Eric Hirst is associate dean for graduate programs and John Arch White Professor of Business in the McCombs School of Business. In this essay, Professor Hirst relates an experience from travels in South Africa that showed him the importance of viewing business through the lens of the humanities.
The mission of the Texas MBA program is to develop influential business leaders, and one of the attributes of such leaders is that they hold a worldview of business and society. It’s difficult to imagine a business today that is not affected by global events and markets. Whether it’s in reaching out to new customers, competing head to head with international firms for global talent, working with cross-cultural teams or sourcing materials and production, business today is truly global.
Each year, we bring together talented classes of graduate students from across Texas, the U.S. and around the world. Indeed, each year between a quarter and a third of the entering Texas MBAs are international students. Many of our U.S. students have significant global experiences under their belts already. Our courses are infused with international themes and the diversity of the student body ensures that class discussion brings international and cross-cultural perspectives to bear.
But there is nothing quite like experiencing another country and culture first hand. For close to a decade now, the McCombs School of Business has offered a series of courses called McCombs Global Connections.
The courses begin with a series of classes covering the history, geography, religion, culture and economics of a particular country or region. Guest speakers are brought in from around the university and beyond to enrich the discussion. Students often work with companies and organizations in the region under study and provide consulting services to them. The classes culminate in one- to two-week in-country visits to companies (for profit and not for profit), government agencies and cultural sites.
Participants in the courses call them life changing. I’ve been fortunate to bring students to Hungary, the Czech Republic, China, Vietnam, Turkey and beyond.
Each visit leads me to question my own values, my assumptions about why things are as they are, and provides me with a new lens through which to see the world. There is nothing quite like walking through a pediatric AIDS clinic in Botswana where the ravages of HIV/AIDS has cut life expectancy in half to make one take stock in one’s own life.
It was on one of the Global Connections trips to South Africa that I met a fellow who had a remarkable impact on me and the students who got to know him.
Thando grew up in apartheid era South Africa, a black man living in the squalid townships of Cape Town. Though his circumstances have changed for the better, he lives there to this day. As our tour guide, he brought us up to speed on the highlights of Cape Town, the Cape of Good Hope, the wine lands, the Apartheid museum and Table Mountain. He mixed in historical facts and figures and helped put pre- and post-apartheid South Africa into context.
It was on a bus ride back from the Cape of Good Hope that he mentioned, almost in passing, “Oh, and to the right, there’s a prison,” followed by, “I was kept there.” Thando stands about 5’5” and weighs no more than 130 pounds. He sports dreadlocks and wears eyeglasses. He appears more like a philosopher than the “terrorist” for which he had been jailed. Of course, during apartheid-era South Africa, a black man who stood up for his rights could be branded anything the white-minority government wished.
As our trip progressed and on return trips with new students, I made it a point to learn more from Thando. Though he never had the chance to attend a university, he speaks five languages. He’s lived and learned his country’s history and when he guides you through Robben Island, a desolate island where political prisoners including Nelson Mandela were held, he brings a perspective you can’t find in a book. His people were persecuted. He was beaten and jailed for demanding basic human rights. Indeed, on a tour of central Cape Town he turned to me and said, almost matter of factly, “See these scars on my head? This is the square where I was beaten by the police while protesting. I needed dozens of stitches to close the wound. To get them, my friends took me over a hundred kilometers from here to a hospital. As a black man, I couldn’t get patched up here and besides, as protesters, we’d been sprayed with iodine to identify us.”
Thando has every reason to be a very bitter man. But he’s not. He’s been led by luminaries like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. He has accepted the past and lives the present having been through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings. He is devoted to making his township community a better place and holds no grudges against blacks, whites or “coloureds” [in southern Africa, people of mixed racial ancestry]. He is a gentle man who understands there is nothing to be gained from dwelling on what can’t be changed. He’s not a politician nor is he a business tycoon. He will leave the world a better place than he found it. And the people he’s touched, locally in his Township, in Cape Town and throughout South Africa, and through his guiding of tourists and students, will all be changed if they reflect on his past and how he’s played the cards he was dealt.
When we planned our visits to the historical, cultural and business sights of South Africa, we could not have planned to meet such a man. But those of us who met and got to know him were changed for the better.