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Nothing about Marko Stavrou is what you'd expect from an 18-year-old.
Entrepreneur, Gen Z strategist and public speaker, Marko Stavrou, is the youngest person to complete Henley Africa’s Higher Certificate in Management Practice (HCMP). Not a stranger to doing things his own way and on his own timetable, he speaks to us on why it’s important to align what you love with what you are good at, why he chose Henley, what he gained from his time at the school, and why he’s come back for more this year.
A lot of people say you can teach yourself about business by watching YouTube or reading books – but that doesn’t give you a structured learning environment, which is something I really believe in. When face-to-face learning came to an abrupt halt during COVID, and we lost all the in-person benefits of attending school, like sport and cultural activities, I switched to the Cambridge curriculum and completed Grade 11 and 12 in one year. And then I thought, “What next?” I could have gone to a traditional university but I was running a podcast at the time, which I really enjoyed, and I wanted to pursue this sort of thing full time. So much of university is about figuring out life, finding friends and having fun experiences. It just didn’t align with who I was and what I was wanting to do on a day-to-day basis.
I was attracted to Henley by the fact that you can study part-time and gain some top-quality business acumen while still pursuing your own work. I also wanted to have lecturers and to be with classmates who work in corporate. But the big problem was that I was so young. Everyone I spoke to said my chances of getting accepted were very slim because it is a “post experience” course, meaning that ideally you should have some work experience under your belt. And then I had the opportunity to interview Jon Foster-Pedley, the dean and director of Henley Business School Africa for the startup accelerator platform I co-founded, HustlersGlobal. He was really inspiring and it was encouraging to hear what Henley is doing, the people they’ve worked with, and the leaders they post about. At the end of the call, I mentioned I wanted to go to university the following year and was trying to figure out what to do and he encouraged me to consider Henley. I think the fact that I’d already started my own business and worked with companies in the US, coupled with my emotional maturity, was what made Henley agree to allow me to enter into this adult learning environment and enrol on the Higher Certificate in Management Practice (HCMP). The HCMP is the first programme on Henley’s five step management pathway of accredited qualifications that takes you through undergraduate and postgraduate studies right the way to the MBA if you want to.
I think there are lots of benefits of studying at Henley. For one, at many universities it’s hard to engage with the lectures when you’re sharing the class with 400 other students. At Henley we were only around 29 students. It’s small and intimate and I had access to great support systems. Even the dean is accessible! I cross paths with him at events every now and then we’d have a chat. Just having that mental support and to know that someone familiar believes in you, is huge. And then from a business acumen point of view I gained a huge amount. Henley expects a lot from you in terms of your writing ability and the way you answer questions and present the work, which is a very underrated business skill. We had to write a lot of reports and assignments, and what they call position papers.
This gave me a new level of professionalism. A lot of young people lack professionalism, I think. I find there’s a totally different way of engaging when I’m speaking to executives through my consulting firm, Stavrou Consulting, It’s not the same way I speak to people on HustlersGlobal, which is a Gen Z business community aimed at helping young founders scale their businesses. Henley has given me that understanding and that thinking around how to engage with corporates, how to sell to them and how to influence them, which is going to be a huge advantage.
I was also able to apply what I learnt at Henley in my working environment immediately. Another big plus. One of my favourite lecturers was Siphiwe Moyo. I’d been wanting to get into public speaking – to learn about presentation skills and being on stage. So, when that learning block came about, everything he was teaching and the way he taught it, was practical information geared towards that. I later attended an African Speaking Association event, and he was one of the hosts. So, we already had that rapport from Henley, and now we speak regularly and I have insights into that industry and how I should be engaging in public speaking, which would never have happened in a regular school or university environment.
My favourite part about the HCMP was the interaction with lecturers and peers. I was surprised by the quality of people on my course. Initially in the group work I imagined everybody thinking, what’s this 18-year-old kid got to offer? How’s this going to work? I think there was a bit of hesitancy in the beginning, but after finding out more about me and seeing the quality of my work and my maturity, I really feel that I brought something different to the group and I think they respected that difference, which was amazing to see.
I think parents, CEOs and people in the work environment generally need to be more open to different career journeys like the one I am taking. You don’t have to go to a top university straight after school to pursue your career. There are loads of different options. Everyone is unique and has their own personal journey that is right for them. I just knew what I wanted to do, and I wanted to get going on my passion as soon as possible. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to build a business that generates a profit and has employees.
If I had to offer one piece of advice to young people like me, it would be that there’s a difference between what you love and what you’re good at, so make sure that both are aligned. When deciding on a career, you shouldn’t only pursue what you’re good at. You need to find your passion. For example, you may be good at maths but that doesn’t mean you should become a chartered accountant if that field doesn’t interest you. But sometimes you find your passion where you least expect it. For a long time, I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, but I was good at it. And it’s what led me to the place where I found my love for business, and realised I was actually good at it too. I want to take this love and this ability and use it to help build business in Africa.
As African business people we need to believe in ourselves. We have the resources and the people who can build the businesses that build Africa. We have to adopt an American mindset of thinking bigger and doing bigger and starting earlier. We don’t need to start at 45. We can start at 20. Investors from Europe, Asia and America are starting to recognise our start-ups and invest in them. This is crucial for businesses to be able to scale as there are so many companies out there that have really good ideas but don’t have the resources or the capital to grow. I also believe that African businesses need to support each other more – people need to buy from African businesses and stop supporting international companies.
On my own journey in business, it has been really helpful to surround myself with positive people who believe in South Africa and want to invest in it. I really believe that for the next ten years I will be in South Africa building Africa. If educated people keep leaving Africa, who’s going to build it and change it? I really want to be that change.
Henley also believes in building the people who build the businesses that build Africa. There’s a unique way about the business school in terms of their thinking and the way they do things. And you need to understand the leverage that comes with that in terms of the people you’re going to meet and the theory you’ll learn. A lot of the lecturers at Henley have their own businesses so they’re actually working in the business world right now. It’s really practical and future-thinking content, stuff that’s happening right now. We had a 4IR day and used VR goggles. These are just some of the many reasons I am carrying on with Henley’s management pathway and this year am signed up for the Advanced Certificate in Management Practice.