The fellowship experience

Last week I returned from my ESMT Responsbile Leaders Fellowship (RLF) in Cape Town. Time flew. Driving to the airport, it felt like yesterday when I drove on the same road exactly five months ago, in the opposite direction. As I was wrapping up in Cape Town, someone asked me why I chose ESMT for my MBA. This made me go over my ESMT application and I found this.

ESMT Application

RLF was one of the major reasons why I chose ESMT. I am passionate about empowerment and was certain of seeking RLF even before I joined ESMT. After the program was introduced to us, TSiBA popped up as an interesting option. TSiBA is a non-profit private B-school in Cape Town that offers business degree to the underprivileged, and business training and mentoring to disadvantaged entrepreneurs. After talking to the MBAs from the past year who had done their fellowship at TSiBA, I was convinced that it fits my bill perfectly.

Why TSiBA?
Early in my life, I learnt that when one chooses to focus on problems, one sees only more problems, but the moment focus shifts to possibilities, we see opportunities. This is a paradigm shift in thinking which is very difficult to attain given the nature of circumstances you grow up in such areas. There is a lot of conditioning you go through that you have to undo in order to make that shift. And I believe examples are the best way to demonstrate this possibility. I chose TSiBA because I saw the opportunity to be that example. When I learnt of the circumstances the entrepreneurs and students at TSiBA go through in life, I thought I could share my experiences with them to instill the belief that it is possible. I however don’t think this can happen over a guest lecture or talk. I was convinced that being a part of their learning journey is the best way to make that impact, and I saw RLF providing me that opportunity.

The RLF Experience @ TSiBA
TSiBA is a great organisation and I loved the experience there. There are a lot of things to do, and there is a shortage of skilled people who are willing to support. So when I started there, I got to chose what I wanted to do. TSiBA gave me complete freedom in executing the projects that I had taken up. Staff members are very friendly, supportive and collaborative. They are more like a family than coworkers. There is a lot of friendly banter in the staff room. Interactions with students were energising and humbling. The RLF experience made several indelible impressions on me that I am sure will stay with me for a long time. Here are the most important lessons I learnt.

Planning is good, having an open mind better!
The MBA experience gave me fresh perspective on how things don’t always go as planned, and helped me appreciate how important it is to be temperamentally ready to handle any kind of situation, not only in business but also in life. The RLF @ TSiBA helped me put this to practice. Last October, when I interviewed with TSiBA, we agreed on the areas that I would support TSiBA with. By the time I arrived in Cape Town, more than 3 months had passed, and things had changed a lot. The work that I wanted to do was not possible due to unforeseen circumstances. Instead I had a completely different set of projects to choose from. And I chose to manage a brand new program, Juta-TSiBA-EME program, which involved building a small business, ground up, in a tripartite set up.

Juta-TSiBA-EME Program
This program is a concerted effort by two organisations committed to black empowerment in South Africa. The program was conceived of in late 2015 and the execution began in February 2016. The program was sponsored by Juta, a leading publishing house in South Africa. The vision of the program was empowerment of the disadvantaged. The goal was to identify a disadvantaged black entrepreneur and to use donated stock to set up an Exempt Micro Enterprise (EME) business. Juta chose TSiBA to do that and I anchored the program execution for TSiBA. My activities involved research of the target market, coming up with a value proposition for the business, building partnerships with potential partners, drafting contracts for the tripartite collaboration, and selection of a previously disadvantaged black entrepreneur as the business partner (to take up the business once I leave South Africa). To provide experiential learning to entrepreneurship students, I anchored the end-to-end execution of the student project of the program as well. Towards this, I created simple processes for stock reporting, pricing, order placement, invoicing, payments, order collection, stock returns, and reporting. I also provided business coaching and mentoring to students. This was a complete start up experience for me. I learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Student project launch

I went to Cape Town with an open mind about my work. And in retrospect, I think this mindset helped me see the opportunities available rather than getting disappointed by the changed circumstances.

Preparing for failure is an important business skill
The most important lesson I learnt from the Juta program is, how important it is in business to be prepared for failure. My lack of exposure to business landscape in South Africa made the selection of an entrepreneur the more challenging of the work-streams I had to manage. When we announced the program and invited applications, there were quite a few interested in coming onboard as the EME. One of the applicant teams showed the drive and motivation required for our program. We interviewed and found them suitable for the EME. The prospects sounded promising. We were about to confirm their selection, and they pulled out citing workload and alignment issues. In the meantime, the interest of other parties also dwindled and I missed the deadline to select the EME. Within a few weeks, things that seemed very promising faded away one after the other, and I was not prepared for that. This was a major jolt to the program. What I learnt from this experience is that in business even the most promising lead may not materialise and being prepared for that eventuality is very important. This learning came in handy in another project. A few Northeastern University (USA) and TSiBA students collaborated to start a social enterprise and agreed to have me in an advisory role. Drawing from the failure of the Juta program, I was able to make recommendations for strategy that ensured that we were prepared for failures and thereby we could better manage the risks.

You learn a lot more when you teach/coach
At TSiBA, I had a variety of interactions with students. As part of the student project of Juta program, I coached students on setting up businesses and mentored a few of them. I also had an opportunity to be a tutor for entrepreneurship and leadership. There were many brilliant ideas discussed, personal stories and issues shared and discussed, ideas challenged, solutions proposed and debated, agreements and disagreements, viewpoints countered and so on. Those discussions helped me learn a lot about the South African culture, and I also felt I got a good understanding of how the youth think (Not saying that I have grown old!). The element of vicarious learning associated with such interactions is fascinating and it taught me a lot. There were many eureka moments when sharing my experiences and beliefs with students gave me a fresh perspective on my life.

Wrap up
The feedback on my programs has been very positive and the results promising. In a span of three months, the student arm of Juta program sold 1,571 books, resulting in a revenue of ZAR 18,105.30.

Revenue

At the time of my leaving Cape Town, the EME had sold about 140 books and generated about ZAR 12,600 in revenue. The revenue from the student project and a part of the EME revenue will go to TSiBA scholarship fund for future students. Reading through the reflection papers submitted by students at the closure of the student project, I felt the project met its goal of providing experiential learning to the students. Personally for me, what stood out was students giving feedback that my guidance helped them sell to customers, made them think differently about doing business, and that they made real changes to their business approach.

Farewell

Thanks to ESMT and TSiBA for the wonderful opportunity!
santom

Cape Town Chronicles – I: Paying It Forward

A better world. Many wish it. Few take actions for it. And fewer strive to realise it. Since the beginning of February I’ve had the privilege of being an active part of an organisation that strives to make the world a better place.

Extreme poverty. Living in shacks. Congested houses, six people living in one small bedroom. Unhygienic sanitary conditions. Teenage pregnancy. Rampant gangsterism. High crime and school dropout rates. These are the harsh realities of life in a township in South Africa. Growing up as a child under such circumstances you literally grapple with life. Education and opportunity are synonymous with luxury.

Upgraded hostel

Upgraded hostel

Common room for kitchen and water faucet in a house of 3 bed rooms. Three families live in one bedroom.

Common room for kitchen and water faucet in a house of 3 bed rooms. Three families live in one bedroom.

This is about 65% of a room in an upgraded hostel

This is about 65% of a room in an upgraded hostel

One of three beds in a bedroom in a township. One bed is meant for one family of six people. Three people sleep on this bed, the man, his wife and the youngest child. The other children sleep on the floor of the bedroom and the common room.

One of three beds in a bedroom in a township. One bed is meant for one family of six people. Three people sleep on this bed, the man, his wife and the youngest child. The other children sleep on the floor of the bedroom and the common room.

Drying area

Drying area

Man preparing smileys. A smiley is the head of a sheep cooked on fire and cleaned up. It is called a smiley because the sheep's teeth are visible!

Man preparing smileys. A smiley is the head of a sheep cooked on fire and cleaned up. It is called a smiley because the sheep’s teeth are visible!

The streets lined with local beer shops

The streets lined with local beer shops

In my two weeks so far in Cape Town, I met some people who grew up in townships. One student had been an active gangster for years before he decided to change his life for better. He is articulate, passionate, energetic and aspires to be an entrepreneur. His vision is to create opportunities for young people in townships so they can choose goals over guns. Another student does hair dressing over the weekend to make ends meet. She wants to help grow her mother’s business of tailor-made beaded garments and shoes. A successful entrepreneur I met yesterday grew up with 27 other people in a three-room house in the Langa township. I found him to be an astute businessman. He has been running a successful business for over 6 years and is a motivational speaker for school children. I am sure I will meet more such people in the days to come.

These people are living examples of the kind of transformation that will create a better world. Their transformation was ignited by the Tertiary School in Business Administration, TSiBA, a non-profit private business school in Cape Town that offers bachelors degree in business administration (BBA), to underprivileged children. It is also home to TSiBA Ignition Centre, an incubation centre that supports entrepreneurs through business and leadership mentoring and training.

TSiBA strives to build entrepreneurial leaders by igniting young minds who in turn can become agents of social change. It has done this by creating a sustainable business model around the idea of paying it forward. The students and entrepreneurs at TSiBA are from disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot otherwise afford university-level education or professional business mentoring. Most of them hail from townships. Their education and mentoring is sponsored by donations, volunteering and consultation services from supporters. The beneficiaries do not pay back, rather pay it forward by creating jobs and driving social change by empowering other underprivileged people. TSiBA supporters pay it forward through their donations and volunteering support.

As part of ESMT Responsible Leaders Fellowship (RLF) program. I am supporting the TSiBA Ignition Centre. RLF is a voluntary program , which gives us ESMT students an opportunity to add value to a social change initiative by leveraging our business skills. I was convinced of the value RLF adds to society and had decided to participate in it even before I started at ESMT. During the MBA, I came up with three criteria to select the organisation for my RLF participation

  1. A cause I am passionate about
  2. Scope for leveraging skills and insights gained during MBA
  3. A culture I’ve never been exposed to before

The opportunities at TSiBA Ignition Centre fitted the bill perfectly. TSiBA is all about empowerment, something that I am passionate about. At TSiBA I have the opportunity to choose what I want to do. There are many initiatives. Skilled people who are willing and able to lend their time and effort to TSiBA’s mission are in short supply. There is ample scope for leveraging the skills and knowledge I gathered from my professional and MBA experience. Through initiatives at Ignition Centre there is opportunity to engage and work with entrepreneurs and other organisations, to share my experiences with them, and to be part of their learning journey. Interactions with TSiBA students is another exciting opportunity to learn and understand the South African culture.

At present my work spans the following:

  1. Leading an entrepreneurial initiative with the goal of setting up an emerging enterprise and building a sustainable business model to enable partnership with one of TSiBA’s donors.The project will also provide the second-year BBA students, a first-hand experience of the challenges entrepreneurs face in the real world.
  2. Profiling, screening and selecting entrepreneurs for TSiBA’s student consulting project program, done in collaboration with another university in the US.
  3. Guiding a micro-finance project, to roll out a pilot to a group of women from Zimbabwe and test the feasibility of the idea.
  4. Lecturing and mentoring students on Entrepreneurship and Leadership & Self-Development.
  5. Mentoring entrepreneurs

This is a great learning opportunity, and I have a strong sense that this will be an enriching experience. I thank TSiBA for the opportunities provided and my alma mater ESMT for the opportunity to pay it forward through the RLF program.

Till next time!
santom