Catherine Duggan. Picture: SUPPLIED
Catherine Duggan. Picture: SUPPLIED

Don’t dare tell Catherine Duggan, the new director of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (GSB), that as an American newcomer she knows nothing of Africa.

The truth is, she probably knows more than you.

The former Harvard and Oxford University academic has spent 20 years in Africa, most recently as vice-dean for strategy and research at the African Leadership University’s business school in Rwanda, where she helped develop a successful MBA programme.

An Irish grandparent of hers set up a teacher training college in Nigeria, her father taught science in Ghana and an aunt worked in Uganda and Malawi. When she was growing up in Chicago, Duggan says, African students were constantly passing through the family home.

"I grew up knowing I wanted to work in Africa," she says. She lived in Uganda for some years. She reckons that her research has taken her to well over 20 countries on the continent, including SA.

How she wishes she could be here now — specifically in Cape Town. She became GSB director on September 1, but, with her husband, is trapped in New York awaiting the resumption of flights to this country.

That hasn’t stopped her from assuming her new duties. "I’m very much in charge," she says, even if her obligations sometimes require her to rise at 3am New York time for SA meetings. The rapid rise of virtual meetings means she can act as if she were here. "Everyone in the university is working from home; mine just happens to be a bit further away," she says.

Duggan’s appointment ends a prolonged leadership hiatus at GSB. Since Mills Soko quit as director in June 2018, the school has been run by two interim heads, Kosheek Sewchurran and Hugh Corder. While praising their work in guiding the school for over two years, Duggan says: "I sense immediately a relief among staff that there is permanent leadership again."

Duggan has a PhD in political science from Stanford University in the US. She was a faculty member at Harvard Business School for nearly a decade and has been a visiting scholar at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, where she taught a course on doing business in Africa. Last year she led a Saïd tour on that subject to Joburg.

Her research focuses on institutional development and financial sector regulation in Sub-Saharan Africa. She has authored case studies on topics such as environmental sustainability, social enterprise, the role of business in society, diversity in corporations and doing business in changing political and economic contexts.

She hopes her experience, combined with the GSB’s existing expertise and knowledge, can grow the school’s influence as a thought leader on African issues. She believes it can play the role of a pan-African business school, leading education and conversations on critical issues. "It’s possibly the only school in the world that can fulfil that role," she says — a claim likely to draw a swift response from Wits Business School, among others.

She adds: "I believe GSB can serve as a bridge between Africa and the rest of the world."

She is conscious that senior European and US newcomers to Africa have a reputation for assuming they know best. It’s something she’s anxious to avoid. "I bring outside perspective but I won’t force an outside view," she says.

"I don’t want GSB to be Harvard but I do want to bring some of the things I have seen in other places, including elsewhere in Africa, and see if they work.

"I hope to be a leader who listens and understands what people are saying. Business schools spend a lot of time teaching leadership, but we aren’t always good at it ourselves. A willingness to listen characterises a good leader, but [it needs to be] wrapped up in someone who will make decisions. It’s a delicate balance."

Duggan is only the second woman to lead GSB, after Kate Jowell did so from 1993 to 1999. "Diversity matters," Duggan says. "There are very few women in senior business positions. As long as that is the case, women won’t believe the business world is for them. They need role models, people in positions of seniority."

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