25 Jan 2016
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Helping Young African Managers Find Their Way Home

Organization connects companies and management talent while opening new career paths for business students interested in Africa
by Constantine von Hoffman

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Photo by Michael Stravato

You wouldn’t know it from most American media, but many sub-Saharan African nations have booming economies. And although the press may have missed the boat on this African success story, many business schools and business leaders know that one result of the boom is a management talent gap.

Although there are no continent-wide studies of this, a report last year by Adcorp, a workforce management company, found that in South Africa there were an estimated 470,000 private-sector job openings remain unfilled because of a lack of candidates with the right skills. Of these, more than half (52 percent) were in management and another 37 percent were in professional positions such as accounting, law, medicine, engineering, and finance. The report attributed the shortage to emigration of highly skilled workers, immigration restrictions for foreigners, and a dysfunctional education system.

Tomiwa Igun (MBA 2012) became aware of this situation—and saw an opportunity—while he was a student at HBS, through his involvement with the Africa Business Club and the Africa Business Conference.

“At that point, every school was starting to do an Africa business conference, regardless of how big or small the school was,” he recalls. “They were all going after the same target audience, the same speakers, the same sponsors. It just wasn’t very efficient. So I thought, Why don’t we put something together that’s agnostic of which school you are affiliated with; one that is just about pushing the agenda of business in Africa.”

That thought led to the launch of Young African MBAs (YAM).

“What started off as a small networking group quickly grew to a registered organization with over 2,000 members,” says Igun, who was born in Nigeria and moved to the US following high school. “We have demonstrated tremendous value to our target audience.”

The main focus of YAM is to shrink that management talent gap in Africa. It does this by providing networking opportunities; educating companies and young business people about the opportunities in Africa; offering career support; and providing a platform for companies to recruit qualified managers.

“We help people who are looking to return to the continent because they’ve heard about the economic growth, the high GDPs, and the need for management talent, but who aren’t sure how to go about that process,” says Igun, who currently works at the Boston Consulting Group. “We are also providing support to people transitioning to the continent by introducing them to others who made the move and by sharing information on what to expect.”

YAM has also proven to be an asset for companies that want to recruit from the diaspora of African talent that has gone to the US. “Now people reach out to us to recruit,” he says. “Every month we send out a newsletter, and in each one we probably have at least four job openings listed.”

The group isn’t just for Africans or current MBAs, either. Although the four cofounders were recent business school alums, YAM members include lawyers, doctors, engineers, and other business-minded professionals across the globe. YAM provides mentorship for Africans who want to get their MBA from a school in the US, and also helps MBAs from Africa take advantage of networking and career opportunities.

“Part of what we do is supporting business school applications, helping improve representation of Africans in business school,” Igun says. “When we started the MBA mentorship program, the first year it was just us and our friends doing the mentoring. We have now helped over 40 individuals gain admission to top business schools, some of whom matriculated at HBS. Now the people we have helped are paying it back, mentoring other people; it’s like a chain reaction. Now we have way too many mentors onboard, so we need to market the program better—make it more structured. We need to grow the pipeline of African business school applicants.”

The group also is starting to put together a salary database so that MBAs will be better able to negotiate when they take jobs in Africa.

“It’s not necessarily about going back to the continent,” he says. “People who are not part of the diaspora yet—from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa—are seeing the gap and saying, Why don’t I go improve my skill set and maybe in the long term I could go back.”

The desire to improve his own skill set was what motivated Igun to apply to HBS.

Before coming to Boston, he had a lot of experience on the operations side of business. After getting a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan’s Rackam School of Graduate Studies, he worked at DaimlerChrysler, and then as a power engineering consultant with Sargent and Lundy.

Those experiences helped him to recognize there were things about business that he didn’t know. “I realized I wanted to learn more about business strategies and the management side of things and less on the tech side, even though I really loved it,” he says.

“They say HBS is transformational, and for me it really was,” he adds. “For one thing, I wasn’t very familiar with the financial side of business and was seeing a balance sheet for the first time. I had to get out of my comfort zone and get comfortable with public speaking. Also, it allowed me to learn how others think and to figure out how to position myself in a room full of people. That’s come in very handy since HBS.”

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Class of MBA 2012, Section A

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