In 2016, Goodman Lepota secured two internships any student would covet – in May, he joined the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and recently went on to intern at New York advertising and marketing firm, Grey. After graduating from African Leadership Academy in 2013 he took a gap year, traveling to Scotland, England, Rwanda and the United States. Now, he is a business student at New York’s Marist College.
He thus knows a thing or two about networking: it’s not just about exchanging business cards. “It is an investment that demands more than a tailored suit and important-sounding job title. Knowing a person is not the same as having access to their attention and time.” When he was in high school, Goodman met a guy who became his coach. He taught him how to speak, write and engage with high-level people. When he took a gap year to travel, the coach was there to support and facilitate local connections for him. “The idea that someone can be willing to invest in their time in you is the difference between knowing them and having access to them.”
Goodman believes that networking is important for those who want to mentored. “For youth from low-income backgrounds, social capital is a business fundamental they have to build from scratch. Because no one learns in a vacuum, mentorship can mean the difference between ordinary and excellent,” he says. Cross-generational relationships like these are the ones we need to see more of. The African population is one of the youngest – in no former time has the responsibility to coach our youth been more urgent, and with youth-led organisations at the forefront of sustainable innovation, never has it made more economic sense.
The era of youth leadership
Goodman reckons we should take a leaf from the book of American media. “Here in the U.S. the big new media groups are being run by young people. Young people in the U.S. are being given the opportunity to show what they can do in both. You can remake yourself in the U.S. You hear of turnaround stories everywhere.” On the African continent, he says, young people need to be included in the conversation. A campaign he managed for a friend from Kenya exemplifies the difference in change of ecosystem can make. They met in high school in South Africa but it was the American culture of openness that facilitated the collaboration. America, he asserts, is the closest thing we have to equal opportunity.
A culture of competition is needed
“Another thing I value a lot is the competitive nature. People who have succeeded were successful because they competed. This is true around the world.” The culture of competition breeds invention. It gives us a glimpse into the future because from competing we challenge, push ourselves forward and hack into new frontiers. But how do Africans become innovators in the digital space? We consume so much of what revolves around digital but we are not yet part of the inventing process, at least not to the point that we are credited for it. We all cheer for entrepreneurship and innovation but what are we doing to promote it in our communities? “They say culture eats strategy for lunch,” – culture will always dominate over new ideas, no matter how brilliant those ideas are.
Can Entrepreneurs learn by starting off as employees?
“I once sat in on a lecture given by Raymond Ackerman. We were a group of determined entrepreneurs about to graduate. That day he came in with a message none of us expected: he told us to get jobs.
“Naturally, none of us were impressed. Here was a man who had made a name for himself through entrepreneurship telling us to look the other way. But Raymond Ackerman started out as an employee. He will even tell you that he never would have become ‘Raymond Ackerman’ if he hadn’t. We can, he argued, innovate and be agile in our nine-to-five careers. Intrapreneurship, he explained, is innovating within an organisation you are employed by. As someone who is entrepreneurial, you become the driver of innovative product development and marketing. Intrapreneurs are useful to organisations for numerous reasons. Their entrepreneurial traits make them pioneering thinkers and inherently good leaders. They are the people who will come up with fresh ideas and facilitate new relationships. To the bull-headed entrepreneur, employment can be a key training ground in terms of accumulating skills and experience and building social capital. In substance, it’s an opportunity to earn a reputation.”
We should promote entrepreneurship but also encourage young people to enter public service, declares Goodman. He warns that we need to remember that South Africa is a capitalist economy. Yes, entrepreneurship will power the engine of the economy but a fraction of currently small-scale entrepreneurs will ascend to corporate status. If we do not promote an alternative that will balance the scale, we might end up with a case where entrepreneurship perpetuates the cycle of inequality, corruption and other conditions that thrive in a corporate capitalist system. “We need young public servants who will be working directly for the people and hopefully not along party lines.”
This piece was a contribution made by Zazu Zungu, a young woman from Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. Zazu spent time at the Academy and worked with our alumni to produce a series about ALA graduates and the work they are doing in Africa and beyond. Zazu is now in Nanjing, China doing a course in Chinese Language Studies.