Business without Borders: Reflections on the MBA World Summit

Philippi Village, the location of the 2018 MBA World Summit, is one of Cape Town’s largest townships and an illustration of the stark inequality in South Africa (photo credit: GroundUp)
Sumit Malik, Editor-in-Chief

To many, Cape Town, the host of the 2018 MBA World Summit, evokes images of a tourist mecca, known for picturesque mountains and animated nightlife that draw ten million visitors each year. The spotlight at the Summit, however, was on the heart of the city beneath its blissful veneer. The event, which annually sponsors 100 MBAs to foster collaboration among future business leaders on global economic and social challenges, was held this year in Philippi Village, one of Cape Town’s most populous townships and a jarring snapshot of South African inequality. Located just minutes away from affluent neighborhoods, tourist destinations, and an expansive golf resort, its 190,000 impoverished residents huddle in discarded shipping containers and under makeshift scrap metal roofs that go on for miles.

Following a welcome reception at its waterfront campus, the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business hosted the Summit at its satellite location, the site of an old cement factory in Philippi. The University of Cape Town’s motto “spes bona” translates to “good hope,” reflecting optimism in the potential for investment and business leadership in South Africa to yield outsized social and economic returns.

The 100 delegates to this year’s Summit, held on March 14-16, hailed from three dozen universities and were selected from a pool of about 2,000 applicants. The event, which celebrated its fifth anniversary this year, has previously been held in Hong Kong, Barcelona, Miami, and Berlin. Organizers included human capital management business Quarterly Crossing in partnership with the University of Cape Town, the City of Cape Town, South African Tourism, Southern Cross Conferences, and Bertelsmann. From Harvard, David Liang, Ty van der Linden, and I had the opportunity to attend as delegates, respectively from the HBS classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Conference programming was comprised of speeches and panels by leaders in the business community, presentations by select delegates, and engagement with South African entrepreneurs. Addresses by South Africa Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona and 2017 EY Entrepreneurial Winning Woman Dinao Lerutla pushed back on the preconception that challenges in global development are intractable or too big to solve. Ntshona and Lerutla, both of whom have extensive experience in both the private sector and economic development, reinforced the Summit’s emphasis on the complementarity of business acumen and social impact.

TED-style presentations by conference attendees, while varied in scope and nature, were connected by a shared desire to inform and inspire. Kasper Hellberg (London Business School ’19) drew from his own experiences in sharing how personal relationships are formed and reinforced; Hejar Oncel (Haas ’18) outlined sustainable water usage initiatives with applications to Cape Town’s water shortage crisis; Sakshi Gandhi (India Institute of Management Ahmedabad ’18) provided insight into bridging the cultural gap in business across borders; I presented on innovations in financial technology relevant to international development, financial inclusion, and global business. Other MBAs from across the globe shared learnings on topics ranging from democratization of wealth to applications of a managerial toolkit in humanitarianism.

The 2018 MBA World Summit brought together 100 MBAs from three dozen universities around the world (photo credit: MBA World Summit)

Perhaps most eye-opening was the final section of the conference, when 20 entrepreneurs from some of Cape Town’s poorest townships joined the delegates for a day of networking and collaboration. As former delegate and conference co-organizer Raymond Ledwaba (UCT ’14) articulated, economic progress in impoverished regions is limited not by capability, but rather by opportunity. Cross-cultural exchange provides an opportunity to internalize the constraints in such an environment, eliminate broad, preconceived generalizations about business in the developing world, and understand how to best bridge the divide between what Ledwaba calls “parallel worlds.”

I spoke at length with Anathi Mbambisa, a 32-year-old entrepreneur who runs an internet café out of a shipping container in one of the townships. His top-of-mind business considerations are heavily context-dependent: availability of wireless internet at schools but not in the townships where students reside, crime and safety concerns that discourage significant investment into valuable hardware and infrastructure, and scarcity of capital relative to the breadth of entrepreneurs hungry to build better lives for themselves and their families. Despite having started his business eight years ago, Mbambisa came away from the day’s events with novel, actionable ideas for growth, attributing his newfound inspiration to having a sounding board for his ideas and an outside perspective. Other local entrepreneurs echoed Mbambisa’s sentiments on the value of diverse, global relationships to which they otherwise have little access.

Departing the MBA World Summit was difficult. It was immensely gratifying to have met such an accomplished and compassionate group of individuals, particularly in an environment conducive to building close relationships, and I am proud of what we accomplished in Philippi Village in just a few short days. At the same time, I saw firsthand both the damage caused by misconceptions concerning international development and the magnitude of the work still to be done. The scrappy, tenacious township entrepreneurs, who have built their businesses in the face of severe socioeconomic headwinds, are just as impressive and inspirational as any of the Summit delegates. All they need—which business students can so easily take for granted—is a fair chance.

Sumit Malik (MBA ’19) is an investor, writer, and entrepreneur. Professionally, his background is in venture capital and private equity at Warburg Pincus, strategy as a board member of Santander Asset Management Chile, and investment banking at Goldman Sachs. Personally, he writes for academic and popular publications and performs music and poi (light- or fire-spinning). He previously received an A.B., summa cum laude, from Harvard College and an S.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Follow him on Twitter @sumitxmalik.