Having worked in the publishing industry for the last seven years
I’ve offered a range of language-related services to:
Media and advertising companies.
My specialisations include:
Copy writing, with particular focus on B2B and marketing copy.
Editorial and proofreading services.
Content development, particularly within the educational field.
In order to provide service excellence, every project is undertaken with a commitment to ensuring accuracy, precision, and attention to detail. It’s a tried and tested formula that makes for very satisfied clients.
Serendipity is both strange and wonderful. My interest in South African entrepreneurs, and particularly startupreneurs, began a year ago when I needed answers to questions that weren’t easily answered or answerable. I was breaking down definitions to make them more palatable for students studying entrepreneurship as a subject in the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector. Frustrated with the literature, I decided to go to the source. I interviewed a total of 27 entrepreneurs, two accelerator representatives, three incubator representatives, and five funding/investing spokespersons.
When Jason Levin’s startup ecosystem discussion paper ‘Unicorns, Gazelles and Leapfrogs’ was published earlier this month, my interest was understandably piqued. While Levin (entrepreneur, intrapreneur and director at Elevation Holdings) is emphatic about the fact that his is a non-academic, “from the horse’s mouth study”, he emphasises that it is simultaneously a “catalyst for conversation” (see page six of the report, which is downloadable here.) Listening to him speak is a treat – he’s refreshingly honest and frank, and these qualities reflect in the paper.
Levin is optimistic and generous in his praise of the South African ecosystem and its startup success stories (the impressive list includes Fundamo, GetSmarter, Giraffe, Gyft, JUMO, KAPA BioSystems, LifeQ, and Yoco), and asserts that even though the country has not (yet) produced a ‘unicorn’ – a startup valued at 1 billion USD – it is quite alright. He is, however, acutely aware of the risks and challenges the ecosystem faces, and outlines them in a balanced, well-reasoned, and well-researched discussion. His paper a useful starting point for any non-specialist wishing to understand startups in the current climate.
Indeed, the ripple effects of the paper were evident at the launch. The discussions which followed demonstrated myriad issues which need consideration and attention. One of the most interesting was the call for ‘ego’ to be left out of decisions around funding, partnerships, collaboration, and the types of entrepreneurs selected by incubators and accelerators. While the very human problems of pride, bias, self-promotion may influence the ecosystem (and may play a role in the difficulties that SpotOn Tutors, Umbo Human Potential Solutions, and Tsonga Pride face, for instance), their effects are yet to be determined.
It was, however, encouraging to see panellist Jayshree Naidoo (Standard Bank Incubator Head) acknowledge the idea of egoism in this space as a concern. She called for more collaboration between various players in the sector, and expressed her wish to contribute to further market opportunities and resources. In fact, the sector is not oblivious to the challenges faced by entrepreneurs. Julia Petla, Managing Director and Founder of Amedzo Trading and Projects (and another panellist), expressed her commitment to unlocking business opportunities and increasing the sustainability of startup ventures. She’s also interested in getting capital leaders to be more involved in mentorship and coaching roles. Petla articulated concern about access to funding: startupreneurs often encounter cash-flow problems and are further beset with stringent measures established by financial institutions.
While conversations around the South African startup ecosystem continue to evolve and coalesce, what of the startupreneurs who aren’t placed in national and international competitions, the ones who – to borrow Levin’s rock music analogy – occupy liminal spaces between ‘groupie’ and ‘rockstar’ status? What happens to those who fall between the cracks, to the ones who aren’t glamourous or successful by the standards of our contemporary capitalist society, especially in a country where the divide between the haves and have-nots is often jarring? Some of the entrepreneurs I spoke to drew attention to the fact that many of their applications to incubators or accelerators, as well as requests for funding or mentoring, went unanswered. Of course, the sheer volume of applications these ecosystem contributors face must be staggering – but I decided to see just how difficult it was to get answers myself.
For the purposes of my informal study, I could not reveal what I was interested in discovering. My objective was clear: I wanted an authentic experience, so I posed as an entrepreneur looking to start a business in the TVET sector, placing graduates in jobs, and made clear that I was self-funded and needed mentorship and training. I sent out a total of 13 applications to all major incubators and was met with no response. I attended a few pitching workshops, and while there was some interest in the idea, the judges visibly shut down when they heard that the ‘business’ was not yet making any money. I changed the variables up a bit to see whether that would improve my chances – I said that I had worked out a financial model (which I had) and that a pilot was being rolled out. The verdict was unanimous: ‘great idea, but we need to know how this will make money.’ And I was also greatly amused to hear a Chief Executive Officer tell me, in front of other participants, that I was dressed too formally to attend a pitching workshop. She suggested that I swop out the business suit for jeans and a t-shirt. I’ll certainly keep that in mind.
Incubators, accelerators, funders, and every other party working in this sphere have mandates, priorities, and specific interests – they are businesses after all. There are some really committed and passionate people who care deeply about entrepreneurial endeavours in South Africa, and there are many positive developments which need to be acknowledged and applauded.
From the outside looking in, though, and from the inside looking out – as my experiment demonstrated – there are always going to be entrepreneurs on the periphery of the ecosystem. There are always going to be the ‘great idea’ generators but, unfortunately, they are probably going to remain ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness.’ Last year I visited the poverty-stricken township of Zenzele outside Randfontein and met Ditsebo: a single mother, she lives in a two-room dwelling made out of aluminium and plastic, with a dirt floor and no running water or electricity. Despite numerous challenges, she is a community leader who coaches volleyball and bakes bread with a solar oven she’s managed to purchase through a community initiative. She put herself through college with her earnings and plans to sell more bread to uplift her community now that she’s completed her studies. People like Ditsebo should also be acknowledged and applauded, but they need more than that: they need practical support and effective support structures. The real question is: who’s going to provide them?
While we argue about issues like whether a South African ‘unicorn’ is possible, the role ego plays in the startup ecosystem, and whether or not our top founders are ambitious enough from the lofty heights of Sandton, we need to remember entrepreneurs like Ditsebo who are ‘hustlers’, who are ambitious, and who part of this ecosystem. As Anish Shivdasani (CEO and one of the co-founders of Giraffe) so rightly pointed out in the panel discussion, we have to address local issues: ‘Stop looking to the rest of the world’, he urges, ‘we have enough problems here which need fixing first.’
So, where to from here? Perhaps a start would be to opening up the discussion to entrepreneurs who haven’t ‘made it’. But, before you enter the debate, stop defining yourselves by what you lack – be it funding, support, mentorship, or networks – and start embracing everything you have, and everything you have to offer. You are going to face criticism and rejection, but take from them what you must in order to grow and succeed. Be ambitious, and be annoyingly persistent. The ecosystem needs your voices in order to fix mechanisms which are broken or failing. You bucked traditional systems and perceptions in order to make your living, so why stop now?
To the funders, incubators, accelerators, ‘rock star’ founders, and other parties which constitute the complex web of the South African startup ecosystem – what is ‘success’, what does it mean to you, and what do you want to see as successes in this space? You need to express these answers to the people, businesses, and organisations on the peripheries, and be open to the definitions evolving with time and with mind-shifting ideas. Stop rehashing the same tired old platitudes about how ‘being an entrepreneur is not for sissies’: entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs already know that, and wouldn’t walk out of jobs to pursue their own businesses if they didn’t. They understand how tough it is because they face challenges every single day. Indeed, perhaps one of the greatest considerations is something every entrepreneur already knows: be less concerned with definitions, with neat categories, and with limitations. Be open to debates and discussions, and let the entrepreneurs shape this landscape with you. It’s not a race, it’s not a competition. We don’t need all the answers right now, but we do need to think about them.
‘How can I support you?’ is a query I often offer people. I dropped the word ‘help’ from my vocabulary several years ago when I realised that it denied people learning opportunities: by ‘helping’ someone you’re signalling that you think the person is inept. In offering support, though, you’re acknowledging that they are already on the path to success.
‘Support’ offers encouragement, empowerment, and fosters growth – of individuals and relationships. It’s the icing on the cake. ‘Help’, on the other hand, places the person offering it firmly in centre stage – they want to control the baking of the cake and measure out all the ingredients themselves – they believe that they’re the only person who can complete the process correctly (for further clarification on the differences between ‘help’ and ‘support’ click here).
Giving and receiving support is an important facet in so many spheres of our lives, and perhaps one of the most crucial is offering feedback. We’ve all experienced, to varying degrees, an internal wince when we’ve heard someone criticise a colleague’s perceived shortcomings. Criticising a person is not a constructive way to provide feedback. Feedback is a loop – it’s a mechanism – a two-way street. If you attack someone when you provide it, you’re indicating that you’re not interested in seeing them learn or succeed. You’re simultaneously devaluing them on an individual, collegial, and very human, level.
Individuals who provide negative and demoralising commentary also show that they’re not even listening to what you’re saying. As Stephen R. Covey asserts, “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” In other words, the critic’s ego becomes more important than the collective growth and harmony of an organisation, team, or group.
To ensure you give useful feedback, consider the following:
1) Be honest but not harsh. The key here is tact. Take the time to listen to what someone is saying, jot down points for improvement, and make a list of all the good points they make.
2) If you aren’t sure, clarify. If you don’t follow what a person is saying, take the time to ask them what they mean. By rephrasing your confusion in a question, you’re assisting rather than hindering. For example, “You mention that x is a challenge. I’m not sure why – could you explain that again?”
3) Lead with the good, and end with it too. Use good points to start your feedback loop, transform the ‘criticisms’ into points for improvement, and end with a few more good points and a compliment or two.
4) Respond – don’t react. If something someone has said has you up in arms, reflect on why it has provoked you. Once you’ve done that, craft a response which is useful for both your understanding, and the other person’s awareness.
5) Use every opportunity for a ‘teaching moment’. As platitudinous as it may sound, it certainly holds true that ‘When you teach, two people learn’. You improve yourself when you take the time to understand, remember, and utilise knowledge, and when you teach those skills to others.
Next time you’re required to provide feedback, picture yourself on the receiving end. Is what you’ve noted useful and constructive or is it attacking and condemning? Is the other person going to learn and improve, or do you risk ruining your relationship with them? Kindness is the new cool, compassion is the new strong, and empathy just makes life so much easier.
If you’ve ever heard of Tai Chi you’re probably thinking one of two things: 1) isn’t that an exercise for old people? Or 2) Isn’t that a really slow martial art? If you’re nodding right now, especially in response to the second question, think about this: what does “really slow” mean to you? In our fast-paced lives we seldom reflect on our need for instant gratification. We want answers and results and we want them NOW. We live in a world of go, go, go and there’s just so much to do. It’s no different when we workout: how many of us choose high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts over gentle stretching and meditation classes? If you can relate to feeling this way it’s totally understandable.
These are issues I faced myself two years ago. I worked in a high pressure, deadline-driven environment which demanded rigorous attention to detail, and allowed very little room for error. In addition to juggling the hectic demands of my career, I was also finishing up a doctoral thesis, and trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy in my relationship and friendships. By the end of 2015 I began to feel like I was running on fumes. Constantly exhausted, I chased one caffeine or sugar high after another (it may sound facetious to refer to ‘highs’, but bear in mind that some studies, perhaps most notably [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23719144] suggest that sugar is more addictive than cocaine). In addition to feeling physically exhausted, I was also mentally and emotionally drained. I began reading about some of the devastating effects of chronic stress, and was alarmed to find that I had all the symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Plagued by constant acute infections, I ended up in hospital twice: first with a kidney infection and the second time with stomach ulcers. My entire endocrine system was affected: blood tests revealed hypoglycaemia, hypothyroidism, a vitamin D deficiency and a host of other worrying results.
I was 29 and well on my way to burning out physically and having a mental breakdown. I needed to change my lifestyle and shift my thinking. My first breakthrough happened one afternoon when I was watching a YouTube video about how beneficial Tai Chi is in relieving stress. I had nothing to lose, and I knew that my local gym had weekend classes I could attend. I showed up, not sure what to expect, and was thrown into the middle of the room while the rest of the class was completing a form.
Bewildered, I tried to mimic what I saw – all the while been sussed out by the resident Shifu. Excruciating moments crept by until he eventually called me aside to say that he needed to see how well I handled being frustrated. The short answer is: not very well at all. I held my tongue and got through my first class, which concluded with me being even more frustrated and completely overwhelmed. The Shifu seemed to thoroughly enjoy this. However, as overwhelming as the first class was, I noticed a change in myself, a subtle shift – a slight awakening.
For the first time in a long time I had forgotten about the stress which felt like it was consuming me from the inside out. The class required immense focus, and it required that focus and concentration in both body and mind. I had to let go of all I was feeling and simply be in the moment. It was that awareness, which I would later find out is actually ‘mindfulness,’that got me practising Tai Chi regularly. It’s not always easy, and sometimes you think your body, limbs, and brain will never connect to get a movement just right, but the moment I stop thinking and ‘just be’ is when I realise that I can. Tai Chi is both meditation and medication in motion – the healing movements, the mindfulness, the deep breathing and the steady (not slow) pace – has taught me so much.
I’m still in the process of working on healing my burnt out body and mind, but clean eating and the mindshift Tai Chi has catalysed changed my life forever. I think the best part is knowing that in being fully present in the here and now while I practise allows me to invest in my future too: the more I listen to my body, the more I learn to read it, the more I slow down, breathe, and pause the better prepared I am to face the challenges of time, and of my external environment. Tai Chi has taught me self-discipline, it’s taught me patience, and it’s taught me the value of my health. Isn’t it time you tried it for yourself?
The three entrepreneurs featured in this series all have inspirational stories to tell about the entrepreneurial journey in South Africa (see Parts 1 and 2). While they reflect very different perspectives and represent diverse sectors, their tales have various threads of commonality. They speak of the hardships, the challenges, and the real sense of isolation that come with being at the forefront of change. Despite the governmental push to support small, micro, and medium enterprises (SMMEs), and efforts to cultivate entrepreneurial spirit and creativity during the school-going years, many entrepreneurs still fall short, even given mentorship, funding, and networking opportunities. The series concludes with a look at how we can move forward.
Junie Sihlangu is both a passionate green living advocate and a committed social entrepreneur. A creative by training, her artistic eye and talent led to her pursuing a career in graphic design. Disenchanted with the demands of a nine to five, and driven by a desire to give back to her community, she decided that a traditional career path would leave her unfulfilled and began looking for inspiration closer to home. She found it in the hobby her mother had started in the 70s: the creation of clothing and accessories from recycled plastic bags.
The hats and handbags that were originally crafted as gifts for friends and family, and occasionally sold to other parties, inspired Junie to formalise her mother’s hobby into a micro enterprise. All Tsonga Pride’s products promote green living and recycling, and the company’s ethos is deeply rooted in these principles. Their vibrant, handmade products pay tribute to the colourful spirit of the Tsonga people. Made up of plastic shopping bags, cardboard, and wool (or a combination of these materials), the original line has inspired the company’s latest creations: mats and fruit bowls. Aside from making beautiful eco-friendly gifts, though, Junie’s aspirations are far more wide-ranging:
‘Tsonga Pride wants to establish a network with communities in townships and rural areas: we aim to employ the locals and teach them how to make our products. Inasmuch as we’ll be empowering people – especially women – through jobs and opportunities, we also want to educate them about the importance of recycling, and incentivise them to adopt the practice in their own homes and communities.’
Indeed, the intricately crafted designs are often custom-made, and the production of each item requires skill, commitment, and patience. Junie soon discovered that she needed all of these qualities to keep her business going. She’s already encountered a couple of stumbling blocks on the road to becoming a fully-fledged social entrepreneur, but has been learning to manage them with the support of eKasiLabs Soweto. As Junie explains:
‘The biggest challenge we’ve had is a simple lack of knowledge with regard to the ins and outs of running a business. No one teaches you how to do this, and it seems a road less travelled for women in my community. Since the business’s revenue stream is inconsistent, I supplement it by freelancing. Tsonga Pride’s revenue is used primarily for supplies, transportation, and advertising.
One of the toughest realisations I’ve had to face is that it’s difficult to get consumers interested in purchasing handmade recycled goods. This is a niche market, and as the quality of the products isn’t "commercial grade," finding the right customer base is proving both frustrating and challenging. Although we’ve been able to successfully sell our products at markets and fairs, we aren’t always able to make a regular appearance due to insufficient funds.’
Despite these challenges, Junie remains optimistic. Tsonga Pride is much more than just a business – it’s her way of giving back to her community in a meaningful way. Her main aim is to uplift and empower people:
‘If I can do just one small thing to change a person’s perspective, or living situation, I will be happy. Running a business purely for financial gain doesn’t move me – maybe that’s what differentiates Tsonga Pride from regular for-profit enterprises, or maybe it’s reflective of my personality and values – I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that I find fulfillment every time I collect the materials we recycle and turn them into these beautiful creations.’
Tsonga Pride’s products range between R80 and R500, and can be delivered anywhere in South Africa. Find them on Facebook, or contact Junie directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A guide to holding down a full-time job whilst pursuing a higher degree
I managed to navigate the course of a Master’s degree by thesis with relative ease. I met with my supervisor bimonthly, and she was grateful for my diligence and commitment. I could never quite understand, therefore, how some of my peers wouldn’t work on their theses for months, or why they actively avoided meetings with their supervisors.
If someone had told me then that I would become one of those students, I would never have believed it. Indeed, when I was awarded a scholarship to complete my doctorate, and once the initial elation of the honour passed, I was unprepared for the nagging insistence that I was tired. I was tired of researching, I was tired of being holed up in a room on my own for hours, and even days at a time, and I was tired of having to sacrifice so much for something that felt all-consuming. These realisations would only come much later, though, along with the understanding that the scholarship felt increasingly like a yoke around my neck.
I enrolled for a PhD while employed full-time as an educational publisher. I was totally unprepared for the whole gamut of strain I had inadvertently signed up for, and often wished that someone could have prepared me for what seemed an impossible juggle. I decide to write this article in the hope that I can at least spare some of you the angst I endured.
Make no mistake: this decision means an incredibly difficult journey for most people. You will feel demotivated, stressed, panicked, and absolutely desperate at times, but you will also find consolation, encouragement, and a commitment to continue in the most unlikely of places, and at the most unlikely periods of your life. Before you embark, though, and even if you’re halfway through, you need to ask yourself these five crucial questions:
1) Why am I doing this?
You need to be absolutely sure why you’ve decided to pursue your study. Are you hoping to advance your career? Do you wish to return to academe? Are you interested in research? Once you’re sure you understand your reasons, you’ll need to decide whether they’re motivation enough to see you through four or more years of study.
2) Can I afford the strain my decisions are going to take (or are taking) on my personal and collegial relationships?
There is a deep-rooted fallacy that circulates some organisations, and which has become ingrained in the minds of the middle-class: the work-life balance. As Organisational Development Practitioner, Kim Street, explains: “There is no such thing as the ‘work-life balance’ – work is part of your life, and even though you spend a lot of time there, it should not enjoy primacy over your relationships, social activities, studies, and community involvement.”
The same concept should be applied to your studies: you must have balance, and if you find the juggling act too hard, or too detrimental, you need to reassess the situation.
3) How do I find time to work and study?
This is closely linked to the point above, but, in short, you will need to make time to study or research. Do you work best in the mornings or in the evenings? Can you commit to starting your day a few hours earlier, or extending it a few hours into the evening? Will you commit your weekends to study, and if so, how many hours will you need to put in to ensure you meet your deadlines? Are your family and friends prepared to spend less time with you, and have you explained to them why you can’t attend every social engagement?
The key to managing both your time and personal relationships is communication (read more about this topic here). You need to be completely honest with those near and dear to you. If they’ve never pursued a higher (or any) degree part-time you need to explain your choices to them, and also ask for their support.
4) Are the financial, institutional, and emotional support structures I need in place?
You will need all three of these components to ensure your success, and you should invest enough time and effort in checking that each exists, and that they’re adequate.
If you’re self-funded, you will have to work out a budget for every year you plan to extend your study. You need to calculate the costs annually and stick to the budgets you’ve decided upon. You should also make provision for miscellaneous costs such as research, conferences, travel, and, very importantly, computer equipment.
Clea Schultz-Mofokeng, a PhD candidate who works as a high school teacher, cites her distance from research facilities as a major challenge. That, coupled with the demands of a teaching career, means that she has had to make alternative research arrangements. If you haven’t yet considered the impact your choice of institution has on your studies, now is the time. Figure out what you need, and determine whether you’re able to source those requirements from the institution.
Emotional support structures should not be neglected. Your supervisor should be someone you get along with, and someone who understands the challenges you face. You’ll need to be completely transparent about the difficulties you have, and ask them for assistance if you need it. The same applies to family and friends: as much as you are sacrificing a lot, so are they – you’ll need to manage these relationships in order to ensure they’re not strained or permanently damaged.
5) What happens if I decide that pursuing my degree is no longer an option?
The truth is, there is no shame in deciding that you are simply unable to continue. It is better to be honest with yourself than feel demotivated and resentful. If that is how you feel, and you simply cannot get past feeling this way, it’s best to consider a hiatus. Most institutions offer options for either deregistration or a suspension of your studies – either for a year or two, or indefinitely.
If you do decide that you would rather focus on your career or family-life, you should not feel guilty about the decision – even if no one but you understands the sacrifices you’ve had to make. Besides, you can always pursue the degree at another stage.
There are, of course, many other questions to consider. Ultimately, you must decide on whether the fire in your belly overrides the drudgery of working on something for an extended period of time. Make the time to speak to people who understand the challenges of working full-time whilst studying, and decide whether you’re willing to face them, and the others, that you’ll encounter along the way. Ultimately, no one can make the decision for you, so weigh up your options to determine what you’re (realistically) able to accomplish.
If you have not yet read Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, you need to add this title to your list of recommended reading. In it, Gawande enshrines the doctrine of the checklist, and provides practical suggestions on how to incorporate it into your personal and professional environments. Even though the book was published nearly a decade ago, much of Gawande’s advice stills holds true. The Checklist Manifesto makes an excellent case for the importance of planning ahead and being systematic. It also emphasises the significance of following procedure, and demonstrates that although we may take routine checks for granted, we really shouldn’t.
Indeed, if you’re an organised person, the idea of the checklist is either one you’re already incorporating, or one you would consider implementing. If you’re still working on being organised, however, you may be resistant to the idea. Don’t be: it’s an easy system to employ and follow.
Think about it this way: if you commit the steps of a procedure to memory, you’re probably going to forget some of them along the way – particularly during periods of heightened stress. If you have a physical reminder of those steps (and actually tick them off as you complete them), you’re more likely to circumvent errors by correcting them before they snowball.
Checklists are meant to be simple. If your checklist is thirty pages long with lots of bullet points, you’ll need to refine it significantly and ruthlessly. First, rate the importance of each step in a procedure, and then answer the following questions:
What are the crucial steps – the ones that simply have to be done?
If you skipped one of those steps who would be adversely affected?
Can any of the steps be made simpler?
Once you’re satisfied with the final product, the key is regular execution. Refer to the checklist every time you need to complete a procedure, follow the steps, and tick them off as they’re completed – and only when they’re completed.
The templates below offer two simple examples: the first assists authors in preparing their manuscripts for publishing houses. The second focuses on preparing software for deployment, assuming that the software has passed user-acceptance testing (UAT). You’ll notice that they both contain only close-ended questions. Remember, the aim of your checklist is to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions – it is not a questionnaire designed for feedback.
Example 1: Author’s checklist: preparing a manuscript for a publisher
Have you identified a suitable publisher?
Is the selected publisher interested in your genre?
Have you made contact with the publisher?
Are you familiar with their manuscript submission requirements?
Have you prepared a synopsis of your work?
Do you have permission to use the artwork you plan to submit?
Do you have a reference list?
Example 2: Developer’s checklist: software deployment
Have you made a backup of the application in production?
Have you made a backup of the database in production?
Have you pulled in the new source code?
Have you made all the required database changes (if applicable)?
Have you stopped the live (old) application?
Have you started the new application?
Have you tested that the new changes work correctly?
Have you tested old features to ensure they still work correctly?
Checklists are tools which are easily adaptable to most tasks and professions. Once you adopt them, you’ll realise that they’re useful tracking and management aids. Try implementing checklists on basic procedures first: once you’re comfortable, the principles are easily transferable to more complicated ones. Try them for yourself and see your efficiency improve.
The three entrepreneurs featured in this series all have inspirational stories to tell about the entrepreneurial journey in South Africa (you can read Part 1 here). While they reflect very different perspectives and represent diverse sectors, their tales have various threads of commonality. They speak of the hardships, the challenges, and the real sense of isolation that come with being at the forefront of change. Despite the governmental push to support small, micro, and medium enterprises (SMMEs), and efforts to cultivate entrepreneurial spirit and creativity during the school-going years, many entrepreneurs still fall short, even given mentorship, funding, and networking opportunities. The series concludes with a look at how we can move forward.
Umbo Human Potential Solutions
All the right buzzwords. Leadership development. Organisational development. Talent management. Assessment and innovation. The list is impressive. An obvious high-flyer, Hema has achieved at 40 what most people can only dream of, and yet, she’s incredibly humble and eager to share her expertise and knowledge: so much so that when I approached her with the proposition of featuring in an educational video meant to inspire budding entrepreneurs, she jumped at the chance.
After a brief pre-interview chat, I hit her with the really hard questions – “Why is the failure rate of startups in South Africa so high?”, “How can entrepreneurs really make a difference in terms of unemployment?”, “What are the faults in the educational system stymying the chances of so many potential entrepreneurs?” – a seasoned entrepreneur herself, she never flinched once. I interviewed 13 people that day, but Hema’s answers remained with me long after I reviewed the footage weeks later. I had to know more about what she described as “the innovative field of leadership and ‘potential’ development.”
Hema is something of an anomaly. Despite having a long and illustrious corporate career, she always felt like a square peg in a round hole. She never could reconcile her entrepreneurial spirit with the regular career trajectory of an industrial psychologist. I suggest to her that that is probably because she took the fork in the road less travelled quite a long time ago, and she laughs. “I think I’m allergic to the norm,” she confides. Always upbeat, Hema’s manner belies the incredibly hard path she’s had to walk. Although Umbo Human Potential Solutions was established as a partnership in 2006, Hema lost her business partner in a car accident a few months after its establishment. Deeply scarred by this loss, it would be years before she was able to resuscitate her entrepreneurial endeavour.
By 2015 Hema felt like her potential was stagnating. Disillusioned, she was ready for change. It came when she walked out of her high-profile day job at an internationally renowned company to pursue the spark that Umbo had ignited in her so many years before. As she explains: “I wanted to use my skills to develop the potential in others. I had spent my entire career working with business simulation and learning platforms, and saw the significant learning curve these tools afforded. I started to look at creating a platform supporting ‘accelerated learning and leadership labs’, but the major turning point came after I was repeatedly dogged by aspirant entrepreneurs keen to know whether a similar service was offered outside the corporate setting.”
This resulted in Hema establishing ‘accelerated entrepreneur labs’. She knew immediately that it was imperative to make a difference in the lives of entrepreneurs “who do not have access to MBAs or academic support but who do have the inspiration and vision to dream big”. Earlier this year, Hema’s unfailing commitment to developing entrepreneurs in South Africa was honoured at the World Women Leadership Congress in Mumbai, where she was presented with both the ‘Social Innovation Leadership Award’ and an award for ‘Women in Entrepreneurship’.
Despite these accolades, Hema is convinced that she has so much more to offer: not only is she currently working towards transformation in the furniture and design sectors, but her broader vision entails the development of entrepreneurs at a young age. She aims to empower children with an entrepreneurial predilection to develop their ideas by using journals in which they are free to brainstorm and create their own visions.
When I ask Hema about why her awards were not covered by the South African media, she shrugs. I contend that it is strange that this kind of international recognition goes unnoticed here, but she is unflurried. She sums her goals up simply: “I continue to strive, hoping that one day Umbo will make a difference – that one day we will partner with governments, funders, and like-minded individuals across the globe. Thus allied, it’s my dream that together we will ignite the potential of many, and create a lasting legacy and meaningful impact for anyone who’s ever dared to dream…”
I attended a training session last year and was appalled to hear a facilitator proudly announce that he “didn’t read emails”. He got them, occasionally skimmed them, but never responded. He claimed that he was far too ‘busy’ to sift through the pile of emails in his inbox, and suggested that no one worth their salt bothered to respond to emails either. I can certainly confirm that he did not read emails: I had sent him two enquiries about the course and its requirements after a few phone calls to his office went unanswered, only to be met with no response.
The lesson I took away from his pompous assertion was this: be very careful about how you brand and represent yourself, both directly and indirectly. You are, after all, branding and representing yourself in every piece of communication you send out (see my article ‘How to write well’ for more on this topic). Written communication is just as powerful as verbal communication, and it can reveal more about a person than they intend. If you want to be a successful communicator, avoid making these five mistakes:
1) Claiming you’re too busy to respond. What does being ‘too busy’ mean? For some people it translates into inefficiency. Claiming to be ‘busy’ is an empty excuse that effectively signals to the person you’re corresponding with that they’re simply not worth your time. It’s a flashing neon sign that says you’re inept at managing your duties and carving up your day. That’s fine if you’re planning never to work with a colleague, stakeholder, or client again, but if you’re hoping for future collaboration can you afford to damage these relationships?
2) Offering ‘half-measure’ responses. Have you ever sent an email or text to someone asking very specific questions only to receive a reply with less than half of them answered? If someone needs answers from you, make an effort to respond to them properly. If you don’t understand their question, ask for clarification. If you really can’t decipher an email or text, call your correspondent and talk it through. These are key relationship-building strategies, and show the person, or people, you’re communicating with that you are investing in them and in their abilities, and that you are fully committed to seeing a project through. It speaks volumes about your work and personal ethic.
3) Sending unedited responses. Newsflash: that badly-punctuated and sloppily-worded email you sent out is a reflection of how you think (or don’t think) about what you’re saying or doing. You’re leaving the person on the other end with the distinct impression that your judgment can’t be trusted, and that they are going to have to muddle through the mess you’ve left them on their own.
4) Not responding because you think someone’s questions are stupid. We all remember our teachers telling us that there is no such thing as a stupid question, but our own experiences have demonstrated otherwise. Yes, you may be asked the occasional ‘stupid’ question, and you may resent having to answer it, but you should anyway. Besides, what seems stupid to you may be an issue that someone else is really struggling with, and perhaps a language barrier prevents them from communicating well. How good are you at speaking or writing in your second, third, or fourth language? A little compassion goes a long way in your own character building and growth, and fosters better relationships with everyone you deal with.
5) Not apologising when you make a mistake. As clichéd as it sounds, everyone makes mistakes (yes, even editors) – and how people respond to your mistakes is largely determined by how you own up to them. Blaming other parties or lashing out at the person you’re communicating with is a good way to permanently sour a relationship. The key to apologising is to actually mean it when you say ‘sorry’ for an error, however small. For example, I once misspelled a supplier’s name: hers is spelled ‘Lynne’, and I had been corresponding with an author, ‘Lyn’, all day – I slipped into autopilot and, even though I had checked the body of the email for spelling and grammatical errors, I forgot to check the name. Too late to recall the original mail, I sent a follow-up apologising profusely for my mistake, and was met with a gracious and kind response. I had managed to get across the fact that I was truly sorry because people misspell my name all the time, and I know how it feels when someone finally takes the time to check and spell it correctly. No one is infallible. Smile like you mean it (bonus points if you do), thank the person for their understanding, make a mental (or physical) note about the error so you don’t repeat it, and move on.
It may seem innocuous enough to ignore the occasional email or text, but in a professional setting it is best to respond to every communication. If you have to attend a meeting, draft a quick apology and get back to the person when you can devote your time to dealing with their queries and concerns satisfactorily. Not only will you seem more professional, but you’ll also be able to track your projects properly by keeping on top of progress. If you pay attention to problems that present themselves in a project’s infancy, you’ll be able to manage or circumvent any potentially serious issues timeously. The art of good communication is one that will serve you well in many spheres of both your personal and professional life. It’s a crucial tool, and simply observing and maintaining good etiquette allows you to better your management and people skills. Isn’t it time you started communicating properly?
When people discover that I’m a publishing specialist, I’m frequently asked whether I can assist them in getting their book published. The answer is always a tentative yes – tentative because I need to assess their writing skills before ascertaining whether I can work with the manuscript as it is, or whether I need to bring in a third-party to ensure the book sees the light of day.
For those of you who think that you’re not interested in being an author, or writing creatively or otherwise, here’s why you should be: you’re an author every single day. Think about it: when you’re writing an email, a note to yourself, a report, a business plan, or even a text message, you’re following a very deliberate and methodical process:
1) You’re formulating what you’re going to say.
2) You’re thinking about the best means of expressing your point.
3) And you should be considering how your message is going to be interpreted by the reader.
In an age where social media rules so much of our lives, good writing is more important than ever. Writing something down is a way you present, and expose, yourself, your ideas, and your thinking to the world. Every idea or thought you record and send out is a reflection of you. In a world where personal branding has come to be both a liberating and detrimental force, we can build or destroy our reputations by simply making a comment. Writing makes us accountable – just ask Penny Sparrow.
So, what makes a good writer? Years of working in the publishing sector mean that I can sum it up in a four-point checklist:
1) Do you know what you’re talking about? If you can lend an authoritative voice to a topic or debate, and back up your views with well-researched and substantiated claims, you’re going to inspire confidence.
2) Are you able to be objective? As the first four lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” read, “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, / But make allowance for their doubting too”, you’ll demonstrate logical dexterity, the power of abstraction, and that all-important human aspect: ‘empathy’.
3) Can you get your point across effectively? There is, of course, a major difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Being efficient means you can get the job done. Being effective means you can do it deftly, with flair, and with finesse. Writing effectively means that if you aim for perfection, it will meet you half-way.
4) Can you spell? Or at least use spell-check or Grammarly? This sounds facetious, but I’m serious. How many times have you cringed when you’ve seen a poorly-worded email from a colleague, or laughed when your boss got an idiom horribly wrong? Be sure to hit “Fn” and “F7” regularly, and hire a good editor to check any work you’re preparing for publication.
Next time you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, pause and reflect on what it is you’re trying to convey. And, as with everything else, if you can’t do it yourself, hire someone to do it for you. Ghost writers, overwriters, and editors can transform even the most mundane manuscript into a masterpiece. For further advice about writing or editing, feel free to contact me.
The three entrepreneurs featured in this series all have inspirational stories to tell about the entrepreneurial journey in South Africa (you can read Part 2 here). While they reflect very different perspectives and represent diverse sectors, their tales have various threads of commonality. They speak of the hardships, the challenges, and the real sense of isolation that come with being at the forefront of change. Despite the governmental push to support small, micro, and medium enterprises (SMMEs), and efforts to cultivate entrepreneurial spirit and creativity during the school-going years, many entrepreneurs still fall short, even given mentorship, funding, and networking opportunities. The series concludes with a look at how we can move forward. SpotOn Tutors
I’ll never forget the first time I met Simamkele Somerset. The man radiates optimism and enthusiasm, and his confidence originates not from the need to prove that he is right, but rather from the conviction that he is revitalising the educational landscape in South Africa while challenging traditional views about education and pedagogy. His irrepressible optimism is his impetus. He’s a teacher, a latent YouTube celebrity, and a game-changer. Listening to him speak about Mathematics and how he envisions the future of the subject in South Africa, I am struck by how fitting his nickname, “Danny”, is. Like the Biblical figure, Danny is a dreamer – he’s a visionary, and he’s entering the dreamscape in order to make subjects like Mathematics interpretable and accessible to all.
A mathematical technologist, Danny’s journey began when he was a student at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). It was here that he discovered a talent for explaining concepts in a way that made them palatable to every student appealing to him for assistance. As his reputation grew, so did his student following. This eventually crystalised in the establishment of a small, informal operation called SpotOn Tutors.
Danny has recently formalised and registered SpotOn Tutors – and he has set his sights on changing what he diagnoses as the decaying aspects of an educational structure failing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in this country. His approach is not novel: South African educationalists have been exposed to the notion of ‘blended’ learning – the combination of traditional classroom methods with digital media in an educational programme – since at least the early 2000s. However, Danny’s not just talking about this concept. Armed with his smartphone, a whiteboard and a makeshift-rig to keep the phone steady while he works through solutions, he started the SpotOn Tutors YouTube channel to support students who need difficult concepts explained to them, particularly those who do not have regular contact with teachers/lecturers.
SpotOn Tutors thus focuses on empowering the student and fostering learning freedom through what Danny refers to as a ‘continuous learning experience’. To this end, the company is developing a bank of digital assets students can use to teach themselves and others. As Danny explains, “students use the resources they already have, such as smartphones, tablets and TVs (with DVD/USB players), to create an independent learning experience. Digital content is what both current and past generations need. If we’re successful in creating quality digital content we will not only be a successful academic support institution, but we’ll be among the first educators in South Africa who realised the need to revolutionise traditional teaching methods. We’ll provide meaningful education to thousands of young people, equipping them with the requisite cognitive skills for the 21st-century learning experience. We don't succeed unless our clients succeed.”
Danny is acutely aware of the challenges he faces as an entrepreneur and business owner. He candidly explains to me that despite the lack of interest he’s had from potential stakeholders and funders in the corporate sector he remains unperturbed. He’s currently focusing on expanding operations out of the Cape Metro area and aims to set up centres of learning in several metropoles around South Africa in the coming months. He’s got a vision, he’s got a business plan, and he has plenty of students and educators who are counting on his agility and ingenuity. He will keep going, and so will SpotOn Tutors.