The trick to any good advertising, say the experts, is to make someone look twice. The latest advertising campaign at Henley Business School Africa, I think, does just that. It’s a very simple slogan, only four words: Themba has The MBA.
When you look a second time you see the first and the third and fourth words together spell the same word. There’s an incredible beauty in the inherent simplicity. So what? You might ask as you drive past the roadside posters.
Quite a bit in fact. In our case, there was more than a touch of serendipity too because we didn’t just have a great actual person called Themba who has a Henley MBA – our Themba went and got himself crowned entrepreneur of the year at the 2018 All Africa Business Leadership Awards recently.
When you look at his back story, the campaign and his role in it almost looks predestined, but nothing could be further from the truth and that’s what makes this campaign so special and so authentic.
Themba Baloyi, or Thembalihle as he was christened, had a typical apartheid upbringing, his gran stood in for his mom looking after him in a little village between Newcastle and Dundee until he was old enough to go to high school in Nelspruit. When he finished school, he was accepted to study actuarial science at UCT but his family could only afford the registration fee. Instead he studied for a cost and management accounting diploma at Natal Technikon – because his mother refused to let him go the way of so many promising children she had seen – their lives stymied and their dreams crushed by a lack of finance.
Perhaps her greatest gift to him though, was instilling in him the basic ethos of finishing what you start and then building upon it.
I met Themba when I was still at UCT’s graduate school of business. He was there on a leadership course and I knew immediately he was destined for greater things. There were a lot of people in the class, but he stood out. He had an energy, a natural curiosity and a willingness not to take things at face value but to question. He wasn’t scared to engage. I nominated him for the executive MBA programme, but he was too young at the time, I was able to steer him to Henley instead with its active learning which he loved.
Afterwards we kept in touch, particularly when he was struggling to get his idea, which we know today as the short-term insurance scheme: Discovery Insure, accepted by the leadership of Discovery.
Themba’s a guy who hasn’t only had the resolve to complete 14 Comrades’ ultra-marathons, he’s also done it as a type 1 diabetic, which gives you some idea of his implacable resolve to get things done. How he eventually got Adrian Gore to listen to him and give him a chance – effectively by literally running him off his feet up and down the streets of Sandton – is the stuff of legend.
It’s that resilience of a marathon runner, the clarity of thought of a WEF Young Global Leader, the purpose that his mother and his grandmother instilled in him: that’s what got Themba to where he is. Often personal growth is strangled by the curse of the ego. We can only grow as far as tame this demon, harnessing its energy rather than becoming subsumed by it. Themba’s done this, there’s no arrogance at all.
When he was conceptualising Discovery Insure, his end goal was to be able to change the way people drive in this country – not by hectoring them, but by empowering them and then monetising the idea. The carnage on our roads is an absolute disgrace, probably one of the highest in the world, yet Themba was able to look at the problem that everyone had looked at and then go right back to the basics to find a sustainable solution.
He used systems thinking to look at the root cause. He took his emotions out of the equation to keep his curiosity pure and because of that when he hit a wall like marathon runners often do, he didn’t give up, he was able to go off on a tangent and look for technologies in other domains and then transfer them to his own. In this case, this was the black box so beloved of both aviation and Formula 1, which he then found not just a domestic application for, but a way of overcoming the cost barrier to scale it up.
Throughout the entire process, there was no self-indulgence, just good old intellectual pursuit, looking for solutions to a societal problem that in all honesty most people had either given up on or had accepted as a perverse South African norm. That’s precisely what we are trying to do with the Henley MBA; to build the leaders who build the businesses who build Africa.
It’s about teaching people to believe in themselves and back their good instincts and thinking. The talent that we have in South Africa and beyond that in Africa is phenomenal – if we could just get people to actually understand this, can you imagine what we would unlock?
Themba learnt the importance of doing something for others at his grandmother’s knee. He was galvanised by the injustice he didn’t just see but lived to want to make a difference. He saw the potential of business to be the greatest enabler of all of that. We didn’t teach him that, we just gave him the tools to achieve it. Themba became a leader not for himself but a leader with purpose for the broader community around him, for the society that defines him.
He’s an ordinary guy with an extraordinary passion and commitment. That’s the message for me – I know there are many others like him, just as implacable in their purpose and as eager for that opportunity. Because Themba has The MBA, I hope this will be that opportunity to ignite so many others who never had the chance.