Just a few years ago, no one had heard the word ‘influencer’. Now, a plethora of articles pop up on your screen if you google the term; anything from to become an influencer to how to harness the power of influencer marketing and, inevitably, which influencers to follow.
As we spend more and more time online, due to the pandemic, the question of who we follow is becoming ever more pertinent. Social media is a milieu quite unlike any other; one where people are actively trying to build their profiles by gaining followers, and others are deliberately seeking out personalities and characters they feel may enhance their lives in some way.
The truth is that all of us wield influence in some way – even if we aren’t especially aware of it. That’s the basis of community: the people around us bring out certain traits, evoke certain emotions or elicit certain behaviours. And, as much as you may be influenced by others, you’re certainly influencing those around you. That’s why we need to be mindful of the people we choose to focus on.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with being an influencer. Some people naturally and effortlessly attract attention, and while they may not set out to become symbols of aspiration and achievement, their accomplishments set them apart. There are many entrepreneurs who fit this description, and their example means that many more young people are considering this way of life as a career – which is, of course, greatly encouraging from our perspective.
The flipside, though, is that people have started to glamorize entrepreneurship. That’s understandable: there is something irresistible about the idea that we could all start working in our garages and end up millionaires, almost overnight. More than that, entrepreneurship has become something of a badge of social standing. But while we are definitely in favour of people pursuing entrepreneurship, we are concerned that it should be with an eye to helping society meet its many and multi-faceted challenges, rather than because they would like to build a personal profile.
It’s with this in mind that we find ourselves wondering how we can empower youth to consider entrepreneurship and its accompanying influence not as a gateway to online popularity, but as a vehicle to improve the lives of those around them.
The founders of Yoco mobile card machines are a case in point. Katlego Maphai, Carl Wazen, Bradley Wattrus (Allan Gray Fellow) and Lungile Matshoba established the company because they realised the progress of entrepreneurs was often hindered by a lack of payment solutions. But their efforts and intent to assist entrepreneurs didn’t end with the development of their mobile payment systems. They continue to find different ways to boost businesses; for example, two years ago, they hosted a summit called the Yoco Exchange, where small businesses were invited to swap and brainstorm ideas to move their startups forward. Discussions focused on issues such as finance; the functions that would help their businesses evolve to the next stage of their lifecycle. What’s interesting is that the summit was not intended as a platform to punt Yoco’s payment solutions or a chance to net more business; it was purely a discussion forum to help entrepreneurs learn and grow, and many participants benefited significantly from the powerful insights that emerged.
Yoco has set itself apart by using its profile to help other entrepreneurs make better decisions. In this, they embody our concept of entrepreneurship with a purpose. And we’re proud to say that similar individuals have emerged out of our programmes. Thandeka Xaba, for example, is a Fellow who worked as an investment banker. She set out to solve a problem that she faced on a regular basis: as a person with a fast-paced, high-pressure career, it was almost impossible to find the time to visit a salon for basic grooming. Realising that she could not be the only person who was battling to balance career obligations with personal maintenance, she dreamed up a mobile beauty concept; an ‘Uber’ of beauticians comprising a network of professionals who are able to provide services to clients at their place of work or home, so that they don’t have to squeeze a lengthy appointment at a salon into an already overloaded schedule. The business has evolved since its first inception, and is now targeting corporates rather than individuals.
Thandeka has moved on, too: she recently partnered with another entrepreneur to establish Digital African Ventures, a venture capital fund to support the underserved early-stage Digital Tech start-ups in Africa.
Entrepreneurs in this space often battle to obtain the funding required to launch their businesses; although funding is readily available for ventures needing R50 000-R200 000 in seed capital, or more than R2 million, there is a large ‘missing middle’ that cannot get off the ground because they can’t access funds. To date, Digital African Ventures has secured R25 million, and has made its first investment, with the potential to provide funding for nine more startups.
I am fascinated by how Thandeka’s outlook on entrepreneurship has matured: from trying to solve a personal problem, she has extended her focus so that she is solving problems for a larger community. Imagine if we could encourage more young South Africans to think this way, and to use their influence to make a positive contribution to society. Because make no mistake, Thandeka wields significant influence: Zero Bank founder Michael Jordaan recently posted a tweet about a chat she hosted as part of the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance Fireside Chat, noting that in a world where everybody else is complaining, Thandeka is busy looking for ways to solve problems.
Then there’s Velani Mboneni, who started a transportation business which targets employees working in Cape Town’s city centre, where parking is notoriously hard to find. Working on an Uber-type concept, Velani’s startup sought to help groups of staff to enjoy a shared ride to work. It has since developed to a point where it helps corporates get their employees to work safely – something which has become especially important as the need for social distancing in workplaces means that more people are working odd hours that sometimes don’t coincide with public transport schedules. Velani’s story stands out because of his eagerness to help others; to the extent that he is willing to partner with his target market. In fact, we were so impressed with his entrepreneurial journey that we incorporated a ‘Velani’ avatar in the Allan Gray Entrepreneurship Challenge a few years back: as someone who started their business at a very early age, he’s ideally placed to talk candidly about how young entrepreneurs can get started and the challenges they may face; especially as he had to change his own financing model in order to make the business successful.
We’re also very proud of Lethabo Motsoaledi, who has established Voyc, a business that helps call centres extract the information they need to understand, and therefore help, customers very quickly. By mining this data, the centres are able to provide a response swiftly, and clients are able to move on with their own activities. Coming from a family of doctors, Lethabo has always had an interest in input versus output, and the fact that these are not always commensurate. This got her thinking about how she could harness technology to fast-track impact. Voyc has done away with the hours needed to transcribe and analyse interviews, using algorithms to do the job instead – and the result is greater efficiency that benefits all parties.
Our other AGOF friends include Marie Noelle Nwokolo, who works in the research space, and Okendo Lewis-Gayle, founder of the Harambe Entrepreneurship Alliance – both of whom are working hard to promote awareness of the great opportunities that exist within Africa. In so doing, they are changing the perception of the continent, from a place that has been exploited to one where possibilities exist.
These are not names that regularly make headlines – and maybe they never will. That doesn’t matter because they are making a difference to so many people.
This is the mindset we hope all of our programme participants embrace. Entrepreneurship has been hailed as the panacea needed to heal our ailing economy, but the reality is that startups are no more immune to the culture of corruption and mismanagement that has affected large corporations – in fact, some may argue that entrepreneurs, bent on ‘getting rich quick’, are even more susceptible. This is why, more than ever, we need youth leaders who are interested in adding value to society rather than being only focused on self-enrichment.
My question to the youth of South Africa, therefore, is this: how can you use the resources at your disposal to transform your journey towards entrepreneurship into a force for good? How can you use the influence you amass along that journey to have a positive impact on others?
And as we do so, how can we become awake to our own purpose? This isn’t an easy process. It requires that we become aware and mindful of the values that have become entrenched through society’s teaching, and which we may have to unlearn because they don’t serve us in our quest to become high impact, responsible entrepreneurs. Maybe this means discarding the notion that we need to be ‘seen’ all the time, and focusing instead on what we would like to be ‘seen’ for.
We at the Foundation see entrepreneurship not only as a vehicle for personal gain (because, after all, there is nothing wrong with wanting to make a profit), but as one that can guide the decisions we make, which ultimately affect others. It’s easy to lose sight of our purpose, and it’s tempting to focus on ourselves rather than others – after all, it’s so much easier to work towards a personal profit than making a contribution to society. The truth, though, is that your value is amplified, rather than diminished, when you keep an eye to the greater good. So often, it is when we help others that we ultimately help ourselves.
Our Gray Matter Entrafluence Series aims to highlight how entrepreneurship can be used as a platform to add value to society. Find the Gray Matter podcasts, in collaboration with Timothy Maurice Webster, below.
Lethabo’s personal journey of what shaped her into the entrepreneur she is today and how the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation acted as a vehicle for her to reach and achieve her purpose.
This episode speaks to Marie-Noelle’s academic experience and how she applied it along with entrepreneurial tools to have an impact within the policy-making space in order to regulate society better.
Interview with Thandeka Xaba, Fellow and co-founder of Digital Africa Ventures, which serves to represent the underrepresented by bridging the funding and support gap for early-stage tech entrepreneurs.
Hear about the beginnings and experiences that shaped Okendo Lewis Gayle, founder of the Harambean Entrepreneur Alliance, and how one moment inspired him to continue to pursue a better world.
Interview with Harambean Fellow, Velani Mbweni, CEO and co-founder of Lula, a disruptive tech company focusing on transforming the way people commute by leveraging the shared economy with mobile technology. In this episode, Velani highlights the moment that shaped not only him but his decision to become an entrepreneur and identifies how he could solve a growing socio-economic problem with a practical solution.