From fighting apartheid to educating executives
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The inhumanity of apartheid was made real to Sharmla Chetty at the age of five, when she first went Christmas shopping with her grandmother to Durban’s main department store. They were barred from entering the restaurant. “I was hungry and she wanted me to have something to eat [and] I saw the tears rolling down her face,” she says.
Chetty is now 58 and chief executive of Duke Corporate Education, the US university’s executive education arm, top in the FT’s 2023 ranking of custom executive education programmes. But the memory is still raw. She takes a moment to compose herself, reaching for a tissue from her assistant. “I suppose my activism came at that age,” she says.
Chetty recalls the incident to explain why inclusivity initiatives — not just about race, but also gender and age — have been a defining feature of her time at Duke CE, starting 16 years ago when she founded its South Africa operation. She has also co-founded or nurtured start-ups at and beyond Duke, including #MillionYoungMinds, a live stream discussing the impact of artificial intelligence on the future with 1mn young people. In addition, she is founder of a mentorship circle supporting and coaching young talent.
“We focus on Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], to show young people how they can choose careers in maths and science,” she says. “I wanted to open up their minds to new careers, to say that you should become curious at an early age.”
Chetty is talking at a London hotel where she is co-hosting Lead With Her, a one-day international conference for women in leadership. “As a woman, I know how difficult this is, so I thought: ‘How do I become a contributor?’”
Standing up to apartheid almost cost Chetty her high-school education. Encouraged to succeed academically by her family, she was a diligent student and captained the netball and athletics teams, but was expelled at 16 for boycotting lessons, attending protests and organising student marches against the mandatory use of Afrikaans in lessons — a language alien to anyone but white South Africans.
“I was the troublemaker, I was the instigator, but it was also where I discovered my leadership skills,” she says.
Her expulsion was shocking and shameful for her family. “I am the eldest of four and there was a pressure for me to get educated,” she says, adding that it was a difficult time in her relationship with her mother and grandmother, her life-long role models. “They said, ‘We understand this piece about your fight for equality but [if] you want to break down the barriers and create a better world, you need to have an education.’”
A court eventually ordered Chetty and her classmates to be returned to lessons but they continued protesting.
“I was getting beaten up by the police,” Chetty says, recalling neighbours demands that her parents “manage” her.
She later realised her parents were protecting her. “They didn’t overtly say, ‘We support your cause’ but they showed that they did by allowing me to protest. But they also said: ‘Please go and complete your education.’”
Chetty graduated from school and went on to study for a degree in human resources development at the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) “I knew that getting an education was key,” she says. “Through education you can actually become a contributor to social change.”
Her parents lacked the money to fund her university studies but Chetty was able to go in part because her grandmother had — unknown to her family — been saving to pay her fees, while a neighbour covered her bills.
In turn, she has set up a fund that pays the tuition fees of eight students from her old high school each year. “That is why I now believe in paying it forward,” she says.
2021-present CEO, Duke CE
2019-2021 President, global markets, Duke CE
2017-2019 Global managing director, Europe & Africa, Duke CE
2010-2017 Regional managing director, Africa, Duke CE
2007-2010 Managing director South Africa, Duke CE
1988-2007 Head of human capital development, Nedbank
2016-present Board member, AVI Ltd
2012-2017 Chair, Share Scheme Trust SA, Boston Consulting Group
2014-2016 Board member, Bigen Africa
2020-present Doctorate in professional studies, Middlesex University
2017-2019 Master of Management in business and executive coaching, University of the Witwatersrand
2006-2010 MBA, Henley Business School
1999-2004 Master’s certificate in training and development, University of Johannesburg
Chetty had just one employer between leaving university and joining Duke CE in 2007: the South African financial services group Nedbank. “I had to work twice as hard to get on, not just because I started under apartheid but because I was a young woman leader,” she says. “But I was lucky because I found a lot of mentorship and a lot of support and they did see potential in me.”
Supporters included Nedbank’s then chief executive, Tom Boardman. “He was a great coach and a great mentor — even when I left the bank,” she says. Not that he didn’t try to persuade her to stay when she was approached by headhunters about the Duke CE role.
“At the time, Duke was a brand nobody in South Africa knew, and I delayed getting back to discuss it [with the headhunters] for three months,” Chetty recalls. “When I told Tom, he said, ‘Why would you leave a lucrative job like the bank and take up this job that is unknown territory to you?’
“So I said, ‘I am going out there because I believe in a bigger purpose and I believe I can make a change. I may fail. I may have to come back to you and ask you for support and help and to give me guidance, but it’s an opportunity to bring a bigger brand to our country and contribute to a bigger purpose.’”
She was particularly struck by Duke’s focus on the South African context and how to shape its executive education to fit the needs of the country’s industries, such as retail and banking. “I saw that the education piece the programmes had at that stage was not just theory, but practical. People could take those skills and make a shift in behaviours. And I got excited when I saw this.”
Chetty still speaks with Boardman. At Duke, she found another mentor: Bill Boulding, dean of the North Carolina university’s Fuqua School of Business. He was instrumental in helping her bring Duke faculty to her fledgling South African operation, helping to raise its profile and prestige.
It is the generosity of such people in supporting her that drives her initiatives to help other women and young people, Chetty says. She is also studying for a PhD at Middlesex University in the UK. “The job is not yet done,” she says. “I have power and influence as a woman leader so what should I do? I have to help other women have that opportunity.”