The “Discovery Trip” is a unique feature of IMD’s MBA programme. For 10 days, the students have the opportunity to explore issues faced by a developing country. The expedition has two primary goals, the first of which is to gather facts, giving, for example, an understanding of how a country’s leaders address the political, economical and sociological challenges they face. Secondly, for each student it is a trip of self discovery, which serves to bind the class together and allows the students to reflect on their daily experiences. Last year’s class went to Argentina. This year, the 90-strong cohort flew to South Africa.
Before the trip my knowledge of South Africa was extremely limited: I had only heard or read about the seemingly insurmountable problems facing the country: rampant HIV/Aids, horrific unemployment rates and shocking rates of serious crime. The only positive news I had heard was the nation’s selection as host for the 2010 football World Cup.
It was only on my arrival that I realised the significance of the turnround of the past 13 years: South Africa has evolved from an apartheid regime to a true democracy.
In Johannesburg, we met Louisa Mojela, one of four founders of Wiphold, an organisation dedicated to the empowerment of women from disadvantaged communities. Within 12 years, Wiphold has grown from its original R500,000 () investment, to a multi-billion investment fund in diversified sectors of the economy.
A full day was spent in Soweto. There are some encouraging signs that investments are reaching the local community; a shopping mall is as large and as attractive as those opening in mainland China. It is no wonder that some have dubbed South Africa “the Hong Kong of Africa”. The stock market has performed extremely well over the past four years, and foreign direct investment is increasing sharply.
The trip to South Africa was also about self-discovery. The class is reflecting on the importance of social responsibility as business leaders: how do we address diversity? What are the limits of our social involvement? What can be done today? Because the class comprises 41 nationalities and cultures, it is often difficult to attain “unison”, but each of us feels the necessity to act.
Personally, I have learnt that a business owner can make a difference if he or she wishes to do so. Mark Solms, a neuropsychologist, returned to his native South Africa from England in 2001 to run his family farm. He soon secured a loan with a neighbour friend, and together they created a trust to buy an adjoining farm. The trust is now owned by the disadvantaged tenant-workers of all three estates – people who had worked for generations on these farms. Previously they could not have obtained access to land ownership. Now they can.
Another great insight has come from Roelf Meyer, who was chief negotiator for South Africa’s National Party in the early 1990s, the time of the post-apartheid transition. Mr Meyer insisted on the factors that resulted in the ultimate success of the negotiations: talks began as quickly as possible, and conditions were not set in advance but were allowed to evolve. At the same time, the trust and respect that had been built previously among the decision-makers proved to be crucial.
Our IMD class experienced some intense moments in South Africa, and we have become closer. We now see pieces of the IMD MBA “puzzle” coming together, and we are beginning to appreciate what we have experienced both together and as
The first five months – reputed to be the most difficult – are now over. We are looking forward to new experiences and pressures, as we begin to contemplate our individual futures with our companies and with our families..
This term the class will split, to begin a new IMD phase, an eight-week international consulting project (ICP). We will work in small teams to address a specific mission for one of 16 companies that have asked for help.
I will participate in a particularly inviting challenge: to reposition a fashion brand in a European market and to “breathe new life” into its distribution channels. The prospects are exciting: I can apply the basic frameworks learned at IMD under the supervision of IMD faculty and will have the chance to apply my “fashion” skills (from my previous experiences) to a new business environment. I will also be focusing on brand and retail management – an area that holds great appeal for my own business future.
In these next weeks, I will also continue to define the specific career opportunities on which I wish to focus. During the first five months we heard from speakers who advised us on how to approach our career search. The words of Daniel Porot, the career coach, were especially helpful – how to begin to structure our search and then how to approach contacts and acquire the information we need.
Early in the summer we had our first full week of company presentations, followed by a networking event with alumni. Thanks to information from alumni and network contacts, new opportunities now loom – ones that would never have occurred just a few months ago.
Today, I am at a crossroads and must decide which, if any, criteria should be changed for my future career: job position, industry, location or country? About which things am I certain?
A fresh insight has come to me only recently, sparked by my weeks in South Africa. I would like to embark, with my family, on a journey similar to the one begun by South Africa more than a decade ago: a transition that promises great things.