Although most university graduates aspire to one day secure a job in the public or private sector, in reality, jobs are becoming scarcer. Job advertisements of large corporates should not deceive anyone into believing otherwise. Companies may have the resources to advertise, but there are just not enough jobs to go round.

These were the words of Mr York Zucchi (right), a Swiss born banker and Founder of The StartUp Tribe, who delivered a closing keynote address at the Academy-Industry Training: Swiss and African Science and Business Innovators Programme (AIT-SASBI) Spring Conference 2023 that ran for two days from 22 to 23 February. The conference coincided with Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme’s Kick-off 2023 event, that set the tone for the programme’s performance in 2023. 

Zucchi’s StartUp Tribe is an initiative aspiring to help 100 million individuals to start and grow their businesses. As of December 2022, StartUp Tribe was active in 27 countries supporting over 400 cities and municipalities to tackle unemployment and grow local businesses, contributing to economic growth.

University qualifications are not a panacea for all societal challenges

Speaking remotely from Milan, Italy, Zucchi made an example of Switzerland, his own home country, where 70% of adults did not get university education, yet 99% of all people who work, in that country, work for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). “As you know the quality and standard of life in Switzerland is extremely high,” he said, attributing that good living to a successful enterprising system. 

Unapologetically, he declared that creating entrepreneurs and SMEs is not a nice-to-have or feel-good exercise; nor is it a checklist for some sustainability goal. “This is crucial for empowering Africa to tap into the success that it really deserves. To let Africans earn the African destiny, we must empower the masses, everyone out there, to start businesses. Only by starting will they really learn what it means to be an entrepreneur. 

It is all backed by empirical research

The self-declared practical investor, whose projects have realised 16 years of varying degrees of success, and failure, especially in sub-Saharan African countries, went on to share three takeaways from studies run over the last 16 years, of what works and what does not, in entrepreneurship development.

  • Practical education trumps academic education

He said he was referring here to entrepreneurial education and not necessarily belittling the important role that universities play in the development of people and knowledge.  He said he had witnessed in sub-Saharan Africa, a strong drive for a much sought after university degree, which, he argued, “may be good for some but, for a large majority, is really counterproductive.”  

Zucchi said the best school of business is the school of doing. “Let’s encourage people to start. If you are a government agency teaching people entrepreneurship, interview successful individuals and showcase how they got started and how they have grown their business, giving living examples. We’ve got to make entrepreneurship attractive and sexy. We’ve got to bring back the desired awareness that entrepreneurship is not an option but a first choice… The more we share, the more we give people a sense of what to do tomorrow morning.”

In entrepreneurship ecosystem development, Zucchi advocates for practical, hands-on education. He advises all those involved in university education to democratise education. “Make it easier to access and more palatable for the young and not-so young, in a digitally supported way.” He proposed that university professors consider creating micro courses, online, and give them away freely to the nation. “We’ve got to deliver knowledge in a way that is practically relevant to the entrepreneurs. There’s nothing better than a university that understands the local culture and local nuances of doing business.” 

Ultimately, he said, “we need to develop content that teaches somebody what to do practically tomorrow morning. 

  • Access to mentoring 

He said research findings had shown that access to mentoring is much more a key driver of success than a person starting out in business, including investors, could have ever envisioned. First, mentoring gives access to the mentor’s knowledge and experience. Secondly, in a mentor, a mentee has an accountability partner — somebody who checks in on them once a week or once a month to say: ‘you told me last month that this is where you were at; what have you done since then?’  Zucchi emphasised the need to create accountability partners who help entrepreneurs, not necessarily who open doors all the time – even though opening doors was also an essential function of entrepreneurship development. 

  • Opening doors: Support your entrepreneurs with access to networks.

“When you’re a young person in Diepsloot, Khayelitsha, in Alexandra, or in any other enormously challenged location around the continent, you don’t have access to a client who is sitting in a nice office in Sandton, or in the Cape Town CBD. 

“So, what we need to do, as entrepreneurship ecosystem developers, is to help our entrepreneurs in getting a foot into organisations where they can be incubated or accelerated,” Zucchi pointed out. “That does not have to be formal: a small producer sitting with six bags of potatoes and two of chillies may be unrealistic for a large Pick n Pay market. However, you can introduce them to a local restaurant chain who can buy from them. Incubate them with local businesses that can support them; that is, advise them on which other crops to grow in the next season, and perhaps even invest in the seeds the smaller producer might need to meet the business need. 

“So, let’s start re-matching for small businesses, but in a way that it aligns the entrepreneur’s business niche to the client’s business needs. Matching a tiny, microscopic startup to a large corporate is a recipe for disaster, generally speaking.”

It’s not a one-size-fits-all

Before sharing another piece of advice, he mentioned two types of entrepreneurship development that he had seen: the niche, deep-tech enterprise which could be the next medical innovation type, or the climate-change type. And then he mentioned mass entrepreneurship development support. “They are very different in scope, in needs and in how we create them…When you commercialise an enterprise through a technology transfer office, it requires a very niche, hard-core and resource-rich support infrastructure. Organisations often make a mistake of thinking they need to apply that approach for the masses. But the masses need to go through an education programme.  To help them, bring out tech supported enterprises that are effective to run, duplicate and multiply across regions. Work with local partners but do not over-invest, otherwise you get initiatives that pop up but burn away after a year, when the funding runs out.” 

About Zucchi

York Zucchi is a banker with 29 years of business experience across many countries and a firm believer in the power of SMEs in improving the world. The insights shared at the AIT Spring Conference 2023 were informed by his work in supporting start-ups and SME development in 83 countries and working for nine different corporates in over 11 countries.  His global experience includes 16 years of supporting and investing in SMEs in sub-Saharan Africa. 

The conference was a success 

According to Mr Eric Thaler (above), Senior Manager: Global Partnerships at the University of Basel and co-host alongside the Swiss Embassy and USAf’s EDHE programme, this conference organisers had done a good job.

He said he believed that combining academic inputs on innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems on Day One, and making Day Two more conversational, had worked. He nonetheless invited the delegates to give feedback on how they had experienced it all, for future improvements.  

“We received plenty of support from the EDHE and production teams who did a fantastic jobWe’ve achieved far more in this conference than we had envisaged.” 

Dr Norah Clarke, Director: EDHE at USAf, agreed: “we’ve learnt a lot that we can apply at our universities to make our institutions, and our world, a better place.”

Thaler further said they had enjoyed the privilege of spending these two days together with delegates from Switzerland, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa. He singled out the presenters and panellists including academics from Kenya and Botswana, who had shared insights on how their universities were driving entrepreneurship from their campuses. Thaler also commended the speakers and session moderators including Dr Victoria Galán-Muros, UNESCO’s Chief of Research and Analysis, and Ms Nanci Govinder, an Angel Investor and Entrepreneurship Advisor. He also acknowledged startup entrepreneurs for their fantastic presentations during the pitching session on Day One.  

Finally, Thaler said it was a thrill to have had the USAf CEO co-welcoming the guests, seeing that USAf works in similar entrepreneurship development frameworks as the University of Basel. He last expressed gratitude to the Swiss Embassy for making the conference possible from Switzerland’s perspective.

Dr Clarke’s final word to the delegates was: “We are connected as institutions, countries and continents. When you engage in Africa, come with your heart. You are welcome here as part of a platform that is bringing hope to our continent.  We thank all of you who took the time to travel and be with us, including those engaging online.”  

On that note, Thaler declared the conference closed, as he looked forward to the next chapter in Ibadan, Nigeria, in 2024. 

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communications. 

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