African Venture Capitalist Wishes He Took More Human Resources Classes At Wharton

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Human resource skills are the most important skills an entrepreneur can have, says J. Eric Wright, an African venture capitalist and Wharton School of Business MBA graduate.

When Wright graduated in 1992 from the school often ranked No. 1 in the U.S. or the world for its MBA program, he did something he says was totally unrelated to the traditional mainstream MBA track — he moved to Ghana. It wasn’t the usual place to start a career after business school, Wright said in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, the school’s online business analysis journal.

Wharton lists among its famous alumni U.S. billionaire investor Warren Buffett, U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump, and Elon Musk, South Africa-born founder of Tesla Motors.

“I was going to go work for Morgan Stanley in New York and I thought, ‘well, I’ll just take a year off,'” Wright told Knowledge@Wharton.

Twenty-four years later, Wright is chairman of Africa Venture Partners, a South Africa-based venture capital and private equity firm, and director at the Picasso Group, a U.A.E.-based private investment and project development firm focused on energy, agriculture and real estate ventures in emerging markets.

But he says he wishes he’d taken more classes at Wharton in human resources.

When Wright got to Ghana, he joined a Ghanaian-American who was a partner at Deloitte and Touche and wanted to start an investment bank. They built that company into “probably the second- or third-largest investment bank in Ghana,” he said.

When South Africa became a democracy, Wright moved there in ’94 and worked for Citigroup in private equity, dealing in telecommunications and building out mobile networks when there was very little infrastructure. He left Citi in 2000 and raised $10 million for a company called Africa.com.

“We attracted a very, very talented team,” he said. “Practically every venture capitalist wanted to back us.”

A few months in, the dot-com boom crashed and the company folded. It was back to the drawing board.

“But the nine months there was the best business education that I’ve ever had on multiple levels, primarily on the people side,” Wright told Wharton.

As an entrepreneur, particularly when you’re starting out with limited resources, you may not be able to hire a Wharton MBA or someone who has Wall Street experience or worked for McKinsey, Wright said. Patience is key in an emerging market such as Africa.

“As you go lower in the organization, you may even have individuals who do not have a high school education, may be illiterate, may not speak English very well,” he said. “The challenge for me, personally, was understanding and trying to create a management style, leadership style that would be effective at all levels of the organization.”

“When I was at Wharton, I didn’t take very many HR-related classes. As an entrepreneur reflecting back, I think it’s the single biggest skill that one can have, and it’s under-valued by many people in business school who are looking more at the quantitative or strategy-oriented courses.

“Once you’re out as an entrepreneur and you have to motivate and manage people, having a strong understanding of leadership skills and HR skills is very, very valuable.”

Wright said he’s had many challenges as a leader. He found it much easier to lead in an investment banking environment where all his colleagues had a similar background. In the corporate structure, he wasn’t responsible for lower-level management.

“There are great entrepreneurs, but we still must fill the mid-level management and provide more training, more education at that level,” he said. “That really impacts businesses as they begin to scale. That’s a challenge, certainly if you compare to the U.S., but I think there are similar challenges with many emerging markets as well.”

Wright stresses the importance of on-the-job training. “It’s not an academic or theoretical exercise,” he said. “It’s how to do certain things to get them done and to create systems and processes that hopefully will be learned and can be replicated on a consistent basis.”