Samer Saab: Helping Desautels MBA students seize opportunities

Samer Bekai-Saab’s MBA awards enable promising students to pursue their entrepreneurial goals and enrich their MBA experience

For Samer Saab, McGill provided more than an education. His studies in engineering and business were critical steps on his path to founding a successful company. Headquartered in Montreal, Explorance has built an experience management platform that provides feedback solutions to more than a thousand organizations globally, and it counts some of the world’s leading academic institutions among its clients.

Samer SaabWhen Saab arrived in Montreal in 1990, he brought a single year of engineering studies, and a suitcase full of clothing that was better suited to a warmer climate. He had just lived through fifteen years of civil war in Beirut, and Canada offered opportunities that were not available in Lebanon at the time.

Saab seized these opportunities. He completed his Bachelor of Electrical Engineering degree in 1993 and got a job at a large telecom company. Then, he started studying part-time for his Master of Business Administration at the Desautels Faculty of Management, and eventually, he struck out on his own.

In 2003, Saab founded Explorance. It helps large organizations understand performance and morale, based on the experiences of students, employees and stakeholders. It also provides organizations with consulting services to help them achieve performance goals and educational products to help develop their people.

And Explorance’s own performance demonstrates how valuable its approach can be. In 2021, Explorance was ranked the #1 place to work in all of Canada.

Saab has been sharing his success with his alma mater and aims to foster the success of the next generation of McGill graduates.

“When I came from Lebanon, McGill accepted me. They gave me credit for the year of study that I already had, and I got a great education,” he says.

“I want to be part of that journey for others. I say to myself that if you give me five things, I will use them to make myself ten times better. Then I asked, what if I could give others ten good things, so that they can use them to become a hundred times better? My promise is that for anything that has touched my life, and contributed to the evolution of where I am today, I want to help much more than I received help myself.”

That desire to pay it forward is why Saab has funded two awards for MBA students at Desautels. His first Explorance MBA Leadership Award was created as an expendable (five-year spend-down) award in 2010 for students with demonstrated leadership qualities. His second award, the permanently endowed Samer Bekai-Saab MBA Entrance Fellowship, was established in 2015, and supports outstanding students entering the MBA Program.

Firas Abdallah, this year’s Samer Bekai-Saab MBA Entrance Fellowship recipient, spent most of the 2020-21 academic year in Beirut. During the pandemic, Lebanon has endured another challenging period. Not only is it grappling with COVID-19, it has struggled with a sustained economic crisis.

In late 2019, the value of the Lebanese Pound plunged, and hyper-inflation drove up the price of staple goods like beans and sugar. As part of the effort to stem the crisis, banks imposed withdrawal limits. At first, only foreign currency withdrawals were impacted, but local currency withdrawals were limited once the pandemic set in.

For Abdallah, this was a significant problem. After several years working as a consultant, he was preparing for the next step in his career. He had an idea for a start-up that he wanted to pursue -- a dating app that helps users make deeper connections by matching them with people they are compatible with. It is called Ur My Type, and its algorithm uses Myers-Briggs personality types to make better matches.

Abdallah wanted to use his MBA to develop the skills and contacts he needed to scale-up Ur My Type, but his savings were held in a frozen bank account. The Samer Bekai-Saab MBA Entrance Fellowship made it possible for him to undertake his degree at Desautels, even without access to his savings.

“A Desautels MBA gives me credibility in front of investors, and it also gives me more rigourous knowledge and experience of business that I can apply to my start-up,” says Abdallah.

The investment in his future is already yielding results. Ur My Type has had tens of thousands of downloads and has attracted three angel investors. After he graduates, he’s planning to grow the business further.

But if it wasn't for this fellowship, I would not be able to go out and have a better future,” he says.

Stephen Lavery had spent all of his career working in the northeastern United States and wanted to gain more international experience. He considered pursuing an MBA in Europe, but studying in Montreal offered similar opportunities a lot closer to home.

“My experience was all at the local and state level, and really just in New York and Boston. I was looking for a different perspective and wanted the chance to immerse myself in a Francophone city. The international perspective and strength in global leadership drew me here,” says Lavery.

He had hoped to participate in the annual international MBA trip, but when that was disrupted by the pandemic, Lavery found an alternative. He had been awarded the Samer Bekai-Saab MBA Entrance Fellowship, and that helped defray the costs of his MBA. That made it more practical for him to accept an unpaid internship in the social impact space.

The internship was available through a program called Emzingo, which partners with Desautels Career Services. In more typical years, it is held in person in several international destinations, but in 2020 the pandemic forced a pivot to a virtual format. Lavery had the opportunity to test drive what he had been learning at Desautels, and in the consulting portion of the program, he worked with a Lima, Peru-based education start-up.

“They are a coding bootcamp that was a year and a half old at the time, and they wanted to expand across Latin America,” says Lavery, who worked as a New York City school teacher early in his career.

“I worked with them on market selection and created tools they can use to better understand their students and who they should be targeting as part of their expansion plan. It gave me the opportunity to put into practice a lot of the skills that I learned in the MBA program -- the top-level strategy and tools and frameworks. It was a chance to implement them with an actual company with actual goals. It made classroom learning so much more tangible, and gave me the chance to practice it.”

For Urvashi Mahendru, the Explorance MBA Leadership Award made it more practical to come to Canada to study. She had been working as a consultant with a financial services firm in New Delhi, India, but did not see herself working in the field in the long term.

She considered pursuing an MBA at several Canadian universities, but the MBA award was one of the factors that contributed to her decision to study at Desautels.

“McGill has a strong brand and small class sizes, but there are other good schools in Canada, and it was difficult to choose one over another. Having a good entrance award like this one was one reasons I chose to study at Desautels.”

Mahendru knew that she no longer wanted to work on the financial services side of business, but wasn’t exactly sure where she did want to spend her career. The fellowship allowed her to focus exclusively on her studies, and that helped her realize that she wanted to pursue a career in marketing. As she finishes her degree, she is undertaking an internship in brand management with Abbott Laboratories, a multinational medical devices company.

“But because I got this award, I did not have to worry about my living expenses. I could focus on things that I needed to help me gain skills I needed to make that transition from finance to something else.”


Photo from 2017 (left to right): Amit Kumar, MBA’18 (recipient of the Explorance MBA Leadership Award); Samer Saab, BEng’93, MBA’96; Kirill Gusev, MBA’19 (recipient of the Samer Bekai-Saab MBA Entrance Fellowship); Taha Ataullah, MBA’18 (recipient of the Samer Bekai-Saab MBA Entrance Fellowship)

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