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Andrea Vinassa Interviews Taddy Blecher Co-Founder of Cida City Campus: Topic: The soul of Business in South Africa

Andrea Vinassa Interviews Taddy Blecher Co-Founder of Cida City Campus: Topic: The soul of Business in South Africa

By Andrea Vinassa CEO Torch Media who can be contacted at vinassa@artslink.co.za

The first Soul of Business in South Africa conference made history earlier this month. Addressing a group of people from corporations, NGOs, SMMEs and the consulting world, Taddy Blecher said issues of ethics, sustainability, "soulfulness" and meaning were now firmly on the agenda at business talkshops like Davos and the World Economic Forum. So it was only fitting that South Africans get together to debate ways for business to do good and make a profit.

Blecher received the Global Leader of Tomorrow Award from the World Economic Forum in New York, where he was recognised as one of 100 young leaders under the age of 37 (he is 35 going on 15) making an exceptional contribution to a better world.

At the conference he explained how he was making his contribution and why it was possible and necessary for business in general to act in "enlightened self-interest" to alleviate poverty, create jobs and still stay in business.

He is an animated and entertaining speaker, and in an interview, is more interested in helping his interviewer to improve his or her life than talking about himself.

Journalists like to describe Blecher as a grown up Harry Potter, because he believes in magic and miracles, and seems to live an enchanted life. Yes, Blecher exudes positive energy and childlike innocence, but under that exterior lies one of the most viciously intelligent minds the world has seen.

A professional actuary and a man who clearly understands the vagaries of economic theory, Blecher has applied his insights to creating a radical educational model - and specifically to fill the gap in business education between matric and MBA-level qualifications.

When he says Cida will generate the entrepreneurial skills to kickstart the national economy, it doesn't sound farfetched - precisely because Cida is not built on some airy-fairy esoteric hope that the future will fix itself, but on sound economic principles, and all the other things you'll come across in a B Com textbook.

But Blecher is also way ahead of the textbooks, which he says hark back to the 17th century. His personal economic theory is based not on the philosophies of some dead guy, but on simple common sense. It is based on the idea that if everyone gave something to someone else, no-one would need anything. "Old economic theory posits that resources and labour are scarce and hence there is protectionism. In the new economy, the human mind is not limited. We live in an abundant universe."

This theory has much in common with "abundance theory", which has it that there are no real shortages and there is more than enough of everything to go around. Blecher believes everything we need is contained within the human mind and that education is there "to unlock peoples' hearts and spirits - provide nourishment and remove obstacles".

He does not try to flatter our current education system, which he says "takes giants and turns them into dwarves. Ours is a totally new way of thinking about education. Each person has a unique genius that the world needs and all we need to do is find that thing".

Nor does he think it's too difficult to unlock the genius of his students on a mass scale - unlike the people of developed nations, Africans still harbour "that magical spark of possibility' within their hearts, he says. "At Cida we know we live in a country that will amaze the world."

His theory of economics also has much in common with the African model of economics, where poor people can become self-reliant if they can barter and trade. Cida students are drawn mostly from the rural areas and part of their qualification is that they must go back to their community and transfer the skills and knowledge they have gathered. Blecher says these are young people whose lives have not been filled with middle-class luxuries and he is amazed at the extraordinary generosity and creativity he sees in them every day.

Describing himself as a "hardened capitalist", Blecher says he was never in business for the money (although he could easily earn millions as an actuary); he was in it for the creativity and the possibility for innovation. "I love business." He says he has dozens of business ideas knocking around in his head all the time and loves the rush of creating successful businesses.

Cida's educational model is a holistic one, based on the knowledge that "businesses don't hire people with facts, they hire people with qualities". What Blecher means is that good businesses don't go out to look for someone who can read a balance sheet, they look for someone with integrity, self-discipline, focus, passion, compassion, initiative and team spirit - who can read a balance sheet. These intangibles are, in fact, more important than the practical skills touted by other business schools.

The success of Cida's educational model is due in no small measure to the discipline of Transcendental Meditation practiced by students, teachers and management. In the words of TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, "it is not a set of beliefs, a philosophy, a lifestyle, or a religion. It's an experience, a mental technique one practices every day for fifteen or twenty minutes". Blecher, the founding partners Conrad Mhlongo and Mburu Gitonga (executive directors), and chairman Richard Peycke, and all the students meditate twice a day.

The Maharishi, as he is known, was the first guru to make the philosophies and spiritual practices of the East accessible to the West. Whereas Western paradigms teach us about the limitation and scarcity, Eastern philosophy talks of limitless possibility and transcendance. "Through TM the mind unfolds its potential for unlimited awareness, transcendental awareness...a lively field of all potential, where every possibility is naturally available to the conscious mind. The conscious mind becomes aware of its own unbounded dignity, its unbounded essence, its infinite potential," says Mahesh.

Without this fundamental belief that it is possible to create something out of nothing, Blecher and his partners might not have been able to create something out of nothing, which, literally, is what Cida is. The process of education at Cida is not about how much theory you can cram into a mind in a short space of time, but how much genius you can unlock. 'TM is one of the best techniques for human development and it has its effect by helping people be more focused and at peace, which means they will be more dynamic.

What I ask is 'Do you want a genius or someone who has memorised the four Ps of marketing?'v"Cida offers world-class, holistic tertiary education designed to develop the future leaders of the country and the economy. In this way it is focused on creating a meaningful financial and economic democracy in South Africa. The intention is to replicate its model for the developing nations of the world," says Blecher.

At Cida everyone studies the same course - a four-year accredited Bachelor of Business Administration - incorporating accounting, finance, entrepreneurship, leadership development and IT. But that is only one of seven components of this holistic model. The components are knowledge, skills development, practicum in administration, self-management, professionalism, community skills transfer and recreation. Cida even offers Human Resource management.

Cida's university accreditation did not come about by magic either. It took two years of hard work for 18 hours a day - and came only after six rejections. 'We started with nothing, now we have a library worth R120 million, 600 computers, a state-of-the-art IT setup, 130 members of staff and four buildings.'

The realisation that Cida (which is funded by the private sector) is training graduates that will benefit corporate South Africa has unleashed a sense of corporate responsibility among a community of donors, says Blecher. "Corporate South Africa has woken up and is accepting their responsibility in building the country."

The question everyone is asking, though, is "Is it sustainable?" Blecher insists that it is both sustainable and transferable to other developing countries. And perhaps developed countries too: he tells the story of a US auditor who travels the world lecturing to accounting students. "While he was touring the campus, he burst into tears. The students he has to teach couldn't care less, so when he met our students, who are so caring and so open to helping others, so extraordinary in the magnitude of their hearts and vision, he cried his eyes out."

This esteemed member of the accounting profession is not the only person who thinks it's a good idea to close all US business schools and start again using the Cida model.

When Tom Peters visited the campus he said: "For the first time, I believe there is hope for Africa..."

Blecher thinks maybe there might be hope for America, too - providing they get a little of the Cida spirit.

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

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