In South Africa, Celebrating Entrepreneurship and Teamwork

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(L to R) Siphelele Malaza (chemistry), Akhona Stafane (economist), Kathy Erasmus (scholarship program coordinator), Livhuwani Magidi (industrial engineer), Quahiera Constant (Photo: Megan Lindow).

Five female scholars put their business skills to use during an entrepreneurship competition at the University of Cape Town. 

This article is part of a series exploring the transformation of African women's lives through education.

In a crowded, buzzing conference room at the University of Cape Town business school, groups of students clad in suits sit around tables and intently discuss their entrepreneurial ideas. 

At one of the tables, the five members of “Team Carnegie” are hatching a plan to tap the talents and energy of South Africa's masses of unemployed youth. They want to design a program to train youth in construction and building skills, providing not only much-needed job creation but also the means of improving and beautifying the often-bleak and featureless communities where the majority of South Africa's urban poor live.

The young women gathered around the table, all of whom received scholarships from Carnegie Corporation of New York, reflect the diversity of the female scholarship program. They come from different parts of the country, represent different cultures, speak different languages, and, of course, study in different fields. Siphelele Malaza is a chemist; Akhona Stafane, an economist; Moagabo Ragoasha, an oceanographer; Quahiera Constant, a construction professional; and Livhuwani Magidi, an industrial engineer. 

Today, the women are all taking part in a day-long entrepreneurship competition called FLUX, organized by the careers office at University of Cape Town. There are 10 different teams competing, and the event has drawn corporate employers from across South Africa to engage with these accomplished young women, most of whom will soon graduate and enter the job market. 

The Team Carnegie members say they want to create a business that will extend opportunity to young South Africans whose dreams are denied due to endemic poverty, which locks as many as three million young South Africans out of both education and the work force. Even those fortunate enough to attend a university often struggle to stay afloat, as the widespread student protests against fee increases have shown over the last few weeks.

The young women of Team Carnegie acknowledge that they have been lucky. Because of the financial support they received, they never went into debt or had to worry about dropping out due to financial pressures, as so many of their peers do.  

In the competition, the teams have been given the challenge of designing a business to capitalize on the city of Cape Town's status as the 2014 World Design Capital. They have been working all day on developing different aspects of the business. During short sessions, experts in strategy, marketing, finance, human resources, and other fields have been providing advice. The students have been plotting their progress on a board game that is a bit like Snakes and Ladders. 

 

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Quahiera Constant and Moagabo Ragoasha (oceanographer, foreground) prepare their pitches.
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Livhuwani Magidi and Quahiera Constant come from opposite ends of South Africa, study in different fields, speak different mother tongues -- and have become close friends through the scholarship program.

The young women say they are here to learn, to broaden and exercise their leadership skills, and, perhaps most importantly of all, to celebrate the unique bond they share as participants in a scholarship program that changed their lives. It is perhaps telling that this group of females chose the traditionally male world of construction as the field through which they could make a difference. 

“Construction appealed to me on almost a spiritual level,” says Quahiera Constant, who is completing her honors degree in construction management at the University of Cape Town. “Knowing how things are formed and structured helps you identify the weaknesses in a system. Every problem in life can be understood at a surface level or at a deeper level. This hasn't just been a degree I was doing.

Over the past few years, the women of Team Carnegie have shared the experiences of overcoming poverty and poor schooling; gaining admission to one of the country's most prestigious universities; learning to cope with academic pressures and family expectations; and finally, finding their feet as confident professional young women, often in fields dominated by men. For each woman, being awarded a full scholarship to cover tuition fees and living expenses at the University of Cape Town was a pivotal and life-changing event that threw up immense personal challenges to be grappled with, and at the same time opened up new horizons that could have scarcely been imagined before. 

Through these shared experiences, Quahiera and her teammates have developed deep bonds. “We are all so different, but at the end of the day, we are all women in traditionally men's fields,” she says. Today is a day to celebrate how far they have all come in just a few short years.

Throughout the morning, the group is put through their paces, discussing their revenue model, human resource needs, and marketing challenges. After intense brainstorming and deliberation, it is time to pitch their idea to a panel of judges. 

"This is challenging and fun," remarks Livhuwani as they go over their final preparations. "I was nervous at the beginning. I still am, but it's getting better. We're coming up with some good ideas and working as a team."

Standing in front of their peers and judges, the team members radiate confidence and enthusiasm as they present their plan. The judges are clearly impressed with what they hear. Giving feedback to the group as a whole, one of them remarks: "The future of South Africa is in good hands."

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Livhuwani and Quaheira listen to advice on seeking jonbs and making a good impression from an industry professional.