worked as a research associate but felt stuck. I wanted a role where I could positively impact people, but realized I would need an MBA to get in the door at companies and organizations that offered these opportunities. Before Sloan, I didn’t know anyone who worked in those places. For me, business school is a way to gain access and to amplify my impact on the world.
Olga: I’m from Uzbekistan. I came to the U.S. during my last year in high school as part of a future leaders exchange program, and ended up going to college and working in Florida. I felt so far away from the bubble of top schools. One night, I mentioned to my now fiancée that my biggest regret was not pursuing graduate education, and she replied, “You still can!” My first reaction was I’m too old; it will cost too much. But she believed in me and that was the start of my path to MIT. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made—it’s literally changed my life.
The FLI@Sloan website mentions the importance of allies. Can you share what impact allies can have in supporting their FLI classmates and colleagues?
Riana: Socioeconomic class cuts across race, gender, and nationality. In many ways, it’s a shared identity that can be a unifier, but we need to normalize talking about it and destigmatize it.
Nhat: Our club welcomes allies because they play an important role in increasing equity and in making an environment inclusive for FLI students. The more comfortable people feel talking about socioeconomic status and our differences, the stronger our Sloan community will be.
Olga: It can be hard to talk about socioeconomic status, but my ask would be that allies be courageous and take an interest. As leaders on campus and eventually in the workplace, you might not know that there are FLI folks around. Implementing additional mentorship and training can be an impactful way to make workplaces more equitable.
Finally, what advice do you have for prospective students who share your first generation, low income identity?
Riana: I’ve learned that our classmates come from really diverse backgrounds, and often have had a rollercoaster ride of jobs and experiences before coming to Sloan. Don’t be discouraged by seeing the company that someone worked at right before their MBA—everyone has more to their story.
Olga: Reach out and ask for help. Before coming to Sloan, I didn’t know that I could cold email someone and talk to them. I had to be taught that! Look up current Sloanies on LinkedIn and ask to hear more about their experiences. I was surprised to learn how willing people are to help—and now as a current student, I’m paying it forward.
Nhat: I resonate with that. I reached out and shared my résumé with some people, including my manager at the time who was a Sloan alum. It gave me so much confidence to hear from people who went through the process and talk with other people who told me that I could make it to the top tier MBA programs. As FLI students, sometimes we think things are out of reach. But hearing this confirmation that it was attainable opened up new possibilities for me and expanded my horizons.