Mzuvukile “Rasta” Mfengwana’s silk screening business is a small operation: a modest workroom in a community of dilapidated shacks where he and his wife design and create items by hand to sell to tourists in Cape Town, South Africa.

Rasta leans over his worktable, brushing blue paint over a screen-covered tee shirt. He explains the process to several women who cluster around him. Some of the women are single mothers in the community; their children play nearby. Rasta, of limited means himself, is training the women in the hopes that providing them with a trade will help lift them out of poverty.

This summer, four Aggies joined students from three other universities to work with the Entrepreneurship Empowerment in South Africa (EESA) program.
This summer, four Aggies joined students from three other universities to work with the Entrepreneurship Empowerment in South Africa (EESA) program.

The other women watching Rasta work aren’t there to learn silk screening. They have travelled thousands of miles to offer the entrepreneur knowledge they’ve learned from textbooks in the hopes of improving his business, and through it, the whole community. One of these women is a Mays student.

In return, they will receive a hands-on lesson in small business operation they could never find in a classroom.

Lauren Dunagan ’11 was one of the students that worked with Rasta through the Entrepreneurship Empowerment in South Africa (EESA) program this summer. “It was a little overwhelming,” she recalls of her first visit to Old Crossroads Township, the impoverished area where Rasta lived and worked. “I felt like I was in over my head.” However, once she and teammates got to work, the experience went from overwhelming to amazing. “I learned an incredible amount. Way more than I could have gotten in a classroom.” By the end of the program, Dunagan had helped lay the groundwork for Rasta’s business to expand exponentially.

“My working with Lauren and her team opened new frontiers for me,” said Rasta. “This was an experience of a lifetime. Lauren and her team showed me ways and found paths I’d never even dreamt of. These guys made me identify my mistakes and showed ways to correct them. I’m now more confident than ever before.”

Now, Rasta is poised to do more than increase his sales—he’s also ready to offer work to the single mothers he’s trained.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
—Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa (1994-1999)

A brighter future

Though apartheid officially ended in 1994, black business owners in South Africa still struggle to find equal opportunities in the white-dominated society. Amid the economic boom now taking place in Cape Town, the country’s principal city, many are getting rich. For other businessmen and -women, education, funding, and success remain out of reach.

“You could see where apartheid had left its mark. You could see the strong division between the blacks and whites,” said Dunagan, who noted the great wealth disparities present: BMWs drive past rows of shacks where hungry children play.

But you can also see how people are moving past old prejudices and working toward a brighter future, she says.

Stimulating the economy by aiding the growth of the enterprises of these under-resourced small business owners is the goal of the EESA program, a joint effort of the University of the Western Cape, Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University, and the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado. This is the first year that the program was also offered through the Mays Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship. Three Mays students and one other Aggie participated in the highly selective course, learning valuable lessons about business and politics as they created value for others.

The South African entrepreneurs he worked with inspired Paul Morin “10, a student in the Professional Program, to think more about his own future. The business owners had taken great personal risks and overcome adversity to build a successful venture, he says.

“I have always hoped to start my own business one day, but I always run into so many doubts and end up making excuses. After seeing what these entrepreneurs are capable of in spite of everything working against them, there are no more excuses I or anyone else I know can make,” he said. “We learned more from these entrepreneurs than we could have ever shared with them.”

Social entrepreneurship, the future of non-profits

Kelly Kravitz ’13 was one of the other Aggie participants. A graduate student in the public service and administration program at the George Bush School of Public Policy at A&M, Kravitz says she didn’t know much about business when she began the six-week course in May. Half of each day of the EESA program was spent in a classroom in Cape Town, where Kravitz got a crash course in entrepreneurship, as well as learning the societal factors that hinder the small business owners she worked with. The other half of the day was spent in the field, working side by side with emerging entrepreneurs.

“I learned an incredible amount,” said Lauren Dunagan ’11 (pictured at far right) of her EESA experience. “Way more than I could have gotten in a classroom.”

Participating businesses must have been in operation for at least two years. Their ventures ranged from catering and arts and crafts businesses to community newspapers and small manufacturing operations.

Some of the business owners were skeptical at the onset of the course, and were not receptive to having their operations scrutinized by American college students.
By the end of the six-week program, however, all were won over as the students presented four “deliverables” to each business owner.

The deliverables, including websites, revamped bookkeeping systems, and marketing campaigns, were unveiled at a closing dinner event. “It was amazing. Some of the business owners cried,” said Kravitz. “They were so thankful. They told us “God sent you to me.’…We saw businesses transformed.”

In an environment where fraud, corruption, and poverty are prevalent, Kravitz says she learned a lot about what it takes to create a sustainable business. She hopes to use the experience and her degree from A&M to pursue work in the non-profit sector developing a social entrepreneurial venture—a business that is dedicated to serving a needy population by giving them a sustainable source of work and income. “I see that as being the future of non-profits,” says Kravitz. They will find ways to be independent of donations and will become profit-generating businesses with a mission to improve lives.

“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
—Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa (1994-1999)

Beyond the basics

Students in the program were split into teams of four to act as consultants; each team had two entrepreneur clients. Rishabh Mathur, an MS-MIS student at Mays, hopes to go into business for himself as a consultant after he graduates in December, so the experience was particularly instructive for him.

One of the clients Mathur’s team worked with was LM Tax Consultants. The three partner/owners are the only employees, but Mathur says they are planning expansion, including new hires and a second location.

EESA students also took a little time to enjoy the festivities of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
EESA students also took a little time to enjoy the festivities of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

At LM, growth was happening so rapidly that owners could scarcely keep up with the workload, let alone take time to evaluate their business and create a workable infrastructure. The EESA students examined all of their operations and then set to work to provide them with immediate solutions in IT, marketing, operations, and HR.

Mathur and teammates overhauled the company’s website, adding web marketing initiatives, SEO, and analytics. They collected information from invoices to create a warehouse of data, which they analyzed and segmented to determine a targeted marketing strategy. Finally, they created printed marketing materials.

One of their most significant achievements was the creation of HR document templates, such as leave requests and time sheets, so that when the company is ready to hire employees, the owners will be prepared to track their time and pay them appropriately.

“It was a great, great experience,” says Mathur, who appreciated that he learned about many areas of business through the program.

The other education

Along with all the work, the students had a little fun. They took advantage of their free time by attending two World Cup soccer games (“I know people complained about the vuvuzelas, but they were so much fun,” said Dunagan of the noisemakers), swam with sharks, toured Robben Island (where President Nelson Mandela was a prisoner for 18 years), and hiked Table Mountain. “It was a once in a lifetime experience,” said Dungan.

The introduction to South African culture made a large impact on the A&M students: each mentioned the desire to do business in the country in the future. Mathur and an EESA student from OSU are creating a business plan now that includes a South African component. He’s excited about the business, which involves automotive accessory manufacturing, and is excited about providing jobs in South Africa. “It’s a rapidly growing economy,” he says. “This experience has given me more confidence in starting my own business there.”

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
—Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa (1994-1999)