A Business School Zeroes in on African Recruits

With one of the world’s fastest rates of economic growth, Africa will likely produce a big chunk of the next generation’s executives. Peter Tufano, dean of University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, wants them to carry the Saïd pedigree.

To make that happen, he aims to boost the proportion of African students in his school’s MBA program to 10 percent within the next few years.

“When you’re betting on a young person who’s getting an MBA, it’s a relevant question to ask where will the world be in 25 years,” Tufano says. “Ten percent is rough justice.”

Western countries are clamoring for opportunities to invest in the continent, and several business schools have set up campuses there. Saïd’s approach is different: The school is injecting a focus on African business into the regular MBA program.

Tufano, who became Saïd’s dean in 2011, is inching toward his 10 percent goal. Fourteen of the 243 students entering Saïd’s MBA program this year are from the continent (or just under 6 percent), up from six students in 2013. He hired Catherine Duggan, a Harvard Business School professor who is an expert on African economies, to help revise the school’s curriculum.

“African markets are being shaped as we speak,” says Duggan, who will develop case studies involving African companies and international companies working in Africa, as well as teach an elective course on doing business in Africa.

Saïd recruited in Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa last year, and it offered scholarship money to seven of the 14 African students starting the program this fall. Its new curriculum will focus on what those students can offer businesses. “The real, driving question has to be not ‘What can we teach Africa?’” Duggan says. “It’s ‘What can we learn from Africa?’ Or ‘What can we learn from business that’s being done in Africa?’”

Samkelisiwe Peter, a 25-year-old South African banker who won one of the Saïd scholarships and will start the MBA program in September, says a business degree will give him credibility that will help him start a private-equity firm based on the continent.

Some $200 billion flowed to Africa in 2014, according to (PDF) the African Development Bank. Peter says that getting a piece of that pie hinges on your credentials. “Without an MBA or an equivalent qualification, you will struggle to actually tap into that capital,” he says.

Drawing more African students into Saïd’s student body won’t necessarily be a seamless process. For one thing, African students don’t necessarily understand the vagaries of graduate standardized tests, says Tufano: “I don’t think there’s a lot of GMAT test prep” in African countries. Indeed, there are only 20 places to take the test on the continent, and just 2.5 percent of GMAT-takers came from African countries in the last five years, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT.

“We are actively working with schools and others in various countries in Africa in an attempt to strengthen that prep pipeline,” says GMAC spokesman Rich D’Amato.

To Duggan, the relative novelty of the degree on the continent is an asset. “You’re talking to the people sitting in your MBA classroom who are going to be some of the leaders who push this thing forward, the continent forward.”

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