Remarkable grad student and researcher shares her powerful story

Laura Ballerini is currently pursuing a Master of Philosophy in Development Economics at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Originally from Milan, Italy, Laura was raised with her four siblings during the refugee crisis. As a result, she developed a profound interest in conflicts, power struggles and forced migration, which led her to apply as a business student consultant for the social enterprise Forward Incubator, where she worked with a Syrian entrepreneur. Together, they set up Mpowerment, a training agency that facilitates the integration of blue-collar refugee workers in the Dutch labor market.

After an exchange semester in Shanghai, which further fueled her interest in development economics, Laura applied for her master’s degree with the hope that it would enrich her knowledge of economics and allow her to illuminate and unpack complex development and global health issues. In 2020, she won a Zonta International Jane M. Klausman (JMK) Women in Business Scholarship, which assisted with her studies at Oxford.

Now in her final year, Laura is investigating how businesses and business models can be used to distribute health care products and services in remote rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on western Kenya. She is collaborating with a social enterprise that trains women to be micro entrepreneurs and is delivering health care to more than 6 million people.

Laura has applied for the doctoral program in international development at Oxford with the goal to eventually leave academia. Combining her empirical skills, extensive knowledge in development and passion for writing, she ultimately aims to become a data journalist and foreign correspondent, specializing in global health and conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa.

In January, Laura was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chairman of the Zonta International Leadership Development Committee.

Here are some of the top takeaways from their conversation:


“My true mentors are my mom and my dad. My mom has inspired me since she was very young. She had to leave her job to raise me and my siblings, and when we were grown up enough, she came back into the job market. … She taught me the importance of relationship and the sense of being connected, not forgetting about the people that are around you and the importance of caring. My dad is a strong supporter of women empowerment and gender equality and he sometimes [has] fights with friends, especially in Italy, we’re still very behind in making progress in this front. … He did a job he didn’t really like in order to sustain his family and to pay for [our] education. He still reads over 100 books every year and he’s definitely one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He inspires and me told me how important it is that I carry on with my education.”

Gender equality

“It’s really important to understand the importance of intersectionality and the fact that gender is not an isolated issue but intersects with many other issues [such as] class, race, etc. … In attempting to close this gap and to bring each other closer to a situation in which women have the same exact position and start from the same playing field as men, I think it’s really imperative to keep in mind the other issues that are related to that and how that plays into gender, making it more difficult to be achieved. It’s a very personal experience. I grew up in a very progressive environment and my dad is a feminist. … I’ve never personally experienced issues related to gender equality, but this is not the case everywhere. In Kenya, young women that I met did not have the same possibilities and did not have even the possibility to think in the same way that I did. They had to get married earlier and leave their education earlier and they were coming from a different position and that was because of gender imbalances that were built throughout their history, their specific place in which they were, their socio-economic background. I think it’s really important to always keep in mind in attempting to close this gap, what are the other issues and how these issues, needs to be approaching in a realistic manner.”

“Although a lot of progress has been made in some sectors, … there are other massive challenges and I think we need to keep on challenging the gender stereotypes. For example, the idea of women being the caretakers and the ones who need to stay at home, the one who needs to take care of the children. I’m not saying anything new but I think it’s really important that there is authentic and sustained engagement in advancing innovative policies.”

JMK Women in Business Scholarship

“I want to thank Zonta for this incredible opportunity. I would not have been able to pursue my study here at Oxford without this scholarship and do the research that I’m doing. … My family had to pay for the education of five children so this was a massive burden on them and Zonta really helped me to believe in my dream, that no matter what I could go on with my education.”

Qualities of a leader

“A leader should be, first of all, humble. … It’s always important to listen to other people and if you want to make an impact or if you want to drive other people along with you, you need to be sure that you are actually impersonating and embodying the feeling and the ideas that other people have and that you’re not just going starting into imposing your model.”

Overcoming challenges

“I am a perfectionist by nature. I try to fight against that, but there is also very little to do about that. I am anxious, I feel a lot of pressure, I feel performance pressure—especially when I came here and after COVID started. … I had a lot of insomnia problems but also problems related to eating disorders and it was very difficult, especially in the beginning, to acknowledge. These issues are often not spoken about. You feel almost ashamed; you don’t want to share them. … But then I realized that the way to get out of these issues, but also to feel empowered by them instead of feeling weak, is to actually speak about them. And it was really remarkable to realize how many people around me had or shared similar issues in their own way. Everyone is fighting their own battle … and I think it’s important to take care of yourself. … Being humble and embrace and accept them instead of trying to hide them can be really empowering.”

Entering social enterprising

“Especially in Italy, we were bombarded almost daily around 2015 with new images and media reports about countless refugees’ boats arriving on the shores of countries, especially in Greece and Italy. Often these reports were not contextualized; there was no explanation about where and why these people were actually leaving their countries. … Watching these images and thinking about this issue, I often felt powerless and frustrated and I didn’t know what to do. But then I realized that instead of letting myself be completely petrified by these issues and by what I was seeing, I needed to do something and actually get involved in something that could help these people that were arriving without any opportunity to continue to live in their countries.”

Being a global citizen

“I really needed to embed myself in a place, which can be extremely frustrating. … You really need to push yourself and your thinking and be creative and try to find solutions in places that don’t really enter into your skills, but I think this was very empowering for me and also taught me a lot about how to respect and how to try to learn and listen from people that just belong to a place in which I’m being hosted and been welcome to be there.”

Watch Laura’s Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories session: