The Foundation’s journey to impact starts at a young age. We invest in young people that show the potential to be high impact responsible entrepreneurs in the future. Youth is therefore incredibly important to the Foundation. In the month of June we will celebrate Youth with the rest of the nation. As look back into history, especially our own, we see that youth has played a significant role in shaping and influencing the future. We therefore start this month’s blog series with Mbali Sikakana, the leader our Association of Allan Fellows, a community of young people primed to shape and build the entrepreneurial future of our country.
Throughout her childhood, youth and even now in adulthood Mbali Sikakana has always chosen to go her own way. She joined the Fellowship Programme in 2007. In the nine years since then she has been admitted as a Fellow, become successful in her career and taken up the helm of the Association of Allan Gray Fellows in her role as President. Her understanding of leadership and her hopes for the Association stirs confidence and great expectation for not only the Association’s future but also that of the country.
Mbali availed herself for the role of president to put to the test certain management skills she had acquired in the workplace. Another motivating factor, she confesses, was injecting a little bit of her own flavour into the Association, which she has been part of since its inception. Besides acting as go-between for the Fellows and the Foundation, she also sees herself as the driver of the Association’s strategic objectives and preferred culture.
She is set on influencing the Association’s culture away from a competitive one that is underpinned by prestige, elitism and self-exceptionalism. While such a climate encourages excellence it goes hand-in-hand with a double consciousness and deep anxiety about failing and operating outside the scope of comfort. “This is not a healthy culture for an entrepreneurial association. This type of driver may work to get people to complete degrees but not to start a business,” she explains. What she hopes to create instead is a culture where failing quickly is encouraged and where an entrepreneurial mindset can be iterated.
Her judicious views on leadership, specifically the lack thereof in South Africa, are grounded in a sense of self and responsibility without which a leader may end up vision-less and lacking follow through. In such circumstances there are no combined values or aims and initiatives become contradictory. Leaders end up holding positions solely for monetary or other gains. For Mbali effective leadership, on the one hand, rests on an understanding of self because a leader’s vision is only compelling when it is tied to his or her sensibility. The leader’s sense of responsibility on the other hand serves as guarantee that the vision will be acted out.
The boldness and confidence that Mbali exudes started taking form when she was a young girl. She remembers being a tomboy who ran the streets of Benoni ragged with her brother and his friends upon whom she imposed her friendship. “They were slightly embarrassed by this, but I did my best to keep up with them,” says Mbali. She believes that these were the first expressions of independence and deviation, which, she points out, “are important in gaining the confidence of others.”
Her journey with the Foundation started when she first heard about the Fellowship opportunity. She was eager to apply because it sounded interesting, but her mother was sceptical since Mbali already had a bursary offer. After reading the promotional material and application form, however, Mbali’s mother encouraged her to apply because the Foundation’s vision and values were a mirror of Mbali’s own.
Reflecting on her four years as Candidate Allan Gray Fellow she says that the opportunity allowed her to explore the idea of a new economy – the opposite of what she had grown up imagining in the formal schooling system. In school we are taught to become employees and do that competitively until retirement age. The new economy that she started pondering would instead teach young people that they can create value in different ways by becoming self-employed and entrepreneurs.
Mbali, who works at Santam Limited in addition to being President of the Association of Allan Gray Fellows, counts a promotion to management level as one of her most significant achievements to date. She explains that its significance lies in “being able to sit on important management committees as a decision-maker. [It] has changed my perspective on the world of work. Leading teams of people of various ethnicities, genders, ages and backgrounds has also tested my ability to integrate diverse perspectives.”
Aside from that promotion she has also attained a BCom Accounting degree from Rhodes University and a CA qualification. Yet, what she is proudest of is not so much these achievements, but her independence. “It is one of the things that brings me great joy when I look at my life. I know that the different things that make it up are coming from and came from my own unique perspective of living. This gets better and better and stronger and stronger with age and I hope it leads me down interesting paths.”
When Mbali is not reflecting on lessons learned in life or thinking of ways to better support her fellow Fellows in the Association, she indulges in literature, visual arts and fashion, which she find expression for on social media.