How My EMBA Helps Me Empower the African Diaspora

Bola Bardet, EMBA '18, founded Susu as a way to offer access to superior healthcare for the individuals in Africa that need it most. Though the germ of the idea was planted by personal tragedy, it came to fruition via careful tending at the HEC Paris EMBA.

In December 2017, Bola Bardet got a panicked phone call from her mother in her native Benin.

Her father, a longtime sufferer of hypertension, had just had a heart attack. The prognosis was not good; he needed immediate surgery. “In Benin, a country with 10 million people, there is not a single cardiothoracic surgeon,” she says. “We did everything we could to save him, even evacuating him to France, but he died shortly afterwards. It was the worst day of my life.”

Bola, like many who have suffered profound loss, managed to find a silver lining in the clarity that emerges following tragedy.

“I had been looking for a project related to Africa that I could be passionate about,” she explains. At the time she was, quite by chance, also mulling over one of the most important decisions of her EMBA journey.

“My father died Christmas 2017, and I decided to start what would become Susu as my Capstone project in January 2018.”

An outlook for the community

Susu roughly translates to “communal financial pot” in Youruba, her mother’s native tongue. It refers to a tradition, not unlike that of a co-op, in which women from the same area pool money to invest in the name of community.

“You hear it as a term meaning the same thing in places like Nigeria and Benin, but also in Brazil and Latin America,” she explains. “Basically, it’s a word and an idea that has followed people from Africa as they emigrate to other parts of the world.”

Benin

Bola traces her roots to Benin, a West African nation with approximately the same population as Switzerland.

Bola’s professional path, just like the spirit of the word from which Susu gets its name, is the product of a mélange of cultures.

Born in France to Beninese parents, she finished high school in Benin before returning to France for classes préparatoires – university prep school. She found academic success, but, she says, only because it was what she was expected to do.

“Then I went to business school because it was the logical thing, but I still didn’t have a passion for what I wanted to do professionally. After school, I took a chance on an internship in Switzerland at Richemont because I had a vague interest in the luxury industry and sector.”

After 6 years there, she found herself in a gnawingly familiar situation. Again, she was bored.

“In thinking about what I could do, I settled on the most challenging topic: the CFA (Certified Financial Adviser) exam. I did night classes, which is when I discovered a part of me that I didn’t know until then: I love learning new things. When I was in school, learning was a chore; as a professional, I loved the chance to learn new things.”

After obtaining her CFA, she accepted a role at JP Morgan in Geneva where her position largely consisted of auditing the provenance of huge sums of cash.

“The world of finance was fascinating,” she remembers of her 3-year spell at the vaunted private banking firm. “My role was to piss off bankers in order to comply with KYC (Know Your Customer) standards,” she chuckles. “It was a constantly adversarial environment. Thought I learnt a lot during that time, I realized it was going to be my last experience in the corporate world. When my child was born, I made the decision to leave.”

“The main reason why I selected HEC was the quality of the instruction and the size and quality of its African network.”

With the birth of her child, her purpose crystallized onto what really mattered to her, and Africa began to beckon. But she hadn’t lived in Africa since returning to France, and as such she didn’t have much of a professional network there to speak of. That combined with a nagging desire to quench her thirst for learning once again led her to HEC Paris.

“The main reason why I selected HEC was the quality of the instruction and the size and quality of its African network. HEC has a huge network in Africa, by far the largest in African business.”

HEC Paris: Opportunity and Change

She would go on to join the November 2016 track.

“I think the most life-changing thing to see at HEC Paris was the power of the network. For me that was just huge. You are exposed to the smartest people from very different domains, who you can learn from or can introduce you to people who can teach you.”

For Bola, these perks manifested themselves at HEC Paris in at least two distinct ways. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously was the quality of instruction. She had always worked in rigid, top-down structures where protocol and caution reigns supreme; she found herself invigorated by the ideas proffered by her HEC instructors—particularly when it comes to management.

“The biggest thing that changed for me between before- and after HEC is the way I manage, and that’s largely thanks to Professor Alexandre Lamy’s classes. He was able to distill the essence of management into simple concepts.”

“[Professor Lamy] helped me embrace the idea that ‘done is better than good’. I realized you can’t go far in management as a perfectionist. ‘Good enough’ is my day-to-day philosophy now.  He really consolidated my ability to both keep my head in the stars but to keep my feet on the ground.”

Bola says she’s someone who does everything  “to the extreme. When I do things, I want them done 200% perfectly.” As any budding entrepreneur can attest, sometimes this is simply not possible.

“[Professor Lamy] helped me embrace the idea that ‘done is better than good’. I realized you can’t go far in management as a perfectionist. ‘Good enough’ is my day-to-day philosophy now.  He really consolidated my ability to both keep my head in the stars but to keep my feet on the ground.”

The second benefit manifested itself more subtly—but no less consequentially—in a decidedly less formal setting: proverbial water cooler chit-chat with an EMBA classmate.

“The concrete idea for Susu started as a conversation at the HEC cafeteria. I knew I was building a project in healthcare insurance, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I didn’t know the right people. My classmate put me in touch with the right person to get everything started, and everything grew from that point.”

Very simply put, Bola says, “I could not have started Susu without HEC Paris.”

That initial conversation, paired with her enlightening experience in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Specialization, which was “intimidating and powerful” to see possibilities on offer through “young people waking up every day with the idea that they can do something that will change the lives of millions of people”, set her on her path for good.

Very simply put, Bola says, “I could not have started Susu without HEC Paris.”

Bringing the community back home

In 2019, one year after graduating and two years after her father’s sudden death, she founded Susu. It’s a startup offering a digital healthcare service that enables the African diaspora to provide the best quality of care to their loved ones in their countries of origin.

“Like me, the 33 million-strong African diaspora lives far from home, regularly sending money back home to their families. There are very real healthcare challenges in Africa, which is especially true in the pandemic. Chronic diseases are booming, and as I know too well, there’s a lack of specialized doctors. The diaspora’s money is huge leverage to changing the healthcare ecosystem. We created this service to enable the diaspora to take better care of their families by offering those who rely on them better access to healthcare,” she explains.

Her advice for people considering a similar EMBA path?

“Definitely do it,” she says. “Just make sure you enjoy every single moment because it goes so fast.”


More CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies have graduated from HEC Paris than any other university in Europe, and nearly 4,000 graduates are currently CEOs, CFOs, or have founded their own companies. According to the Financial Times, the HEC Paris Executive MBA is ranked #1 in Europe and #3 in the world; click here to learn more.

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