Alumnus encourages SA youth to be entrepreneurs

Canon Collins alumnus Steven Zwane (MBA, Durham University) is the founder and chairperson of the Youth Leadership & Entrepreneurship Development (YLED) Non-Profit Organization. YLED is an award winning, innovative and inspirational youth skills and entrepreneurship development organisation that aims to positively impact participants’ future academic, social, entrepreneurial and career paths. In this article, Steven outlines why he thinks Black South Africans are letting their children down by not being business-minded or encouraging entrepreneurship around the dinner table or in their social circles.

I have dedicated the last 13 years of my life to youth development with a special focus on leadership and entrepreneurship skills. The drive has been to ensure that young people that take part in YLED programmes become credible contributors to the economy, by gaining employment, or self-employment, or pursuing further academic qualifications. I believe that this will prevent many young people from becoming grant recipients, drug addicts, embarking in criminal activities that will render them from being employable.

Thousands of young people have been set on course for success as a result of the success in brightening our little corner. A number of our graduates have chosen to give back to the YLED fold by volunteering their time and skills; Talk about paying forward. For me, this is unheard of because a number of young people are oblivious to the importance of enabling the dreams of others. Arguably, the fault falls to us as parents who don’t necessarily act as role models in this regard. This could be attributed to the everyday ‘adrenaline rush’, where we get caught up in our own world and essentially a ‘rat race’.

“Discussions around job creation, self-employment and identifying gaps in the market with an intent to solve them and make money out of opportunity exploitation do not really form part of our dinner table conversations nor do they form part of our social circles which is heavily stacked with sports, the arts and politics.”

YLED’s Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge provides entrepreneurship awareness amongst the youth. It has been in my experience of imparting these skills that whenever a cohort of young people of other races and origins join our program they are distinctly more confident of doing well. These individuals indeed go on to win our entrepreneurial spirit award; the top sales person award, and ultimately winning the best company and general manager awards.

Despite gaining entrepreneurial awareness, 98% of participants, who are predominantly black youth from Gauteng-wide townships, still choose employment as the career option. While the entrepreneurial spark exists, it is extinguished by the environment these young people are raised in that does not necessarily celebrate entrepreneurs nor does it embrace an entrepreneurship mindset. Arguably, the overwhelming presence of entrepreneurial figures from other continents or White South Africans does not provide these young people with someone they can identify with. Furthermore, the language of business and entrepreneurship is not infused during conversations at the dinner table and in black social circles. Perhaps the stories of thriving black businesses and entrepreneurs are confined to business schools and events that attract the reluctant black entrepreneurs and highly qualified middle class role players who are thriving in the corporate world.

“The face of entrepreneurship is white, making it seem like a far-fetched dream than a possibility for the young people yearning for inspiration and role models”

Clearly there is an identifiable gap in our society and in order to address this, I believe that we have to collaborate with individuals who have invaluable skills at their disposal. Bringing forth more entrepreneurial stories to these young stars and continuing to introduce business language to them will ultimately ensure they will play central roles in their communities, organisations and small business, whilst also being encouraged to pursue self-employment.

These new stories will help us to eventually erase the ‘umkhozi’ memories of our childhood so we are able to redefine the definition of ‘entrepreneurship’ and the stigmatizing association of it with failed businesses that have fallen flat due to the founder being incapacitated and no one in the family with adequate skills and ability to sustain the legacy and grow the businesses. Instead, this should be understood as the result of people who are happy to consume the output but cannot comprehend the production side of things – for example it is notable how the spaza shops, that defined our vibrant township economy, have shifted hands and our response to this is crying foul.

This trend is also true within institutes of higher learning where most examples of entrepreneurs referenced are usually from international foreign-owned companies. From interviews, to case studies to guest-speakers, it appears as if black entrepreneurs and their enterprises are an afterthought.

“It is our belief at YLED that the future success of this country rests with young people that are entrepreneurially aware, are problem solvers, innovators and are not afraid of venturing into the less travelled road of self-employment, being fully aware that it will be a challenging yet rewarding one.”

I know that we can confront these issues of self-inflicted low self-esteem because we as a people have overcome far greater challenges in our personal journeys and that of this country.

My submission is that there is widespread low tolerance for entrepreneurial failures in South Africa. This culture is not conducive to fostering entrepreneurial activity and this should be confronted by:

  • Launching a dedicated black entrepreneurs’ TV channel and online platform whose purpose will be to tell stories of thriving entrepreneurs and businesses.
  • Making ‘entrepreneurship in action’ an in-school subject as is the case at the newly formed Future Nations School that is being pioneered by the renowned business leader and entrepreneur Mr. Sizwe Nxasana.
  • Celebrating the pioneers that have proven over and over that through resilience they can make a success of their entrepreneurial journeys. We have enough of these entrepreneurs to entrench their stories and journeys in our settings.
  • Learning from those that seamlessly get this right, even if it means we reach out to them to serve as mentors and coaches as we train our own. We are citizens in the same country and our common dream is to see our country reaching new heights.

Most importantly, we need to stop paying lip service to this topic and act. Otherwise we will continue to watch others thrive whilst we embark in endless, destructive mass-action, sit comfortably in companies that are owned by other races and Pan African counterparts wondering why the economy is not growing.

“Our brothers and sisters who have qualifications are sitting at home without jobs and lacking the much-needed mindset and aptitude to start businesses while they hold out for that day when they can secure employment. This is largely due to a shortage of job creators, so employability becomes a ‘generational curse’ and thus the poverty cycle continues to repeat itself.”

Through this awareness and additional recommendations on what can be done, I hope that we can stand together in inspiring a generation of entrepreneurs that will build corporations that will be renowned both within the continent and abroad. This will serve as a valuable service to the development of the country because entrepreneurial activity drives economic growth and job creation.