What impact did HBS have on your life and the life of others?
My mother and grandmother spent their lives impacting the lives of others through education. My mother was a school superintendent who did amazing things for a poor school district in California, such as signing it up to become an inaugural Teach for America school, creating a debate club that won at the state level, and sending the first student from that high school to Harvard College. She even addressed the dearth of bilingual teachers by recruiting teachers from Spain, and built a state-of-the-art high school facility. My grandmother likewise directed three Head Start centers in Los Angeles, drafted state legislation to regulate child-care centers, and was the matriarch to countless poor families who looked to her for tender wisdom with respect to early childhood education.
My mother and grandmother steered me in the direction of business, telling me that I should figure out how to work in the private sector where I would earn more money than they did. I was always an obedient child, and followed their guidance. I graduated cum laude in economics from Harvard College, did the JD/MBA program at HLS and HBS, got a job on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs, and rose through the ranks to be named a managing director. Mom and Grandmom were happy. But my heart admired my mother and grandmother, my very own personal role models extraordinaire; and so it was that I could not help but follow in their footsteps.
I took a five-year break from Wall Street, moved to South Africa, and founded the Student Sponsorship Programme of South Africa. In many ways I was in the right place at the right time. I had served on the board of a similar organization in New York, so I knew how to run an organization of this kind. In South Africa in 1999, the year we launched, the elite, all-white, private school system was struggling with how to bring democracy into their schools six years after Nelson Mandela had been elected president of this majority black country. Our concept was simple: open the doors to South Africa’s best private schools by recruiting high-achieving black students, secure funding for their tuition, and match them with a mentor who could help guide their educational career. We would become the hub to connect schools, students, financial sponsors, and mentors.
While the idea for creating the organization was still in the conceptual stage, the HBS Global Alumni Conference was being planned to take place in South Africa in 1999. The organizers agreed to give us a prominent booth in the exhibition hall at the conference venue, which meant executing on a concept that had been but an idea up until that point. We quickly made a brochure, printed business cards, created a donation form, and decorated an exhibition booth.
The rest is history. HBS Dean Kim Clark, several faculty members, and countless alumni made generous donations to get the organization off the ground. Since then, SSP has become synonymous with opportunity in South Africa, providing scholarships for over 1,000 black South African high school students to attend over 25 of South Africa’s best private schools. Approximately 95 percent of students who start 8th grade with us complete the program and graduate from our high schools. Of those who graduate, approximately 97 percent go on to university.
The impact on South African society goes well beyond these students. Their siblings have been inspired to improve their educational opportunities, and many follow their path to better private schools. Their families have engaged with the school communities, and become involved in institutions that they never imagined stepping inside of during the apartheid years. White faculty, students, and families exposed to highly competitive academic achievers and leaders in student government and extracurricular activities now have a new understanding of black South Africans. The mentors of our students, often young professionals in the private sector, have learned how “the other half” lives in their own country, sometimes traveling to visit with their students’ family just 30 minutes away, but across a divide they had never ventured to cross in the old South Africa.
This all came about because of the management training, network, community spirit, and generosity of the HBS community.
My mother and (now late) grandmother were proud of my success on Wall Street, but I could always see the twinkle in their eyes and the special lilt in their voices when they talked about my work in education in South Africa. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.