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The Woman Who Brought Management To Slovenia

DanicaPurg1

Danica Purg remembers the angry phone calls accusing her of “importing imperialism.” Management, after all, was not an acceptable subject to teach in socialist Slovenia 30 years ago.

Purg, president and dean of the IEDC Bled School of Management, recalls how, in 1986, opening a business school in Slovenia was a tall order. Beliefs about wealth and profit were hardened by decades of socialist government. It was a tall order on another level, too. Purg herself, recruited to launch the school, knew nothing about management.

“I was a major in political science,” she says. “I was always an ambitious girl. I imagined I would be a famous journalist.”

FROM POLITICAL SCIENCE MAJOR TO MANAGEMENT DEAN

The fiery red head really had wanted to be an actress, but she didn’t get the scholarship she was looking for. In any case political science suited her. “I was a very engaged young girl who was working for the improvement of the country. I was open to new ideas. I was not a nationalist. It was difficult for me to even find a boyfriend, being like that,” she says with a laugh.

Her willingness to stand out helped her find the courage to open Slovenia’s first management school, despite strong resistance. At the time, Slovenia operated under a system of “self-management”: The country was very decentralized and companies were run by workers’ councils, not professional managers. “Management was unknown. It was not left or right, but it was unknown, and people are afraid of unknown things,” she says. “It was considered a technocratic tool to govern people.”

But by the mid-80s things were beginning to change. Slovenia’s socialist system was nearing an end. In 1991 the country would split from Yugoslavia and become an independent nation.

BUILDING A BUSINESS SCHOOL IN SOCIALIST SLOVENIA

The IEDC Bled School of Management had been founded by the Slovene Chamber of Economy as a way to bolster the Slovenian export economy. Purg was approached by the chamber to lead the school. She was a professor at the University of Maribor, Faculty of Organization of Work then. But she was uncertain. It was still the beginning of Slovenia’s transition, and she knew she would face a lot of difficulty with little help.

“I was talking with my husband, who is Dutch, and he said, ‘This is a real challenge. But you love your country. You should do something for your country and make this school,’” Purg recalls.

Right away she learned that while the chamber was on board to launch the school, it wasn’t yet ready to support it. Purg wanted to travel to other management schools in Europe to learn more about management. But when she approached the chamber, she says, she was turned down.

So she went anyway, on her own dime. She never regretted the decision. She participated in courses at Harvard Business School and IMD Lausanne. She went to management education conferences. She traveled the world, learned about management, and met her future colleagues.

PROBLEMS, SOLUTIONS, MORE PROBLEMS 

But always Purg, now 70, had two major problems to overcome. The first was that management was not acceptable in Slovenian society. The second was that she had no professors to teach it.

“I went to visit France, and I went to see Henley College. Then I went to Helsinki to a conference on management education, and when I was there, I knew what I should do. I met a Japanese professor who was the first professor I invited to the school,” she says.

Slovenia is a country of only two million inhabitants. That’s a small pool to draw academic talent from. So Purg’s goal was to make the school such a fantastic place that it would attract the best professors from around the world.

As she travelled, she says she invited the best professors she could find to come to Slovenia. It worked, and once she had professors, she was able attended all of her own school’s management courses, and learn management skills alongside her students. But it also caused a new set of problems. “First we were fighting to exist,” Purg says. “Then we had problems at the university level, because I brought in so many foreign faculty.”