2017 Best EMBAs: Cynthia Nomsa Pongweni, University of Chicago (Booth)

Cynthia Nomsa Pongweni

University of Chicago, Booth Business School of Business

“I am an ambitious 39 year old African business leader, wife and mother.”

Age: 39

Hometown: Johannesburg South Africa

Family Members:I am married to Takunda Pongweni and we have a daughter, Ruvarashe Pongweni

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of South Africa- Bachelor of Accounting Science (Honors), Institute of Chartered Accountant (South Africa) – Chartered Accountant

Where are you currently working? Financial Director at Mineworkers Investment Company (Pty) Ltd

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: I currently serve on the Board of a non-profit organization called Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative (REPSI) that supports children particularly those living with HIV and AIDS or child led homes through training and advocacy work. I am the Board Treasurer.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Achieving the runner up position in the 2017 Chicago Booth Global Venture Challenge (GNVC) finals. The Chicago Booth GNVC program is one of the top academic business accelerator programs in the world. At the finals, we competed with six other finalists from the Chicago, London and Hong Kong campuses. This achievement gave us confidence to take our business idea forward.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Becoming an Audit Partner in a “Big Four Firm” (Deloitte South Africa) at 29. The audit profession, like several other professions is still very male dominated in senior leadership positions. Therefore being admitted to the partnership was not only about reaching a milestone in one of the best accounting firms in the world but breaking barriers (perceived or otherwise) that exist for minority groupings and setting an example to other black women aspiring to achieve the same.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? It is very hard to pick one professor given the caliber of professors at Chicago Booth. If I had to I would pick Professor Waverly Deutsch (Global New Venture Challenge).

What was your favorite MBA Course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? Global New Venture Challenge. This course brought together everything we had learnt in the preceding 12 months together very well. Starting and running a successful business is not just about having a good business idea. It is about identifying the right market whose “pain point” is addressed by your business idea, having the right go-to-market strategy,  and the right skills to execute on your business plan.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? I chose Chicago Booth because it a highly-ranked global business school which is known for its rigorous training program. The quality of its professors is second-to-none, particularly in finance and economics which are very relevant to my career. The diversity of its students, given the three campuses in London, Chicago and Hong Kong (and how integrated these are), meant that I would not only have a rich and diverse classroom experience but also that I would be able to meaningfully network with people from across the globe.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? Given the quality of your classmates and faculty staff, I enjoyed the high-performance environment and the constant mental stimulation the environment provided.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? In October 2015, during the Autumn quarter, my daughter fell ill a week before I was due to travel to London for the second class week. I was scheduled to write to exams on the first day of class. Given that my daughter was two years old at the time and had to be hospitalized, I had to spend the two nights and days in hospital with her. I had a lot of work to do clear in the office before my travels and a very important presentation to prepare for that week for one of our stakeholders. I managed to get through the week, clear my desk, finalise and do the presentation, and study for my exams because of the support system that I have around me. Once my daughter was discharged and on her way to recovery, I relied on my husband and our family to assist with looking after her while I caught up with my studies. From a work perspective, I managed to rely on the team to whom I had delegated some of the critical tasks for the week to assist me in ensuring that the work that needed to be done was done. Given the age of technology, I could work remotely in between my family and school responsibilities.

What is your best piece of advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s executive MBA program? One of the strengths of the Chicago Booth’s MBA program is the diversity that comes from its three campuses and the integration of such campuses. All three campuses received the same quality training and course curriculum. Outside the international weeks where you attend courses at all three campuses, the school allows students to take some of their courses in campuses other than their home campus. My home campus was London, but I spent one-and-a-half quarters in the Hong Kong campus. This allowed me to further build my networks beyond the London campus and to experience a different city and culture. My advice is that, if you can, take some courses outside your home campus. It enhances the diversity of your experience and allows you to expand your network.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? You should do an MBA once you have had a minimum number of years of experience. While I believe that an MBA, especially an executive MBA, requires you to have had some relevant leadership experience to benefit from it, I do think that this is a function of “a set of years.” It depends on the type of experience, an individual’s maturity, and potential. While those who are seasoned businesspeople in terms of tenure bring practical experience to the classroom, younger students bring fresh ideas and new ways of thinking that everyone benefits from. It is about striking a balance of diversity, youth and experience to enhance the classroom experience. Chicago Booth does this very well.

What was your biggest regret in business school? I wish there had been more time to network more (outside the formal learning environment).

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? John Brebeck. John was probably one of the older students in our intake. He has years of business and life experience, yet he was very open and energetic about learning. While he was always ready to offer his input and views based on his rich experience, he was very open to new ideas and new ways of doing things and brought fun to the experience. He is a great example that learning is an ongoing experience. Fegardless how long you have worked or much you know (think you know), you are never too old or too experienced to learn.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I spoke to current and former students from Chicago Booth and they made me realise how beneficial doing and MBA, particularly with Chicago Booth would positively impact my development both personally and professionally.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be….complacent about my learning and development.”

What is your favorite company and what are they doing that makes them so special? Currently, it is Naspers for its ability to innovate and geographic expansion.

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the executive MBA experience? Introduce an aggressive initiative to increase the intake of women into the executive MBA program.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? To be the Chief Financial Officer of a large global focused private equity firm.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? My mother. She taught me the value of hard work, the importance of believing in yourself, and never giving up on your dreams no matter how hard things may get.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? An approachable person who is keen to learn and equally keen to share my experiences and support to the extent that these will assist them in their personal or business endeavors.

Favorite book: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Favorite movie or television show: Masterchef Australia

Favorite musical performer: John Legend

Favorite vacation spot: Mauritius

Hobbies? Running, Golf

What made Cynthia Pongweni such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2017?

“Cynthia has a unique background and interesting career path especially her current role in the social enterprise space.

She currently works for Mineworkers Investment Company in South Africa as its Chief Financial Officer. Her role is very much focused on Impact investing. The company that she works for is effectively a social investor as the financial benefits of the investment activities are used to uplift the lives of previously disadvantaged mineworkers and their dependents through a number of social programs.

Cynthia is an extremely successful 39 year-old female student from Zimbabwe, based in South Africa with 21 years of working experience in accounting, finance, corporate finance and investment management. She has a strong understanding of challenges faced by African companies in addition to interesting work experience in Zimbabwe – where she worked as an audit manager during the time when Zimbabwean companies had to adopt hyperinflation accounting standards to ensure that the users of their financial statements could meaningfully analyse them. Zimbabwe is only one of a handful of countries to adopt hyperinflation standards.

She also serves on the board of Regional psychosocial support initiative-non profit organisation, a non-profit organisation in South Africa which advocates for psychosocial support for children particularly those affected by HIV and poverty or in child led homes through training, as its board treasurer.
Throughout the 21 month program at Booth London campus, Cynthia continues to display courage, tenacity and professionalism in the face of challenges – in every aspect of her work and life. Commuting on a 14 hours flight or longer each way from Johannesburg to London/Chicago/HK to attend 16 class weeks during the program is no small feat for her.

She is an exemplary female student as she was able to juggle well between her demanding full time work, the MBA program and the family needs where she has a 2 year old toddler.”

Intan Chen
Managing Director
Chicago Booth Europe Campus