In January of 2023, I spent two weeks on NYU Stern’s “Doing Business in” (or DBi) South Africa. DBi immersion courses are an opportunity for Stern MBAs to take classes, visit companies, and explore cultures in different cities across the globe.
Our class was fortunate enough to choose from multiple DBi locations, including New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, Israel, and Mexico City – all of which were enjoyed by my peers and friends.
The 40 of us on DBi South Africa chose it for different reasons. Some wanted to explore a very unique city, while others were interested in the Social Impact & Sustainability focus of the DBi. Still, we all had one thing in common: we all had South Africa down as our first pick for the class lottery.
I believe this enthusiasm was a huge reason behind the overwhelmingly positive attitude among the students on this trip. Every class, company visit, and social excursion had an air of excitement. Whenever a speaker opened for comments, I was so impressed to hear the intelligent, thought-out questions that each of my peers would ask.
CAPE TOWN: A CITY OF EXTREMES
On the first day of our DBi, we were introduced to our organizing professor at the University of Cape Town, who walked us through a brief overview of the history of South Africa.
He closed his introduction by stating that if there was one thing to take away from his presentation, it was that Cape Town is a city of extremes. Cape Town doesn’t just have poverty, it has extreme poverty. It doesn’t just have wealth, it has extreme wealth. South Africa is actually the country with the most wealth inequality in the world.
This contrast could be seen up-close on two of our company visits. On back-to-back days of our week, we visited the V&A Waterfront, a highly profitable shopping complex, followed by a trip to Langa, one of the townships in Cape Town.
DOING BUSINESS IN POST-APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA
Through these two visits, we saw firsthand the role that both corporations and communities can have in social impact. At the V&A Waterfront, we heard a presentation explaining the many initiatives the V&A has established to support entrepreneurs in the community. This included an incubator with a shared kitchen for local food businesses; a large market called the Water Shed that housed small South African-led businesses; and a program in which street performers were given guidance on how to grow their business as entertainers.
One of my favorite initiatives was the yearly Christmas decorations. While they had historically been imported, the V&A’s head of marketing had proposed a new change. Considering all the talented local artists in Cape Town, why not see what they could create? This led to the vibrant display we saw around the waterfront, with the theme of “Joy from Africa to the World”. To highlight the sustainability of the project, many of the decorations were made from recycled materials.
The V&A Waterfront Day was followed by a full-day tour led by Reciprocity, an Africa-based consultancy that specializes in low-income markets, inclusive business, and social enterprise. We separated into small groups and were led by guides through the township of Langa. My tour guide brought us to visit five different residents of the township, including a former IT professional-turned-traditional-healer, a man who had started a small ice cream business that he developed into an internet café, and a man who immigrated from Malawi to start a fruit and vegetable stand.
While I witnessed the immense challenges the township’s inhabitants faced, I would be remiss if I didn’t also share the admirable resilience of every Capetonian we met. In a country with a reported 33% unemployment rate (although the real rate is believed to be much higher), we also witnessed a multitude of people, from all different walks of life, attempting to create their own opportunities.
As an MBA student, these experiences served as a valuable lesson in how deeply societal context can impact the way business is conducted in a country. These initiatives also showed us how the relationship between businesses and communities can be symbiotic when the needs of both are taken into account.
THE PEOPLE: UCT, STERNIES, AND CAPETONIANS
Overall, none of this life-changing experience would have been possible without the people we shared it with. This included our incredible organizers from both NYU Stern and University of Cape Town. Thanks to their planning, we learned more beyond just doing business in South Africa. We also received a series of lectures on the economic and political landscape of Africa as a continent, the complex issues behind food insecurity in South Africa, and how tourism can become more sustainable to both the environment and the community.
Of course, there was also lots of fun to be had! One of the highlights of the trip was the afternoon and evening we spent at Groot Constantia Winery, the oldest winery in the Southern Hemisphere. The day started with a wine and chocolate tasting. We were then told to meet at 3 pm for a mysteriously vague “entertainment”. This turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of the trip – a surprise drum lesson from a local drum trio. I can’t imagine that there will be many experiences in my life more memorable than sitting on that grass hill, learning and repeating African drum beats with my fellow Sternies.
However, I was probably most impressed with my peers on our last day of programming, when everyone presented small group projects tackling different issues in Cape Town or South Africa. We put these together using the very limited free time we had over 10 days, with most of us knowing very little about our topic before Day 1.
You would never have known that there was a time crunch. On our final day, I was captivated by my peers proposing plans for a Cape Town-based small business incubator, a sustainable tourism school, and ways to help off-set carbon emission produced by the long-haul flight to Cape Town.
My study group was tasked with finding potential government interventions that could contribute to reducing food insecurity. What we presented was a multi-faceted plan that involved redistributing land to provincial governments, subsidizing nutrient-dense crops in appropriate areas, and partnering with non-profit organizations to create economic opportunities for local communities.
These final presentations were an unforgettable opportunity to see how everything we have learned about business can be applied to solving problems for communities worldwide. While the challenges that face Cape Town are unique, the method of problem-solving that we have been able to learn and practice in business school is applicable anywhere.
A RETURN TO THE US
The experience of DBi Cape Town was one I will never forget. It changed my perspective on so many things: the relationship between business and society, the impact of political policy on communities, and the importance of historical context.
But perhaps the most important revelation was finding new ways that we, as MBA students and future business professionals, can impact the world in a positive way. The knowledge that we have been fortunate enough to gain in our time as MBAs is valuable, and the DBi provided us an opportunity to use that knowledge to help others. That was a wonderful opportunity, and something that I hope to pursue more of in my professional career.
Penny is a current second-year student in NYU Stern’s Full-Time MBA program. After graduating with a BFA in Acting from NYU Tisch in 2015, Penny spent the next five years exploring a number of adventurous hospitality roles. In the summer of 2020, she started looking into MBA programs and discovered it was difficult to find information specifically geared towards non-traditional candidates. She hopes to pay forward everything she has learned about applying to MBA programs, the student experience at Stern, and entering the business world through a non-traditional lens.
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