When Charles Ngobeni says “once you have stretch marks, enjoy them” because they cannot be erased, he knows what he is talking about. One of his many businesses is the Art of Skin Care cosmetics company.

But this multi-faceted entrepreneur took the image of irrevocable stretching one step further when he addressed the audience, both in person and online, at last week’s Student Entrepreneurship Week (SEW 2022), which the University of Venda hosted.

“Once your mind is stretched, it will never go back.  Think, and think big,” he said.

Mr Ngobeni (right) was the keynote speaker at SEW 2022, which promotes student entrepreneurship and showcases entrepreneurial successes at individual universities.  It is an initiative of Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE), sponsored by the Department of Higher Education and Training and implemented in partnership with Universities South Africa (USAf).

The author of motivational books, Footprints of Legend and Unlocking The Success Code, a pastor, business coach, philanthropist, and entrepreneur whose business ventures include taxis and restaurants, Ngobeni set out to inspire his predominantly student audience at SEW 2022.  His talk was titled “The Possible You”.

“Bring out the possible you within yourself. Don’t let anybody ruin the creativity that is within you. Be yourself. It is the possible you, that person, whom I want to unearth within you,” he said.

He said people were not defined by their circumstances. He listed a string of examples, such as “If you’re born in a poverty-stricken home, poverty is not born in you” and “If you are born in a Zozo (hut), a Zozo is not born in you”.

“My slogan in life is: if you’re born in failure, failure is not born in you. For there is a possible you within you. There is someone within you that you haven’t met,” said Ngobeni.

Four sides to every person

There were four people within every person, he stated:

  • the real you, which is the person you and others know;
  • the blindspot you, that is, the weaknesses you are not aware of;
  • the hidden you, which is camouflaged to others; and
  • the possible you;

He referred to Biblical examples of those who had risen above their circumstances to become “the possible you”. These included David, who was a shepherd boy and became a king, Joseph, who was a prison boy and became the Prime Minister, and Moses, who was a fugitive and became a human emancipator.

“If there is hope for these Biblical figures, there must be hope for you and me,” he said. “I am here to say to you, you can rewrite your story. Whatever you need to be a success story, whatever you need to change your life, don’t look very far. It’s within you. It’s within your reach. You have it within you,” said Ngobeni.

You are as rich as your ideas

He said he had been the naughtiest child in his community. “Think of anything which is naughty. I’ve done that, I’ve graduated,” he said. He was the troublesome one that his teachers referred to as the “noisemaker” in the classroom, and he refused their trying to silence him with a sjambok. Today he is still making the very same noise, he said, and it is paying him well.

Quoting American civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, he said there were three necessary conversations: of the heart, the mind and the purse. That, said Ngobeni, is what he called entrepreneurship “but finally, it must lead to your purse and make you filthy rich”.

So many people want to start businesses today. And he had enjoyed seeing people showcase their products at SEW. Yet too many South Africans hid behind the lack of money. “Do you really need to have money to start a business? Poverty is not a lack of money. Poverty is a lack of creative ideas. You are as rich as your ideas,” he said.

He said the founders of Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg), Google( Larry Page and Sergey Brin), and the “please call me’ cellphone micro-text service (Nkosana Makate) had not started with anything.
“It does not take money to start your own business. It does not even take money to be a great entrepreneur,” said Ngobeni.

How he had started business with no money

At high school, he had decided he wanted to be a great photographer. He had borrowed a camera belonging to one of his teachers known by the nickname Zero, and taken photos for his classmates. He had collected deposits from them and had to post the negatives and wait two months for them to be developed and returned. Then he would collect the rest of the money he was owed for the pics. The endeavour was such a success that at the end of that year, he bought Mr Zero’s camera with the profit he had made from using it.

He entertained the participants at SEW 2022 with the convoluted tale of the antics of buying his first taxi, without any actual money. That purchase kickstarted his career as a taxi boss, which has seen him progress to being the chairperson of a taxi association.

It was during his second month of being a schoolteacher, before pay day, and he had asked a young pastor to drive him to Tzaneen. The pastor owned a white Ford Laser, which was fully paid-up. They went to a garage and Ngobeni saw a Kombi for sale, which required a R10 000 deposit. Amid much negotiation, he sold the Ford to the garage owner for R14 000, saying R10 000 of that was the deposit for the Kombi. Then he bought back the Ford with a deposit of R4000, which was left over from the “sale”.

“So, basically, we went to the garage with one car, which was debt free. We came back with two cars. The rest is history. I did not need any money. All I needed were creative ideas,“ Ngobeni said.

The first principle to success

“Finding myself was a journey. A tough one, for that matter,” he said. But he claims the first principle to success is finding yourself. His own academic career was filled with failures. After completing a Secondary Teacher’s Diploma, and teaching, he got a state scholarship to do an engineering degree at what was then known as the University of Natal, now the University of KwaZulu-Natal. But he failed so badly in his first year he was kicked out.

He got permission to transfer his scholarship to doing a BSc in maths at Turfloop, then known as the University of the North and now the University of Limpopo. Again, he did not do well. During his fourth year of study leave, he was still grappling with the 2nd year curriculum. He tried UNISA but fared even worse without face-to-face lectures.

Giving up the idea of further studies, he relocated to Johannesburg and bought his first Wimpy franchise, in Hillbrow. Today he owns seven Wimpy franchises and has a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Wits University. “I found myself,” he said. “My friends had already labelled me a professional university dropout.” Rather than memorising, studying an MBA was about applying knowledge, that is, taking a concept and applying it to another — business concepts that he understood very well, and so he soared.

He said success was about finding the thing you were perhaps born to do. “Perhaps Moses was called for deliverance. Our very own Mandela was called for freedom,” he said. “Steve Jobs — his one thing was Apple. Bill Gates’s calling was nothing other than Microsoft. What is your one thing? What is your divine appointment? Go outside your box. What are you gifted in? What are your talents? What makes you tick? What makes you unique? That is your one thing,” said Ngobeni.

One secret of a successful business

Ngobeni said he had experienced a lot of failures in his life but had learnt one of the secrets of a successful business: it had to be hard to copy.

He said fish and chips was an example of a business that was easy to replicate. “I remember I sat down one day with the owner of this blue label fish and chips. I said to her, ‘You are not going to last in this industry’. She said ‘why?’ I said ‘because it’s easy to cook fish and chips. I can even do a better fish and chips than you’. “

Furthermore, the name “fish and chips” could not be trademarked, he said.

And then there was Chesa Nyama versus Shisa nyama franchises, too similar to be differentiated. Plus, those running such businesses inside malls had to pay rent, electricity and wages while those operating the same-style ones on street corners produced tasty meat cooked in one small pot and had to pay only themselves.

Other food businesses had taste profiles which were distinctive and hard to copy, such as Wimpy burgers, KFC and Nando’s. People had tried and failed. Some had stumbled onto other distinctive tastes which had become good sellers but they were different tastes to the originals, which had secrets that were hard to copy.

Responses to Ngobeni’s address

Comments on the online chat about Ngobeni’s address included:

  • “Charles Ngobeni – I looked forward to your speech and it is every bit as inspiring as I hoped, and more. Thank you” – said Arnelle; and
  • ​#forwardwithCharles, the naughty boy – said Jack Mabitsela.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa

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