A Week in South Africa Proves Life-Altering for EMBA Students
When Executive MBA (EMBA) students Julia Winer and Srinivas Loke travelled to Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa, this summer, as part of their curriculum, they expected to learn about the country’s history, culture and business challenges.
What surprised them both was how profound the experience was, and the way it changed their perspectives on life and business.
“Everywhere we went, we were able to feel Nelson Mandela’s presence. It is as if he left a piece of himself in every place and in every person,” Loke said. “He lived a simple life and was dedicated to his country. The freedom he fought for—it’s in the air there.”
Loke, a director of IT Architecture for UnitedHealth Group, has vowed to find out what his organization’s corporate social responsibility plan is regarding South Africa.
“Our mission is to help people live healthier lives and to help make the health system work better for everyone,” he said. “I want to know how we’re making a difference in South Africa, where they have so many health-care issues.”
The students in the EMBA program have learned how important it is to understand a country’s history, culture and challenges as part of the business climate, said Professor and Marketing Department Head Robin Coulter, who organized the trip. Also accompanying the students were Colleen McGuire, director of UConn’s Executive MBA and part-time MBA programs, and David Souder, management professor and academic director of the EMBA program.
“Our goal is to engage our executive MBA students to become better versed in international business challenges in emerging markets,” Coulter said. “For many of our students, this trip changes the way they look at business and how business operates. Our goal is to broaden their understanding of global business practices.”
The trip included visits with multi-national firms, local business and social enterprises, and cultural sites.
In Johannesburg, the students met with management at Johnson & Johnson, the co-founders of a black-owned, South African private equity firm and the founder of the Lonely Road Foundation, which improves the lives of orphaned and vulnerable children.
Another noteworthy stop for the students occurred in Kliptown, a township of 40,000 that has no schools, health clinics, or electricity, and lacks proper sanitation. There, they met Thulani Madondo, who shared efforts about offering proper educational opportunities through the Kliptown Youth Program, and were entertained by the talented dancing of local children.
Winer, who works in education, was impressed by a youth program, supported by CNN, that uses solar power to run computers.
“The man who runs the program wants the young people to be architects of their own way out, to develop the strategies to get out of poverty. He explained that the people of South Africa need to promote their strengths so the world doesn’t think they have nothing to offer, or see them only as needing help,” she said. “We’re so blessed in America with what we have. It’s so easy to forget that as we go about our lives every day.”
In Cape Town, students toured a local company that manufactures stainless containers and then followed with a visit to a local winery that was a client. They participated in a panel discussion with the South African Minister of Economic Development (Cape Town Region) and local businesspeople about the challenges and direction of the country, and toured the manufacturing facility at SABMiller.
“What our students observe is that the business sector in South Africa is forced to fill a void that the government hasn’t,” Coulter said. For instance, electrical “brown outs” are commonplace, something that’s potentially devastating for a business. The winery that the students visited uses solar power, but most other businesses are forced to use generators.
“While parts of South Africa, on the surface, look like a developed Western market, it has only been a democracy for some 20 years,” Coulter noted. “Many political, economic and social challenges remain from Apartheid.” According to statistics, more than half of the population, some 27 million people, live at the upper boundary of the poverty line.
“Many students left the country asking if there is anything they can do to develop relationships in South Africa,” Coulter said. “The big question is: how do you manage to get a country out of this kind of poverty?”
Winer, who is the assistant director of communications and coordinator of legislative affairs for the Capitol Regional Educational Council (CREC), a non-profit agency that runs magnet schools and conducts educator training, plans to spread the word about the educational deficit in South Africa, in hopes that American educators will help answer the need.
“The country is ready to grow economically but has a tremendous skill gap because there is no solid educational system in place. There are long waiting lists for private schools,” she said.
“It is a very racialized environment in South Africa, and in Hartford we have some of the same issues. I kept thinking what a great opportunity it would be for our agency to help. A strong educational system could bring the end to the horrible poverty we saw, and build the South African economy,” she said.
To round out the trip, the students also took a journey into the Cullinan Diamond Mine, a safari in open-air vehicles at the Pilanesberg Game Reserve and visited the Apartheid and District Six museums. The tour of the Robben Island, given by a former prisoner, included the jail cell of Mandela. Students were exposed to the art and dance of the country, including face painting, a handwashing ceremony, traditional music and an interactive drumming session. They toured Cape Town and took a cable car to the top of Table Mountain.
Each Executive MBA cohort takes a trip, mid-way through the 20-month program, and usually to an emerging market, said Michael Bozzi, assistant director. “We see this as an excellent opportunity for our student to travel as a cohort and build off their first-year courses and integrate these experiences into their second year in the program,” he said.
“This has been one of the most amazing experiences of the EMBA program,” said Winer, who is a member of the EMBA Class of 2016. “It helped us apply all the concepts that we’re learning about. I’ve built bonds with the people in my cohort, not only professionally but strong relationships that will last a lifetime. It was a great experience, perfect in every way.”