As is tradition, in the HBS Pensieve we ask modest HBS students: what is your superpower? And while they answer, we draw out their incredible stories of perseverance, achievement, and leadership. This week we welcome Onaizah Panhwar (New Section I) to the Pensieve. It was a privilege to hear Ona’s story, and we know you will be as inspired as we are by her.
Ona’s superpower is strength of steel. Her strength comes to the fore as courage in times of adversity; after becoming the head of her family at the age of 17, she felt it her responsibility “to make tough calls and be rock solid” for her younger siblings. A life-changing tragedy which could break most gave her the inspiration to excel further.
A Tragic Turn
Asked what her proudest moment is, Ona says graduating college. For a smart young woman, graduating college might have been taken as a given. For Ona, graduation was the culmination of years of perseverance, finally knowing that the very difficult decisions she had to make along the way were the right ones.
When Ona was 17 years old, she survived a tragic car accident that killed her mother, father, and aunt. Her mother and aunt died immediately. Ona and her father were taken to the hospital, where Ona’s doctors and other family members shielded her from the news about her mother. She only later found out about her mother’s death through social media. To avoid missing the entire semester in university, Ona had to return to school six days after the accident. Three days after returning to school, however, her father also passed away. Although Ona survived, her face had been badly disfigured, and she suffered significant brain injury that required follow-up treatment and also impacted her memory.
With the passing of her mother and father, Ona became the eldest in her family, with three younger siblings to care for. Key opinion leaders in her family and her mentors urged her to quit her graduate school in Karachi, Pakistan, and finish her education in a small local school back home so that she could provide her siblings emotional support. At first, Ona went along with this plan and returned to her home city. She quickly realized, however, that she could do more for her family by pursuing high-quality education in Karachi. “In order for the four of us to progress,” she told her brothers and sister, “we need to move forward. Life will be extremely difficult and challenging from this point on, but we need to rise up.” She returned to school within a week of leaving. For the remainder of undergrad, Ona traveled two hours each way every weekend to visit home and be a parent to her siblings.
Despite her enormous family responsibilities, Ona excelled in school and received her degree from the best business school in Pakistan. Life did not become significantly easier though. She was deemed “scarred for life” and “not beautiful enough to marry a person of her choice.” Well-intentioned family members encouraged her to marry a cousin, 12 years her senior, to have a male presence in the family. Internally confused as to whether early marriage was the right choice for her and her siblings, Ona ultimately decided to hold strong and decline marriage. Four years later, she found love and married the man of her choice, one whom she calls her great friend and “partner in life.” After having been a rock for her family all those years, she was elated to find someone with whom she could share her triumphs and vulnerabilities.
Not Your Typical Daughter
After the death of her parents, Ona became a “son” of the family. Despite it being against the norms of Pakistani society, Ona would visit government offices and courts if needed, establishing herself as someone who could do anything. She refused to shy away from the tough routes. In fact, some people “detested her for being too loud and too bold”; they thought it was abnormal that she stood up for her beliefs. Some relatives banned their daughters from engaging in conversation with her, worried that she may “corrupt” their minds and make them rebels.
A turning point occurred after Ona started working for P&G in Pakistan, in the process convincing family members who wanted her to return to her hometown after graduation. A few years later, thanks to her struggle and hard work, she became a role model. Those who were initially against her began asking her for guidance. Ona performed superbly at P&G, where she spent the past six years as business/manufacturing Finance manager. She delayed her dream of a foreign MBA and refused international assignments to be around her siblings until they settled down. When her youngest brother graduated this past summer and started working, Ona “knew it was the right time to pursue long-lost dreams.”
HBS: “Time for Me to Do My Own Thing”
HBS is Ona’s first time in the U.S. and also her first “normal college experience.” Her father had always wanted her to come to Harvard, but it had been a mere dream due to financial difficulty following her parents’ passing. No longer the outlier at HBS, she finds tremendous inspiration from the “bold courage” of those around her. And for the first time in her life, she has the time, freedom, and energy to meet new people, have engaging conversations, and do the things she loves. “I was a bad listener before,” Ona admits, “because I always had my own problems – I just didn’t have time. I was always counseling my siblings, working hard in P&G for that next salary or managing financials as head of the family.” Now she revels in the myriad opportunities to meet and bond with her classmates.
Ona eventually plans to return to Pakistan to establish a social enterprise for higher education. As only 3.5% of Pakistani women graduate from university, Ona seeks to illuminate how education can transform women’s lives. Had Ona not returned to school, she would have been more emotionally close with her siblings, but they collectively could not have progressed to where they are now. Today, she feels a responsibility to use herself as an example to motivate her society.
“The Courage is Like Crazy”
Her parents’ death was undoubtedly a defining moment. That one day in August 2005, Ona “grew up mentally by 20 years.” Convinced that had her parents survived her path would have been very different, Ona claims that now, “the courage is like crazy.” We find her courage contagious and thank Ona for allowing us to draw her incredibly inspiring story into the Pensieve.