SOME ENTREPRENEURS ARE BORN. Others are made. Endeavor will take either type – provided they are up to snuff. And with a board that includes ubermavericks like Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Discovery founder Adrian Gore, snuff is nothing short of revolutionary.
“We are not going for the mom and pop shop,” says U.S.-based Endeavor founder Linda Rottenberg, a seriously connected Yale law grad dubbed one of the World Economic Forum’s top 100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow. “We are looking for those who can transform the face of South Africa.”
The non-profit with tentacles across the globe began operations in South Africa in 2004 and has already tapped 17 South African companies to join their network. Their mission: scour emerging markets for high-impact entrepreneurs and provide them with the strategic support that will take them to the next level.
It’s an enviable proposition. Over an 18-month programme, the chosen few are assigned heavy-hitting mentors as well as MBA students from top U.S. universities (think: Harvard, Wharton, Yale) who come in to strip down and restructure their companies to make them lean, mean, money-making machines. Rottenberg is clear about what Endeavor doesn’t do. “We do not create entrepreneurs,” she says, because they already exist. They also don’t finance entrepreneurs. But they have helped those in their network secure more than $900 million in funding.
“This is about unabashedly helping build the middle class through entrepreneurship,” says Rottenberg. “The middle class is the key to stability. You need people who are going to create jobs. You need people who are thinking big.”
If you thought sewing plus paraplegics equals non-profit, think again. Stitch Wise, which produces top quality safety equipment and protective gear for the mining industry, generates R21 million in annual revenues. And while they are at it, they employ 144 people, 59 percent of whom are paraplegics, many of them injured in mining accidents.
It didn’t start out that way. Ten years ago Natalie Killassy was working in the Western Deep AngloGold Ashanti mining area making pillows and cushions. Right next door a group of paraplegics were stripping cables.
“I could see they needed a skill,” says Killlassy, who grew up in Carletonville. “I saw an opportunity, identified a product need and enrolled the men in sewing courses.”
What Killassy describes as a fairy tale business model which dropped into her lap has been profitable from day one thanks in no small part to her keen business sense. The key to the operation is the geo textile the company created for backfill bags which have transformed how miners protect themselves underground. The combination of good business plus innovation has turned the operation of three employees into three separate mining-based manufacturing operations. After she was selected in 2004 to join the Endeavor network, her company exploded.
“My turnover has gone up two and half times in eighteen months,” she says. “We started our business with one rand. We didn’t have assets or capital and we wanted to employ paraplegics. Who would believe you could make a profit from that? But they gave us the green light that we were doing something really good.”
Ryan Falkenberg is not thinking small.
“I want to change the way people learn,” he says. The 33-year old entrepreneur with a master’s in industrial psychology founded Hi-Performance Learning in 1997 to do just that. The company creates innovative learning solutions for corporate training based on if then logic, as opposed to the memory-based learning model taught in most schools. It’s a revolutionary process with global application.
“The volume of information today makes memory a liability, not an asset,” Falkenberg says. “Training departments become version control departments.” His company has developed a flexible training method implemented through innovative software which integrates company culture, and drops learning time by 40 to 50 percent. It’s a model his blue chip clients were quick to understand. Since Hi-Performance Learning opened their doors in 1997, all the big banks have signed on. His bottom line hasn’t done too bad either: a none-too-shabby annual turnover of more R17.5 million with a 31.6 percent profit margin.
Falkenberg was selected in the first round of Endeavor entrepreneurs back in 2004. “They helped me with my thinking,” he says. “There are no schools for this. You are on your own.” But Falkenberg is not alone anymore. He was given mentors Adrian Gore and Sheldon Cohen to help him out through the tough parts.
With his goals, he’ll need all the powerfully connected support he can get. “I want to be a catalyst for social change, and to do that I need to convince industry of a paradigm shift that will unlock human potential. When industry changes, schools change.” And, presto, that changes the way people learn.
By the time Nkhensani Nkosi found Endeavor, her clothing company Stoned Cherrie was already the hottest urban African lifestyle brand to hit the market. But now, reality of the brand’s global potential is beginning to sink in.
“They brought discipline and sobriety into the business,” says the 32-year old entrepreneur whose Endeavor-placed MBA recently returned back to the U.S. after an eight-week stint helping to systemize her operation. “Even in design school, the equation is lopsided in favour of creativity and the ramp while it needs to be addressing the business environment.”
The Soweto-bred daughter of two academics started her career in theatre, weaving her way into film and television. It was during a stint touring Africa with the modeling competition Face of Africa that the entrepreneurial bug bit. She came back with a mission to harness the energy of Africa into a luxury lifestyle brand. Since her entrée into the fashion world at South Africa’s 2000 Fashion Week, the company has single-handedly redefined the expression of urban Africa.
Borrowing Richard Branson’s term, Nkosi calls herself a creative activist, with a mission to show off the fierceness, attitude and passion of Africa – all in a neat little branding vehicle. Along with their flagship store in Rosebank, Stoned Cherrie has a diffusion line at Woolworths, and just finished consulting Nando’s on an all-new staff wardrobe through their corporate image consulting division (“Making Chicks Hot”). With Endeavor in the mix, the world will soon be Stoned Cherrie’s playground.
“The New York office is waiting for me to say go,” says Nkosi. “They are chomping at the bit to help get my clothes out there.”
Gustav Schoeman, Theunis Botha and Marius Bezuidenhout
They’ve got all the signature elements of tech success: three twenty-something computer geeks quit their day jobs, fund their start up with credit cards and, for the first year of operations, work out of the two-bedroom apartment where they live. Oh, and they come up with a very cool name that means absolutely nothing: Nirph.
When they started out, they were like kids in a computer store. “We bought cool stuff we liked and we started playing around with it,” says Marius Bezuidenhout. “If it wasn’t for the focus that we gained through Endeavor, we’d still being buying cool things and checking them out.”
But make no mistake about these humble technologists. They designed interactive kiosks for Vodacom long before Endeavor signed them on, and had set up offices in Johannesburg and Lagos, a market they fearlessly entered by literally knocking on doors. By the end of this year, First Bank of Nigeria will be using Nirph-designed identification and anti-fraud systems to combat rampant fraud which causes colossal problems throughout the country’s banking systems. “Some people see it as complete chaos,” says Bezuidenhout. “We see it as massive opportunity.”
And that’s exactly what Endeavor saw in Nirph when they took them on in 2005. The network plugged them in at a level where knocking on doors in Nigeria is a thing of the past. “We don’t have to go through the secretary anymore,” says Gustav Schoeman. “Now we get direct to the CEO.”
Having Desmond Tutu back your product is one hell of an endorsement.
But Shane Immelman’s creation, the Lapdesk, is so simply radical it could change the way kids learn across the continent, and the Archbishop Emeritus could easily relate. “I went to a school where there were no desks,” he writes in support of Lapdesk. “That was sixty years ago.”
Not much has changed – until now. Immelman’s lightweight, plastic, child-safe portable desk could give the more than 4.2 million kids across country without school desks, a temporary, low cost solution that can be branded with company logos. Immelman’s plan is to get those desks across Africa to the 80 to 100 million children who have nothing to write on, and ultimately include an AIDS prevention message on their daily learning table. He was one of five chosen to join the Endeavor network this year.
It’s an unlikely place for the former sales star for Bristol Meyers, Vodacom and Sony PlayStation. But after Immelman’s brother died from AIDS in 1996, his entire life changed focus. It was a chance conversation with a friend’s mother, who was in education, which set him out to develop the Lapdesk.
“I don’t aspire to helicopters and mansions,” says Immelman, 36, who donates 10 percent of company profits. But that doesn’t mean his company isn’t headed for business superstardom, a key Endeavor factor. In just two years the Lapdesk has entered schools in South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia and Kenya with plans for 25 more countries by the end of 2007. You do the math.