Excellence in Action
Muhammad Shahzad, MBA ’09
Interviewed by Monique Beals • February 5, 2019
Please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.
I came to UCLA Anderson after having worn a number of hats in the corporate world – from operating roles to consulting roles to starting my own company. In attending UCLA, I had a vision I’d come up with a new business idea or work with someone else to bring their idea to life. Life doesn’t always work out as planned, and I ended up in investment banking as my desire to expand my network and learn more about technology and Silicon Valley deepened. I was fortunate enough to start my banking career at Goldman, Sachs & Co. in San Francisco covering companies like Facebook, Apple, Disney, and eBay. My experience at UCLA Anderson truly allowed me to explore so many career options. Ultimately, I fell in love with what I was doing at Goldman and ended up spending well over five years in a variety of different roles.
Then, I had my first child and realized that my heart was really in building a company. I got connected to the founders at The Honest Company and just fell in love with the authenticity of the brand and mission. Jessica Alba founded The Honest Company seven years ago because she was motivated by a personal need – while pregnant with her first child, she became frustrated by the lack of information and safe products she could trust. I joined Honest almost five years ago, and I’ve been in the CFO role for about two and a half years with responsibility for Finance, Accounting, Technology, and Digital Marketing. I strongly believe in and enjoy driving The Honest Company’s mission of empowering people to live happy, healthy lives.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
I studied finance in college, and a lot of people have asked me if I chose finance because I was good at numbers. If I were really good at numbers, I’d probably have been a mathematician or perhaps even an economist. For me finance was appealing because it was a way to gain access to necessary information. In any business, numbers provide you with an amazing lens to become fluent in all aspects of the business. For example, in the realm of analytics or strategy, finance should guide and support decision making and help us understand trends, determining where to go next.
Looking back on nearly two decades of work experience, the most interesting part has been the access I was given at an early age through this lens of numbers. And now, in the CFO seat, numbers enable me to contribute to any role on any given day or week.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
The most valuable part of the UCLA experience for me has been the people. There is not much I do today that anyone taught me in school, but the relationships and network that I have built over the years have carried me to where I am. Specifically, at UCLA Anderson, I made amazing friends that came from such diverse backgrounds who had already accomplished so much in their respective fields.
Business school is fascinating because everybody wants everybody else’s former jobs. For example, there were a lot of investment bankers who left the banking field to come to business school to become a consultant or a marketer. Here I was, having had a variety of different jobs, wanting to be an investment banker. You have the opportunity to learn from a vast array of people who have done a number of different things in their lives. This allows you to gain valuable insight in specific fields so that you can really piece together what you may or may not like about each profession.
I am obviously biased, but if you plan on being in Los Angeles in the long term, there is no better program with which to be affiliated. So many of us choose to remain here or venture off and do other things but eventually come back to this amazing city.
In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?
I think the best part of the alumni network is true connection. I know, without a doubt, that I can call or email some of the most prominent business leaders in our city and beyond. I will get one or two ‘pings’ a week, I may send a few outbound ‘pings’ as well and get a response within 24 hours from the UCLA alumni network.
It is really nice to have that affiliation and people are always willing to respond to you and be helpful. I also have a set of three to five incredibly close friends from the program. Our wives and kids are friends too, so that has been a great result of the network.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
I am challenged every single day at work. There are no right answers to hard questions! The type of environment that I thrive in is one where I can adapt, pivot, and solve tough issues.
If I had to pick one challenge, I would highlight moving out of a large, well-established professional services organization to a small, agile startup. In large companies resources are plentiful, and the client is generally right. At a high growth startup, everyone wears multiple hats, and you usually need to step up and make big, important decisions. Adapting and changing without losing all the positives you have been trained and coached to do at a big company is tough. I spent a lot of time listening, absorbing, and learning from all of my colleagues. If you listen well and with empathy, you can be successful in navigating change, both for you personally and for the good of the enterprise.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in this field?
Spend time soaking in everything you can in your academic lives, whether it is undergraduate or graduate school. The technical elements aren’t necessarily the most important part of school. I’m not using calculus, physics, or even economics in my job. It is the soft skills that you develop as you go through school or your early work experiences that are most important. No one ever tells you that you are going to spend a lot of time listening, reading, and writing no matter what job you are in. Focus on how to be articulate and communicate well but also listen to people.
In terms of leadership roles, you’re going to want to know a little bit about a lot of different things. Spend a lot of time reading and talking to people about random things, because at some point somewhere along the way, you’re going to have a conversation about a sport you don’t know a thing about or music or art. Have your interest set be as eclectic as possible because that will serve you very well over time.
The final thing I’ll say is really focus on building and refining your emotional intelligence skills. At the very heart of it you need to understand people and people dynamics. Think about your tone, when you should talk, when you should direct, when you should listen, and how to have empathy. The more of those skills you have the better leader you will be.
How do you participate and support in the UCLA community now?
Over the years I have spent many weeks recruiting on campus and recommending UCLA Anderson students for positions where I have worked. At The Honest Company, we are always looking to recruit strong talent, and I would encourage my fellow Bruins seeking new opportunities to check out our job openings on our website or on LinkedIn.
I have recently engaged on campus again by guest lecturing at a handful of classes. I’m looking forward to engaging in the future with some of the thought leadership centers at UCLA Anderson on social impact, entrepreneurship, and finance. Additionally, I live five minutes from UCLA and still run regularly on the beautiful campus. I love the fact that it is an open, public university with such a rich history. I am also a deep believer that it’s important to support public education (through donating time or dollars at any level).
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
I think I’d go back to the quality of people that I have met on campus at UCLA. Especially in California or Los Angeles, if you tell someone you went to UCLA, there is always a stamp of approval. There’s a sense of academic rigor as well as diversity and deep ties to LA that come with being a Bruin.
And finally, what’s next?
I’ve learned a tremendous amount from a great set of peers and leaders at The Honest Company. For me the most important thing is that I continue to learn, and as I reflect back on the last couple of weeks or months, I know I’m learning a lot.
In terms of what’s next, I’m looking forward to transforming all of that learning into even more interesting, challenging roles and continuing to expand my own enterprise mindset. I think the next decade will lead to a lot of change in the CFO role and organization, and I’m hoping to drive some of that change.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
Interested in learning more about UCLA alumni who are creating lasting impressions and impact in their industries? Visit Excellence in Action for the full collection of interviews.