UCT GSB Director Mills Soko's new vision for education

My generation must transform the fortunes of the continent, says UCT's Mills Soko.

In January 2018, Associate Professor Mills Soko celebrated his first anniversary as director of the Graduate School of Business (GSB) at the University of Cape Town (UCT). With an almost three-decade association with UCT, Mills’s career brings together a lifelong commitment to education, transformation and policy strategy that he is using to help usher in a new plan and vision for the GSB, with a strong focus on regional relevance and curating local knowledge.

 “After my appointment was confirmed, I had three months to prepare for this role. I spent the time speaking with all the important constituencies of the school,” explains Mills, who studied at UCT in the 1990s, has further degrees from the universities of Stellenbosch and Warwick in England and has been working at the GSB since 2006. “Through my conversations, I wanted to ensure that everyone felt included and their input valued, but we also needed to get a sense of what the stakeholders of the school believed our priorities ought to be. My first important challenge then was to develop a new vision for a diverse, inclusive school.” 

By the time he sat down in his office in January 2017, this plan was ready to be outlined, but it is something, Mills says, that naturally evolved and firmed up over time. This process was also very important from a change management perspective. At the time, Mills says, the school had been through many changes. “Many of these changes were fantastic, but all change is hard, so it was a healing time.”

African roadshows 
The first step was to assess where they stood and to get a solid grasp of the terms involved. “We had to know where we stand, and what we mean when we say ‘we are an African business school’,” he says. “We are located in emerging markets. We understand that we have a global reputation, with triple-crown accreditations, and partnership agreements with over 45 business schools across the world, but as I said to my colleagues, we needed to give practical expression to the notion that we are an African business school.”

From there, Mills undertook a series of roadshows within the continent – to reach existing alumni, and to build or strengthen institutional partnerships. “I believe we can make a big difference as a school on the continent. We have to be responsive and relevant to the context in which we operate. That context is characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, and widespread unemployment. As a business school, we want to produce great graduates and make money, but it can't just be about that. We also want to produce graduates who are socially aware and conscious, who understand that they run businesses because of the social licence or contract with the communities in which they operate.”

Relevance and impact
Key to this was the question of what a business school can really do. Although Mills argues that GSB is a small business school “punching above its weight”, there are things that simply fall beyond their ambit, things that governments, or the NGO sector are better placed to address. “So, what is it that we as a business school do well? We contribute by addressing the dire shortage of business and managerial skills in Africa. We continue to identify and nurture youth entrepreneurs, especially those from poor communities who can contribute to job creation and economic growth.”

Mills argues that the Bertha Centre and Raymond Ackerman Academy are two centres of excellence in that regard. “Those position us very well in terms of entrepreneurial and social development. Additionally, in 2017, we established the Philippi Business Solutions Space, to interact with the local entrepreneurs of Philippi, and to work with them to achieve their goals. This demonstrates two things for us that are so important: relevance and impact.”

Another big win has been the establishment of a case study writing centre within GSB, to bring together and document the learnings of the academics and business people, curating knowledge and insight that is locally gleaned, understood, and contextualised. This is an additional way that Mills believes they are demonstrating those all important values of relevance and impact. 

Agile academia
Part of the rub for a contemporary business school, Mills admits, is balancing the competing cultures of business and academia. The latter tends to be slow and considered, while the former is chasing trendy business concepts like “fail forward” and “agility”.

“This is a business. It is structured differently from a normal academic department. And the profile of our students is completely different from main campus,” he says. “One of the things we have had to do in this regard is have direct conversations with the companies that employ our graduates, asking what they think of our graduates, what their strengths are, etcetera. If you teach in a business school, you can't just sit in your office. You need to engage with industry. But we still need to maintain our academic independence.”

In this way, the pressures of industry are key concerns for the GBS. He adds: "Agility, responsiveness and adaptability are important concepts for us.” 

Mills is excited about the opportunities that closer partnerships with industry open for GBS, but also more broadly. He argues that the business sector needs to take a stronger stance on leadership and holding the public sector responsible, so that our country and region can achieve their potential.  

Demographic dividend
“It is exciting to be a leader in Africa today because of the tremendous opportunities the continent provides. Africa has a lot of challenges, but I believe those are outweighed by the opportunities. It has been an incredible experience for me on these trips in the last year, sensing and feeling the sense of expectation and excitement, and the optimism, and entrepreneurial dynamism,” he says.

But – he continues –to benefit from opportunities like the “demographic dividend” of a youth-dominated population, or the double-digit growth of regional markets, the current crop of business executives must become leaders. 

“I believe my generation has been entrusted with an important historical responsibility to transform the fortunes of the continent. Academics and business leaders have an important role to play. Leadership is thus critical to Africa's success. Yes, there is a lot of despondency in South Africa at the moment. but we are a resilient people. We have a strong foundation to bounce back, and we have a strong and influential business sector – as well as media, judiciary, civil society. I am pleased to see the business sector asserting itself. I think it has been quiet for too long.”