Entering entrepreneurship competitions is the best thing students could do for their start-up ventures

Published On: 4 January 2020|

At the 2020 Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Competition event on 21 January, all four winners from the 2019 competition were invited onto the stage to participate in a facilitating the discussion. The winners were essentially sharing their experiences of the competition, the benefits derived, their aspirations and future outlook.

From left, Penang Shirindza (Rhodes University); Musa Maluleka (Wits); Denislav Marinov (University of Cape Town) and Mvelo Hlophe, also from UCT. Ms Lelemba Phiri (far right), Principal at the Africa Trust Group, was facilitating the discussion.

Asked how they felt, emerging head-and-shoulders above 1155 entrants and a total of 144 pitches, Denislav Marinov, a 3D printing machines designer now pursuing BSc Honours at the University of Cape Town (UCT), said his first reaction to winning in the Existing Technological Business category was of shock. He said it felt incredible, hearing his name being called among such an incredible lot of contestants, some of whose businesses had already won clients and were making money. “I was intimidated — competing against very intelligent peers in my category, so winning was highly inspiring. It reminded me of why I was doing what I was doing. At that moment I felt that I must be onto something right and felt more inspired than ever to continue on this journey.”

Mvelo Hlophe, also from UCT, owns Zaio, a gamified online platform that teaches people, free of charge, software development and coding skills that equip them to solve business problems while making money. He said while it felt surreal and great when peers started shouting excitedly at the call of his name, he felt even more triumphant, reflecting back on it all later. To this day, Mvelo feels inspired every time he looks at the numbers (in client contracts, value and revenue) that he is now contending with, in the business. Mvelo won in the Existing Business: Social Impact category and was also the ultimate winner of the Student Entrepreneur 2019 title and the R50 000 prize money that came with it.

Musa Maluleka, on the other hand, felt extremely excited and at the same time humbled. “I never in my wildest dreams, ever imagined winning.” Musa, who invented the Disktjie soccer boot and won in the category representing Existing General Business, is an Honours in Accountancy Science student at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Finally, for Penang Shirindza, a Bcom Honours Informatics student at Rhodes University, winning meant being recognised for the value he was adding to entrepreneurship. “It hit home that if you work hard toward something you believe in, you succeed. I felt really grateful.” In partnership with a childhood friend, Penang conceptualised Urban Play, a digital advertising company looking to advertise in long-distance buses and taxis, thus targeting long-distance commuters, in-transit. Urban Play won in the Best Innovative Idea category.

Winning has flung doors of opportunities wide open

Has anything in their lives changed since 19 September 2019 (the awards day), Ms Lelemba Phiri, Principal at the Africa Trust Group, asked the 2019 winners.

Penang Shirindza’s response was that winning this competition has since opened doors to him that would otherwise have been closed. “I mention that I was a winner of this prestigious competition and clients sit up and listen to my story.” He proudly shares that in Johannesburg, a corporate shuttle has agreed to use their platform to pilot their business solution. They are in the process of rolling this out. They have also convinced a few studentpreneurs to advertise their solutions on this platform so things are looking up. “The recognition that I enjoy since the competition has boosted my confidence and is making a whole lot of difference,” Penang says, also adding that their dream is to scale up steadily throughout South Africa but manage the growth carefully. He says with the countless buses and taxis commuting out of Johannesburg to all parts of country, he has no doubt about prospects for growth.

When Denislav Marinov entered this competition, he was a freelancer. He has not only registered a company but has also attracted a few corporate clients. He also received some crowd funding. “I have therefore scored big wins following the competition.” These include an opportunity to pilot his company’s 3D printers in 140 public schools in Gauteng. “We’re aiming to give every student an opportunity at 3D printing,” thus doing his bit to empower youngsters who would otherwise get no exposure to this modern technology. “Ultimately, I aspire to become the first and largest of the manufactures of this printing technology in Africa.”

Musa Maluleka, who is targeting his Disktjie soccer boot at soccer stars with the hope/ in the hope that other soccer enthusiasts will be inspired to follow suit, has since supplied merchandise to close to half of the Orlando Pirates team. “Now 40% of Orlando Pirates wear my shin guards,” says the man who aspires to grow beyond the soccer boot to develop a full suite of branded sportswear. He says now that he is able to sell to players in the Professional Soccer League (PSL), he aims to capture the entire PSL market.

Mvelo Hlope, who already had a few clients in his books at the time of the competition, continues to grow his client base and, therefore, continues to feel positive about the future. His immediate desire is to extend Zaio’s training opportunity — now limited to students at UCT, to students at universities in the other big metropoles of Durban and Johannesburg. “I also aim to work through the Launchlab in Cape Town to attract more corporate clients” in the Mother City.

Big lessons learnt along the way

“I have learnt to differentiate between noise and signal,” says Musa. He explains that noise, in this context, refers to the hype and excitement that he experienced for the duration of the competition in 2019. “The excitement made people talk a lot but offering little substance. Signal, on the other hand, gives you direction to your intended goal.” He says increasingly talking to individuals in business has since made him realise that they talk numbers (revenue, profit margins). “It is no more about pitching ideas. I must add, however, that witnessing my peers pitch during the competition, taught me I could do far more in my own space.”

For Penang, the biggest lesson has been to master budgeting and knowing how much to invest into the business. “Knowing what numbers (i.e. turnover) we’re dealing with is critically important.”

Mvelo, on the other hand, says beyond the competition, he has, through the networks built, received further ideas and additional mentoring on more he could do in software development.

Yes, winning also put them under pressure to achieve more and become role models in their own right. Denislav is happy, nonetheless, to be inspiring engineering and other students in other sciences to take up technology. “South Africa and the whole of Africa is a great space to develop technology. Being on the winning platform gave me the courage to play a role.”

Having each won some prize money ranging between R10,000 and R50,000 (for the overall winner), the students all ploughed back their winnings into their enterprises.

Importance of institutional support

“It is crucial,” Mvelo says. “It certainly helped me clear my mind. I began to see things from a different perspective. Our institutions also play a critical role of providing the resources we need and mental support, especially for the studentpreneurs to not feel that they are walking the journey alone.”

Musa found that it was important to learn the science of business at varsity before one has too many responsibilities. “It most certainly gives us the privilege to learn in a protected environment, in comparison to our peers in the real world who have to slug it out pushing trolleys – in the quest to make a living out there. It certainly places us at an advantage.”

Absence of females in the winners a concern

The winners all acknowledged the glaring absence of female entrepreneurs – a concern they are addressing – to varying degrees — in their own spheres of influence. Denislav is looking to expose his technology to at least 50% of female youngsters, among the learners he will touch in the schooling system. Musa, realising that female soccer is not taken as seriously as what is considered mainstream (male) soccer, donated two pairs of Disktjie boots to two players in the Banyana Banyana team. “For me, it was not about making money but to position these individuals as role players of note.”

While Mvelo said females were already an integral part of his team at Zaio, he said he did hope to see a bigger interest growing in this space, in female students. Penang added that he did hope to see females earning their place at the winner table.

Sharing advice to future contestants

“Go on, folks. Enter the 2020 round. Remember, losing to others is not the end. Pick yourself up again and keep trying and pushing.” – Denislav Marinov.

“If you have an idea, put it to action – apply your thoughts and bring it to fruition.” – Mvelo Hlophe.

“Just do it. First envision it, then execute and work towards winning. Put yourself out there and believe in yourself, and what you have to offer.” – Penang Shirindza.

“I agree. Believe in yourself and in your idea. You never know where that will lead you.” – Musa Maluleka.

A word from the competition sponsors

Dr Diane Parker, Deputy Director General: Universities Education in the Department of Higher Education and Technology (DHET), could barely contain her excitement as she described Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) as a departmental “flagship programme”. The DHET, which founded the programme in 2016 and is funding it from the Universities Capacity Development Programme (UCDP) budget, later approached USAf to play an administrative role. That is how EDHE was transferred to USAf and became a USAf programme from May, 2018.

Quoting the DHET motto: “Transforming, teaching, learning, researching and leading towards enhanced quality, success and equity in universities,” Dr Parker said the Intervarsity Competition was feeding into that ethos. She described being entrepreneurial as “a way of being. You do not learn it easily unless you have the spirit to take available seeds, create networks and opportunities to grow the seeds further. But you have to have it in you to be entrepreneurial,” she said.

To the four young winners on the stage: “You are brilliant. We were smiling from ear to ear, listening to you, young people, prepared to lead us into the future that we have all been dreaming about, ” Dr Parker said, also extending the gratitude to USAf’s EDHE team.

Ms Nontando Mthethwa, Head of Public Affairs and Communication at Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, which supports the competition financially and in other ways, said from the Foundation’s point of view, the outstanding performance of the 2019 winners is an endorsement of “our programme and proves the effectiveness and efficacy of our approach.”

She said it was an enormous privilege to be able to contribute to the development of South Africa’s economy by fostering tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. “We are greatly encouraged by the success of the participants in the EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Finals, and look forward to seeing how the winners continue to shape the business space, going forward. We’re also looking forward to playing a role in nurturing more winners. Watch this space!” Ms Mthethwa said.

Her sentiments were echoed by another sponsor-partner, the SAB Foundation, represented by Ms Ntandokazi Nodada, an Innovation Specialist. She said the SAB Foundation started engaging the EDHE programme when the Foundation was looking to increase their footprint in universities, essentially among students, “whom we know hold solutions to life challenges. We were looking to get those solutions into the market.” They signed up to support the competition in 2019 and, having witnessed what the EDHE programme is doing, also want to continue on this journey. “Thank you, EDHE team, for opening doors for us to get involved in the higher education institutions.”

Mr Sandras Phiri, Director of Startup Grind, one of the sponsor-partners to the Enterpreneurship Intervarsity Competition, cautioned the students: “Entrepreneurship is hard! At times it does feel like you’re a gladiator,” he said, referring to Gladiator Street, along which the event venue was located. “For the longest time, people believed you either qualify from a university to get a high paying job or you drop out and become an entrepreneur. Don’t believe the myth that dropping out leads to entrepreneurship. I tell you now, that most billionaires are educated.” He added that it took years of perseverance to succeed in business. “I personally founded the Africa Trust Academy many years ago. Only after 10 years did we succeed. We work to build entrepreneurship in every town. You need to be a gladiator and learn to cope in difficult situations.

“You will often feel as though you’re bi-polar: up when clients are buying and down when they’re not. But keep going. Only if you work alone does the journey feel lonely – but in networking there is value… Note that after winning competitions people want to see what you are building – whether you are profitable and creating jobs. Employment is a by-product of business success. But also make the money.”

Mr Phiri also said he was looking forward to being involved in 2020.

From Universities South Africa, the new Director: Operations and Sector Support, Dr Linda Meyer, said she is keen to deepen USAf’s relationships with all social partners to achieve more in youth and the broader society.

Entries to the 2020 competition opened up at midnight on 21 January and will close on 2 March. The finals and award-giving event comes earlier this year, in the first week of July.

Mateboho Green is USAf’s Manager: Corporate Communications