Novelist Chimamanda Adichie once said that there is a danger in telling a single story about another person or culture. A single story often creates incomplete stereotypes that perpetuate misunderstanding about other areas of the world. I often consider her warning when I visit new places and meet different people, knowing my western upbringing and perspective will shape my experience and influence the story I tell. Yet I believe our individual experiences are essential in helping us identify stereotypes, and the resulting narratives benefit everyone as we all strive to understand and eliminate cultural bias. In January, I had the opportunity to travel with 11 other AEM undergraduates and two Cornell professors to South Africa on a social business consulting experience. We spent a semester conducting marketing research for an entrepreneurial organization called Driven Entrepreneurs, with consistent guidance from the Emzingo team. During our time abroad, I learned to shed some of my western perspectives, embrace uncertainty in an unfamiliar business environment, and support my colleagues in the face of challenging circumstances.
We first visited Cape Town, a beautiful coastal city and rapidly growing tourist hub in South Africa. We wandered aimlessly about the waterfront. We visited the rows of expensive shops and restaurants blasting American pop music. We gasped at the views of the ocean from our tour bus. At first, it seemed that this coastal paradise was the only corner of Africa immune to political and economic inequalities, and all the madness sweeping across much of the continent. But after a few hours, I noticed that Cape Town is predominantly white, reflecting the legacy of apartheid and history of white supremacy. After visits at Robben Island and the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum, I realized that although for some Cape Town may symbolize a post-apartheid South Africa, this “paradise” is still riddled with structural economic and racial inequalities. Standing on top of Table Mountain, I looked over the crystal blue water and the majestic mountains and I thought about the deep running scars of apartheid that created Cape Town. I thought again about Adichie’s single story. It is easy to look at a place like Cape Town and make simple assumptions about progress, when the realities are much more complex. Despite its glorious appearance, Cape Town is a divided city that echoes a brutal history of white supremacy.
When we left for Johannesburg, we were eager to start our impact work. We exited the airport and took the freeway. The contrast between wealthy whites and impoverished blacks was immediate and shocking. On one side of the freeway sprawled underdeveloped informal housing with no sanitation, electricity, or clean water; on the other, fancy gated communities. Two completely different worlds, divided by a single highway. Johannesburg could not have been more different from Cape Town. We were no longer just tourists and visitors, but students and educators who would work hard to create our own stories of positive change.
Driven is a for-profit organization that organizes community and school programs centered on developing entrepreneurial skills and mindsets for community members and students. Our work with them was focused on creating and developing short and long-term business deliverables. Our deliverables for Driven needed to be financially viable, organizationally feasibly, and most importantly, sustainable. Before we decided exactly what we wanted to create, we split into groups and traveled to different stakeholders and potential sponsors to discuss their corporate social investment programs and gauge what would be most valuable for Driven in terms of expanding their funding and educational programs. Since the enactment of the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, South African businesses are assessed in terms of their corporate social responsibility and are obligated to comply with certain levels of service that fulfill BBBEE levels. I was therefore surprised when I met with the dedicated CSI leaders in larger firms like Investec, EY, and NBA Africa. I expected that these larger corporations funding smaller organizations like Driven were doing so only to fulfill an obligation, to check a required box. In reality, the business leaders working on the CSI programs seemed genuinely dedicated to make a social impact. Once again, my assumptions were defied. My understanding of business in South Africa – based on a single story – suddenly changed.
The highlight of my experience in South Africa was interacting with locals, business leaders, and students. These interactions were valuable on a personal and professional level because we learned how to listen and better communicate with people from a different culture. The type of question we asked, the way we asked it, and the speed at which we spoke was different because we were in a different culture. The notion that Westerners can come in to a less developed area of the world and teach people or save the day with superior resources and experience is misguided and elitist. As Cornellians, we are a product of western education and perspectives, and while we were conducting business and interviews in South Africa we had to take that into account and listen carefully and learn from others.
For me, interviewing Sam, a graduate of Driven’s schools program, and writing a case study was especially illuminating. Sam told me about his life growing up in extreme poverty, as well as his experience with Driven. Driven inspired him to start his own photography business, even though he had little funding. He worked hard and used the entrepreneurial tools he had acquired to continue his education and build his community. Writing this piece was particularly important because we wanted to generate a compelling portrayal of Sam while being able to convey the context of his story accurately. Though I often conduct interviews at Cornell for my articles with the Sun, the interview with Sam was an entirely new and unforgettable experience. I recalled prior to arriving in South Africa discussing with my professors about how people are empowered by other people. We become our best selves through unselfish interaction, through mutual support and understanding. Throughout the trip, while we were working with the Driven Team and meeting with students in Kliptown, everyone was exchanging new perspectives and ideas. Everyone grew more knowledgeable, more empowered, the Cornellians as well as the South Africans.
The impact experience defied many of my expectations. I was surprised to see that most business owners and entrepreneurs in the townships were women. I was surprised that larger corporations seemed to foster a genuine desire to have social impact. And I was surprised to experience the resilience and the openness of the locals living in extreme poverty.
Our team grew much closer during our time in South Africa. We were all working in an unfamiliar business environment, so we had to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty. Supporting each other throughout the experience was important. We embraced ambiguity. We shed many of our western perspectives about business and culture in South Africa and explored business in a complex and inspiring country.
If every business student at Dyson had access to this impact experience, our business school would be quite different. Dyson’s mission – “Our business is a better world” – would certainly be more expansive. Social impact work helps develop a moral compass in the future business leaders of the world. I am looking forward to continuing our impact work during the upcoming semester, and I hope that in future years Emzingo’s program continues to teach Dyson students to foster social business minds and truly make our world better, one story at a time.
Emma is from East Hampton, New York. She is a junior in The Dyson Cornell School of Business with concentrations in marketing and entrepreneurship. On campus, she is involved with the Cornell University Chorus, Cornell Cinema, and the Society for Women in Business, as she loves music and film in addition to her interest in social entrepreneurship and consulting. Read more about her experience here.
Driven is a social enterprise offering customized entrepreneurial programmes for communities and secondary schools in South Africa. Their goal is to impact the youth and adults across South Africa and Africa by transforming their entrepreneurial mindset, enabling them to take ownership of their future. Learn more about them here.
About our programs
Our programs combine leadership training with social impact consulting projects in emerging markets. We aim to prepare the next generation of responsible leaders by engaging top-performing students through impact projects with amazing NGOs and Social Enterprises in Peru, Brazil, and South Africa. Through intensive leadership training including personal reflection, mentoring and coaching, our fellows are challenged to grow both as leaders and as positive contributors to society. Learn more about our programs here .