A source of inspiration

07 December 2020 | Story Nicole Forrest. Photo Supplied. Read time 8 min.
Shivani Ghai is one of the top six MBA students in the world.

Class president at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), sponsorship chair for the Women in Business Committee, first-prize winner at the 2020 John Molson MBA International Case Competition, one of the top six Master of Business Administration (MBA) students in the world – these are just a few of Shivani Ghaiʼs achievements.

Born to foreign service civil servants whose jobs took them to a different country every three years or so, Shivani was afforded the opportunity to see the world and experience diverse cultures in her formative years; circumstances that helped develop some of the character traits that make her the inspirational individual she is today.

“It was a very rich life and I’m very grateful for the opportunity, [and] the exposure to different cultures and countries. I think that it made me the person I am today, with an absolute love for and open-mindedness towards different cultures,” she said.


“And I just thought, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to be an engineer.’ ”

Some of her most treasured memories come from time spent in Nepal, where she and her brother were able to play outdoors and soak up the natural beauty of the mountainous country.

But Shivani certainly didn’t have her head in the clouds. “When I was very young, I had a huge passion for space. I always wanted to be an astronaut and I took it very seriously,” she noted. She also had a natural aptitude for maths and science – and a determination to prove wrong anyone who was sceptical about her ability to be an engineer.

“I think I was about 13 when we took an aptitude test and the career counsellor told me that I definitely couldn’t be an engineer, that my test said I’m designed to be creative. And I just thought, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to be an engineer.’ So that one conversation, I think, cemented my decision.”

Reaching for the stars

When her parents were transferred to the United States, Shivani seized the opportunity to attend university there, applying for and being accepted to the aerospace engineering programme at Texas A&M University.

Despite the perception that this was not a space for women, Shivani excelled. For her final-year project – which involved designing and building a satellite and presenting it to industry leaders from organisations like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Boeing and Lockheed Martin – she and her team received a standing ovation for the work, beating the university’s official satellite team.


“I want to bring about social change and justice, and here I am just making a rich company richer.”

Shivani then followed a path into the oil and gas industry. Consulting for Chevron, she was presented with the opportunity to move to South Africa. While the position was financially rewarding, she found that it left her with no real sense of fulfilment.

“One morning I woke up and I thought, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ My personal values don’t align with my job – I’m a huge environmentalist at heart. My ethical values don’t align. I want to bring about social change and justice, and here I am just making a rich company richer,” she said.

A different school of thought

Shivani had always wanted to do an MBA. She had decided she was now a “permanent fixture” in Cape Town and, luckily, the city happened to be home to the school that provides Africa’s premier MBA. After a bit of research, she said, choosing the UCT GSB was a “no-brainer”.

At the time, the Financial Times had ranked the UCT GSB’s MBA course one of the top 100 in the world. Added to this, the aspiring social justice advocate was attracted to the school for its value-driven rather than ambition-driven approach to business education.


“The UCT GSB takes a different stance. That socio-economic focus was very impressive for me.”

“I started doing some research and found the names of some of the courses so interesting; for example, social innovation and entrepreneurship, organisational leadership and similar values. They were all so geared towards not only personal but also social justice and using business for good, which I thought was awesome,” she said, adding that other initiatives tied to the UCT GSB showed that this was the right choice because it “wasn’t just a business school”.

“One of the first things we learnt at the UCT GSB was that the idea that the point of a business is simply to maximise profits is the worst ideology – one that’s driven us to the social dilemma we’re in now. Most business schools would probably pitch that as their primary angle, but the UCT GSB takes a different stance. That socio-economic focus was very impressive for me.”

Business unusual

During her MBA, Shivani represented the UCT GSB at a range of international events. One of these was the John Molson MBA International Case Competition, which saw the UCT GSB team achieve the highest first-round score in the event’s history. This, she said, was down to the out-of-the-box thinking that first attracted her to the business school.

“I genuinely believe that we won because we brought this intense spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. As students from a university in South Africa, we come up with unique solutions that many other places don’t think of because they’re boxed in by the things that already work for them. But in South Africa, there are so many challenges that are so complex that the only way to solve them is by being completely innovative.

“We brought that to the table along with realistic plans. So, if we pitched something that sounded crazy, we would explain how we planned to make it happen and back our ideas with solid financials and implementation strategies with a finger on the risk pulse. That’s how we won, and I think that also showcased that Africa is not to be underestimated.”

A NEET solution

Since graduating from the UCT GSB, Shivani has taken up the position of youth pathway manager for the YearBeyond youth service programme. The initiative focuses on helping youth who are “not in education, employment or training” (NEETs) to gain skills.

“We take them on for a one-year programme where we give them personal and professional skills, and they volunteer their time at township schools to teach literacy and numeracy to Grade 3 and 4 learners.”


“This purpose is so much more true to me than anything else I’ve ever done in my life.”

Historically, the programme sees 80% of participants going on to study further or get a job. Of those who become employed, nearly half are paid taxable salaries.

With her role focusing on forming partnerships with large employers and universities to which the youth can transition, Shivani has a renewed zest for life.

“I’m so excited. I love getting out of bed every morning and working. It’s been tough with unimaginable challenges around youth unemployment, but I don’t mind it because this purpose is so much more true to me than anything else I’ve ever done in my life.

“When people ask me if my MBA was worth it, I often say it was the most exceptional experience of my life. It gave me perspective, but most importantly, it humbled me to how much more we can be doing with our lives.”

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