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Armed with a piano, a Gantt chart and an MBA
Dated: Thursday, February 22, 2018
By Theo Alkema, USB MBA alumnus, Western Cape

What do a piano, a Gantt chart and an MBA have in common? On the surface, nothing of course. After all, you don’t read music from a Gantt chart or receive an MBA by playing the piano. There are, however, three things they have in common; creativity, planning and hard work.  They also have the past 15 years of my life in common. After I completed my studies to become a concert pianist at the University of Cape Town, I taught music and theology, became a commercial property broker, became a director of a property company, did an MBA, took a job as an IT project manager while still performing as a pianist, served on the board of a non-profit institution and volunteered at my local church.

“I believe that South Africa is on the brink of greatness. If we play our part, we can create the future we dream about for the generations to come.”

I also married, had a son and a daughter, took part in adventure racing events and played cricket and golf. You only live once, so sleep when you’re dead, right?

Opportunity abounded during this time, the biggest of which was afforded me when I was accepted into the modular MBA programme at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) in 2011. It resulted in three years of planning, hard work and creativity! The MBA alumni know that it takes a family effort to graduate; you will not be able to do it without their support and commitment! My second child was born just after my second week on campus. Thinking back to those first six months, I cannot remember how we got through it. While studying in the evenings I kept my ears open to my two sleeping (or mostly sleeping) kids, while my wife got some sleep. It was hectic. It was also an opportunity to learn with how little sleep one can still function! I was and remain ever grateful to my wife who coped with the two kids and a husband who lived on MBA Island.

piano2.jpgIt was an incredible journey of personal, intellectual and emotional growth. Since a music degree does not include any statistics or finance subjects, I had to plan well and work hard to catch up. 

During our third year we had the opportunity to spend a week in Holland at Nyenrode Business University​. During this time, we presented some innovative ideas to the innovation department of a multinational telecommunications company after a day of exposure and work. It was received with great enthusiasm and some of the ideas were even implemented, we heard later. 

Our group represented vastly different ethnic backgrounds, men, women, all with different ways of understanding problems and finding solutions. We grabbed hold of the opportunity to harness the power of our diversity for success, and succeeded. Truly, it was a wonderful experience that fuels my hope for South Africa to this day. 

Another opportunity was presented to me when of one of the Nyenrode professors arranged a Skype call with the Director of the telecommunications company. She thought I had some creative and innovative ideas and wanted me to present them to the director, who she knew personally. I was given about an hour to prepare, after which I presented the ideas to him in a 20-minute conversation. It was a heady experience, and one that gave my confidence a major boost. A musician sharing innovative ideas with a director of one of the largest telecommunication companies in Europe! What a day that was.

Back home, I went through the recruitment process of one of the big management consulting houses. The opportunity to go through the whole intensive recruitment process and be flown up to Johannesburg for final interviews as one of two people was an immense privilege and another exponential learning experience. 

In my final year, I got the opportunity to consult for an IT development house in Cape Town as a project manager. I was immediately placed at one of the largest clothing retailers in Africa, consulting as a project manager in the HR systems space. Even with no previous IT or project management experience and a project management coach that left 2 months into the contract, I got to stay. The opportunity of an open door!

Forging lasting friendships and business relationships with fellow students is an opportunity afforded to all MBA candidates. I was surrounded by many brilliant people, most of them better qualified, more experienced and cleverer than I. I could learn from them and I continue to learn from some of them today.

piano.pngMusic honed my ability to think laterally and conceptually. The MBA both consolidated and structured my thinking processes and widened my horizons. Above all, it provided and still provides opportunities and opened doors for personal and career growth. I know it does the same for my fellow alumni, and will do the same for all prospective MBA candidates! Those of us who have the privilege of holding an MBA from USB now have the opportunity to use what we have learnt to effect change in business, the government and civil society. I believe that South Africa is on the brink of greatness. If we play our part, we can create the future we dream about for the generations to come.