2019 Best EMBAs: Marian van der Walt, University of Oxford (Saïd)

Marian van der Walt

Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Age: 46

“Ethical, positive, practical, agile. Others have described me as an empowering and creative leader.”

Hometown: Johannesburg, South Africa

Family Members: Husband, two dogs and friends’ children in whose lives we play a role.  

Fun fact about yourself: Occasionally I put my overalls and boots on and go underground in gold mines

In South Africa (some of which are 3.5km deep); and I am a closet poet and writer.


Undergraduate School and Degree:

Certificate Investor Relations, International Investor Relations

Investor Relations Society UK - London, Central London, United Kingdom

Business Leadership Certificate

Witwatersrand University, South Africa - Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

Governance and Business Leadership Certificates

University of Johannesburg - Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

Related coursework: Corporate Governance (2003); Business Leadership (2005)

Higher Diploma in Tax

University of South Africa - Pretoria, Gauteng , South Africa

Qualified attorney and conveyancer

High Court of South Africa - Pretoria, Gauteng , South Africa


University of Johannesburg - Johannesburg, Gauteng , South Africa

Related coursework: Law, Finance and Economics

B Comm LawBusiness and Law

University of Johannesburg - Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

Graduated with a bursary offered by the university to study Economics.

Where are you currently working?

Company: Harmony Gold Mining Company Limited - Johannesburg, South Africa

Role: Executive, Corporate and Investor Relations

Executive and qualified lawyer with 16 years experience in the gold mining industry and 8 years in the legal and banking industries. Specializing in strategic (financial, ESG) and crisis communication, corporate actions, corporate governance, global investor relations and public relations.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

Extracurricular: Reading, walking, dancing, socialising/networking, charity and church work.

I have held various leadership roles (from advisory committees to boards) throughout my life. I have a demonstrable track record of building solid relationships where I work (Harmony Gold Mining Company Limited) and in the mining industry both locally and globally.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? The international Executive MBA modules to India, China, and Silicon Valley were most enlightening as they provided me with tools and ideas that will impact the way I work and think. It provides you with context as to how well your company is performing in respect of social, environmental and governance-related matters. These trips and the content of these modules were a good reminder that as leaders we should have a global view to enable us to make informed decisions about people, profit and the stakeholders who are impacted by our decisions.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? There are two events that stand out. The first was when I joined Harmony Gold Mining Company Limited in February 2003 when only 2% of the workforce was female. Through hard work, speaking my mind, and making every effort to understand the company and the industry, the then-CEO asked me to join his executive team. That was a significant moment in my career. The second event was most definitely the two-year fully sponsored EMBA at Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? This is an almost impossible answer to give because Saïd Business School has excellent lecturers with a global perspective. My favourite modules were those that covered information that was completely new to me and the same applies to the lecturers who taught those subjects. If I am forced to choose, Professor James Taylor, who taught Analytics, was excellent. Within the same cohort, he had to teach a range of students, some of whom were math geniuses but also people like me who had never been exposed to analytics on an academic level. Associate Professor of Strategic Management, Marc Ventresca was another favourite of mine. He taught Strategy and Innovation and equipped us to reposition ourselves and our companies to be disruption-ready.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? My favourite MBA course was Business History. The course taught me that, as leaders, we need to be aware of our external environment (past, present, and future) and learn from leaders (past and present) – applying these learnings to the leader we want to become and create meaningful businesses. As the French Philosopher Karr said: ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’

The Business History module provided context to why we have so many choices today and gave me a deeper understanding of world politics. It also made me realise that even though we as female leaders think we are doing ground-breaking work in empowering other women, the course reminded me of the many wonderful female leaders who came before us.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? The Oxford Saïd Executive MBA aligned with my own work ethics, which include being driven by principles, being proactive, engaging, chasing results, keeping people informed, and doing things differently to best serve the nation and the world. I was also drawn to studying at Oxford because of it being home to some of the greatest minds in the world – past, present, and future!

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? It was wonderful to have about 35 countries represented in our class, with lecturers from all parts of the world and classmates in varying stages of their careers and lives, which gave me a truly global perspective. It was a privilege to have access to and learn from, such a diverse group of people.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? There is no such thing as a perfect leader. Different situations require different leadership styles. In every leadership role I have had, I have applied the basic foundation of my upbringing – not to discriminate, to be humble and to encourage people. I am not a perfect leader: I have my flaws and am always looking to learn and improve what I do. Twenty years in the corporate environment teaches you that to survive, you need to embrace change and take on challenges and acquire skills that may often mask your inadequacies. I strive to improve and make a difference in other people’s lives.

One of Professor James Taylor’s presentation slides contained the following quote: “Opportunity dances with those on the dance floor.” The EMBA was a wonderful opportunity.  As a result of the EMBA, I identified a myriad of opportunities for the company I work for but also opportunities for self-improvement.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education? We were five months into the Executive MBA programme when my mum passed away. It was an emotionally turbulent time. The funeral had to be arranged, we had a house full of guests, and my next assignment was due. I knew that I could not ask for an extension because there would not be time to complete the assignment at a later stage. Until today, that entire period is a blur.

My husband, family, in-laws, friends, Harmony Gold Mining Company and Oxford Saïd were very supportive.

It is impossible to anticipate what life will bring your way. To remain standing throughout the EMBA course, it is important to know what your values are, stick to your commitments, and ensure that you have a strong support team behind you.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Know why you are doing it. Ensure that you are present in every moment of the experience. And know that by saying “yes” to the EMBA, you are saying “no” to various other aspects of your life – such as family time, spare time, work etc.  Do the pre-reading to get the maximum value out of every class.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? Some might say – “Having studied before, you are familiar with studying.” I would argue not and do not underestimate how taxing part-time study can be! You need to invest lots of time to work through the assignments. You have to be engaged in class and concentrate on what you are being taught. Otherwise, you may just end up wasting valuable time. You enroll for an EMBA to learn. As modern business leaders, we are too pre-occupied with our smartphones and getting distracted. An EMBA is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – embrace it and be present in the moment and you will get the most out of it.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Not ignoring some of the work distractions and fully embracing everything that Oxford University had to offer.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Again, like the ‘who is your favourite lecturer’ question, this is difficult to answer. There were qualities in each of my classmates that I admired and could learn from. If I had to choose one, I’d choose Hasmukh Patel. At 61, he enrolled for the EMBA to show his children and grandchildren that education continues to be important, at all stages of your life. He is an accomplished, quiet, wis,e and a strong leader – all qualities that I admire.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I realised that if I do not keep up with an ever-changing world (disruption), my career (and I) will become stale and outdated.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? To develop courageous, ethical leaders and equip them to speak up (and speak out) and make integrated decisions that make a meaningful difference in the world.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? A competent, imaginative and committed optimist, who embraces life.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? Salsa dancing in Argentina and sky-diving.

What made Marian such an invaluable addition to the class of 2019?

“Marian is a true connector, building relationships across her diverse group of EMBA colleagues from the start and going the extra mile to ensure that debate and discussion were as inclusive as possible. As a female executive, she has had a highly successful career in the gold mining industry in South Africa. It’s clear to all of us at Oxford that her ability to persuasively stand her ground and argue her case in a non-confrontational way has contributed to her professional success. As an EMBA student she has taken the lead in introducing other class members to the mining industry and her country, taking classmates to visit the mine where she has worked for many years, and organising trips around the lectures to enhance their understanding during a study trip to South Africa. She has also organised events for the women in the class and has opened up her own extensive network to help them progress in their careers.  She is always smiling, and relentlessly positive.”

Kathy Harvey

Associate Dean, MBA and Executive Degrees 


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