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From a young age, Dr Catherine Duggan knew that she wanted to work in education. More specifically, she knew that she wanted to work in education in Africa. As she steps into her new role as the director of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), effective from 1 September 2020, UCT News asked her to reflect on a career spanning more than 20 years and her extensive experience at some of the world’s top business schools.

Nadia Krige (NK): Please tell us more about yourself: where you grew up, where you received your education, your family and your career journey.

Catherine Duggan (CD): I come from a family of immigrants, teachers and doctors – many of whom worked in Africa – and I think all of that history has shaped me and my career journey. I was born in London, but I spent most of my childhood in Chicago in the United States, where my Chinese-American mother was a doctor and an associate dean at the University of Chicago. She [was] one of the only women – and one of the only people of colour – in her medical school class, and she devoted her career to treating disadvantaged children and expanding opportunities for women and minorities in medicine. My father was born in England and earned a PhD in chemistry, but his mother [was] a domestic worker in Ireland. He instilled in me a strong sense of the opportunities and responsibilities that education creates.

“I’ve actually always known that I wanted to work in Africa and in education.”

I’ve actually always known that I wanted to work in Africa and in education. My father spent several years teaching at a college in Ghana, and his sister was a doctor who spent the bulk of her career in Nigeria, Uganda and Malawi.

I studied political science with a focus on African politics and economic development for both my bachelor’s degree, which I did at Brown University, and my PhD, which I did at Stanford University. I moved to Uganda for two years while I was doing my doctoral work on credit markets and microfinance, and I had a chance to really get to know the region.

NK: Before starting your new position as the director of the UCT GSB, you were the vice-dean for strategy and research at the African Leadership University School of Business (ALUSB) in Rwanda. We’re sure the move comes with many mixed feelings. What will you miss most about your time at ALUSB? What are you looking forward to most in your new role?

CD: One of the things I enjoyed the most at the ALUSB was the opportunity to rethink business education by using technology in cutting-edge ways; developing content that was specifically focused on Africa’s diverse challenges, opportunities and risks; and assembling an exceptionally diverse group of African students.

In my time at the ALUSB I travelled across the continent talking to dozens of senior leadership teams about doing business in Africa and what their human capital needs. I also spoke to hundreds of potential MBA students and executives about what they wanted from business education. I spent much of the rest of my time researching and writing case studies about real challenges that businesses in various sectors were facing on the continent and teaching a course on the political economy of business in Africa.

I really valued the breadth of these opportunities and I now have experience in more than 20 countries in Africa, including South Africa, where I have spent quite a bit of time in recent years, talking to companies, as well as researching and writing case studies.

“I was drawn to the UCT GSB because of its rich track record of research and teaching excellence.”

I was drawn to the UCT GSB because of its rich track record of research and teaching excellence, its extraordinary faculty and staff, and its unparalleled community of students and alumni. I think the UCT GSB is uniquely placed to lead some of the most important critical conversations about the future of business that are going on in Africa and around the world, including questions of diversity and inequality, environmental sustainability, innovation, the role of business and society, and leadership through crisis and uncertainty.

I see all of this coming together in a vision for the UCT GSB that supports the school’s record of academic excellence; expands its use of technology and the scope, reach and flexibility of its offerings; increases the school’s engagement across the African continent; and reinforces its distinctly African identity and approach to developing and teaching insights that are relevant to business.

There really is no other business school as well positioned as the UCT GSB to understand the challenges, build new narratives and drive positive change – not just in Africa but in the world.

NK: Something that comes to the fore in your résumé is your passion for institutional and economic development on the African continent. Can you share a bit about this? Where did this passion originate?

CD: We are in what has been called the “African century”. The demographics of the continent are extraordinary: the population of Africa is young and growing, even as populations in the rest of the world are shrinking and ageing. By the middle decades of this century, one in four people in the world will be African and the continent will have the highest ratio of working age to non-working age people in the world. Insofar as youth and market size fuel innovation and private sector development, more and more of what’s interesting to business leaders around the world seems likely to be happening in Africa.

The problem, of course, is that without progress on a number of fronts, the energy and drive of the continent’s youth risk becoming something else entirely. Poverty and unemployment can drive instability and violence, and pervasive uncertainty or hopelessness can dissuade the investments that are so important to individuals, to societies and to long-term economic growth. The COVID-19 pandemic has made these issues even more acute, threatening fragile economic gains and shedding new light on existing inequities and vulnerabilities.

What does this all mean? To put it simply: Africa’s population is going to grow. And for the rest of our lives the continent will occupy an increasingly significant place on the global stage. However, the question of whether the continent’s future is one of innovation and growth or of increasingly dire circumstances depends, in large part, on actions and choices that we make today.

NK: What continues to drive your passion for Africa?

CD: My enduring passion is to help people make careful choices. That’s what drives me: knowing that so many of the people I talk to – including students, professionals, academics and policymakers – will be the people who go on to make some of the most critical choices that will shape the African century into the future that we would all like to see.

NK: Having just celebrated Women’s Month, we were hoping you would reflect on the ways in which being a woman has influenced your career path (if at all). 

CD: I don’t really know how being a woman has influenced my career, exactly, but I do know that I wouldn’t change the experiences I’ve had. I’ve certainly been the only woman in the room for my fair share of meetings, and early on in my career I was told that I was too loud, too quiet, too aggressive, too demure – you name it. Eventually I just had to stop trying to be someone else and that’s what really worked for me.

But I think that years of feeling excluded, of feeling that pressure of being the only [woman] in the room and of feeling that kind of fear made me more empathetic. Although those experiences were not pleasant at the time, I see them as a hard-won gift that gave me a unique viewpoint and approach that I’m really grateful for.

“I do think my own relatively minor struggles have made me more sensitive to some of the much, much more serious issues that we have on the continent.”

Of course, I can say that because the obstacles and exclusion that I had to manage were much smaller than what many women (and men) across the continent must overcome. I am acutely aware of the luck and the privilege that I’ve had in my life: even something as simple as my American passport allows me to travel across the continent in a way that few Africans can. But I do think my own relatively minor struggles have made me more sensitive to some of the much, much more serious issues that we have on the continent; problems that predominantly affect women and girls, as well as broader issues of dignity and inclusion. I don’t think that my limited experiences allow me to fully understand these more serious issues, but they do make me better equipped than I once was to listen and to learn, which I try to do more every day than I did the day before.

NK: What advice do you have for young people – especially young women – in Africa who are bound to find themselves in leadership positions in the coming years? 

CD: There’s no question that there is a huge amount of talent in Africa. But young people, especially on the continent, often make the mistake of thinking that the main thing they have to do is to learn what they’re “supposed” to know, then wait to be told what to do with it. That’s one of the most common complaints that I hear from employers: that they wish their recent hires would show more considered initiative.

What really sets rising leaders apart are things like broad perspective; critical-thinking skills; an ability to work in, manage and inspire excellent performance from diverse teams; an ability to analyse challenges and find innovative solutions; and an ability to communicate effectively in different contexts.

“Take pride in the fact that you are African and find confidence in what you know because you grew up on this continent.”

The advice that I often give to young women – and others – on the continent is to try to strike a balance between self-awareness and self-doubt. It’s important to know who you are (and who you could be), what you really want, what your strengths are and when to ask for help. It’s also important not to be so self-critical and so demanding of yourself that you end up paralysed or only able to walk a tightrope that you think is perfect or safe. If you’re only taking the safest path, the one you’re “supposed” to take, then you won’t be able to demonstrate the value of your unique viewpoint or your distinguishing value to your team.

I would say this to all young people across the continent: take pride in the fact that you are African and find confidence in what you know because you grew up on this continent. As the world becomes more complex and more uncertain, and as an ever-larger proportion of the world’s population is African, it is precisely the types of flexibility, problem-solving and innovation that I see across the continent that will be most important for creating the kinds of sustainable development that we are all striving for – in Africa and beyond.

SEPTEMBER 2020 | STORY NADIA KRIGE