If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to create an entrepreneurial eco-system for studentpreneurs to succeed. So said Ms Mbali Bhengu, founder of Mind Switch, serial entrepreneur, author, marketer, advisory mentor, professional speaker and the Standard Bank Woman Entrepreneur Award finalist in 2021.
“In your entrepreneurship space, there are many people who are going to help you rise. This group has to be regularly audited,” she told the 28 finalists at the third EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Finals 2021 event that was held online and in person in Kempton Park, last Friday.
Listening to her inspirational speech “The Role of Universities, Students and Public and Private sectors in creating a symbiotic relationship for the studentpreneur economy: My SME Journey and My Wishes” were academics, students, members of government and corporate sponsors.
Ms Bhengu (left), sharing her opinions and insights on the role entrepreneurs must play in the entrepreneurship eco-system, began by telling the story of a man born on 25th May 1956. He was the seventh child, born after six stillbirths, and the last hope for his parents. Doctors doubted he would survive “Many years continued to grace this young man and he was blessed with fruitful and healthy trips around the sun,” Ms Bhengu said.
Pearls of Wisdom
“He became a young man full of mission, carrying pearls of wisdom intertwined in his mind, juxtaposed with an eagerness of wanting to know more about his spirituality, his purpose in life and the root of Ubuntu. He soon became the custodian of African philosophy, spirituality and the Egyptian origins of African people, publishing a total of 10 books in his lifetime.”
She told how this man helped her change the narrative of being an employee to becoming an entrepreneur.
“I’ll always be attracted to this story as it speaks of a man who was intentional about finding his path in life. He was so convinced of his own light that he wanted to make sure that I found my true calling and my light. This man is my father.”
On her own SME journey and the role that her circle of influence played in her life, Bhengu said that in 2013, while doing her Master’s in Business Administration, she realised there was a unique calling for her to be an entrepreneur. “I’m convinced that being an entrepreneur is almost a spiritual alignment because it disrupts, it shakes, it yearns, and it fiddles with the human spirit. It convinces you to do more, be more, to challenge yourself more. And, ultimately, it pushes you to take the risk that is least wanted. This is entrepreneurship,” she said.
She congratulated the 28 finalists for “taking your calling to the next level, by accepting the spiritual path that is often not celebrated in high schools, in corporates and in some universities around the world.”
Bhengu said there had been many changes since her graduation. “The entrepreneurship eco-system is slowly beginning to accommodate those in their early childhood days, as well as in higher education – which is fantastic.” Explaining an entrepreneurial eco-system and how it takes a village to raise a child, she told young entrepreneurs that there were many people who would help them rise.
“In your village you will find a community that consists of hunters, families, food, water… This eco-system that we call The Village creates a state for you to survive, an equilibrium for things to balance.” She described the village as having three centres of influence.
- The first is yourself: you are in charge of your destiny. This denotes self-mastery.
- The second is your centre of influence; your family, friends and people who influence you.
- The third includes institutions like higher education, public and private institutions.
“In my book Self-Ish: Mastering Self in a Selfish Business World, I speak about the pain of being an entrepreneur. One of the lessons I’ve learnt is car repossession.
“Yes, cars get repossessed if you do not handle your finances well. Then there is navigating through industry bullying – a topic we don’t talk about. You have to learn the art of negotiation, because when you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll have to be able to sell yourself through hectic business deals,” she said.
Moving from a state of being selfish to being self-less is an important less for entrepreneurs, she went on to say. Often, businesspeople are afraid to speak out because the entrepreneurial journey teaches you to ‘keep it moving’. She told the audience: “I have survived by speaking my truth and being my own truth.
Entrepreneurship is about understanding yourself before you understand others. You cannot participate in the eco-system without understanding who you are, where you are headed and what you intend on doing in your space.
“You have to get it right,” she said.
On the second sphere of influence, the entrepreneur’s family and friends, she said: “This influence needs to be constantly audited because they too are a part of your journey. I speak out in my book about being the black sheep in my family, not being able to pay black tax. I speak about being a female entrepreneur and how this has brought about its own challenges.”
Bhengu emphasises being aware of who is in your space and being aware that you cannot always rely on the support of family and friends. This, she says, comes with the territory of being an entrepreneur.
Higher Education role
The third influence, described as the most important in the eco-system, is the impact of higher education and public and private institutions advocating entrepreneurship.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “the times of not celebrating entrepreneurs and not accepting that everybody is a part of the corporate lifestyle is over. Higher education as well as other public and private institutions have a heavy task ahead of them because entrepreneurs today rely on this sphere to get them to the next level.”
Ms Bhengu listed some ways to create impact today, and for many generations to come:
- Introducing a studentpreneur initiative that makes sure they are integrated into the supply chain of private and public institutions – either by becoming sub-contractors to bigger firms who have the capacity to train them; or initiating them into procurement chains of these big organisations. “That is the only way we are going to get student entrepreneurs participating in the market,” she said.
- Integrating artificial intelligence “because a smart entrepreneur is someone who thinks about the future. If your business is not technologically aligned, you will fall short.”
- By developing a post-graduate forum for studentpreneurs “because entrepreneurs often leave university without effective networking skills”.
Opening up and doing business with students
Corporates, she emphasised, have an important role to play and encouraged them to “be confident of the role that students can play as potential consultants or service providers into their procurement chains”.
Two critical things were money and market access, however she said that neither one guaranteed the success of the other.
Said Ms Bhengu: “Skills development and training in the supply chain of corporate institutions is critical. In 2017, I was lucky to be an SAB Kickstart Foundation finalist. To this day the SAB Foundation has helped me and provided immense support and mentorship in my journey.”
Technology is key
Reiterating the critical importance of technology, Ms Bhengu called on public institutions and the government to find ways for young entrepreneurs to be a part of the technological revolution.
“I’ve thought of things such as online, virtual reality entrepreneurship games. Also, we could have a national library of entrepreneurship books – created by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. We need to share more information with the younger generation on how to build successful businesses.
“We need to learn from their mistakes and our mistakes and create a path that is WOKE but also intentional and driven. It is my hope that one day all institutions will work together and provide a soft cushion of love, knowledge, resources and guidance for young entrepreneurs,” she said.
Returning to the topic of her father, Bhengu told the 28 finalists to consider how he had devoted his certain knowledge; he was a miracle making sure that every single day of his life was spent chasing his true light and true form.
“Today marks one of those days: you are in a ‘miracle’ state. Starting a business, convincing others to listen to you and ultimately being recognised for it – all while being in a state of revelation – is not an easy task,” she said.
Borrowing words from Charles Dickens
She quoted Charles Dickens:
It was the best of times.
It was the worst of times.
It was the age of wisdom.
It was the age of foolishness.
It was the epoch of belief.
It was the epoch of incredulity.
It was the season of light.
It was the season of darkness.
It was the spring of hope.
It was the winter of despair.
“This is how your entrepreneurship journey will be. You will only have yourself to keep it real, to have impact, to leave people feeling better about themselves.”
A poem to inspire the studentpreneurs
Ms Bhengu then recited a poem:
When you say your name, picture the sun dimming its lights, and making way for the heavens to reign;
Picture the ocean quietening its roar, being submissive to your voice;
Picture the trees negotiating on how to make shade for you;
Picture the sky creating a mosaic of clouds that spell our your name;
Shut down the dream shutters, the violent symphony players, the lightning strikers, the oxygen takers.
Step forth. Step forth into a classical harmony: an Einstein intellect, a Beethoven Symphony, a Mozart of ideas.
Fly very high, fly higher than ancestral ground.
Look at what you have done. Do you not see it?
The dreams you are about to set; the museum of ideas you are about to create.
They just don’t say your name very often.
So therefore I say to you: Picture it.
Shut it down
And welcome to the stage.
Best luck to all entrepreneurs. I’ll see you at the top.
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa