In South Africa, 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 education.
Entrepreneurship (and entrepreneurship education) has long been lauded as a solution to economic marginalisation. There are not enough jobs available – the latest statistics show that 58% of unemployed South Africans are aged between 15 and 34 – so it stands to reason that young people must make their own.
But the reality is that this is easier said than done, because teaching someone the techniques to run a business is not enough to create an entrepreneur – or even a work-ready graduate for that matter. Educators have to go further, and that takes time and effort.
The challenge is to find a way to “teach” entrepreneurship that also transforms the individuals involved. At the Raymond Ackerman Academy (RAA), a specialized 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.
We do several things very differently. To start, we understand that we are doing more than teaching people to fish, so we take a very person-centered – and personal – approach. We invite our students and graduates to look at themselves before they consider the type of business they want to start or industry to 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 soft skills, because we’ve learned that when you build character and confidence – and show people how to articulate a sense of purpose – they are better equipped, and more enthusiastic about the entrepreneurial journey.
Our second disruptive intervention aims to build an entrepreneurial support system around students that is both notable for its breadth and depth, but also provides a powerful source of support and connection. This system gives access to professional services, grant funding, and personal and business mentoring as well as a peer group network of “like-minded” entrepreneurs who offer support, encouragement and understanding
In a country like South Africa, where Global Entrepreneurship Monitor research highlights that negative perceptions towards entrepreneurship as a career option are rife, aspiring entrepreneurs need to surround themselves with like-minded people. One additional challenge they face is a social perception that entrepreneurship is of a “low” social status, or isn’t socially acceptable at all.
Young entrepreneurs also face harsh economic realities, where they face pressures to drop out of their pursuits in order to get a job and support their families. Therefore, access to other forms of personal support in the early stages of building a business is also critical, for example providing vouchers for groceries, cellular data, or transport stipends.
With such realities facing entrepreneurs on the ground, it is important to understand that the work of transforming a young person is not a one-way street or a once-off intervention. It is a relationship, a journey.
The aim is to give marginalized young people a crucial foothold in the economy by allowing them to gain economic independence that they can then leverage. It may take a while, but this is a sustainable route to building an economy from the ground up.