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How Nwabisa Mayema is guiding sustainable entrepreneurship in South Africa

Nwabisa Mayema rejects the way we tell the stories of entrepreneurs and the modern myth-making that surrounds success. “I’m 41 years old,” she laughs, “can we say that a decision that was made in 1981 when I was born is what’s playing out today?” She laments our propensity to “connect the dots where they don’t connect” ignoring the ways luck and circumstance play into all of our futures.

Self-styled an entrepreneur for entrepreneurs, the Strategic Partnerships Director at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship South Africa wants to refocus how we talk about business and entrepreneurship, urging a shift away from origin stories and journeys retroactively made epic, to emphasizing purpose and problem-solving. 

Nwabisa Mayema sees business done right as an equivocal force for good. “There are so many gaps in our systems [in the Global South] – what the state should be doing, what our family structures look like or how they should function, gaps within the availability of resources,” she starts. “But, very few of us are actually filling in the gaps. The gaps for entrepreneurs lie in unequal or limited access to network, finance, or market opportunities.”

She wants to eradicate the notion of the ‘completely-independent’ entrepreneur – another myth, she says – but is plain about the work she needed to do to cleanse herself of the much-peddled belief. “Part of my journey is things that I’ve learned, but there are things to unlearn – one of the things I am working hard to unlearn is the idea of thinking I need to be self-sufficient,” she explains. She affirms that society demands so much from people of color, and doubly so from women of color, but business relies on community. 

One of the pillars of Nwabisa’s work at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship South Africa is prioritizing sustainability. Within the popular discourse of entrepreneurship, sustainability isn’t part of our everyday jargon, but as she breaks down the context of the word, its importance becomes clear. “Your business, which is a site of creating wealth, a site of creating livelihood, also needs to be a site creating legacy and impact. That’s sustainable business building,”
Nwabisa smiles, hitting her points like a trained orator on stage. “How are you building a business that leaves the economy, the planet, and society better off than before the business existed?” To break it down even further, without proper care for the environment, the economy, and the people within both, not only will production be hampered, but you eradicate the pool of customers and employees, not to mention severely hamstringing the long-term livelihood of your business.

All of this might sound remarkably like a non-profit, but Nwabisa believes that prioritizing sustainable business building and targeted problem solving will lead to generating wealth. By solving a problem, business is facilitating a demand, which makes it valuable. “People are willing to pay you a lot for that,” she remarks.

The Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship of South Africa exists to assist businesses, large and small, in promoting healthy economies within their territories and ensuring a sustainable existence. Nwabisa Mayema is clear that they’re not in the practice of training entrepreneurs. “They know exactly what they’re doing. What entrepreneurs need is access to networks, access to customers, and access to financing.” They communicate with larger enterprises to be an “enabling environment” and help prepare smaller businesses to be ready to receive investment to evolve at scale.

It’s a small team, but they craft bespoke solutions for the businesses they work with. “We will wrap around you – fast, aggressively, robustly, but also very rock and roll and lots of fun,” she explains. In terms of venture investing, the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship builds relationships between businesses with an ever-growing network of partner investors from around the world taking care to ensure an investor is a good match to both the venture’s field and their current stage.

Nwabisa wants to spare people from pitch competitions that award laptops, tablets, and context-less cash prizes. “We’re kind of disrupting what it looks like to enable entrepreneurs particularly from the global south.” Keying in on “disruption” Nwabisa explains that the Branson Centre is a for-profit business. She says the Centre is the purest expression of the mission of Richard Branson, who is a billionaire philanthropist and entrepreneur amongst many other titles. “We’re not a charity; we’re not an endowment; we run as a business,” she explains. “We’re set up with seed capital, so like any startup, we have a specific amount of time in which we have to break even. Everything we talk about with entrepreneurs is how we live our life.”

Nwabisa Mayema is living the practices she espouses. “I don’t feel like I’m working most days, which means I’m probably working the hardest I’ve worked in a very long time,” she glows. “I am who I wanted and needed when I started my first businesses 15-16 years ago, and I can honor who I was 15-16 years ago through my work.”

This year, Richard Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in South Africa launched its own fund to better support investment within the local economy by potentially cutting out the middleman, and facilitating nimbler investment strategies. The Centre launched its first investor roadshow in April of this year. 

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