A few days ago, Johannesburg-based NGO group Valued Citizens Initiative invited me to their iValue entrepreneurship programme to share with their students a few lessons on entrepreneurship. In my journey as an entrepreneur, I have been burned, partnered with dodgy people, lost money and made a few enemies, which in the world of entrepreneurship-makes me a fairly good candidate for such a talk because I have seen most of it, and got the T-shirt.

The narrative that follows is a first hand account of my experience with iValue learners at Makgome Secondary School in Soweto. It was seemingly one ordinary Friday afternoon and I arrived at Makgome Secondary School in Meadowlands Soweto, just as the learners were completing their final class of the day. You can sense the excitement in the air that learners are looking forward to their weekend.

Soweto may be an under privileged community, the youngsters of this iconic township however are very creative. They may not have video arcades, but they always find something interesting to keep themselves occupied. So the rush by learners to go home, was no surprise because the weekend always has a lot of fun things in store for youngsters living in this vibrant township.

At first, I did wonder if I was at the right school because I was expecting learners to be waiting for me somewhere for my talk on how to generate business ideas. But as I arrived, all I saw was a rush to get out of the school. After-all it was Friday. Be that as it may, I hung around, called one Mduduzi Ndidi, Valued Citizens Initiative’s iValue programme facilitator at Makgome Secondary School. A few minutes went by, and after the school exit stampede died down, I was finally asked to come into the classroom where I was met with a classroom full of young but extremely eager minds.

It occurred to me right there and then that, these young learners are seriously keen to go somewhere in life. They are determined to learn something and they are not participating in the iValue programme because their parents, principal or teacher says so.

You do not often find young learners in grade 10 to 12 voluntarily hanging about after school, unless there is a burning desire for something else that far outweighs the short-term pleasure of playing with friends after school. This was a warm, sunny Friday afternoon in Gauteng’s most popular township, why stay behind when there is so much to explore?

I knew immediately that I was in the company of future leaders. One usually expects young pupils to be constantly told to keep quite or have one conversation at a time. I did not have that problem with these learners. So I delivered my talk, I was allocated about an hour for the entire duration of the talk including questions. They were extremely attentive. We spent nearly four hours, not because I talk slow or took too long to make a point. No, after my talk-they had one question after another. 

This, to me was a clear indication of how much they want to learn, how much they want to become successful entrepreneurs. What impressed me the most was the maturity displayed by their questions. I was expecting something a bit pedestrian and perhaps in keeping with my idea of their level of comprehension of the subject matter, but they asked very intelligent questions that indicated that first, they were listening and second they had sufficiently processed what the discussion was all about.

Some of the questions fired in my directions included, 1) When did you know that you wanted to do what you do?, 2) Is it a good idea to relax once you have built a successful business? 3) How does one remove emotions in order to make sound business decisions? 4) Should you share you business ideas with others or rather protect your intellectual capital? 5) How important is integrity in business?

It suddenly felt like I was in an MBA class instead of engaging with high school aspiring entrepreneurs. It also later occurred to me why they stayed behind when everyone was rushing home after school on a beautiful Friday afternoon. They are hungry! They are hungry to learn, hungry to succeed, hungry to make a difference in their lives, but also to do it the right way.

As if everything else they had demonstrated during our interaction was not enough to convince anyone that there is real determination to become successful entrepreneurs, at the end of the talk-a group of four girls rushed to my car as I was about to leave, “Sir, can we have a word” one of girls asked. It took them a little while to decide who should tell me what they came out to discuss with me. Eventually one of the girls, whom I suspect was the designated leader-asked me-“Sir would you consider being our mentor”.

These learners are in high school, they have business ideas, and they can’t wait to get started. My experience at Makgome Secondary School reminded me of another person who consistently exudes passion in everything she does, the Founder of Valued Citizens Initiative-Carole Podetti-Ngono. I believe I have uncovered her secret, I now know where she gets her boundless energy and enthusiasm, because when you work with learners like these, you simply cannot help but be infected by their energy and enthusiasm.

When I went to Makgome Secondary School, I was there to teach, guide and advise, in the end-I was taught a valuable lesson about entrepreneurship. It is entirely about passion. Passion drives all the other outcomes- a higher work rate, commitment, better products and better services. Success- whichever way you measure it is simply a byproduct of the passion you have for whatever you decide to do as an entrepreneur.

Shoni Makhari-is the Chief Executive of Ambani Reputation Management, Independent non-Executive Director at Housing Company Tshwane and a mentor to up and coming young entrepreneurs at the Black Umbrellas, an incubation programme that has a footprint in South Africa’s major business centers.

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