Stepping up to the plate
Social entrepreneur Lesley Williams is the co-founder and managing director of The Hub in Johannesburg. She spoke to Justin Nurse in this week’s edition of The Pied Piper Project.
What is ‘The Hub’?
It’s a co-working space for social entrepreneurs. Essentially we try to support people who want to tackle South Africa’s most pressing issues by using entrepreneurship.
A lot of social work stays within the charity realm, and we’re saying that you can do good and do well for yourself at the same time.
You need to support yourself first in order to support others – as the saying goes: “If the plane’s going down, put on your own mask first.” And that takes an entrepreneurial approach.
The Hub measures up a functional workspace environment in a creative space, with all the necessaries required for an “ideas eco-system” (coffee, wi-fi, phones, and so on).
We are also a values-driven community, bound together by wanting to create some kind of good in society, with members ranging from campaigners against climate change or for the rights of refugee and asylum seekers to socially conscious graphic designers, where collaborations happen and members inspire each other.
It’s a lonely journey being an entrepreneur, especially in the start-up phase. So being alongside others who are going through it at the same time gives you the inspiration needed to carry on.
There are 30 “Hubs” around the world in major cities, so it’s quite an organic network and we are always borrowing from each other’s thinking.
The Hub Business Clinic provides technical skills training on how to run your business, from branding strategy to scenario planning.
We also have Thought Leader dialogues, where we invite members of industry to come and speak, to provoke and stimulate new thinking.
I’m also excited about The Hub Fellowship programme, which begins in October, where we will be providing a worthy candidate with seed capital to get their business idea implemented.
What’s your background?
My grandfather was a politician, focusing on the needs of the coloured community as a member of the Coloured Representative Council. My grandmother also used to take me along with her to soup kitchens in Eldorado Park, where I grew up. So, from a young age, I understood responsibility.
My formal career began at Gibs (Gordon Institute of Business Science) in 2002 when I started a leadership network called Nexus, where we’d bring people from different backgrounds together to share their stories and discuss the future of South Africa.
I saw people’s lives being transformed in the most miraculous ways. I got tired of seeing this all from an academic perspective and wanted to go out into the field.
I ended up working in London for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I became despondent about NGOs: I saw money being wasted and well-meaning intentions getting bogged down by things like lawyers’ fees and bureaucracy. I realised then that one needs to have an entrepreneurial mindset in order to create change.
I met The Hub founders in South Africa in 2002 when they were here for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. They ended up forming a relationship with a community project in Soweto, creating the Soweto Mountain of Hope (they turned a “no-go zone” into a food garden and public artwork project).
Understanding that collaboration comes from community is part of the ethos that inspired the founding of the first “Hub” in London.
Hubs started popping up all over the world and I was getting pressure from members of those international communities to start one in South Africa, as this is where the initial thinking and inspiration for it all began. I moved back home in 2008, briefly becoming a coffee shop entrepreneur again.
I missed that sense of community, working alongside people I liked. I knew that I had knowledge and experience to impart, so with all of my savings, I started The Hub in Johannesburg in October 2010.
What have you learnt so far?
There have been a lot of lessons, lots of burnt fingers. You can’t be all things to everyone. We can’t support survival entrepreneurs. Things got slippery when we accepted new members simply because we needed rent. We want the guy who’ll come up with that innovation and then also has the ambition to spread it.
The Hub Successes
Members of The Hub are running a Shake The World campaign and they are making bracelets that represent the Millennium Goals.
It’s a job-creation project for women in rural KZN. The bracelets are now being sold in Edgars stores countrywide.
The term ‘social enterprise’ is a new buzzword. Tell us about that…
There are a lot of young, black South Africans who are talented and who want to give something back. They have barriers of entry to doing well – things like paying for lobola and buying their parents a home. Whereas a lot of white South Africans can start their entrepreneurial journey with things like inheritance money.
For myself, I know that I have an extended family to support, and it’s hard finding that balance between unpaid volunteer work and well-paid corporate work. That is the incentive to be a social entrepreneur though: having the best of both worlds.
What makes you South African?
I consider myself a pan-African globalist because I feel a strong connection to a few countries that could be home to me. There’s that scene in “Blood Diamond” where Leo DiCaprio’s character picks up the soil and speaks about how the soil is in our veins. I was in London when I watched that and I burst into tears. It’s true: we are connected to the soil. And to each other.
Are you hopeful?
Institutionally, on a government level, I’m scared. I don’t trust large-scale institutions. If corporates started “getting it”, they could adopt such cool, world-changing ideas, because they’ve got the power and the know-how to scale stuff. One of our aims is to get corporates to stop seeing social entrepreneurship as a sideline corporate social investment activity and see sustainability as ingrained in your core business.
What does leadership mean to you?
Leadership is about stepping up to the plate. You may not be the guru or have all the answers, but it’s about that “stepping up” – doing your bit and taking ownership of what you see.
* Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.