What impact did HBS have on your life and the life of others?
Growing up under apartheid in South Africa gave me a unique perspective. Newton’s third law states that “for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I believe opposition to apartheid instilled in many of us a desire to conquer negative stereotypes. In addition, my parents always stressed the importance of education and made me aware—and proud of—my Sotho heritage. Initially I attended a church school in my village; many of the teachers were volunteers from the United States and United Kingdom. Exposure to their values, attitudes, and aspirations opened up a world to all us that hitherto only existed on television and in books. The fact that we could find common ground and have challenging discussions with these teachers made it real that the possibilities for my life could be greater than what was suggested by apartheid South Africa.
That insight led me to research post–high school programs that allow students to enroll in university classes while exploring various career options with people who were actually working in the jobs. It was only due to the merit-based financial support that one school provided, and the fact that the family of a fellow white student volunteered to be my host family in Johannesburg, that I was able to attend. The bravery and generosity that family showed to take me into their home and treat me as if I was their child has always stayed with me. Given the time, it was a true reflection of the humanity that rests in all of us, despite a highly racialized and divided environment. After completing the one-year program I enrolled at Wits University, where I became the first black woman to graduate from the school of chemical engineering.
Now, as a black woman in the corporate world, I’m acutely aware that my success or failure can become associated with other women, black women, or black people. As such, I feel a great sense of responsibility to do my best so that doors stay open, and open even wider for others to follow. The reality is that the day-to-day hasn’t always been easy—there have been many ups and downs, naysayers, and disappointments—but 10 of these incidents can be erased by just one act of support or faith by someone else. So my advice would be to continue moving forward, even when you don’t feel confident. The result of those efforts may be what gives you the confidence to continue. In other words, it’s a process, not just one event that builds the confidence required to push boundaries. And that process requires lots of positive energy, so surround yourself with people who are achieving great things and who believe each one of us can do something to change the world for the better.
HBS was definitely that sort of environment. It’s a place where you get to interact very closely with a range of highly accomplished and ambitious individuals from around the world, all of whom aspire to make a difference. That experience stretched my understanding of what I can do with my life and skills, from aiming to be the CEO of a South African business to thinking: Why not a global business?
Over time, my career has taken me to 11 African countries; I’ve lived in Tanzania and Mozambique, so have learned Swahili and some Portuguese. Embracing a country’s people and its culture has been pivotal to the results I’ve delivered as a marketing executive at SABMiller, and I believe the same will be true in my new role as managing director with Illovo Sugar South Africa. Working and traveling in other African countries has shown me that the challenges we face are similar, and that success will come only by working together. As a result, I’ve evolved into a champion for Africa’s rise and not just South Africa’s rise. Africans are as talented as people from other continents—the only limitations are political and economic.
Whatever your own background, I think my advice to future MBAs is universal: Quickly come to terms with the fact that you have been accepted on merit, and that the majority of people around you also think they’re an admissions mistake. Get engaged with all the school has to offer. Network widely and without apology, whether with people who have a social enterprise leaning or high-octane capitalists. Remember that faculty are wonderful sounding boards and mentors. Raise your hand, be heard, and explore new ideas. Have no fear, and don’t place limits on yourself. You can indeed accomplish far more than you think—just go for it!