With no previous university qualifications, Alec Mutlane felt out of place at business school when he first got there, but he discovered that his life experiences —including starting and losing a tech start up — made him an ideal MBA candidate.
Alec Mutlane likes to say that he had earned an MBA at the ‘University of Life’ well before he even thought of studying towards a formal one.
He’s talking about life in general, but also specifically about his time as a tech start-upper in Johannesburg where, for three and a half years, he served as managing director of Ntswembu Digital. It was, for him and his partners, a bold play into the area of new-media content; but one that was to test him to his limits.
Growing up in Cape Town, Alec attended Pinelands High School. But his time at the school strained his family’s resources, and as such he hadn’t planned on going to university. Instead, in 2003, he found work in telesales for Nedbank, which at that stage was bringing a new product onto the market. A similar job followed at Old Mutual. From there he moved for a while to KPMG as a junior assistant with the company’s forensics investigations team.
Alec’s first real marketing experience came during the three years he then spent at British American Tobacco. “It’s there that I learnt the difference between a customer and a consumer,” he says in reference to the marketing adage that, he adds, has served him well since then.
In 2007 he decided it was time to strike out on his own. He packed his bags and moved to Johannesburg where, alongside friends-slash-partners, he started up Ntswembu with the vision of making it big in the boom field of new media. “I wanted to explore all my potential,” he recalls.
Unfortunately for them, the global economic crisis pulled the rug out from under the company. “Companies were cutting their marketing budgets, and rather wanted to market on the platforms they were comfortable with than on new media,” Alec says.
As the clients dried up, so did the money. His partners bailed but he soldiered on. Even after he could no longer pay his rent and had to sleep in his office. “We lost a lot.”
The experience didn’t just teach Alec a lot about himself, but also about how to engage with customers, and it helped him develop a whole new social-media marketing skillset.
One of the company’s clients, Telkom, was impressed with his work and his tenacity, and offered him a job. His nearly four years, between 2010 and 2014, as social media manager at Telkom proved to be not just educational but also rewarding. Over the next few years, he travelled extensively — losing count of the number of countries he visited.
But in 2016 Alec found himself back in Cape Town determined to make up for the formal education he’d missed out on. He first signed up for a postgraduate diploma in business administration and management at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. And a year later he went further, registering for his MBA at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), with financial support from the GSB Foundation. The Foundation was formally established in 2016 to provide “the most talented students, regardless of their financial circumstances, with an opportunity to benefit from a world-class education at the GSB”.
It took Alec some time to adjust though, due in large part to a bad case of ‘imposter syndrome’. The initial difficulty of the work and the sense that he didn’t belong in a business school gnawed at his self-confidence. Then after failing one test, a lecturer called him into her office and explained to him that he was as deserving to be there as any other student.
This talk turned things around for him. “It helped me understand that I brought into class a different thinking from my peers. It taught me to have confidence in myself and understand my uniqueness.”
That lesson and others, including the importance of having empathy for others, have stayed with Alec, now working as account technology strategist at Microsoft in Johannesburg. “The MBA is made up of stress and pressure. But I learnt that that’s when my creativity comes out and I do my best work. I also learnt that it's not easy to work with people, but it's hard to be successful without them.”
The future may be uncertain, but he brims with enthusiasm, not just for himself but also for South Africa and the rest of Africa. And his love for technology remains. Technology may not be a panacea, but it offers so many opportunities, he insists.
“There are so many possibilities for what technology can do for us,” he says. “And I just want to be one of the bees buzzing around that honey.”