Does HBS Care About Africa?

DeGaulle said that the 20th Century would be the African century, but he was wrong. We are still waiting for the African renaissance, and we are still waiting for an Africa that we can be proud of. And it seems that as a consequence of this the world has started to forget about Africa and the 600 million people she represents. However, this is not the point of this article. The point of this article is that HBS too has forgotten Africa.

This is unfortunate because there is nowhere else in the world where one more HBS graduate would make more of a difference than in Africa. The marginal effect on society of one more talented leader may be minuscule in the U.S., but in Africa where managerial talent is so scarce the effects are literally enormous. Nowhere else in the world is the talent so badly needed, and nowhere else in the world is so ignored by the HBS admissions office.

Fortunately other schools are picking up the slack, and are providing managerial and business leadership training to talented African admits.

These schools’ reputations are growing on the continent, while HBS may begin to see its name fade. (Before I go any further I want to make one thing perfectly clear about my feelings for HBS. I have wanted to come here for a very long time and I have never been disappointed by the quality of the school, and the decision I made to come here. Until now.)

To cite some examples, Wharton has consistently sent Admissions staff to Africa since 1999 and as a consequence of this they have more talented prospective African students applying and getting admitted than any other business school – and their numbers are going up while HBS’s are going down. To compare:

Class of: 2002 2003 2004
Wharton 9 24 30
HBS 21 18 15

This trend would not be so disturbing were it not for the complete lack of effort that HBS is making in Africa. While Wharton has been sending people to Africa every year since 1999, and has hosted receptions in Lagos, Accra, Nairobi and Johannesburg, HBS has visited every continent in the world except Africa in that time period. There was one (immediately post-Apartheid) visit in 1994, but this was a one-off event, as was the corresponding surge in admits from Africa.

Kellogg too has been giving more attention to Africa. In fact, the Dean of Kellogg himself will be visiting Nigeria early next year to try to increase the number of applicants from the region, as he sees Africa as an important part of Kellogg’s strategy to increase the visibility and influence of their brand. Kellogg clearly sees Africa as an untapped reserve of talent and is behaving accordingly.

Contrast these approaches with what HBS has been doing. Not only has HBS continuously reduced the number of admits from Africa, admissions staff have not set foot on African soil since 1994. Now, I understand that we are a Business School, and I want to be clear in my argument as to why I think HBS should actively recruit and admit more African students.

It is not because we need to have a diverse class that more accurately represents the face of the globe today. I think that would be nice, but if the applicants are not qualified they do not belong here. No, the reason we need more Africans is because the prospective African admits are qualified and they are sorely needed in their home countries to positively impact the lives of millions of people, creating the renaissance that DeGaulle envisioned. Isn’t this what HBS considers its mission and prides itself in doing – “Building leaders that make a difference in the world?”

(By the way, when they make this difference they will also make a lot of money, some of which will no doubt find its way back to Cambridge – Dean Clark please take note).

It saddens me that there is such potential out there and that HBS refuses to even try to find it – if it were simply a case of there being no talent pool to choose from I could understand the lack of action taken by the administration, but it is clear that there are fewer applications and admits from Africa not due to a lack of qualified people but due to a lack of effort to find them by HBS.

There are of course other factors that have contributed to this drop in numbers in addition to the inertia of the admissions office. One of those factors is September 11th. Every American Embassy has tightened up its visa application procedures, while at the same time non-Western international students are questioning the U.S. as a destination for higher education and are increasingly looking at European schools as viable options. This means that HBS is not totally responsible for the drop in African students, and must be facing greater challenges in trying to keep the percentage of international students high.

However, I would caution the administration from taking the easy way out in keeping international numbers high by simply taking more students from more familiar countries. This will massage the statistics, but will do little to heighten the diversity on the campus. Indeed, I believe this is a time when students from less well-known countries are most needed to enable the understanding of different cultures, religions and points of view.

Africa is changing, and Africa needs new leaders for the future. The important question that HBS must ask itself today is whether it will be on the forefront of training a new generation of African leaders that will make a difference on the continent, or whether it will watch those leaders be trained by competing top business schools like Wharton and Kellogg.