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I am self-employed. On a good day, I refer to myself as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneur has a sexier, more accomplished ring to it. Self-employment is the humbler cousin’s title, implying that, even as my own boss, I toil for my survival.
In reality then, Bill Gates is an entrepreneur. My four business partners and I are self-employed. This distinction is not a game in semantics. It is an honest window into fundamentally different worlds and lays bare a less glamorous truth about most small businesses.
However, because the success of new or small businesses tends to confirm free-market principles, it seems more convenient to confine its intricacies to the random industry publications that are distributed at subsidised prices in SMME-land, away from public view.
Unless of course we find ourselves with a late payments crisis that is so massive it threatens to make survivalists of going concerns.
On every other day then, entrepreneurship is viewed as fuel for the capitalist engine.
It then follows that entrepreneurs are perceived as courageous, truly free or even latent geniuses.
This is evident in the oohs and aahs people receive after stating they are their own line-managers.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch… I kid, I keep thinking I’m Henry Ford reincarnate.
The point is that as a society that claims to value entrepreneurship, it is important that we come to grips with what it is and the personalities that make it work. Indeed, we, the “good-day-entrepreneurs” are partly to blame for projecting a maverick status before the pudding is cooked. And it’s a liberty we’ll gladly take if it continues to be that the world we live in is partially understood.
However, if it is true that our economy is reliant on new enterprises for job creation and growth, then we have a responsibility to develop a popular, wide-ranging and nuanced understanding of the many dimensions to entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs.
For example, one area that seems to get little attention is the psychology of South African entrepreneurs, or rather the psychology of self-starters who can sustain enterprises.
It’s fair to say we aren’t as inclined to celebrate individuals as other nations, but a collective psychology of South African entrepreneurs would be equally instructive.
It would seem two forces are at play here.
On the one hand, I suspect we are uncomfortable with truly understanding and thus inadvertently celebrating predominantly white business leaders from the pre-1994 era, given their assumed complicity in the apartheid system.
On the other hand, the post-1994 business leaders, particularly the black ones, have been tarnished by the reduction of BEE to corrupt tenderpreneurship. The effect of this is that we have become comfortable to talk about entrepreneurship in a way that is oddly divorced from entrepreneurs themselves.
I conducted a most unscientific online analysis to see what information was available about our most accomplished, modern entrepreneurs. What I found confirmed my hypothesis that while we love the idea of entrepreneurship, we seem a tad entrepreneur-phobic. In other words, we are slightly disinterested in the details, the biographies of self-starters.
To determine our leading entrepreneurs, I relied on Ernst and Young’s list of World Entrepreneurship Award-winners. Ernst and Young has been recognising globally competitive South African entrepreneurs as part of its World Entrepreneurship Awards since 1998 and therein one finds a long list of emerging and established entrepreneurs with credible records.
It is interesting that in the list of 16 “master” entrepreneurs since 1998, only two have Wikipedia pages that are dedicated to them – Adrian Gore and Patrice Motsepe.
A few more feature in the Wikipedia pages of the companies they started, the likes of Brian Joffe on the Bidvest page or Koos Bekker on the M-Net page.
The rest, like KK Combi and Ndaba Ntsele, are best profiled on whoswhosa.co.za, which is more of an online CV than a biographical account.
Without extensive networks then, most young South Africans are excluded from the human side of the entrepreneurship story.
It’s one thing to know of the boundless genius of Steve Jobs and the ingenuity of Donald Trump, but we feel a justifiable distance towards people from different contexts and cultures.
For one thing, the idea of a loud, toupee-donning, self-congratulatory man delusional enough to think business success equates to presidential hopeful status seems at odds with local sensibilities.
Thus while the convergence of global values must be considered, we cannot deny the specifics of our history and the dynamics that drive success in the SA context.
In fact, it would deepen our sense of pride if we developed an understanding of the people and enterprises that sustain the SA economic system.
Now, unless we’re ashamed of or in denial about the fact that our development is deeply entangled with the perpetuation of capitalism, these stories are valid and worth sharing.
I know from my own experience that creating an enterprise takes discipline, innovation and endurance.
Reflections with my business partners have also led us to conclude that what we do requires an arguably unhealthy dose of stubbornness, ego and self-delusion.
We have to believe in ourselves when no one else does.
We need to see the value in our work when there isn’t a salary to affirm us. We have to sell our ideas amid an ever-present, internal doubt. We’ve also had to learn that doubt is not the absence of confidence but a natural instinct for anyone honest enough to acknowledge their fallibility.
We’re learning not to take it personally when we get swindled by more experienced competitors, because truth is, it happens.
We’ve learnt the importance of stepping outside our individual comfort zones to speak at a level commensurate with the audience of the day.
Our failures are significant because the effects are felt directly, through the loss of income. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve learnt to interface with the world, without such corporate comforts as a brand and company policies to moderate the risks that our individual personalities place on the business’s prospects.
But these are just reflections, not yet proven as winning habits.
Because as I said, we are self-employed, with aspirations of proving our entrepreneurial chops. Thus, in many ways, year three of our business’s existence feels like the meantime.
And this feeling is likely to stay with us until we decommission our first power plant after 20 years of operating.
This will be the first time that we’ll be able to claim full knowledge of our business cycle.
But there are many more out there who have succeeded, people fit enough to write endless volumes of “habits of success” books and these are the people we must learn more about.
At the core of this exercise must be an understanding that humanising entrepreneurship is essential to the project of development. Indeed, it seems to be the logic of the National Development Plan that development is born out of a deliberate and focused programme of action.
And if we claim that entrepreneurship is an essential ingredient of this story, we must be deliberate about creating entrepreneurs.
This is not only about creating conditions that are conducive to entrepreneurship but also nurturing in young people, an entrepreneurial outlook, attitude and, dare I say it, swagger.
It’s that thing we see when future politicians are manifest as high school debaters mimicking parliamentarians or when a Grade 3 Messi-in-the-making celebrates a goal like they’ve just won the World Cup.
Entrepreneurship is its own attitude and goes beyond everyday hustling. Frankly, it’s a persona we need to cultivate if we are depending on our youth for dramatic economic growth and development.
n Mthembi is an entrepreneur in the renewable energy sector, and a commentator.