H@H: Ep 47 – Cheick Diarra joins host, Ray Guan on this week’s episode of Here@Haas. Cheick, originally from Mali, has a deep background in biotech, including receiving his Doctorate of Pharmacy at UCSF, and currently works as a Senior Safety Scientist at Genentech.
To all that know Cheick, he is always optimistic, encouraging, and raises the spirits of anyone he interacts with. Self-described as “annoyingly positive” Cheick believes that “How you frame things in your head can go a long way. For instance, I don’t see dead ends, I see detours. I don’t see barriers, I see stepping stones. […] You have to embrace the low, the mid and the high, and things work out.”
Chieck, a scientist at heart, knows that the way we understand the world evolves in time and that “Truth, as we know today, may move based on your evidence tomorrow.” Always a challenger of the status quo, Cheick has lived out this principle, from finding new ways to approach math problems in 5th grade, to how he shapes and evolves his career today.
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
Ray: I’m Ray Guan, and this is here@haas, a student-run podcast of the Berkeley Haas community. Today we’re joined by Cheick Diarra, a kid from Mali who just takes it one day at a time. Cheick is an evening weekend student of the class of 2022. Welcome to the podcast, Cheick.
[00:00:21] Cheick: Thank you for having me, Ray. I know we plan to do this for a while. I’m excited to be here today. Hopefully, I won’t bore you too much.
[00:00:29] Ray: Happy to have you on here, man. We’ve got a lot to get to so why don’t you first tell our listeners about kind of your beginnings, where you came from, and what you did prior to Haas?
[00:00:40] Cheick: Okay. So, my name is Cheick, and prior to Haas, a lot of people call me Omar. That’s my middle name. Originally from Mali, born and raised. For those who don’t know, Mali is located in West Africa, and fun fact, some of the first universities in the world are from Mali, in a town called Timbuktu. And I know, when we talk, we said Timbuktu somewhere so far away.
[00:01:03] If you think of Mali, think of Timbuktu. And also, another fun fact, the richest man in the history of mankind is from Mali. He took a lot of gold from Malia and went to Saudi Arabia. So, those are some fun facts. So, I was there until I was 16 and my parents moved to the Netherlands for my mom’s job.
[00:01:21] So, I did part of my high school there prior to moving to the US. And I went to Arizona State University for my undergrad-guided bachelor’s in biochemistry. For a couple of years got bored and decided to apply to pharmacy school, ended up finding myself like UCSF, a good school. And again, that was not a straight shot cause I had applied the year before I did not get in.
[00:01:39] So, it took me a second time to get into pharmacy school. While I was in pharmacy school, I knew the second year that right away business school is something I’d be interested in, and I try getting in.
[00:01:52] While I was graduating, and again, didn’t get into business schools right away which was a blessing in disguise. We could talk about that much further. And then the second time around applying, you know, I am. And in the meantime, I’m in biotech work for Genentech and so far, loving my job.
[00:02:08] Ray: Nice. There’s a lot to unpack there, Cheick, or I guess Omar, I should call you going forward.
[00:02:12] Cheick: I said, as long as you don’t say both at the same time, we good.
[00:02:15] Ray: Yeah. So, growing up in Mali, I think you mentioned that you’re the youngest of six. Tell us like how that experience was like. How was living in a big family and especially being the youngest?
[00:02:29] Cheick: For me, it was great. And I think by the time I was born, maybe my parents were already tired and you know, I was spoiled. And I have three brothers, two sisters, and my sisters really stepped in a lot because my parents had full-time jobs, and sisters sort of play that motherly role, which really helped me shape into the person I am today.
[00:02:52] Even just seeing women as your equal. In those societies, women aren’t always viewed as equal, but I think having that experience of being raised by women really helped me understand that it’s not a model of your gender. It just comes down to the person you are. And being in an environment, also surrounded by poverty.
[00:03:11] There’s a lot of poverty in Mali but yet you find people who still have the ability to find joy and be happy. I grew up around people who could only afford in…. They honestly don’t invite you to come to eat their meal with them. So, meaning it gives you perspective. So, I think it gave me a rich experience as far as even how do you navigate social norms, being able to just talk to people within your neighborhood. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody’s able to talk to one another. So, it was great. And growing up, play a lot of soccer. And my brothers introduced me into that game. I would consider a blessing, honestly.
[00:03:48] Ray: Yeah. And then sounded like you moved around. You mentioned to the Netherlands and then to the US. What prompted those moves?
[00:03:57] Cheick: My mom got into ICC, which is the International Criminal Court and that’s located in The Hague. So, for that reason, the family had to move to the Netherlands and that’s why. Oh, so they were there actually, for about 13, 14 years, but now they moved back to Mali.
[00:04:13] Ray: And then you started school at ASU here in the US and then after that went to pharmacy school. How did you, I guess, develop an interest in medicine?
[00:04:24] Cheick: Actually, even while was in Mali when I was little, I remember just seeing people in white coats, and I just thought that was the coolest thing ever. When I went to the hospital or the clinic, I’m not feeling too good, and somebody comes. A lady or gentleman comes with a white coat on, it almost felt like Superman was coming to save the day.
[00:04:44] And, as I got into college, I thought about going to med school too, but I have an older brother who went to med school. So, I was like if my other brother went to med school, I’m going to have to try to do something different in a pharmacy or pharmacology. Those were the two things I had in mind.
[00:05:01] So, I decided to major in biochemistry with an emphasis on medicinal chemistry. So, I could see what could lead me to either a, doctoral program in pharmacology or I’ll go to pharmacy school. And also, growing up, I knew medicine was a big deal. People not only couldn’t afford medicine.
[00:05:20] And at times they also didn’t know exactly what to take or what to do about the condition. So, I’ve always been, I was also a sick kid growing up, so I think healthcare was always something I was interested in.
[00:05:32] Ray: And I think as you’re talking about your family here, it strikes me that your family with you and your brother and possibly others place like a great deal of emphasis on education.
[00:05:43] Cheick: That is correct. And for me, honestly, going to school was never about, I never had to think of it. So, I just grew up watching my five older siblings going to school. I just say, Oh, okay. It’s like in breakfast and everybody’s in breakfast, everybody’s eating lunch. Everybody’s going to school. Okay.
[00:05:58] It’s time to go to school. So that never really happened. To think much about it. And luckily, I have all the siblings that were much brighter and got better grades. So, you know, I didn’t have that much, how would I say, pressure? At least out of the six, five are doing pretty good, so parents can’t be too mad. But it was great. It was easy to just follow along without anybody really telling you what to do.
[00:06:22] Ray: Yeah, I would say you’re not doing too bad yourself, Cheick, being here at Berkeley Haas and graduating from pharmacy school. Throughout that entire time, where were there any kind of defining moments that really led you one way or the other?
[00:06:36] Cheick: Actually, yes. If I were to think of one, I think it would be in fifth grade. My fifth-grade teacher. Actually, I still talk to was amazing. In Mali, the school system was really harsh, meaning, whatever the teacher says go. And whenever this teacher, Mrs. Connie would give us homework, math homework in class, and she would tell you to do it.
[00:06:59] And at times out of the world, is there another way I could possibly do this homework. And mind you, if you try to deviate from what teachers tell you back in those days, you get whooped. And she would always say, Oh, actually, you want to try it a different way to do this, give it a try.
[00:07:13] So I’ll try. Some days it will work, some days it won’t work. But the fact that she encouraged me to try something different instead of punishing me by trying to be myself, that’s it with me to work. Cause she made me realize that it’s okay to think differently, but she could have robbed me of that opportunity by saying, how dare you not follow my instructions? Who do you think you are?
[00:07:35] So, it was never that way. And I’m really really grateful. And to this day, honestly, we exchanged text messages. We talk, we laugh, we joke. And I can’t repay her for being that open-minded, it goes a long way. And I think it’s impacted me to out my school choices, my career choices, how I go about looking into things as far as what I want to do next.
[00:07:59] Ray: Actually, we’ve come to see two of our defining leadership principles already identified in your story. Right? Like here, she’s saying that it’s okay to challenge the status quo, and then throughout, you’ve applied this principle throughout all the different experiences that you’ve been and demonstrating that kind of student always.
[00:08:17] So, I want to gradually shift here to talk about your time at Haas, and similar to pharmacy school, it looked like you didn’t get into the first time. And then reapplied. Can you tell our listeners the story?
[00:08:30] Cheick: Yeah. So, in my second year in pharmacy school, I took a class on entrepreneurship and business and that class was so amazing. I told myself, you know what, I’m going to business school right after pharmacy school, was just going to be a straight shot. In my fourth year in pharmacy school, I applied to Haas and the evening weekend program.
[00:08:50] I got an interview and didn’t get in but it was a blessing in disguise because honestly, I didn’t realize how much I needed to break until I stopped ongoing pharmacist school was brutal. And I think some of the feedback I received after being rejected was to really go out there and explore a little bit more.
[00:09:09] And then reapply, which was actually really good advice. Cause the second time around, I think I had a better understanding of things and needed, or I was or wanting to acquire through our business school and how I was going to go about applying them moving forward. So, and it sounded, I think it took me two years to apply and things worked out on the second time around, but it was the right decision for being rejected the first time around.
[00:09:35] Ray: What did you do during those two years, specifically to improve your application?
[00:09:40] Cheick: So, I wouldn’t even say per se improving application. I think I just want to build a life. I knew I had a pharmacy degree. I needed to put bread on the table. I needed work. I started looking for jobs and I went from working at a retail pharmacy temporarily which I’m not in love with, but everybody who’s out there working in pharmacies, and ended up finding myself at Genentech the first time around.
[00:10:05] And during my first year there, that’s when I reapplied to business school and it worked out and here we are.
[00:10:13] Ray: The reason I ask is because we’ve had other guests on the show that spoke of how they got rejected from the program years ago, before applying a second time and getting in. We’ve had some folks that applied to the full-time program and didn’t get in and then our all-star candidates in the EWMBA.
[00:10:32] So, what would you recommend then to someone in your shoes who has recently gotten rejected from Haas or has been rejected a few times.
[00:10:41] Cheick: So, I think Haas does something that I believe is amazing. And given the fact that they give you the opportunity to receive feedback on your application. I would say if you applied to Haas and they are providing you an opportunity to hear back why you didn’t get in. And I think that’s when you get interviewed and you don’t get in. I think first take those opportunities and learn What they have to say about your application and then you can determine from there on how you could go ahead and making yourself more competitive second. if you don’t even get an interview but you’re still interested in business school, I would say look yourself in the mirror and reassess your strength and areas you could improve on, and honestly, give it a second. Try and not think you’d be surprised how sometimes we so close and we don’t realize it. We may give up, but by pushing a little further, things may work out just fine. And I think I’m just also overly optimistic in general.
[00:11:37] And I just think, as long as you want something, you keep pushing for it. Eventually will work out.
[00:11:41] Ray: There’s a word for that. I think we had a class yesterday where we talked about grit and how to measure that. Let’s talk about your experience at Haas now. You’re in your second year now, we’ve just finished the core classes. What was your favorite class so far at Haas?
[00:11:59] Cheick: That’s, you know, I’ve had little good classes and I do have to say Macroeconomics with professor Ross was one of the most memorable class that Haas and I think besides him being brilliant, and I think all of our professors are, I think the humanity in him really touched me.
[00:12:22] And I’ll give you a few examples. So, whenever professor Ross takes an example, an executive, he will, he would use the pronounce, the female pronoun, she, because most of us are biased when we talk about CEOs and you say him or he. I think he’s so self-aware that he understood that it does not just have to be a male gender.
[00:12:43] And I think he was conscious enough to make everybody else comfortable. And in case there was a female in the room who aspire to be at some point and as somebody who came from another country. So, whenever we talking about adding workers to the economy, he would never use the word immigrant. And I think he was also mindful of that.
[00:13:03] Meaning how do we preserve humanity in folks who come here seeking a better life? And it, the third piece, he’s a scientist, he’s a researcher. And I think he understands that. Truth, as we know today, may move based on your evidence tomorrow. So, he would, at all times, invite you to challenge his own views based on what he knew at that point in time.
[00:13:29] And again, it was more important to him for us to get in the habit of just challenging conventional wisdom rather than just taking it and say, yeah, this is it. It’s not about. So, I and again, going back to my fifth-grade teacher where it’s okay to challenge how we do things or how we view things. I think that I’m always going to take that with me. So, shout out to professor Ross.
[00:13:56] Ray: So, we at Berkeley, at Haas, pride ourselves in being diverse and doing our best efforts to recruit and have a diverse student body. How has your experience here been as a black student?
[00:14:13] Cheick: I’ve definitely received a lot of support. I’m grateful for that. And I know there’s always room for improvement. And if we take a look at our class as a stent, I think there are only maybe five of us black students to be more precise. And I think, the school and maybe also us, we should all find ways to maybe do something about that.
[00:14:34] Whether we have to expand on that on our recruiting efforts to ensure that we attracting black candidates who may be interested in pursuing an MBA. And some of us too, honestly, to put our stuff out there as role models. So, we give people the opportunity to just see themselves here I’ve Haas.
[00:14:53] So, I think it should take a concerted effort on our part. But I think the numbers could definitely be better. And I think, the larger society would benefit from that.
[00:15:04] Ray: I remember reading an article from a few years ago in Poets and Quants, where they mentioned for as much as Haas prides itself on presenting a diverse student body, only 2% of admitted students were black in a recent intake. And so, fortunately, since then, the school has taken action not only in admitting more black and underrepresented minorities, but also creating positions within the staff and the administration, specifically focused on improving DEI efforts.
[00:15:40] But going back to your experience with professor Levin and the academics, how do you think you’re going to apply what you’ve learned so far with classes into your job or career?
[00:15:52] Cheick: So, this is a good one because honestly there’s been a bit of soul searching on my part. And I think prior to coming to Haas, or even a year ago, my main thing or some of the things I was telling myself I got to be an executive at a biotech company. And I think mindset may have shifted a little bit.
[00:16:10] So I think nowadays is more directional rather than destination specific. So, I’ll expand on that. So, destination, meaning where I want to be is secondary. So, nowadays just trying to focus on growth and impact is I think having the opportunity to grow in any role I’m currently in, and also looking around and see how my impacting my surrounding and I think what are that leads me to a specific position.
[00:16:43] That’s great. But I don’t think that’s as important anymore. And as far as what I’m learning, there are things I’m interested in. I love entrepreneurship, I think I like strategy, I’m expanding on my finance skills. And I think as long as there’s growth, fulfillment, and impact, think things will work out. But I definitely plan on remaining within the biotech/healthcare space.
[00:17:06] Ray: I think it’s a good point. You made about maybe the destination isn’t really like the final, like the end all and be all.
[00:17:12] I know a lot of MBA programs, you know, students go in with a mindset. Okay, I want to be an executive here or I want to be like the VP of finance at this company. But along the way, really, it’s the journey. I think that kind of Haas highlights and can provide. And I feel like if you’re happy with that journey and the destination is really just the, it means to the end, right?
[00:17:36] Cheick: Yeah, absolutely. If let’s say, for sake of having this conversation, you are a CEO at a company who doesn’t have any product on the market, your pipelines aren’t good, you are losing money, your employees are leaving the company.
[00:17:53] You are a CEO but are you really having any impact on society? You have the title by the end of the day, are you contributing to the credit good of this world? Not, but if you are contributing in a different capacity, you’re not a CEO, but your work is contributing to enhancing the welfare of society.
[00:18:13] Yes. You’re not a CEO, but I think you could walk with that satisfaction. I’ve contributed to something. So, that’s where I say, it’s not the destination, honestly, it has got to be directional.
[00:18:24] Ray: Right. Awesome. Well, we just have some lightning round questions. These are gonna just be quick Q and A’s. So, the first one for you, Cheick, what’s a book or podcast recommendation you have?
[00:18:37] Cheick: The book Give and Take by Adam Grant.
[00:18:41] Ray: Okay. Yep. Adam Grant’s a famous economist. One of my favorites reads actually. And he has, I think, also a podcast and a blog.
[00:18:48] Cheick: When I read that book really resonated with me so much. And cause I’d ended that. I think giving is the most important thing in life.
[00:18:55] Ray: And then what’s a habit that you’ve picked up during this extended shelter in place?
[00:19:00] Cheick: Actually, I would say it’s a habit that I’ve lost, which is working out. So, I used to work out all the time and because now not having access to the gym. So, that habit changed is a bite of one, not moving around. So, unfortunately, I need to work on that. Yeah.
[00:19:18] Ray: Fair enough. Listeners, Cheick and I are both standing, and Cheick, I know you’re a big fan of sanding and working versus sitting or crouching or even lying down some people. Cool. And I know you haven’t mentioned it yet, but I know that you are a fan of soccer or football. I should say football because…. There you go. What is your favorite athlete or who is your favorite athlete?
[00:19:43] Cheick: Cristiano Ronaldo and it’s not because of the look. And I think it’s because of the work ethics and I think….
[00:19:51] Ray: And also the way he dresses, right? He’s a pretty….
[00:19:53] Cheick: I honestly think the work ethic, cause he’s been able to maintain consistencies throughout his career even though he’s not getting any younger and I think the output is still there. And from what people say started with limited talent, but work really allowed him to just elevate to the next level. And he goes about it religiously.
[00:20:17] Ray: So, I was actually living in Madrid. I was doing a master’s over there in 2014, 15 when he was obviously the star of Real, Madrid, and the city just went wild for him.
[00:20:29] Cheick: Oh, I always wanted to be a soccer player, but reality checked in. I’m not that good. So yeah, I am.
[00:20:35] Ray: Yeah. We’ll see. I don’t know. I think if there’s like a Haas intramural football team you know we’ll see you on.
[00:20:41] Cheick: I don’t know. We’ll see!
[00:20:42] Ray: Then you mentioned that everyone has a superpower give or take, but what’s yours?
[00:20:49] Cheick: I think just being annoyingly positive all the time. And I think because perspective matters in and I think how you frame things in your head can go a long way. And for instance, I don’t see a dead end; I see detours. I don’t see barriers; I see stepping stones. So, I think how you reframe things in your head to really determine whether you have the ability to push a little bit more and you just referred to the word grit and I think at the end of the day life is made out of peaks and valleys, and even your heartbeat, if you look at it, it drops and it goes up, so that just life. You have to embrace the low, the mid, and the high, and things work out.
[00:21:34] Ray: And just to wrap up this interview, Cheick, what’s next for you? What electives are you having? What are your plans after graduation?
[00:21:40] Cheick: Yup, electives, that’s a good one. And I know Haas does a great job giving us templates regarding electives we may want to take to pursue a specific path. And I also, I‘m thankful for the fact that they allow you to just take whatever you interested in, personalize your learning. And I think I might go that route.
[00:22:04] And again there are different things that I’m interested in that may not all just fall within one track and would have been said I’m still in the realm of biotech and I’m going to try to stay there. I liked the idea of strategizing to help determine what companies should go with one drug on the market or into clinical trials versus another one by taking into account the competitive landscape and assess your risk of success and then making the decisions. So, hopefully, my current role is in safety science which is specific to drug development. So, hopefully, I can expand on that role in a couple of years in being that strategic space and help with that. But it may change. And again, as I say, it is not destination specific is directional. As long as I’m given the opportunity to just grow and hopefully have an impact, be of service to my surrounding, I think I’ll be all right.
[00:23:04] Ray: I think you’ll be all right as well, Cheick. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
[00:23:09] Cheick: No, thank you for being up this early, just to listen to my boring self. So, I appreciate it.
[00:23:15] Ray: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of here@haas. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a rating and review and check out our website for links, show notes, and other episodes. This episode was produced by Nick Gerwe and edited by Adam Ward. I’m Ray Guan, and we’ll see you next time here at Haas.