Consulting in South Africa and Transitions into MBA
In the seventh episode of “Alariss Classroom,” Patrick Ward, a former consultant at BCG’s San Francisco office, shares with us why he took the chance to work at the Johannesburg office for four years and what he found interesting about South Africa, both in terms of consulting and lifestyle.
Hi there. Thanks for listening to Alariss Classroom. Today, we invite Patrick Ward to share his journey from working at BCG San Francisco to working in South Africa. Let me read a short bio about Patrick. Patrick is a strategy and operations leader and writes about the future of work and education and remixing work. He was previously a principal at Boston Consulting Group based in San Francisco and Johannesburg. While in Johannesburg, he also worked for Viacom, where he led strategy and business development in Africa. He has an MBA from the Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Yale. Thanks for joining me today!
Thanks for having me, great to be here. Excited to share with you and your listeners.
Yeah, definitely. So since probably I read your bio, I noticed that you used to work for the Boston Consulting Group in their San Francisco office for two years before you took the role at Viacom in South Africa. Why did you do that, and why did you choose South Africa? I mean everybody when they grow up, they want to move to San Francisco for somehow, you’re already at that sweet spot. And what made you challenge yourself or thinking about jumping out of your comfort zone to move to South Africa?
So, I’d always wanted to live abroad, that was a big goal of mine. So, it was pretty clear for me, after two or three years, I wanted to spend some time abroad, and I had been looking at doing that with BCG, and this opportunity came up with Viacom, and so it was a really great opportunity from that perspective. And sort of why South Africa, part of it was a coincidence. But I think for me, emerging markets had really been quite appealing at that point. I think, you’ve seen over the last 10 years emerging markets have grown, sort of doubled over the US or other developed markets. Plus, just the majority of people in countries that would be considered emerging markets and Africa as a whole, more than a billion people there, obviously not all in South Africa, so. And I was also fortunate, I had spent a summer working in Zambia when I was in college, and so it was just sort of a confluence of these opportunities that it was a place that I could get that exposure. It was a pretty exciting time; I think that with the content, there was a lot of enthusiasm and since I only spoke English, it was also good from that perspective.
Let’s say if during the time the country wasn’t South Africa, any other country in Asia which…you didn’t speak about it, will you choose to jump to somewhere with a language barrier?
Yeah. I mean I think there’s tradeoffs, right? I think if you can learn a language, that would have certainly been part of my plan if I went somewhere where I can speak the language. I think it’s really hard to get everything you can get from a place if you don’t speak the language. But yeah, I mean I saw– Even in my experience, I think part of what the South African culture was like and partly the English language made it such that I had a lot of local friends. I had a lot of friends that were from other parts of the continent who were living in South Africa. But also, other expats more broadly. I saw in some other countries, I did a lot of traveling both then when I was in Africa and elsewhere, and there’s other cities where it’s much more distinct. Where expats tend to have their own bars and restaurants and sort of society things. And so I was really fortunate, I think, to have worked as much. It was accessible to be very integrative and I had a very integrative sort of social life and professional life with a lot of local South Africans.
Yeah. Talking about that, so as your experience living there and working in South Africa, could you share a little more about the experience part? And also, was there a culture shock initially when you moved there, you were kind of shocked about something? Or was it just something that you imagine about that culture shock, but it actually didn’t happen?
So, I wouldn’t say too much either direction. And I think part of that is it’s good not to have too strong of expectations in general for something like that. Maybe if you did a lot of research, then you start to have some expectations, but you know the whole point I think is to go experience something different, and so it’s good not to project too much about what that’s going to be like until you go and experience it. Better to go in eyes open.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, before you worked in Zambia or before you worked in South Africa, have you ever had exposure in a media shadow? It’s like when the media describe Africa country. Do you think the media also put in a filter to describe those countries compared with what you see?
Sure, yeah. I think, you know, we tend to hear and see very little about other countries, even very big, important countries, you hear a very limited amount about them. And so I think typical media in the US doesn’t say that much about India, what’s going on, even though that’s one of the biggest economies in the world. You hear a little bit more about China, but it’s only on certain topics, only certain perspectives, and sort of only if there’s not some scandal or something else to fill up the local news. So, I think mass media doesn’t cover Africa a lot, and I think for a long time before that, the only coverage had been quite negative or charity-oriented, tragic. I think leading up to going there, business press had really covered Africa as Africa rising was a cover of The Economist sometime in that period. There was really this enthusiasm for the BRIC countries and after that, it was sort of what’s next and I think there was a lot of enthusiasm for globalization and emerging markets at that point. And I saw that matched up with on the ground as well, I think that enthusiasm was there on the ground as well.
Yeah, definitely. What were some of the interesting observations you had given that you’ve been living there for four years? I bet something interesting or something scary must happen that won’t happen here. I would like to hear a story like that, one or two.
Sure. I don’t know about scary, but maybe I can share some things that I found interesting. I think first, just sort of on the business side of things or maybe starting on a personal side, I think just living anywhere, you kind of run into a bureaucracy that is different from yours, that’s not designed to accommodate for someone who isn’t from there. So, for instance, unlike in the US, in South Africa, everyone has a national ID, and there’s not the same sort of privacy considerations like you might have here. So, literally everywhere you go they use your national ID, like if you go to the gym, you need a national ID to check in, if you don’t have your card. They’ll use your passport number if you don’t have a national ID. A lot of systems just aren’t set up for different lengths and things like that because their numbers are standardized. So, you just run into this kind of thing, like trying to get a bank account but needing a lease first and needing a bank account to get a lease and getting caught in that limbo. I think that’s pretty common. I think what was really exciting about being there in general was just the average age in South Africa and the rest of the continent is quite young. So it’s a very young demographic, much younger on average than the United States. I think that just brings a whole different kind of energy to just culture but also business life and sort of enthusiasms of the country. It was also a country that obviously had had a really terrible history with apartheid and not something that is overcome very quickly. And so it was kind of interesting to see how that long journey had been playing out to sort of rebuild the country and build something new. And in some ways that burdened the country, but also in some ways that was sort of a catalyst for that rebirth of the country. There was really an ambition of a lot of young South Africans, black South Africans, who were going to make their mark whether that was entrepreneurial or creative in the arts or in business. I think that was really exciting as well.
Yeah, definitely agree with you. Especially like in my case, I grew up in China, and I moved here when I was 18 years old. So, basically, I know really little about anything about Africa or let’s be more narrowed down, South Africa. I was watching the stand-up comedian when he talked about apartheid which is more like a, it’s like a South African version of the segregation, I was so shocked about it. For my, I guess I would say stereotype, is during the time I saw South Africa, everybody should be living together, shouldn’t be–that wasn’t end until like 1980-something. So it was just like I was so shocked about like how between each race, people will have set up a rule or policy affecting each other really bad. Just looking at nowadays like in the States, we’re still having the issue between race and race equality and everything. So, you were working for the BCG Johannesburg office, how was that and was the consulting in South Africa very different from the consulting work in the States?
So I was working there, I actually was one of the first employees there. So I had been at Viacom, and I rejoined BCG when we opened the office there about six months after they opened the office, and so we were about five consulting staff and still just setting things up. A big part of what was different for me was being part of that sort of founding a new office, and as much as we had a lot to draw on in terms of processes and things from the company in general, we were really still establishing things for the local market from scratch and figuring out what worked there. So, a big part of it was just being part of that from the beginning. And also, it wasn’t like we were opening another office in another US city where it’s sort of just like another office part of this big system, it was really like the nearest office was–we were kind of like our own little thing. The other part that was really–I think what was interesting was there was really sort of diversions of economic trends, and so at that point in 2010, when I left the US, was still really on the backside of the 2008 financial crisis. You know growth was very slow, companies were still restructuring, there was a lot of thought about how to use technology to cut costs. Whereas a lot of the opportunity in the work we were doing was really about growth, about multinationals wanting to figure out how to use South Africa as a launchpad to reach these billion consumers in Africa. You know, really a lot of thinking about how to bring the best and sort of like bring the frontier of knowledge in terms of how to do things well from abroad. So for instance, there were big telco companies or banks, they were really trying to apply international best practices, tailored them to their situation. At the same time trying to take advantage of opportunities to leapfrog where appropriate, given that they– One of the interesting things, kind of going back to observations, is we think of ourselves as being very leading-edge technology, and in some ways we are, but our systems sometimes are quite old, and so we get locked-in in these things. So like the US is still sort of with the legacy of handwritten checks. Most people don’t use handwritten checks now, but it’s still not that easy to transfer money between people, you know you have Venmo and things, but even those are fairly recent. Whereas there, your bank account, like anyone can send anyone money with their bank account number from their mobile phone or whatever. I mean that’s common in most of the world. Even though the US is on the leading edge of technology in some places, we get locked in these old systems. And so people there are thinking about how do we chart our own course, but also how do we learn from the rest of the world? And we got to do kind of interesting projects around some of the things like that.
So talking about that, like when you mentioned when you moved to South Africa, you guys were trying to set up the office and trying to be the foundation for the whole office for everything. During that time, do you feel anxious or stressed out because you were pretty like the initial person to go into that place and set up everything? Do you feel like that way?
I don’t think particularly from that perspective. I mean, I think there’s always different moments that cause anxiety at work. So, certainly we were trying to develop some new clients, so there were all kinds of ups and downs of those processes where you invest a lot of time in developing relationships, you invest a lot of time in sort of tailoring materials to them, doing workshops. We were one of the big corporates there. We were sort of working on landing as a client for Wyoming. We did a really small project for them, and then we were doing a lot of free work, me and this other principal. That sort of has all its moments of some anxiety where you’re like, did that go well or not go well. In that case, fortunately, we landed them, and they became a very big client, so we did a big project for them. But I think those are kind of the same things you face in business life anywhere.
Yeah, definitely. So just based on your own experience, would you recommend people to work in South Africa? If you do recommend, then why? If you don’t, why not?
Sure. So if you have interest, I think absolutely. I think in terms of South Africa particularly, if you have any interest in going there, there’s no reason not to. I found one of the things that really stuck out to me was how welcoming people were and how easy it was to kind of– People would invite you over to what they call braai, which is basically like a barbeque, so that’s a very popular social thing on the weekends. I guess probably less so right now. Yeah so, I mean it was a fantastic place, a great place to live, great quality of life, great weather, food, good wine. They have an amazing wine industry there. And I think more broadly, I would just say the experience of living abroad is very valuable, especially in a place that’s different from where you are, right? So I think just to get a place that’s quite different, living there gives you a different experience than travel does. Part of that is work, but part of that is also just having more time to kind of like integrate yourself and explore.
Yeah, definitely. After you moved back, what’s the top three things that you’re really missing in South Africa?
So, the first would definitely be my friends. I mean being there four years, I was really able to build a great circle of friends there. And it’s just so far, I mean that was the tradeoff. Going and then coming back, it’s just you’re so far from both. I think the second thing would be–I think that sort of youthful vibrancy of the culture. Coming back to San Francisco has some of that because the startup culture has a similar eternal, sort of wanting to be eternally youthful. But more broadly, I think that that energy was really great. And the last piece, I think either the food and wine or I’d probably go with the weather. Johannesburg has excellent weather, it’s kind of on the highlands, so pretty much all year round, it has warm, sunny daytime. In the winter, the nights get cold, but other than that, it’s got great weather, not a lot of rain.
Yeah, definitely. And also, earlier when I read your bio, it mentioned that you did your MBA in 2014. I guess my first question about this MBA degree, what makes you decide after working four years you saying this is the time, I want to get my MBA? Like what was the pattern to make you decide?
So six years, because I had done two years in San Francisco. It was something I’d always thought I would do and not that that’s sort of the reason I went through with it or a good reason, but that was sort of the starting point. I left college thinking I would do graduate school of some kind, and after spending time in consulting and sort of being on a business track, that seemed pretty much like the path to go with. I think I had gone, especially coming from a consulting background, gone kind of late. People usually will go after like four years, let’s say, sometimes even three years. And for me, it was great timing. I really, I think got a lot more out of the program because I had more experience in a more diverse set of experiences, and I was able to bring those to the classroom and integrate those across the different topics. You know, the great thing about consulting too is you just get to see so much and at a pretty high level in organizations, and so there’s a lot of experience that you can really connect to all these different classes, whether that’s corporate finance or management or marketing. For me, that was great. I think the typical path people do try and go a bit earlier because people are usually trying to use it to change careers or accelerate their career, and so it has to kind of has to fit in with the timing of that, but it’s a pretty broad range. I certainly within the class, I was right around the median. So there’s people there longer or shorter.
So, I’m currently actually having my master’s degree next week. I’m having the human resources development for my master’s degree. But for somehow, for my undergraduate–I did marketing and business together, but I definitely see myself later on to pursue my MBA, maybe working for a couple of years. I do agree with the part you saying like when you go into MBA classes, it’s definitely something you want to bring your work experience first because you want to be more, I would say, active in the class, and also you want to share with all the classmates with everything that you learn from your work. But I see you mentioned you started your MBA after working for six years. What would be good timing for starting MBA? How many years after I work is the time that I should consider an MBA? Or what would be a pattern for me to start thinking about joining the MBA program?
I think it’s pretty typical that people work at least for four-ish years, so somewhere around there, I would say. I think it depends as well on the school. So, I mean US schools tend to be a bit younger, and European schools that offer MBAs tend to be I think a bit older on average. In INSEAD, as well, they have a campus, I think they’re a bit older on average. I think it would also be interesting though to see, I think the MBA is going to have more competition in the future from both more sort of specialized programs, whether those are degree programs or more springing up around certain industries. I mean I think at least in the US, that’s going to be a bit of a trend to see. MBAs have always been much bigger in the US, so they were still sort of becoming more popular in both Europe and Asia. They were still growing in popularity, so I expect the trend outside the US will continue to still grow. But it’ll just be interesting to see how that evolves. I think also what’s going to be really interesting is, especially with some of these more specialist programs, whether those are degree-oriented or not, depending on how long the coronavirus pandemic kind of disrupts travel and study abroad and things like that, you know one of the opportunities is some of these programs are now able to all of a sudden be much more international than they were intending to be. If they had an in-person experience and they’re now totally online, they’ve kind of opened up the gates to anyone from anywhere in the world joining. That’s kind of a great opportunity, I think, especially for people who are in places that don’t have the same kind of higher ed or graduate-type programs.
Yeah, definitely. I really appreciate that you’re sharing your time with me today to answer all of the amazing questions for me. Especially some of the questions, I bet, is also some of our audience is curious about, especially having an amazing background working in South Africa. I mean it’s not everybody’s experience, you’re really like a minority group who can embrace those experience. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much! It’s great to be here.
Take care, bye.