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The Star / Friday, January 25 2019

Of all the personal and practical skills required for an MBA, grit may be the most important – as Barry van Zyl’s story attests.


With 30 years as a professional drummer for the likes of Johnny Clegg, his career was immersed in the creative arts. But, following the global economic crisis in 2009, international touring diminished. This inspired a rethink that would change the course of his life.


“I wanted to explore entrepreneurship and translate ideas into tangible results, which is not unlike writing music but intuitively felt I lacked business acumen,” he says.


“In 2014, I met Jon Foster-Pedley, Dean and Director of Henley Business School, Africa, who told me about their MBA. I signed on and Dr Chris Dalton, Associate Professor of Management Learning at Henley Business School who continues to have a powerful influence on my life, emphasised that while we were there to qualify as MBA graduates, the personal journey was the most important.”


Initially the learning curve seemed too steep. Barry’s classmates understood basic corporate speak and business concepts, while he was learning  from scratch. It was a big, scary, audacious challenge, even for someone as hard-working as he was. Luckily, when he was about to bail, Jon talked him out of it.

“He told me not to get hung up on the detail, and encouraged me to use learning to aid my personal growth. He also urged me not to get fixated on marks and grades, to simply put one foot in front of the other.”

This resonated. As a musician who had performed with adult bands when he was only 12, he knew about being out of his depth. Moreover, an education in music that began in London and California, culminating in a scholarship to study at Ivy League Berkeley University, had instilled a strong work ethic and a willingness to put in the hours.

“Education, like art, is continuous practice, something that integrates and enhances your daily life.”

As he continued he got up to speed with language his peers already understood. He learned to shift from an intuition-based, spontaneous nature to a space where he employed frameworks and models, and backed his statements with research and literature. He found support in his Cape Town syndicate group and the Henley lecturers while thriving on corporate finance, economics and international business.

Even though there were hard moments, and times when life threatened to throw him off course, grit got him through.

Barry says, “An MBA requires an enormous sacrifice of time and energy. It requires discipline and staying power. This is all very well when your life is going fine, but when life throws a few curves balls, you have to develop resilience. It is about honouring a contract that you have made with yourself.”

It ended with an empty sense of ‘what now?’

“I had taken two months off to finalise my dissertation and I was fried. I felt let down and hollow, unsure of what the past three years were about. I spoke to Chris Dalton about it, and he assured me that everything would come full circle and all my efforts would make sense.”

On the banks of the Thames, at a graduation ceremony enriched by Henley’s English heritage and tradition, all the pieces did fall into place.

Barry says, “I am instilled with a new confidence and driven to follow paths that excite and teach me. I look at the music business in a new way and I am  eager to connect with the Henley MBA network, an incredible resource.”








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