#6 Summer 2016

How to take a young person from Italic to bold

Zuko Mbobo

Zuko Mbobo and classmates of the Raymond Ackerman Academy Class of 2011.
To prepare under-served students to become successful participants in the economy, universities have to be prepared to let go of traditional approaches and do things differently, and the Raymond Ackerman Academy at the GSB is showing the way.

Around the world, youth populations are growing, while resources and economic opportunities shrink and inequality worsens. We’ve known for a while that the old ways are failing us, and nowhere is that more true than in the world of education.

Training institutions are having to dig deep to come up with strategies to overcome their limitations and find new ways to provide hope and advancement to their students – enabling them to go on to access real opportunities and engage meaningfully in economies – to get, in short – their slice of the pie.

Not to do so invites disaster. In South Africa, we see this playing out in the #FeesMustFall and other youth protest movements including the #ThisFlag protests north of our borders. These movements herald a growing tide of dissent and dissatisfaction among the youth with the status quo. You cannot exclude the majority of young people from the mainstream economy forever and expect them not to react.

The uncomfortable fact is that young Africans are three times more likely than adults to be unemployed and many more are trapped in menial jobs by poor or non-existent education. A UNESCO study found that the number of African children and adolescents who are out of school is on the rise, and grew to 124 million in 2013.

Entrepreneurship has long been trumpeted as a solution to economic marginalisation. The (slightly patronising) narrative goes something along the lines of “teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. But the reality is that teaching someone the techniques of running a business is only a fraction of the matter. Knowing how to balance the books is not enough to create an entrepreneur – especially when you are engaging with a marginalised young person who may not have been equipped with even basic skills such as time management.

The challenge therefore is to find a way to ‘teach’ entrepreneurship that also transforms the individuals involved.

At the Raymond Ackerman Academy, a specialised unit at the UCT Graduate School of Business, we have been grappling with this for more than a decade and the centre has emerged as a leader in this field. In 2013, it was recognised as one of a handful of institutions around the world engaging in pioneering work to put young people on a path to sustainability and was awarded a prestigious Youth Economic Participation Initiative (YEPI) demonstration grant from the Tufts University Talloires Network to expand and deepen its impact and, importantly, to research the critical factors of the model with a view to scaling these up globally.

Ross VeLure Roholt, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota specialising in youth development and one of the YEPI programme learning partners, says that the RAA is “doing something better than many” in reaching beyond the disciplinary community of the university and bringing the knowledge that it is creating to bear on the lives of young, aspiring entrepreneurs. The RAA was established 11 years ago with funding from Raymond Ackerman – one of SA’s most respected entrepreneurs. Its vision is simple enough: to offer unemployed and under-resourced youth an opportunity to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and explore and realise their entrepreneurial vision through an intensive, holistic, six-month training experience that is heavily subsidised. In recent years, the academy has expanded its offering and now includes a thriving Graduate Entrepreneur Support Service (GESS) that works with graduates of the six-month programme who are now running their own businesses.

An adjective that comes up often in relation to what the academy does is ‘disruptive’. According to VeLure Roholt, we do several things very differently to the norm. To start with, understanding that we are doing more than teaching people to fish, we take a very personcentred – and personal – approach. We invite our students and graduates to look at themselves before they look at the business they want to start or work in. They are invited to answer the somewhat awkward question of “Who are you?” as a person; as an entrepreneur; as a citizen. We also develop a lot of soft skills, because we’ve seen that when you build character and confidence – and get people to articulate a sense of purpose – they are that much better equipped, and more enthusiastic about travelling the entrepreneurial journey.

Our second disruptive intervention is to build an entrepreneurial support system around students that is notable for its breadth and depth and provides a powerful source of support and connection. This system consists of access to professional services, grant funding and personal and business mentoring. RAA graduates on the GESS initiative receive individual mentorship and also benefit from group mentoring from their peers.

The RAA’s close connection to the GSB and the Raymond Ackerman Foundation are, of course, wonderful resources and allow students and graduates to leverage off these facilities and connections.

This is something that is very close to our benefactor’s heart. One of Raymond Ackerman’s daughters recently described her father as a builder of bridges. “He is a leader who has striven to develop connections and links between people of different backgrounds; to create bonds that look past colour, language, ethnicity or religion …”

And our support system extends well beyond what is considered usual to include the provision of a small monthly stipend to help with buying the essentials like data, electricity and food. This has proven vital in taking some of the pressure off young business people in the early stages of their ventures. As anyone who has travelled the entrepreneurial path can attest, things in the early days can be tough and money is almost always scarce.

Our students are taught to think differently too. The RAA’s pedagogical model is based on the principles of public engagement; experiential learning; and critical thinking and it makes our students step into new roles. The focus is on building in each of them an entrepreneurial mindset. They are taught the skills of ideation and critical thinking and are empowered to recognise characteristics such as resilience. The expectation is that they will fail and that this should not deter them. Students quickly come to learn that we are less interested in where they came from and what they lack in life and more in where they are going, and what they can achieve. We empower them not to see limitations and challenges – but opportunities.

As Wadji Abrahams, the facilitator of the GESS programme says: “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

But in the end it is not one approach or another that makes the difference, it is the combination of them all. We also believe that to build entrepreneurs we, the team behind the programme, need to act like entrepreneurs ourselves.

It takes passion, energy, compassion, commitment, risk taking, determination, flexibility and optimism to create and deliver programmes that foster those same characteristics in the aspiring participant entrepreneurs. What we have learned along the way is that transformation is not a one-way street or a once-off intervention – it is a relationship, a journey and it takes time.

To create impact; people and relationship hold the key. Through this approach, we have witnessed many lives changing before our eyes as young entrepreneurs turn ideas into reality and start to provide for their families. And this transformation is perhaps best summed in the words of one entrepreneur who told me simply: “The Raymond Ackerman Academy helped me discover the person that I am; it has taken me from italic to bold.”

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