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Doing an MBA used to be primarily about joining an elite club of business leaders to prop up the status quo, but Henley Business School Africa, wants it to turn you into a change maker.

A historic breakthrough agreement on loss and damage notwithstanding, the outcome of COP27 looks set to do nothing to prevent global temperatures from surging past the 1.5 degree mark. At the same time, global recession on the world stage looms while the war in Ukraine shows no signs of ending. Our world is in crisis and if it wasn’t clear to us already that systems need to change, it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore this fact.

Here’s a question then. If the ship on which you are a passenger is headed for the rocks because the captain refuses to alter course, do you have the right — obligation even — to take control and save the ship? Would you do so even if that meant you may go to prison?

All of us at individual and institutional level need to consider this. And for those of us working in universities, and business schools, I believe a response is imperative. We are perhaps uniquely placed to lead the movement to conceive and build a new system of economics, instead of shoring up the suffocating status quo. As institutions of learning we are able to do something concrete and do it quickly. We can change what we teach, what research we undertake, who we work with and how we shape and equip our graduates to lead fearlessly in a troubled world. 

At face value the goals of a business school and those of an activist are directly at odds. While an activist is someone who works to bring about political or social change, business schools are often conservative, producing generations of leaders who served a capitalist system in which, as US economist Milton Friedman noted, the responsibility of business is only “to engage in activities designed to increase its profits”. But this is shifting. And at Henley Business School Africa, we are actively working to transform the ways business leaders organise their activities and reposition corporations from producing profits, to producing profitable solutions to the problems.

Equipping change makers through scholarships

Henley Africa has risen in prominence as a business school in South Africa over the past decade. And it is becoming known, not as a place where you just go to get an MBA or any other business qualification in order to join an elite club of conformist business leaders, but as the place you go if you want to take others with you as you rise. 

We are seeking to change the status quo in several ways. For example, we have one of the largest scholarship programmes on the African continent and we award our scholarships not just to individuals who may not otherwise have had access to an international degree of the calibre that Henley offers, but also to those who demonstrate their commitment to doing things differently. Many of our scholarship recipients are artists or musicians. We also place a particular emphasis on empowering African women, because we know that this makes for smart economics.

There’s ample evidence of a correlation between economic growth and gender equality as well as between GDP growth and the growth of creative industries, especially in emerging economies. Artists are hard-wired to disrupt corporate conservatism and conformity, and this can give innovation the space to breathe and flourish. And it’s not just about developing the creative person’s business skills but also about developing the business person’s creative acumen.

Previous recipients of this award include Mariapaola McGurk – this year’s BASA-commissioned artist – who comments that “Doing an MBA at Henley Africa is definitely life-changing. It has been fundamental to my understanding of growth and strategy and how I can create a business that is both sustainable and has a positive impact in my community. The MBA has forced me to crack open my mind to consider what tools I need and how to navigate the way forward.”

Fearless leaders must first know themselves

The Henley Africa MBA emphasises personal mastery and creates the intentional space for all students to get to know themselves on a whole new level. As one recent graduate, Malegola Mohlala comments, it’s like taking a journey towards a better version of yourself. “When I first decided to embark on the MBA, I did so with the intention of becoming more financially astute. I was incredibly surprised to discover that I was being taken on a journey to become a better version of myself.”

You can’t make change without first knowing what you stand for and what you value, argues Linda Buckley, head of learning experience at Henley Africa. 

“As author Salman Rushdie said, ‘Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, re-think it, deconstruct it, joke about it and change it as times change – truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts,’” she comments.  

Another MBA graduate Phillipine Mtikitiki, VP for Coca-Cola South Africa, agrees, saying  that the lessons she learned about herself as a leader; most notably, what empathetic leadership really means, was among the elements that she took from the MBA classroom to the boardroom. She now believes that empathy and understanding are foundational in helping leaders to adapt and manage complexity, uncertainty and volatility.

“It’s not about me feeling sorry for someone, or letting them off the hook because they didn’t deliver on a deadline,” she says. “It’s more about understanding, from that person’s perspective, what it would take for them to get the job done. And contributing meaningfully to help them do that.”

Maybe this all sounds like too little too late. But with business schools across Africa collectively graduating upward of 10,000 potential change makers each year – each of whom could be inspired to go back into their communities and workplaces to share what they are learning and advocate for ways of doing things differently – the impact starts to look less insubstantial. And we could do even more if we scale up collective leadership on key areas such as climate change and gender equity as the Association of African Business Schools is striving to do. 

A new collaborative spirit is emerging among African business schools. We know that we face a choice at this critical juncture: to maintain our holding pattern or to step into the space of activism; to build people who build the businesses that matter in the real world we face. By joining us, you are joining something bigger than yourself. You are joining a movement to build Africa. DM/BM

By Jon Foster-Pedley

Jon Foster-Pedley is Dean and Director of Henley Business School Africa and Chairperson of the Association of African Business Schools. 


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