Meet the new chief executive of Duke Corporate Education.

In October 2021, South Africa-born Sharmla Chetty was appointed chief executive officer for Duke Corporate Education.

Since 2019, Chetty has served as Duke CE’s president of global markets, North America, Europe & UK, Asia, and Africa – driving strategic alignment for the organization globally and in its regional practices around the world.

Sharmla Chetty’s commitment to social change and impactful leadership was instilled at a very early age. It was her lifelong commitment to effecting social transformation that, decades later, saw her transition from a steady role with a prominent South African bank, to embark on a journey of purpose to effect meaningful change. It started in 2007 when she launched Duke CE’s African operation as its first managing director. Faced with the challenge of embedding the US brand in new and uncharted territory, she was driven forward by her personal purpose of education as a key driver for social justice and leadership. Together with her team, she grew the South Africa office of Duke CE into the preeminent custom executive education provider on the African continent.

Chetty is known for her unorthodox ideas-based approach to business. She is a freethinker who turned the one-time start-up into a Duke CE success story – achieving growth few imagined possible.

“In these early days we didn’t have a recognized brand on the ground,” Chetty recalls. “It was a global organization coming into a country at a time when people were very patriotic towards South African brands. There were some great brands in the country and my question was, ‘How do we learn to be global to our advantage?’ The key was to respond to local needs with a global team-based approach towards learning, leadership and excellence.”

Sustainable outcomes

Chetty is passionate about achieving sustainable outcomes in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG). She has a proven track record of driving transformation through leadership, with deep local experience in a range of industries including financial services, healthcare, mining, energy and manufacturing, from working with clients in 80 countries.

Her leadership style has been developed through varied life experiences and an eventful career: from anti-apartheid activism to the disciplined corporate structures of banking, to the think-on-your-feet skills required to launch a start-up. She believes it is important to be clear and upfront about your goals, realistic about the scale of your challenges, and to give people the autonomy they need to deliver.

“Leaders should not be afraid to bring the most brilliant minds together,” says Chetty. “When we get the right people in the room, and unite them around our common goal, we achieve phenomenal results.” Chetty believes good leaders have the ability to connect on a human level: “If you want to engage people at the highest level, you need to find out what motivates and excites them.”

Looking ahead, Chetty believes corporations must adapt at speed to meet the requirements of an era of digital disruption to old business models, not only from a technology perspective but also cultural and societal change. She says: “Leadership is needed more than ever because the world’s organizations are facing new, emergent and complex challenges. People are now clearly looking to businesses to solve societal issues, instead of relying solely on government. We are collectively accountable to make a difference,” she says.

That makes for an upbeat vision of the future. “We have an incredible opportunity to partner with our clients to reinvent education, coupling human-centred design and world-class educational experiences to shape leaders who can turn challenges into opportunities for a positive future.”

Chetty adds: “I find it hard to rest. There will forever be something to change for the better. It is how I have lived my life, and I welcome the opportunity to continue this journey with the Duke CE team.”