Empowering SA Entrepreneurs

On Friday I attended a dialogue session hosted by YouthLab entitled: “Empowering Entrepreneurs through Partnerships and Policies.”  Now, if I was to try and articulate everything that went on during the event – I simply wouldn’t do it justice.  So I just want to share the highlights package with you.  If something doesn’t make sense, because of a lack of context, feel free to give me a shout and I would be more than happy to discuss any aspects with you.

The dialogue took the form of 3 panels of guests, debating various issues around entrepreneurship.  The key focus points were as follows:

  • Government’s role in fostering and supporting entrepreneurial thinking
  • Entrepreneurial education in South Africa
  • The effectiveness of Start-Up incubators and hubs

And now the highlights:

Ashraf Karim – National Planning Commission

Mr Karim took us through the policy brief itself, on which this dialogue was based, and drew out some of the more important points.  The objective of the brief is to foster an environment for start-ups and SME’s to compete in the marketplace.  We need to increase the number of entrepreneurs in the system which will in turn start to make progress on the target of 11 million new jobs.

He mentioned various challenges which were identified in going after this:

  • The current economic policies favour large companies as opposed to small businesses.
  • The policies reward economies of scale, which significantly raises the barriers of entry into most industries.
  • There is a still a large inequality gap when it comes to ownership – stemming from the Apartheid era.

He also made a very important point when discussing responsibility with regard to policy-making:

“Civil servants have never run businesses, so how can they offer insight on these policies?  The private sector needs to stand up and speak up.”

Tshediso Matona – Director General of the Department of Public Enterprises

Mr Matona, as the government representative, fielded some difficult questions about youth development and economic empowerment.  I found his answers were not very tangible and didn’t really address the real issues underneath the questions.  However, it must be difficult in that kind of position when so much is expected – so I can empathise with his sentiments.

He spoke about the triple challenge that faces them – Inequality, Unemployment and Poverty.  He acknowledged, to his credit, that the people in government are not running businesses and therefore it is crucial that they engage with entrepreneurs to re-calibrate and fine-tune the various policies.  He emphasised that the youth must participate and benefit from our growing economy.

He made a very astute point towards the end of his presentation when he identified that skills development is crucial and cannot be separated from entrepreneurship.  They are two sides of the same sword.  Technical skills often give entrepreneurs a deep understanding and appreciation for what is required in those specialised businesses.  We cannot isolate the two avenues.

Chimene Chetty – Director at the Wits Centre for Entrepreneurship

Mrs Chetty spoke about entrepreneurship as a skill.  She explained that not everyone is an entrepreneur, but we need everyone to be more entrepreneurial in order to add value in whatever space they find themselves in.  We need to instill in young people the ideology that it is ok to make mistakes, that they need to embrace the strong learning curve.

She also mentioned the importance of networks.  They create access to role models and mentors, which is crucial in making it through the tough times. 

Paul Berkowitz – Enterprise Development Manager at Empowerdex

Mr Berkowitz took us through what Empowerdex offers and used this opportunity to make comments on the funding space as a whole.  He highlighted the lack of angel funding opportunities in South Africa and how this is adding another hurdle for new businesses to clear.

Andile Khumalo – MyStartUp.com

Mr Khumalo really impressed me.  His outlook on South Africa and its opportunities was honest, authentic and optimistic.  During his presentation he took us through his entrepreneurial journey and spoke about how his circumstances dictated the way he looked at his career.  Within this story he made two very astute points:

“Focus on the problems you can influence.  There is no point in wasting time on things that you can’t control.”

“We don’t have a culture of disruption in the business scene in South Africa.  That needs to change.”

Selebogo Molefe – The Hookup Dinner

Mr Molefe spoke about networking, specifically in the context of his start-up The Hookup Dinner.  He spoke about how we need to stop constantly selling ourselves and actually nurture genuine relationships which can be mutually beneficial.  He explained that in the ideation phase, entrepreneurs need a support system in the ecosystem to interact with other like-minded individuals.

He also made an important statement regarding building your own business.  You need to build your organisation in a very authentic way that allows it to grow organically.  That is where the real power lies.

Additional Points

There were various other points that I noted from the question and answer session after each panel:

  • Entrepreneurs need to organise themselves in the space, we need a unified voice to interact with government because otherwise the policy setting becomes very difficult.
  • There needs to be a significant improvement in the communication channels between start-ups, funding providers and mentors.
  • Entrepreneurial / Start-up education needs to be approached as a start-up in itself, not as a philanthropic undertaking.

All in all it was a very interesting discussion.  The themes that ran through the whole event were very thought-provoking and definitely required some digestion.  The actual content of the discussion set aside, I was very impressed with the calibre of entrepreneurs that attended.  This judgment is purely based on the verbal interaction (I have no idea what they are like as business people) but the standard of the intellectual debate was very high.  It gives me hope for the South African Start-Up scene for the years to come.

All we need to do now, in my humble opinion, is stop constantly looking to government for answers.

We need to stand up for ourselves and aggressively go after what we want.