South Africa
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Free State school plans small-business academy

Nearly a year after taking charge of the University of the Free State Business School, director Udesh Pillay is finally getting to meet his students. Pillay succeeded founding director Helena van Zyl in October 2021, but Covid kept the students from the campus.

Now they are returning to a school that Pillay says needs to meet the changing needs not just of corporate and individual clients but also of the communities it serves.

As a peri-urban region, Pillay says Free State’s needs are different from those of provinces with a substantial degree of industrialisation. That’s why he wants to engender a culture of SME entrepreneurship. He wants to create a small-business academy, including a project incubator to help entrepreneurs get their enterprises up and running. He hopes it will be ready by the beginning of 2023.

It will allow young entrepreneurs to test out ideas,” Pillay says. The school’s MBA and other academic students will also be able to use it to see if their theoretical skills can work in the real world.

Until now, the school has concentrated its educational efforts on its home province. In future, says Pillay, it will also target clients in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the Northern Cape and Lesotho.

Their economies are similar in size and mix to the Free State’s. Employers are predominantly SMEs based on mining and farming,” he says. “If we come up with the right formula here, there’s no reason why we can’t apply it elsewhere.”

Mining, farming and the broader agribusiness sector all offer potential business opportunities.

The school, one of SA’s smallest, has begun hiring additional academic staff. However, Pillay says its growth will be slow and cautious. “We are a boutique business school and will remain so,” he says. “I’m not interested in us becoming a Gibs or Wits or Harvard or Wharton.”

He says the curriculum and content of all programmes are under review to ensure they are competitive and relevant to the school’s new emphasis. The school will also have refresh its marketing and communications to ensure the new message reaches its target market.

Pillay says that during his 10 months in charge, he has been buoyed by the support he has received from other business schools. “I’ve spoken to a lot of deans and directors about my plans and they have been very encouraging. They say we should work together and share ideas. I hope we can all follow through on this.”