Senior Zahra Aalabdulrasul reimagines scope of inclusion initiatives in business


Katie Goodale

University of Iowa senior Zahra Aalabdulrasul poses for a portrait in the Chauncey building on Monday, May 3, 2021.

Marco Oceguera

As a student of varying marginalized identities, including Afro-Latina, Muslim, and a first-generation U.S. citizen and university student, Zahra Aalabdulrasul always struggled to find a comfortable community to be a part of while growing up in Cedar Rapids.

Even within other minority communities, Aalabdulrasul said she always felt out of place. So, when she arrived at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business — which has only 29 Black students — her experience studying entrepreneurial management was no different.

But this time, Aalabdulrasul said, she was determined to take action to represent students like herself.

Aalabdulrasul first got involved in BizEdge, a mentoring program that pairs underrepresented first-year Tippie students with upperclassmen mentors. In this position, she worked to improve the operations of the program.

“The goal of [BizEdge] is to help students find success,” Aalabdulrasul said. “It’s very tight-knit.”

But Aalabdulrasul wanted to do more to expand business opportunities for Black and Brown students. Black students make up around 0.15 percent of student enrollment in the business college, compared to 3.1 percent at the UI.

“Tippie is far, far below even the University of Iowa,” Aalabdulrasul said. “We want to get far past even that number.”

Gabriela Rivera, associate director of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the business college, said Aalabdulrasul has been essential in helping to elevate the conversation around diversity in Tippie.

“Personally, for me, she’s been someone I really admire for being so open to sharing her cultural and religious background,” Rivera said. “She has inspired us to do better.”

Rivera added that the impacts of Aalabdulrasul’s innovative work has already been felt within the halls of the business college.

“Professors have been more receptive to what underrepresented students are saying,” Rivera said.

As a diversity, equity, and inclusion ambassador in Tippie, Aalabdulrasul said she has assessed the climate in the business college and identified barriers preventing Black and Brown students from pursuing business and professional education.

“I stepped back from specific programs and really looked at Tippie as a whole,” Aalabdulrasul said.

After assessing data and crunching numbers, Aalabdulrasul found three overarching problems that limit business opportunities for Black and Brown students. She also identified three solutions to address these problems.

The first issue she found was a weakness in Tippie’s Department of Admissions — the lack of capacity to effectively recruit Black students, specifically.

In response, Aalabdulrasul designed a student-employment position that is geared specifically toward recruiting Black students.

“That is in the job description,” Aalabdulrasul said.

The second problem Aalabdulrasul discovered was a lack of local exposure that Black and Brown communities have to business majors and professionals.

Aalabdulrasul said she tackled this problem by forming a partnership with the African American Museum of Iowa and Jefferson High School, both located in Cedar Rapids.

Aalabdulrasul said she hopes to continue expanding these partnerships so that Black and Brown students have more exposure to the business career path.

“They need to see themselves in the business career and major,” Aalabdulrasul said about underrepresented students.

Finally, Aalabdulrasul said she found that the college offers very small financial-aid packages for Black students compared to other business schools around the country.

Her goal to address this problem, she said, is to find more funding opportunities for Black students.

“But that’s another work in progress,” she said.

Nanette Chapa, a diversity, equity, and inclusion ambassador in the business college, first met Aalabdulrasul in 2019 when the pair were leaders for the Tippie Gateway Program. The program is a one-week summer experience for underrepresented high school juniors interested in business that immerses students into college life.

“We both have the same passion for DEI and helping other people,” Chapa said.

Chapa said she is impressed by the creativity Aalabdulrasul has brought to her work in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at Tippie.

“She seems to find the perfect balance between intricate relationship building and taking action,” Chapa said.

Although Aalabdulrasul graduates from the UI this year, she said she plans to continue her work over the summer to help the next recruitment and retention ambassador transition into the position. The next ambassador will continue Aalabdulrasul’s work.

“I’ve kind of dubbed this project my Recruitment and Retention Project,” Aalabdulrasul said. “A lot of these programs are aimed at recruiting Black students, but that’s not to say that retention isn’t just as important.”

While there has not yet been a newly selected Recruitment and Retention Ambassador for the next academic year, Chapa said she is optimistic about the prospects of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at Tippie.

“I personally feel pretty confident our work will get carried on in one way or another,” Chapa said.

Chapa added that many younger students in the business college seem excited and capable of carrying out the work effectively.

“It makes me so hopeful to hear about the sheer amount of people that are passionate about this work,” Chapa said. “They may even be ahead of [Zahra and I].”

Aalabdulrasul echoed these statements, saying that — even though she is planning to move to a major city to pursue her career goals — she is confident her work at Tippie will be continued effectively once she is gone.

“It’s not going away,” Aalabdulrasul said, “I’m sure of that.”