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Societal impact: An MBA is about more than business

DM168

BUSINESS MAVERICK 168

Societal impact: An MBA is about more than business

MBA entrepreneur Aisha Pandor, the founder of SweepSouth.

An ever-evolving business environment has seen the demands of the legendary taxing master’s degree morph into something more than plugging into the right network – it’s also about making a societal impact.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

How do you know someone has an MBA? They will tell you.

It may be a running joke among graduates (and haters), but getting a quality Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree can be a fulfilling and, ultimately, life-changing experience.

Is it a requirement to build a successful business, though? There are legions of stories of entrepreneurs who have built successful businesses from little more than a few loaves of bread and some fish, often without a qualification, but an MBA can smooth the path to personal and professional fulfilment.

MBA entrepreneurs such as Aisha Pandor, the founder of SweepSouth who leveraged her MBA network to get her ideas funded by investment machines, and Shivani Ghai, a former project engineering manager who pivoted her career to make a positive social impact through Vitrus Consulting, a non-profit management consultancy, are likely to speak in glowing terms about their professors who were not only at the top of their game theoretically, but also in practice.

They are likely to rave about the exposure they had to businesses outside their comfort zones. And they will say it was all worth it.

Business is more sophisticated than ever, which is why learning about the fundamentals, alongside marketing, operations, leadership and soft skills, can only be an advantage. Embarking on an MBA as a means to merely make a mint, however, is likely to be a cost-benefit exercise that may, or may not, pan out in affluence and prestige.

If money is not the primary incentive, an MBA will test the individual, teach them to be better leaders, expose them to an influential network, and enable them to have a meaningful impact on business, the economy and society.

Dr Jako Volschenk, head of the MBA programme at Stellenbosch University, says MBAs used to be a differentiator in the employment market; now, they are a “hygiene factor” for some positions – if you don’t have an MBA, you won’t even be in the running.

“It is certainly necessary to have an MBA and certainly MBAs from better schools because when someone picks up your CV, there’s an immediate recognition of the brand of the MBA that you are associated with,” Volschenk says.

“Our students go out there and make an impact in business. Others see the impact they have on organisations. As a business school, we strive to make a positive impact on society and the economy,” he says.

The goal, says Azvir Rampursad, corporate partnership manager at the Graduate School of Business (GSB) at the University of Cape Town, is not to produce more capitalists for the system, but is about creating unique ways in which graduates can reshape, re-create or design new systems.

“That’s why we have these incredible ideas that are realised through the MBA, the network the school has, and the knowledge and access that the school gives students through speciality centres,” Rampursad says.

Business school programmes also do not operate in a vacuum, explains Pravashen Pillay, head of individual clients at the Graduate Institute of Business Science (GIBS), which is focused on social aspects and getting people to understand that business leaders do not sit outside of society.

“For us to grow as a nation, you have to look at the fact that the majority of the nation lives [below] the poverty line. We believe in responsible leadership through business, which sits in the middle between government and civil society.”

The MBA effect

Caroline van der Merwe, the founder of Smart Wage, says she always had a “little chip” on her shoulder about having a BA in the business world. She felt there was something missing, which is why she enrolled in an MBA at the GSB.

“You won’t find a more positive advocate of the MBA programme than myself. It was an extraordinary and transformative experience for me,” she explains.

Her MBA opened the door to a second master’s degree from the Yale School of Management. On her return to SA, she partnered with other investors to launch Smart Wage in February 2020, which enables employees to access affordable wage advances in a responsible and sustainable manner.

While at Yale, she founded a start-up review featuring the work of other African start-ups. “I really wanted to be in the start-up world because I’m an Afro-optimist and really excited about business in Africa.”

Van der Merwe says the Silicon Valley world is a bit mundane, but when you look at Africa, “where we doubt our ability to make business work and there is so much risk all around us, it’s a much more interesting place” – one where start-ups do succeed.

Kriben Reddy, the head of TransUnion Auto and Consumer Africa, started his IT journey in the late 1990s. In 2013, after a number of business courses, he decided to do an MBA through GIBS. “I chose it because it is highly ranked and regarded. If you are spending that kind of time and money – the MBA is not cheap and is very taxing in terms of time commitment – you want to go for an ‘Ivy League’ institution. It makes a big difference.”

An MBA does not necessarily give graduates an immediate bump up in a career, Reddy says. “It depends on where they are in their career. It is designed to take you out of your comfort zone by putting you in your most difficult and uncomfortable position.”

While it does equip graduates with the key competencies of a business leader, finance, operations and strategic thinking, an MBA should also heighten emotional and social intelligence, which is particularly beneficial in corporate environments.

“The element of networking and maintaining relationships is critical,” says Reddy. “No man is an island – you have to be able to work with people. That comes through very strongly.”

To gain the most from the degree, students need to choose the harder path, Reddy says. If the intention is just the title, they are probably not going to get the full benefit.

It also requires a massive time commitment. Apart from individual study and assignments, there’s also group work, outcome assignments and a dissertation at the end.

Reddy advises that students consider not only a school’s reputation and brand recognition but also its acceptance criteria.

“I went through about four rounds of interviews just to be accepted, even though I was paying for it.”

MBAs “show up” differently at work: for Reddy, it gave a career boost, taking him from a product head to vice president in about five years.

For Hannes Spangenberg, the MBA came at a fortuitous moment: a year before Covid-19. He had worked in sales and marketing in the wine industry for seven years, after completing a degree in drama and a BCom in marketing and entrepreneurship.

The MBA helped him bounce back from Covid-19’s decimation of the wine industry.

“Some friends took a long time to find work, or were retrenched,” Spangenberg says. Now, he heads up international marketing for Lutzville wine estate, which has shifted its focus to sales abroad.

An MBA is not necessarily for everyone. Restaurateur Larry Hodes, founder of Dark Kitchen in Joburg, says he took his business lessons from working in the industry.

“I dropped out of varsity and ended up working in London at one of the great restaurants. When I returned to South Africa, I worked at Sun International, the Compass group and Mugg & Bean. I have done various courses, including a diploma in marketing, over the years, but no MBA.”

Hodes says he considered the programme but never had the time.

“It might look great on your CV but I have practical experience in running businesses so it’s not for me.”

Adam Byars, the CEO of Grid Worldwide, says he had an ambition to be a professional athlete. But then a rare tumour put paid to his athletics career.

“What I learnt, though, is the discipline, the drive and the competitiveness. I am programmed in that way.”

Byars worked for a time as a model in London and started a company, Trend Force, on his return to SA. He worked for British American Tobacco before being headhunted by Grid – then, a hot, small agency.

Today, he’s the CEO. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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