Corporate citizenship

Allan Gray Orbis Foundation: Nurturing high-impact individuals

The focus of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation is to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset in South African youth. But this is not merely about producing entrepreneurs. Yogavelli Nambiar profiles Fellows from the Association of Allan Gray Fellows who embody the “spirit of significance” that the Foundation seeks to inspire.

When Allan Gray Fellow Dominic Obojkovits was at university, he’d skip lectures and instead study the slide presentations his lecturers had compiled to summarise each module. Far from being a lazy student, Dominic was merely following a path that suited him: As an entrepreneur, he was running a business while completing his studies and, in his own words, “attending lectures meant giving up a lot of time – and time is money”.

This is just one of the shortcomings of our current education system – it fails to equip individuals to think as entrepreneurs, Dominic points out. “Instead, it primes them to see themselves as employees, developing an external locus of control, which relies on others to give instructions and provide direction.”

Dominic should know: His entrepreneurial journey started in Grade 3 when he photocopied the comics he drew and sold them to fellow learners for R1. In Grade 9, he made a more serious foray into business when he collaborated with David Nickerson, a Canadian artist, to create his first video game, Astro Dodger.

A spirit of significance is recognising that ultimately, personal satisfaction comes from empowering oneself to serve others

Dominic explains that he didn’t create Astro Dodger to make money, but rather as an experiment to learn and understand the process of creating a video game. He used his learnings to launch Pixel Boy when he was a second-year university student, a product which sold 40 000 units in 190 countries around the world.

Buoyed by this success, a third game was developed – but it proved a dismal flop. Not that Dominic was disheartened. “We actually realised on the day of launch that the market had changed too drastically for it to be a success, but by then it was too late to make changes to our model. Happily, though, I always have ten ideas spinning in my head, and the failure of the game freed me up to pursue my next venture: cryptocurrency.”

Inspired by the interest shown in the burgeoning world of digital assets, Dominic turned his attention to developing a system to mine cryptocurrency. This led to the establishment of Balance, a cryptocurrency player which has introduced a software wallet and, most recently, a hardware wallet that reduces the possibility of cryptocurrency theft – one of the industry’s greatest bugbears.

Dominic’s story encapsulates the values held dear by the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation in that he has built a career on looking for ways to add value to people’s lives, even if it is, like in the case of his gaming company, “simply to put a smile on someone’s face”. As he says: “I want to create things that produce more value than they consume.”

Making an impact

Suzie Nkambule is another Allan Gray Fellow who has gone on to do great things. Suzie was born in Matsulu, a small township in Mpumalanga, as the sixth of seven children. Her mother was a kitchen matron at a local prison and her father a foreman at a fabrication company. She discovered her love for public speaking at an early age and went on to win numerous debates and competitions in high school – proving to herself that where she came from had little bearing on what she could achieve.

She later became captivated by engineering and its potential to change people’s lives after watching an advert featuring the newly built Nelson Mandela Bridge. “It was such a simple thing: a structure which connected one part of town with another. But despite this simplicity, it literally changed the lives of people who previously had to walk far between these destinations,” she explains. However, because tertiary education was considered a luxury in her family, she hadn’t considered a career in civil engineering – until she applied for the Allan Gray Fellowship. When she graduated, she was the first person in her family to have a degree.

Suzie joined Aveng Grinaker-LTA following her tertiary studies, initially as a business intelligence manager, where her role focused on strategy and growth. Never losing sight of her goal – to create a self-sustaining environment which would not only provide inhabitants with all the infrastructure for a high standard of living, but also ensure employment for many – Suzie strived to find ways to align the company’s business model with enterprise development and local procurement.

This drive was ignited by her understanding of the opportunities construction and development could create. She cites the Medupi Power Station as a perfect example: Before this facility was built by Aveng, the town of Lephalale (Ellisras), where it is located, was fairly stagnant. “You build places, and people come and fill them and create economic activity,” she notes.

In 2016, she was appointed managing director of Aveng Water, a subsidiary of Aveng that focuses on innovative solutions for Southern Africa’s water challenges. She then took a major step forward in the pursuit of her goal to create a self-sustaining environment when she joined forces with E Squared Investments (a long-term capital fund set up as part of Allan Gray’s empowerment initiative to enable Allan Gray Fellows and social enterprises to build and scale high-impact organisations) to form Infinity Partners, a 100% black-owned company that acquired Aveng Water in January this year.

This is just one of the shortcomings of our current education system – it fails to equip individuals to think as entrepreneurs

A spirit of significance

Suzie’s social awareness, and the accompanying determination to solve social problems, reflects a spirit of significance – a value the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation seeks to cultivate in entrepreneurs. A spirit of significance is recognising that ultimately, personal satisfaction comes from empowering oneself to serve others.

This is precisely the kind of mindset we should be striving to nurture, insists Gary Schoeniger, a global expert in entrepreneurial mindset development who has enhanced the Foundation’s understanding of this through training. Schoeniger maintains that this kind of thinking should start in school, where teachers should stop asking children what they want to be when they grow up and instead encourage them to start thinking about what kind of problems they would like to solve. From there, they need to focus on building the skills required to help them address the relevant issues.

This kind of thinking is vastly different from current paradigms because it hinges on removing the assumption that there will always be someone (or stable employment) to take care of you and instead places the onus on the individual to find something that matters to them, and to take responsibility for playing a role in fixing it or creating value.

This requires several supporting qualities, Schoeniger explains. “For a start, we need a greater focus on our local contexts. There’s no point in looking to Silicon Valley for entrepreneurial inspiration because here in South Africa, our challenges are significantly different.

“It also requires that we redefine what it means to be an entrepreneur. People tend to associate the term ‘entrepreneur’ with ‘business start-up’, but the reality is that not everyone has the desire or the temperament suited to starting a business. Because of this, many people who have the potential to make a major contribution to their societies are lost to us. They don’t identify with the entrepreneur label, so they apply their talents elsewhere. But entrepreneurial thinking can be applied by any of us.”

This new mindset places greater emphasis on attributes like curiosity and innovation. At present, these are considered soft skills – the nice-to-haves that fall behind technical skills when it comes to achieving success. And yet, these are the very qualities that drive us forward, and which help us to identify where our help is needed, and what form it should take. In short, it’s about encouraging learners to think about how they can make themselves useful, Schoeniger concludes.

Developing high-impact individuals

This is the kind of entrepreneurial outlook we at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation have always strived to develop. Our focus is on shaping high-impact and responsible entrepreneurs. Although we are well aware of the benefits that entrepreneurs bring to any economy, we want our graduates to go beyond this and advantage their societies in other ways. This may be in the number of people they employ, or even by boosting the microeconomy. It can also relate to the products or services they provide. The point is simply this: Entrepreneurs don’t operate in a vacuum. Perhaps because of the size of their operations, or maybe even because there is a definable face of the business (and because it is often built on a dream), an entrepreneur can touch the lives of those around them in a way that a large corporate simply isn’t able to do.

It is incumbent upon us to help young South Africans understand this responsibility. We need to highlight the fact that becoming an entrepreneur isn’t simply about earning an income, but also about adding value to one’s community. This could mean offering a product or service that would improve their standard of living, or helping to create jobs.

We also need to help them understand that, laudable as this goal is, entrepreneurship is not an easy road; that failure is often inevitable, but that they should see it as a form of feedback – information and insight into the market’s wants and needs. If they’re able to leverage this feedback, they’ll become more resilient and adaptable.

Finally, we need to draw their attention to one critical fact: A “no” is not the end of the road. As Dominic says, “I faced a lot of doubt. Not even my family wanted to invest in my ventures. But I never stopped to wonder if they were saying no because I was doing the wrong thing. I naturally assumed that I was on the right path, and that made me push harder.”

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