Around the world and home again
One Buckeye's journey to find her passion and purpose
Ida Abdalkhani hated being unemployed. She wanted to feel productive, to make a difference. She also wanted to start saving money. But there wasn’t much she could do about it: She wasn’t even 14 years old.
But not long after reaching that legal age to get a job, Abdalkhani visited Lima Public Library, where she took a job at minimum wage ($4.25 at the time). The work — shelving books and helping patrons find materials in the archives — was a big deal for Abdalkhani.
“I wanted to get out there and start doing stuff as soon as I could,” said Abdalkhani, whose parents had moved to Canada from Iran in the late-1970s and then to the United States about a decade later. It was a sacrifice Abdalkhani has never forgotten, and it has moved her to take advantage of every break that’s come her way.
“I know that I have so many more opportunities available to me because I got to grow up in the U.S.,” she said. “That’s always been a motivating factor for me. I just feel really fortunate to have all these opportunities, and that drives me.”
Abdalkhani held onto that public library job all through high school, always keeping one goal in mind: college. The money she saved and the scholarships she earned put that dream within reach. With both of her parents serving as professors at Ohio State Lima, her mother in human nutrition and her father in mathematics, there was little question where she would land.
“It made sense for me to go to Ohio State, growing up as a Buckeye,” said Abdalkhani, who studied business and communications on the Columbus campus.
She acknowledges being uneasy about the scale of the university, especially having grown up in a small town, but she quickly found her niche by getting involved in clubs and other campus activities. One of her favorites was the Business Builders Club, a student entrepreneurship organization.
“One of the pros of being at such a large university is the opportunities,” she said. “I was exposed to things I didn’t expect.”
Abdalkhani made an impression on her peers, including Luke Barbara ’10, who met her through the Business Builders Club. “She is serious about her work, yet in a way that she is always smiling, laughing and full of positive energy,” said Barbara, now director of the Ohio State’s Brazil Gateway.
Those opportunities led Abdalkhani to complete the coursework for two bachelor’s degrees, in business and communications, in 2003. She stayed on to pursue her MBA at Fisher College of Business and graduated two years later.
The accomplishments led to a coveted position right out of college — as an assistant brand manager with Procter & Gamble. Her work focused on the company’s fabric care and beauty lines and making sure P&G’s messages about them resonated with consumers. While Abdalkhani stayed with the company about five years, she began to have some doubts about her direction.
She remembers asking herself, “Am I truly making a difference?” It was the question that inspired her to get a job at 14, and now she was considering it again and beginning to think about leaving her stable job in corporate America.
Without a plan and not sure where to go next, Abdalkhani needed time to think. She grabbed her passport, her backpack and left for an 8-month adventure that took her across Europe, South America, Central America and the Middle East. The sightseeing was a bonus; she was more concerned about making time for introspection.
“I needed to figure out what the heck motivates me. What am I passionate about?”
It was during this excursion that Abdalkhani’s thoughts kept returning to her business and marketing studies. “I would go to the grocery stores and observe people and look at all the new products and the marketing that was in stores. That made me realize I really had a passion for this stuff because I was doing it while I was on vacation. It wasn’t work, I just truly enjoyed it.”
She decided she wanted to run her own business, through which she could help bring consumer needs to brands and manufacturers. In 2012, she started Ability to Engage, which helps businesses better connect with their audiences through research and strategic analysis. That could lead to a client’s new brand strategy, product innovation, consumer target or messaging campaign.
Not one to sit still, Abdalkhani speaks internationally about her experiences in heeding that inner voice, unleashing creativity and fueling entrepreneurship. She also has taught at Fisher College of Business, which granted her degrees, and now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where — as a proud Buckeye — she teaches University of Michigan graduate students about design thinking and innovation.
And for fun? For one thing, she’s a certified laughter yoga instructor. (Her “Happier in 5 minutes” TEDx talk demonstrating laughter yoga has been viewed about 100,000 times.)
Although her resume is a lot longer than when she first joined the workforce more than 20 years ago, her motivations haven’t changed. At 35, she’s still taking advantage of every opportunity that comes her way. Still aspiring to inspire and motivate others.
“I feel like I have accomplished a lot, but I don’t think it’s because of anything you can write down on paper. It’s because I’ve really figured out my passions, and I’m much more self-aware. To me, that’s a major accomplishment at my age,” she said. “That’s not saying I have it all figured out. I’m a work in progress and will be my entire life. But I feel like I’m living a life of purpose and passion. I’m in what I call the ‘thrive zone.’ It’s a satisfying feeling.”