Iman Almutairi doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
When she was told Saudi Arabian women couldn’t handle becoming entrepreneurs, she opened her own cupcake business.
When Almutairi’s father instructed her to shut it down, she changed his mind by donating her profits to charity.
And when she couldn’t find a marketing program available to women in her own country, Almutairi enrolled at Willamette’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management in Salem, Ore.
“I don’t want to be a copy of someone else,” says Almutairi MBA '14. “I grew up knowing I would do something special. I wouldn’t be that girl pushed into doing what society told her to do.”
Born in a well off family in Riyadh, Almutairi was inspired by her father — who worked his way up from working as a policeman to becoming a successful businessman. Like him, she aspired to make something of herself.
“My dad has been my role model,” Almutairi says. “He never let myself or my siblings even think about dropping out of school to work. He wanted us all to finish our education.”
But as a young Saudi Arabian woman, Almutairi’s choices were limited. Because of her gender, she wasn’t allowed to drive or enroll in some university programs. She was also discouraged from earning her own income while still a student — as that would reflect poorly on her father’s ability to provide for his family.
Still, Almutairi wasn’t a stickler for following the rules. After taking business administration classes, learning how to bake, and developing a marketing strategy, she opened E’s Cupcake in 2009.
“I thought it was a niche market because there were no fresh cupcakes sold in bakeries,” she says. “I ended up finding the perfect recipe. Not too much egg or sugar. Not greasy. Light.”
Almutairi watched YouTube videos to learn how to decorate cupcakes. She created a Facebook page and designed business cards. Then, with the help of friends, she distributed free samples of her product at King Saud University.
Orders began pouring in, and she soon had more than 100 repeat clients who featured her cupcakes at weddings, parties and special events.
When her father learned of her initial success — and saw how much time she was devoting to her business — he wanted Almutairi to close it to instead focus on her studies. He was also worried that people would misinterpret her ambition with his inability or unwillingness to support her financially, Almutairi says.
That’s when she agreed to donate her profits to charity — publicizing the change through social media channels and on her business cards.
“That way, he wouldn’t be embarrassed by my making money,” Almutairi says. “He came around when people started talking about me. He was proud.”
Advancing Her Education
By 2011, Almutairi realized she could no longer run her growing business while pursuing her education. So she closed it and began researching master degree programs.
“I wanted to take advantage of a different education, and I really wanted to study marketing,” Almutairi says.
Newly married, Almutairi and her husband first moved to Wisconsin to study English. The following year, they began researching universities that offered business tracks for both early career and career-change professionals.
Willamette University emerged as the ideal choice. Not only was it ranked highly in marketing, it offered the experiential learning Almutairi sought.
“I like the fact that it’s a small school, and I like all my professors,” Almutairi says about Willamette. “It’s the perfect match for what I wanted.”
During her time at Atkinson, Almutairi has forged strong bonds with several of her professors — including Tim Johnson, an assistant professor of public management and public policy, and Russ Yost, Atkinson’s director of marketing.
“Tim’s goal is to have his students get the best out of his course. He’s always been there for me,” Almutairi says. “And Russ cares about you as a person. He’s helped me look for internship opportunities and focus my goals.”
Johnson says Almutairi is an ambitious and gutsy woman who personifies Atkinson’s values. She never backs away from a challenge, and she’s quick to devour information.
“Iman is courageous in her approach to learning: instead of trying to circumvent gaps in her understanding, she dives deeper into areas that challenge her,” he says. “Students such as Iman are what make teaching at Willamette a true delight.”
Yost agrees, saying Almutairi is a role model who set high standards for herself.
“I think that Iman is fearless and incredibly excited to just learn about the world,” Yost says. “She comes from a rather conservative culture, yet she doesn’t let that hinder her at all in meeting new people, experiencing new things and changing the world for women — especially for women from her own country. I really admire that about her.”
Although Almutairi has thrived at Atkinson, her husband’s stay was cut short by a job opportunity in Saudi Arabia last year.
Never the less, Almutairi continued with her schooling and learned to do things on her own — from giving presentations to serving as a peer career advisor for new students.
She even learned to drive.
“It was so scary, so I closed my eyes when I sat with the trainer for the first time,” Almutairi says. “But I thought if men could learn to drive, then I could too.”
Almutairi’s next goal is to succeed in her classes and graduate this spring. Afterward, depending on her husband’s plans, she may remain in Salem while he pursues his MBA at Atkinson. Or she could return to Saudi Arabia to start her own business.
“I have a social responsibility, which is more important than making money,” she says. “Whatever society wants and needs — I want to be the one to make it happen.”