The Grit and Gratitude of Mohsen Rezaei

The HEC Paris EMBA March track brims with participants from far-flung locales who bring inspiring stories of achievement through determination. On paper, Mohsen Rezaei is a veritable local. A conversation with the resident of a leafy Paris suburb, however, belies the personal odyssey he embarked upon some two decades ago.

Early one morning when Mohsen Rezaei was 13 years old, his mother shook him awake.

“Mohsen,” she said. “It’s time. Pack your things. We have to get moving now.”

Her hushed and hurried tone told young Mohsen everything he needed to know. `Moving’ meant ‘leaving’: leaving their home, leaving their town, leaving Iran. Probably for a long time. Maybe for good.

“I understood directly,” he recalls in a Zoom call from his sun-drenched porch in Bezons, a well-manicured Parisian suburb of 30,000. The father, husband, and fast-rising tech and telecom executive moonlights as City Councilor there. Forty minutes from Bezons, via autoroute A86, sprawls the lush HEC Paris campus at Jouy-en-Josas.

He squints in the sunlight, recalling that bleary-eyed morning years ago. “I put my things in a bag smaller than a shoe box and we got in a taxi to the airport.”

“One morning, they said bring your backpack, take some canned food, and some water. Not more than 10 kilos. They said bring sports shoes.”

A few fretful hours later, they were in Turkey. Turkey was their destination because Mohsen and his family had distant Turkish roots. It also didn’t require visas of Iranian citizens.

They spent six months there.

He and his mother stayed at a hotel, then at a private home, then at a hotel again. He passed the time doing his best to keep up with school. He struggled. His mother, at considerable risk and expense, spent the time shuttling back and forth to Iran to try to extricate his brother from his national military service obligations. She couldn’t.

Exhausted, a stark reality dawned on her:

Turkey, a diplomatic gray area, could only ever offer safety in the interim. Its only promise was a lifetime of uncertainty and stagnation. To her, the best chance for her son to flourish lay beyond the perilous westward route they’d heard about in whispers from fleeting figures in the corridors who vanished from the hotel in the small hours of the morning.

“One of the hotel’s employees told us that he was preparing to leave the country with Kurdish refugees. My mother made the decision to follow that group to avoid losing time and taking risks through the regular processes,” Mohsen remembers.

“One morning, they said bring your backpack, take some canned food, and some water. Not more than 10 kilos. They said bring sports shoes.”

Into the unknown

What followed was a harrowing, thousand-plus-kilometer journey. Much of it was on foot. The group, along with Mohsen and his mother, negotiated forests, jungle, mud, rivers. They faced mind-numbing fatigue and hunger, as well as mortal danger.

“I saw people, men, women and children, leaving their entire lives and fighting for a better future. I saw how brave people could be, and how badly people could behave.”

The going was laborious. Silent, interminable, dead-of-night marches were the order of the dayThe mood was heavy and rest was short and infrequent. “We only stopped for five or 10 minutes at a time, just to make sure we didn’t lose anybody,” he says. “There was a lot of mud. That’s what I remember. When you walk on mud sometimes your shoes stick without warning. It was very hard.”

All too often, the eerie calm would be punctured with dread: a revving engine and a faint pair of headlights.

“I remember as if it were yesterday,” he says, recalling the sudden panic.

“We were walking 30 or 40 meters away from the main road, and we were close to a border. Suddenly, it became clear that a car was coming; we saw it and heard it. All 50 of us, walking in the muddy field, we threw ourselves to the ground, and stayed still. When it passed and we got up, we were covered in mud from the head to toe.”

He has many stories that strike a similar refrain.

Hope through humility

Still, amid the anguish and grime, he was most profoundly marked by the breadth of human decency. The lessons he learned in generosity and resilience and humanity from those around him when he was young are indelibly etched into the man he is today.

“At one stage, my mother had a foot injury, and she couldn’t make it much farther. I could take her bag, but at 13 I was still too young to carry her. These Kurdish guys we were traveling with helped her the whole time. They are heroes to me. Making this journey on your own is hard enough already; doing so while helping someone is nearly impossible. But they did.”

He sees heroes in many of the characters he met along the way. He saw it in the Kurdish men, who without a second thought carried his mother on a lavishly dangerous portion of the trek. He saw it in his indominable mother. And he saw it in the Red Cross volunteer at a migrant camp in Calais who, despite his mother’s protests, went out of her way to assist them financially when things were dire, paving the way for the Britain-bound duo to stay in France.

A frank improvement

In France, Mohsen could prosper. And in France, the fortuitous interventions of people nudging him ever forward continued.

“In your life, there are people who change things for you, forever altering your destiny. That happened to me many times,” he says. “In the second year of high school, the principal of the school went against recommendations to hold me back because of my French level. He took a chance on me because I told him I could lean on my math and science ability. I took it upon myself to succeed in high school because of him.”

Galvanized by the principal’s trust, Mohsen, a polyglot versed in 5 languages, secured top marks in high school and university. His subsequent career in telecoms and tech amounts to 15 years’ managerial experience for multinational firms. He has also dipped his toes in political waters, recently taking up the post of Bezons City Councilor.

HEC Paris: an executive choice

The multifaceted, multi-talented, richly experienced professional fits the archetypical mold of an HEC Paris EMBA participant. And to him, the school was the natural progression for the soaring upward arc of his life and career.

Mohsen during his duties as a city councilor for Bezons.

Mohsen during his duties as a city councilor for Bezons.

“The strong focus on leadership, world-class faculty, HEC alumni network, and the multicultural aspect of EMBA participants with whom I have the opportunity to collaborate are why I chose HEC Paris,” he says.

“The diverse and international cohort is really enriching. We have lawyers, chemists, aerospace professionals, journalists—the list goes on. You learn from all of them. The cherry on top: they are all great humans and great professionals. I’ve made friends for life.”

He has been enthralled by the experience. The Leadership Seminar last summer was a highlight. So, too, has been the opportunity to share a classroom with a diverse group of individuals and consummate professionals.

“It’s important to be grateful for the opportunities that people give you.”

“Knowledge is power,” he says of the program’s effect. “The more I learn, the more I feel comfortable. The EMBA provides me the legitimacy to grow faster in all senses of the word.”

Bezons is a worthy benchmark for that growth. When he was 13, growth was a matter of survival, spurred by literal sink-or-swim necessity. Looking back on the westward odyssey that shaped his life and the ensuing duty he feels to succeed having emerged with flying colors, though, he stresses the importance of another key ingredient to growth: gratitude.

“When I was elected municipal councilor, I contacted the principal from high school who took a chance on me. I told him that he was one of my heroes, one of the people who shaped my future. I was very grateful. It’s important to be grateful for the opportunities that people give you.”

More CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies have graduated from HEC Paris than any other university in Europe. Nearly 4,000 graduates are currently CEOs, CFOs, or have founded their own companies. According to the Financial Times, the HEC Paris offers the best EMBA program in the world; click here to learn more.

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