Mukesh Kataria graduated from one of the part-time MBA programs at Berkeley-Haas, the Evening & Weekend MBA Program, in 2015. One of his final courses was the Seminar in International Business, which combines classroom learning with global travel to introduce students to the culture, history, and business environment of various countries. Mukesh traveled to South Africa with classmates and Lecturer Mark Rittenberg and wrote bout his experience for the Berkeley MBA blog.
The day finally arrives!
I have been thinking a lot about my 1st ever trip to African continent – the diamond mines, Nelson Mandela, Robben Island, Cape town and lot more things. Yes, I was interested in visiting the companies on the tour roster but my mind kept on wandering to experiencing the unknown – people, culture, food, and above all so many questions about experiences of apartheid. I wanted to really talk to someone who has been through it all, but was not sure if it would be politically correct or acceptable to dig those wounds.
After boarding the plane, it finally set in when the screen showed 15.5 hours to Dubai and another 10 hours to Joberg. I wanted to utilize this time in the most productive way I could – and hence I decided to spend it by watching as many movies as I could. After all, I have not really had much chance to watch movies or TV in the past 3 years!
On our first day, we were introduced to the alternate economy in South Africa (SA). Open air malls where you can pretty much buy everything – from furniture to showpieces to clothes. These were ordinary South Africans selling their creations on the roadside — no PayPal, only cash.
Our first official organized activity was a visit to Pilanesberg national park, home to virtually all of the animal species native to southern Africa, including elephant, lion, rhino, leopard, and more than 360 species of bird.
On our drive, we were greeted by a family group of elephants crossing the road and a bull following them closely. The bull elephant didn’t wait long to show us that he was in charge. The waving ears and shaking head made the bull look majestic.
In the evening we headed to dinner at the home of Anton Harber, a professor of journalism at University of Witwatersrand and one of the founding journalists of the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian), an outspoken anti-apartheid newspaper. We were also joined by Justice Malala, a political analyst in Johannesburg, publisher, and Sunday Times correspondent.
I was fortunate to share the dinner table as Anton, and we got a chance to talk about his experiences during the apartheid era as well as his thoughts on how SA is shaping up to face the new world. What touched me most was his modesty; here was a person who opposed one of the most oppressive governments and yet was nonchalant about his contributions. He shared several anecdotes and stories about his first-hand experiences with Nelson Mandela.
Corporate Treks: Health and Transportation
On our corporate treks we met with Richard Vallihu, CEO of Transnet Rail Engineering, who explained how railways are the arteries of SA and how Transnet Phelophepa Health Train brings health and hope to thousands of rural South Africans. It was surreal to meet someone who witnessed first-hand the end of the previous chapter in SA’s history and now is participating in writing the next.
We then visited Transnet engineering plants where new engines are built following six-sigma practices and engines past their prime are retrofitted.
Our next stop was Sandton, in downtown Joberg at Discovery Health, where CFO Brett Tromp took us through a business model that actually pays people to stay healthy via collecting and analyzing data to drive trends as well as individual rewards. We were taken aback by that level of big data analytics DH had in its DNA.
Building Confidence in Kids
Later that evening, we headed to a rooftop bar to celebrate a classmate’s birthday. The entire class turned up for a memorable night of amazing company, drinks, and, above all, a sharing of personal secrets in a moment that will forever stay locked in my memory. At around 1:30AM it felt like the right time to head back to the hotel and retire.
We headed to ‘African School for excellence’ (ASE) in Tskane. This school was started by several very successful professionals who found their calling in fixing the school system in South Africa rather than making millions in consulting.
We got an opportunity to interact with students, who sang for us in their music class and shared their aspirations and dreams. It felt amazing to see kids speaking confidently about their plans to become doctors, engineers, pilots, music producers, or in many cases all of these options.
We talked to them, sang with them, danced with them, jumped with them and shared moments, that make you think about the purpose of your own life. I came out deeply touched and with a determination to do what I can to help them.
Growing a Chain of Chicken Restaurants
After Tskane’s visit, our next stop was Nandos, A peri-peri chicken restaurant operating in 32 countries. Nandos restaurants use South African artists’ art to decorate the facility and has a formal program to discover and encourage artists by buying and selling their paintings. Co-founder Robbie Brozin gave us a personal tour and shared his additional passion for eradicating Malaria.
At Nandos, their vision always has been “to have fun” and to make money, while changing the way the world thinks about chicken, putting fun before money, something that doesn’t get said too often in corporate America.
Empowering Youth and Giving Voice to the Community
At Harambee, a youth employment accelerator, we learned about the 8-week training program that prepares unemployed youth for and places them in entry- level positions. Harambee has found that students who hold a job through their first year in the workforce have an 85% chance of lifelong employment.
We also met several graduates as well as current trainees, including Sthy, who inspired me with his persistence and focus on what is ahead.
At Power FM, a talk radio station focused current events affecting South Africa’s black communities, we toured the studio and even got a chance to play radio host ourselves. It was a unique experience.
Meeting One of Mandela’s Wardens
In Cape Town, we had breakfast with Christo Brand, one of Mandela’s wardens while he was imprisoned at Robben island. He shared his story, his transformation from hating Mandela to forming the special bond. Our instructor, Mark Rittenberg, asked a very deep question “When did your relationship with Mandela change from being a prison guard to a friend” and Christo answered very eloquently.
Next we headed to Robben island where we were taken to block B, where political prisoners were kept and we saw the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his youth. We tried to visualize a day in his life in this small space with barely-human facilities. It was time to internalize the place and its impact on the world. This is where Mandela was shaped to become the statesman, the leader, the thinker, the president that he became. How did he not lose his sanity? How did he keep his hopes high?
The tour guide, himself a former prisoner at Robben island, shared a story that gave glimpses of a true leader in Mandela. When Mandela demanded a long-sleeve shirt and pants to gain protection from the elements, he was duly accorded the uniform after a bit of struggle. However, as soon as he came to know that he was the only one given such a uniform, he refused to accept it. That was Mandela, the leader – always looking out for his people.
Stimulating a Silicon Valley-Like Culture in Cape Town
We then headed to Western Cape Economic Development Partnership – a group meant to bring the entrepreneurs of SA together with those that can provide infrastructure and guidance. Their official role “We’re connectors, facilitators and translators, working to help people find a common language and a shared set of priorities specific to projects that can make a positive impact in people’s lives” explains it all.
We covered various topics ranging from valuations of SA firms to differences of Cape town from Silicon Valley to opportunities in Cape Town area that will stimulate a Silicon Valley like culture and opportunities.
Friends for Life and a Tearful Farewell
At our final official dinner, my fellow EWMBA students and I raised our glasses in thanks and enjoyed the great company.
The evening ended with everyone coming to the realization that we would probably not be together as a group like that in SA again. Several eyes teared up and several voices became hoarse. I was overwhelmed by the moment. I had made friends-for-life during the trip, getting to know several of my classmates for the first time and finding how nice, generous, intelligent, and smart they are.
We were also touched by the humility and generosity of South Africa’s people. We boarded the plane with a promise to come again… to the beloved country!!!
Students in the Berkeley Evening & Weekend MBA Program have access to two global learning opportunities: The Seminiar in International Business and the International Business Development Program. We invite you to learn more about IBD as well.