From day-dreamer to change maker - a short series challenging entrepreneurial stereotypes (Part 2)

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…”