As an Exec MBA, it’s quite a decision to go on the international study tour. Between expense, college workload, work commitments, annual leave and further time away from general joy, it’s easy to see why my classmates found the decision less than straight forward. As one put it: “it’s a bit of a hard sell to the wife, to trek off to South Africa for a jolly while I’m not even taking her out for dinner.” Fair point. Although I bet she still hasn’t got that dinner.
I made the decision to eventually go myself for three reasons: i) you can always earn more money, but you might not always find great experience; ii) South Africa posed an incredibly unique learning environment (fairly different to Room N204, at least) and iii) it hadn’t been sunny in Ireland for 471 days. I did hesitate when only 5 of my own classmates were going – everyone else was from the full-time MBA stream and while I had caught a name or two in the handful of classes we shared this term, I really didn’t know anyone else. So to say I was nervous was an understatement, though presumably you’re not supposed to admit that, as an MBA student (who doesn’t love networking? It’s the BEST.). But it felt like an escalated version of that awful feeling you get when you first walk into a networking event – see absolutely nobody you know – and so look desperately for the biscuits.
Regardless, it was easy to get excited about what was ahead. The educational theme of the South African trip was loosely mirrored to the Business & Society module – which I now realise is the same module that inspired a previous blog post of mine. It’s definitely a topic of personal interest for me; the delicate space between the responsibilities of business and the complexities of societal need. Post-apartheid South Africa provides a very unique socio-economic environment in which to explore the subject – but while I was expecting some interesting insights and the occasional key learning, the spectacular programme we received far exceeded my expectations. Expertly designed to allow the gradual build of a narrative of the country over the course of the week, the quality of the content was surpassed only by the passion and open sincerity of the speakers. While I can’t possibly give a complete overview in a single blog post (“over-enthusiastic MBA student breaks internet”), I would like to offer a brief window into just two organisations.
In Johannesburg, we visited Raizcorp, a phenomenally successful entrepreneurial incubator, spearheaded by Founder & CEO Allon Raiz. There is nothing like listening to a speaker who is so wholly assured that they are doing some simple, unadorned good in the world. Wincing at a roomful of MBAs’ subtle (and not so subtle) demands for the “real success” stories, he stressed to us that there is success beyond the bottom line in the context of the entrepreneur. His account of the multi-million success story was equal in enthusiasm and vigour to his telling of the local plumbing business which now thrives in the township of the owner, providing the luxury of financial independence and educational security for her family. Furthermore, Raiz’s basic framework for entrepreneurship completely contradicts the principles of what we have learnt so far in our study of entrepreneurial theory. His outward distain for anything resembling an ROI calculation is the kind of thing that goes through my mind on a daily basis in class, while I wonder if I should really be taking medieval lit or jam-making. Author of “Lose the Business Plan” he tells us that his company invests in people, not business models – for the simple logic that business models are so liable to change and reconfiguration in their initial stages that they must be immediately rendered obsolete. But the PERSON? It is their very susceptibility to flux and change that will ultimately create value – shaping the business, and indeed themselves as leader, for years to come. So why place your faith and investment in anything else?
As we moved on to Cape Town, it was hard to imagine the trip continuing at the high standard it had been. However visiting some of the not-for-profits in the region was so inspiring. One in particular, Velokhaya, has lingered for me. Working with the young boys of the township of Khayelitsha and beyond, the organisation aims to keep children in education for as long as possible through the simple discipline of owning a bike and participating in cycling tournaments. We even had the opportunity of a quick demonstration from some of the young talent enrolled today – their pride in performing for their visitors was just a showstopper. Throughout our trip, the dismal truth of the South African educational system was a prominent feature in how the racial imbalance of opportunity in the country is maintained; the continuing commitment of organisations to correct this inequity, in both great and small ways, is profound.
Coming to the end of a two-year stint on the MBA, I have to admit that I had become very ready for the close of the programme. But following the South Africa trip, I remembered what makes this experience truly special – throwing yourself into something new, uncharted and literally and figuratively outside of your world. The intellectual exhilaration of that is fairly unparalleled in day-to-day living and I know I have witnessed things on this trip that will stay with me for the rest of my life. And to be fortunate enough to share those experiences alongside an absolutely stellar bunch of people is all the more exceptional – as it turns out, I didn’t even need the biscuits.
Ruth Cranks ~ Year 2, Executive MBA