24 Jul 2020
An Opportunity for Global Engagement
Africa Researchers and Business Leaders Share Thought Leadership in HBS Africa Research Center’s Webinar Series
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A screeshot from the first session of the Africa Webinar Series.

by Shona Simkin

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Harvard Business School (HBS) leadership urged faculty seeking to contribute to not overthink their engagement—to do what they could for whom they could. That hit home with HBS faculty member Euvin Naidoo. Born and raised in South Africa, Naidoo is part of a very small cohort of African-born faculty at HBS with a focus on business and work experience across both the US and Africa. Drawing on these origins and diversity, what could he and his fellow faculty members do to address the particular challenges the pandemic poses to Africa? Aligning the call to do what he could with his professional focus on agile business practices and personal mission of connecting the US with Africa, Naidoo set out to bring the best of HBS and Africa together to share expertise and thought leadership via a webinar series.

The goals were several-fold. First, to connect with alumni and leaders across Africa in the spirit of community and support over a time when many leaders and communities were retreating. Second, to connect faculty to each other to share their latest research and work and to stimulate new cases and research. Third, to engage, explore, and learn across the continent about dealing with volatility and change—many veteran African business leaders had grown resilient businesses that the community and broader world could learn and draw from.

Naidoo worked together with the HBS Africa Research Center (ARC) in Johannesburg, South Africa, and its faculty lead, Professor John Macomber, to devise a webinar format that stitched together four themes in a progressive journey: macroeconomics, leadership models, strategy formulation, and execution.

Macomber and Naidoo’s fellow Africa-focused faculty members, Hakeem Belo-Osagie and Anywhere (Siko) Sikochi, signed on to join them as faculty anchors, and partnered with other HBS faculty with subject matter expertise relevant to the challenges business leaders in Africa face as a result of the pandemic. The ARC and anchor faculty reached out to alumni and African business leaders to comprise four leaders for each session: two faculty anchors and two business leaders working on the ground in Africa, bringing together research and practice.

“We married the remarkable skills of our faculty members to provide relevant expertise, we hopefully inspired an interest in Africa to those faculty without any historic ties to business or research on the continent, and we also reinforced to the African business community that HBS is deeply committed to Africa-based research, new and potential cases, and work,” explained Naidoo.

The ARC team—Executive Director Pippa Armerding; Senior Researcher Dilyana Botha, Administrative, Research and Program Assistant Tafadzwa Choruma; and Senior Researcher Wale Lawal—worked closely with the HBS faculty team to re-create a sense of the HBS classroom in each session, and to ensure that the speaker panel reflected a diverse representation of men and women with expertise throughout Africa, as well as across multiple business sectors. With the guidance of its faculty chair, the ARC became the execution engine of the webinar series, coordinating its backbone aspects, including marketing, communication logistics, and relevant technical and analytical aspects. The team also drew on HBS Alumni Club and Harvard Business School Publishing networks to extend the reach of each session.

The webinar series concept was new to everyone involved in its conceptualization and organization, but owing to enthusiasm, a desire to learn, a credo of keeping it simple, and not being afraid to make mistakes and learn iteratively, within a few short weeks all four sessions were ready to launch. The webinar series, COVID-19: Reflections, Challenges and Next Steps, kicked off on June 4 as follows:

Macroeconomic Scenarios, on June 4, featured Professors Macomber and Mattias Fibiger, with guest speakers Florence Boupda (MBA 2005, manager, new business, financial institutions group, West and Central Africa, International Finance Corporation) and Fola Laoye (MBA 1999, founder/CEO Health Markets Africa), moderated by Euvin Naidoo.

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Leadership in Uncertainty, on June 11, featured Professors Belo-Osagie and Shikhar Gosh , with guest speakers Rachel Nyaradzo Adams (founder, Narachi Leadership) and Amandla Ooko-Ombaka (MPA/ID, MBA 2016, associate partner, McKinsey & Company), moderated by John Macomber.

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Strategy and Capital Markets, on June 18, featured Professors Siko Sikochi and Laura Alfaro, with guest speakers Faheen Allibhoy (MBA 2003, managing director, head of the JP Morgan Development Finance Institution) and Victor Williams (MBA 1998, head, corporate and investment banking, Africa regions, Standard Bank), moderated by Euvin Naidoo.

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Agile Execution, on June 24, featured Professors Euvin Naidoo and Suraj Srinivasan, with guest speakers Mamongae Mahlare (MBA 2004, managing director of Illovo Sugar South Africa) and Arunma Oteh (MBA 1990, academic scholar, University of Oxford), moderated by John Macomber.

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True to the inspiration for the series, Macomber concluded the last session quoting HBS Dean Nitin Nohria, “Business alone won’t solve any of the big problems of the world; but the big problems of the world won’t be solved without the engagement of business.”

The four sessions cumulatively recorded more than 8,000 registrants and over 4,000 attendees who represented approximately 50 countries, the majority of which were in Africa. Among the most represented countries were Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya. Roughly half of attendees were affiliated to HBS and Harvard through a degree (MBA, Executive Education, wider Harvard University degree) or an offering (HBS Online, Harvard Business Review).

For the ARC, founded in 2017 to build a connection between the continent and HBS through alumni and faculty engagement and research, the success of the webinar opens up exciting opportunities and potential. “This showed us that there is a hunger for this knowledge from business leaders and an institution like HBS,” said Armerding. “We received hundreds of questions, comments, and feedback from attendees—we could have taken each session well beyond its hour-long limit. It raises the question of how to address this need going forward. Our new comfort with technology and working remotely opens up so many opportunities and ways for us to engage and make an impact on the continent.”

Naidoo found the experience to also be a deep affirmation of the value of sharing knowledge and a recognition of the remarkable contributions of Africa. “This is the continent of growth, of a demographic dividend, with the largest youth population—a continent of both opportunities and challenges—an incredible ecosystem to both make a contribution to and also learn from,” said Naidoo. “The current situation is global and unprecedented, but if there is a continent with resilient leaders able to create value and respond to crises with agility and speed, it's Africa. Engage, exchange, and learn from Africa.”

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