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Dean’s Excellence Award Winner Unathi Mtya Shares Her Journey to Columbia’s Technology Management Program

With a midnight deadline looming, Unathi Mtya typed feverishly into her computer late into the night in her apartment in South Africa.

Earlier that day, the Columbia University School of Professional Studies (SPS) M.S. in Technology Management program had reached out to Unathi to encourage her to apply to the program—and also informed her that today was the deadline for her application fee to be waived. Unathi diligently worked on her application, finally submitting it just minutes before the midnight deadline.

A few months later, Unathi received a message from the dean informing her that she had been accepted to the program. “When I opened the email, I literally shed a tear,” she says.

In May of this year, Unathi was back in New York City to accept the 2024 Dean’s Excellence Award in recognition of her leadership as one of the most influential CIOs and women in the banking sector in Africa. The highest honor bestowed annually by Columbia SPS to exceptional members of the community, the annual Dean’s Excellence Awards honor students, faculty, alumni, and administrators for their accomplishments and commitment to the School.

Unathi is a globally respected technology leader who is passionate about narrowing the digital divide and promoting equal access to financial services across Africa. She has been acknowledged as one of the top CIOs globally and honored with the Global CIO 100 Award in 2022 and 2023, Most Influential African Woman Banker of the Year in the Digital Transformation Category in 2022, and Best CIO of the Year (SADC Region) in 2023. 

Before the awards ceremony, Unathi sat down with Alexis Wichowski, program director of the M.S. in Technology Management, for a fireside chat, in which she shared how her experience at Columbia SPS has positively impacted her career, how she incorporates “inclusive technology” into her current role at African Bank, plus a few words of advice for current and future technology management students.

Unathi’s Path to Columbia SPS

Unathi Mtya (’18SPS, Technology Management) began her career as a junior operations analyst at First National Bank, where she managed several portfolios across a wide spectrum of IT disciplines and led multidisciplinary teams at senior management, general management, and C-suite levels both in the public and the private sector.

As her career progressed, Unathi advanced to key leadership roles, including chief information officer at the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa. Seeking to enrich her executive-level experience in business leadership and technology, Unathi began exploring the idea of getting a master’s degree in the United States. She ultimately decided to attend Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, which she has called “one of the best decisions I have ever made.”

“Coming to Columbia was an accelerator and a game changer in my own journey,” Unathi said during the fireside chat. “The amount of experience the lecturers have is unbelievable, and it’s unmatched.”

Making Technology More Inclusive

After graduating from Columbia’s M.S. in Technology Management program in 2018, Unathi landed a role as Chief Technology Officer at Grindrod Bank, and in 2021 became group chief information and digital officer at African Bank, one of the foremost financial institutions in Africa.

“In African Bank, I found a place that has a rich history, like I do, and an amazing heritage. It is a bank that honors the variable regions of our people in South Africa. Our story is one of humanity, and of honoring and advancing lives. My role is to do so through inclusive technology.”

Unathi and Alexis expanded on the concept of inclusive technology, which includes the use of digital transformation to promote equal access to financial services. When Alexis asked how Unathi handles the responsibility of making sure new technology is used to improve customer experience, Unathi shared that her job is to understand what customers need and predict what they might want in the future. That’s where machine learning and AI come in.

“Your currency is data, because if you have a strong data analytics strategy, that's going to help you to make those predictions for customers,” she said. “It’s going to help you better understand your customers and have a full view of who they are and who they could be, and how you can assist them in financial management in the way that makes most sense for them. We call ourselves ‘the bank for the people, by the people, serving the people.’”

Working Toward a Shared Dream

One of the most valuable and meaningful aspects of the program, Unathi said, was developing relationships with those in her cohort. “Some of them have become like family members,” she said. “I still go to them when I’m experiencing challenges in my career.”

She credits the Technology Management program with introducing her to others who share the same mindset. “There's something special about a group of people in one room with the same dream who are working toward that dream and are looking for something greater.”

Entrepreneur and fellow program alum Ashish Sanwal (’14SPS, Technology Management) attended the fireside chat to meet Unathi, whom he’d learned about through the SPS alumni network.

“I wanted to get her advice on how to approach technology in the region using the tools I got from the Technology Management program,” said Ashish, who is currently developing a project in Africa. “She talked about how African Bank is innovating with technology, and it made me believe in my purpose as well.”

Finding Purpose in One’s Career

While the conversation between Unathi and Alexis largely centered on the potential of technology to foster inclusive growth in the financial sector, Unathi made a point of emphasizing the importance of finding purpose in one’s career.

“A job means more than just going to work,” Unathi said. In your career journey, you will make mistakes, you will have bosses you don’t like, and you will face challenges, Unathi told students in attendance, but ultimately “no experience is a waste of time.” Alexis expressed her appreciation for that sentiment, saying that students often want to pursue the perfect job right out of the gate, but one’s career journey is typically a winding road.

“Take it a day at a time,” Unathi advised students in the program. “Two years go by fast. Live in the moment. The experiences you will have in this program are like no other.”

About the SPS Office of Alumni Relations

Columbia SPS has an unparalleled alumni network of 15,000+ alumni extending around the world in 96 countries. A quarter of our alumni live outside the U.S., making them a member of a vibrant community of thought leaders and catalysts for change in the global public and private sectors.

The Office of Alumni Relations is here to help alumni foster a lifelong connection with their SPS alumni community and Columbia through social and athletic events, learning and networking opportunities, career resources, and fundraising opportunities.

About the Program

Columbia University's Master of Science in Technology Management is designed to respond to the urgent need for strategic perspectives, critical thinking, and exceptional communication skills at all levels of the workplace and across all types of organizations.