Be unreasonable. Disrupt. Be dogged. Don’t give up. Find local solutions for problems experienced in your community. But most of all, take responsibility and make things happen for yourself.

These are some of the key phrases used to encourage and push students and attendees at a panel discussion around Entrepreneurship for the Common Good during Students Entrepreneurship Week 2020 (#SEW2020). The participating academics and members from the private sector went further, urging students to dedicate themselves to entrepreneurial thinking – no matter what their area of study – to help with social change in their communities.

The panel discussion, facilitated by Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Dr Norah Clarke, Director of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, spoke directly to what students need to factor in as they continue on their entrepreneurial journey. Underpinning the session on Day 1 of a three-day #SEW2020 programme was the catchphrase that has become the mantra at the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) E³ division: If it’s to be, it’s up to me.

Dr Ria de VilliersDr Ria de Villiers (right), the Implementation Manager of E³, a DBE programme which is implementing Project-based Learning as a method to unlock the entrepreneurial mindset of learners, believes that social entrepreneurship needs to start at school. E³, which stands for Entrepreneurship, Employability and Education for Lifelong Learning, promotes the thinking that was a common theme running through all the speakers’ presentations: entrepreneurial thinking needs to be inculcated in children and encouraged at higher education institutions (HEIs) through the creation of an entrepreneurial culture. Schools are where the mindset change should start and that is why Education Faculties at universities need to train teachers in a new methodology that will unlock the competencies learners need to thrive after school, either as entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial employees or lifelong learners.

Dr Grey Magaiza, from the department of Sociology at the University of the Free State (UFS), was described by Dr Clarke as a man who “has such a heart for social entrepreneurship as seen through his engagement with Enactus, on the UFS campus.” He spoke about the importance of social entrepreneurship.

It is a lever, he said, for social economic development.

Be unreasonable

“If you want to invoke change in any context, you have to be unreasonable!” He quoted George Bernard Shaw: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one insists on trying to adapt the world to him. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Dr Grey Magaiza

His rallying call to all students was: be unreasonable; seek to disrupt. It’s the only way to invoke the change we seek. Dr Magaiza defined the term Social Entrepreneurship as simply applying business techniques to modern day social problems; initiatives that change the narrative. “Business has always had a profit imperative, but we are using social entrepreneurship to perform social transformation, to disrupt the norm and to look at gaps,” he said.

Quoting a World Bank report showing that more people are falling into extreme poverty, Dr Magaiza (left) added that unemployment (42% in South Africa), increasing inequality, health pandemics, economic contraction, recession and soaring public debt provides the context that we are in. “It’s not all negative; it’s a context of opportunities. Social entrepreneurs must note a decline in the state performing its social function – to assist communities – that results in greater human suffering.

“But it’s an opportunity for innovation, for transformation for social change pushed by social entrepreneurs who can work from the grassroots. As levers for economic growth, social entrepreneurs can provide jobs and informal training for communities; they can create new goods and services, new markets, new technologies. They can level the playing field for human existence by crafting sustainable impact by addressing social issues that address inequality.”

Dr Magaiza believes social entrepreneurship can create an alternative economy, something already happening within township and rural economies. “My message to students and social entrepreneurs is go out and disrupt: form new markets, form new thinking. Create affordable products, affordable services, find alternative solutions. And at the end of this, find social presence in everything that you do.

Solidarity with the poor

“Behave in solidarity with the poor; provide basic services such as renewable energy, clean water, health care technologies, ensure access to financial services. Collaborate, engage and make sure we create sustainable communities and sustainable economies within our localities.”

Dr Ria De Villiers agreed, and took it one step further: All of these factors need to begin at school. E³, she said, is a flagship programme of the DBE because it recognises and acknowledges the fact that schools are not equipping students for the outside world.

“Why? At school, everything comes out of a textbook and we know that they are outdated in a world where things are changing every day. E³ focuses primarily on repackaging the existing curriculum and changing the teaching methodology to a Project-based Learning approach. If activities are well-crafted and learners are actively engaged in authentic real-life challenges within the safe walls of a classroom, these kinds of competencies pop up and with iteration develop: character development; connection and thinking.”

Dr De Villiers said today’s youth could not survive solely on textbook knowledge. “They need citizenship because we are all building a country together; they are going to have to be curious and resilient – they can’t give up – they have to change their mindsets; they have to be able to collaborate. Communication is key in the new world of work and entrepreneurship.”

All four panellists agreed that the word empathy is an important factor for Generation Y and Z.

Speaking directly to the students, Dr de Villiers said “Generation Z demands respect, as they should, while not accepting everything they are told. You are more technosavvy than your mums and dads and caregivers. You are multi-taskers and you are the generation that really cares, and you want everything you do to matter.”

She said that old academic requirements identified by STEM (Science,Technology, Engineering and Maths) had been replaced by STEAMIE subjects, Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Music, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “The Department of Education sees these subjects as the foundation of the new world in which we live. New teachers are needed to use the textbook as a starting point, to build lessons around real-life problems authentic to the community.”

Dr de Villiers told student attendees that while they had finished school, they were still on an education journey. She urged them to become self reliant, to be woke, to start a side hustle while studying.

Her tips: Don’t expect to be an overnight success. Keep selling and keep scoring. Don’t give up. Start with R10 and grow. It’s a lonely and scary road but believe you can do it. Be tough. Be prepared not to take rejection personally. Be persistent. Get a mentor. Just do it. Not to survive, but to thrive.

Be a self-starter

She reiterated the importance of being a self-starter: “Our mantra at E³ is: If it’s to be, it’s up to me. If I want it to happen, I have to take responsibility.”

Professor Alfred Ngowi, Deputy Vice Chancellor Research Innovation and Engagement from the Free State’s Central University of Technology echoed these sentiments. Even though much of his presentation was lost due to poor connectivity, he emphasised that students must pay attention to their entrepreneurial skills “the day they get to university”, because this goes hand in hand with their formal programmes.

“At the end of this you can become employers instead of going out to look for jobs,” he said. And, once the student has started a business and become an employer, s/he needs funding.

Ms Jenine ZacherThis is where Ms Jenine Zacher (left), Head of Enterprise Development at Standard Bank, comes in. She said she had seen businesses go from very early stage all the way into growth and scaling. “Success has got nothing to do with age, what you’ve studied, and even what your experience is. Funding is not age related, nor does age replace the enthusiasm that entrepreneurs have for solving a particular problem,” she said.



She listed the four important areas as:

  • Knowing the problem, and knowing the gap that might exist as a solution to that particular problem. “Understanding that becomes the core of building a foundation for entrepreneurship.”
  • Knowing your customer; engaging with them and ensuring you are solving the right problem and creating a solution that customers are willing to pay for. “There is always an exchange of money for the product or service you provide. What is your customer base willing to pay for? That is where you start to create must haves as opposed to nice to haves.”
  • Knowing the reason for funding: Funding is not there to pay you as a business owner, customers are. “Funding helps grow or scale when organic growth overtakes you and you get more customers, more demand, more contracts, more purchase orders… funding helps you with that growth and that’s where financial institutions, venture capitalists, angel investors and other funding platforms step in to help with that growth.”
  • Knowing how to tell your story, part of which is around formalising what you have. Ms Zacher told of a 26-year-old CEO of a group of companies who started at 19 by formalising her baby-sitting job. “The minute she formalised that part of her job she got to learn about finances and marketing, keeping a budget (and keeping that budget separately between her business and her personal life), about hiring employees… All of those things factor into how you tell your story.

Ms Zacher added that while safeguarding one’s position was important, it was as important to be grateful about suggestions and input from others (mentorship). All the speakers, including the moderator Dr Clarke, had a recurring piece of advice for young entrepreneurs: entrepreneurship is a wonderful place to be but it’s also a long and lonely journey with many highs and lows.

Perseverance, adaptation, innovation and patience were all needed in large quantities. So was empathy and community engagement.

Recognising that entrepreneurship is an individual journey, higher education institutions, under the banner of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, are creating safe spaces for students to learn crucial skills; this, while fostering a culture that makes entrepreneurship part of the thinking process.

Charmain Naidoo is a freelance writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.