The launch of the first Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme (SWEEP) chapter at Nelson Mandela University was celebrated with fanfare and much joy at the 6th annual Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla 2022.

There was thunderous applause as Ms Karen Snyman (left), Deputy Chairperson: CoP for Student Entrepreneurship at Nelson Mandela University, and the woman who championed the Chapter, was introduced.

She explained how this very important student body came into existence: “At the 2021 Lekgotla, Phetha Mchunu, Student Entrepreneurship CoP chairperson, mentioned that student women entrepreneurs face a triple threat or ‘tri-challenges’ as she called them.

  1. They are students, and like all students, face myriad challenges apart from academic challenges.
  2. They are entrepreneurs – being your own boss is hard, and not as glamorous as it seems.
  3. Being a female has its own unique challenges – we have to manage our families and face the huge threat of gender-based violence in our country.

“Being a student female entrepreneur is a danger sport when you look at the triple threat. It’s about women finding the right balance and taking ownership of who they are,” she said.

Aims of SWEEP

Dr Norah Clarke (left), Director: Entrepreneurship at Universities South Africa (USAf), called Ms Snyman ‘a giant in student entrepreneurship and empowerment’, and took this even further.

She said the SWEEP project, the brainchild of EDHE, aims to “equip student women for entrepreneurial activities in the context of gender-based violence and under representation of student women in entrepreneurship.” Dr Clarke said it was no surprise that student entrepreneurship at Nelson Mandela University had led to the launch of the first SWEEP Student Chapter as “it was Karen’s idea.”

Often asked why there was special focus on women, Dr Clarke said she referenced the unique barriers student women face when it comes to participating in the economy. “A specific kind of intervention is needed to address the needs of young women in entrepreneurship. We’ll be listening, to see how we can help them become strong, positive role models that we need to change a whole society.”

Juggling Act

Dr Clarke and Ms Snyman agreed: women juggle issues related to being a woman in a country where patriarchy rules; where statistics on gender-based violence are massively high and therefore, where you never feel safe. “Those are some of the realities in which student women have to compete in the economy. We don’t want special treatment for women, but we need to level the playing fields so student women can conduct business in environments similar to that in which men function.”

SWEEP, a sisterhood for economic participation, seeks to level the playing field.“In this sisterhood, we focus on skills and opportunities while partnering with entities to provide support and services in areas where we fall short,” Dr Clarke said.

Along with skills, services and expertise, the entities bring in their networks. “SWEEP is about connecting women who are already in the world of work, professional women, women in business – anyone who can open a door for another woman.” She praised the networking skills of Ms Nicole Morris, Dean of Student Affairs at Sol Plaatje University who “opened a door for SWEEP” at the National Association of Student Development Practitioners (NASDEV) Women in Leadership conference (coming up in Durban in August).

The SWEEP Model

The SWEEP three-tier model is a pyramid focusing on employability, professional skills and opportunities at the top. “Women still think a job offers more security than entrepreneurship.” The second tier is a safety net of entrepreneurship. “If you don’t get the job you want, you have options.” The third tier focuses on sustainability and resilience skills. “What do we do when everything fails, when I wonder how I’m going to feed my family?”

Dr Clarke said it was time for women stop snubbing agriculture and agripreneurship. “Being able to be self sustainable is an incredible skill to have.”

The joys of being student support staff

Ms Snyman expressed the joys that “we experience as student support staff at universities, celebrating the successes, especially in the student entrepreneurship space. We get to be there in the tough times, to mentor and guide them.”

Quoting her institution’s Dean of Students, Mr Luthando Jack, she said it was important to create self-reliant young people. And so, at the EDHE SWEEP launch last year, the idea of a chapter at Nelson Mandela was born.

How they got here

At the Madibaz Youth Entrepreneurship Lab at Nelson Mandela University, the search to find the right team of young women who would lead the chapter began. Ms Snyman said: “Atlehang Nkotha (right) was a natural choice, a woman of quiet strength and strong leadership ability.”

An intensive selection process followed to find five student women to be part of the executive. Once the SRC approval was secured for the chapter, the women began a period of intense training – society induction, finance training, event planning, marketing – learning how to effectively run an organisation on campus. They are in the process of drawing up their constitution.

“The plan of action for 2022 is to create awareness and establish a footprint on campus,” Ms Snyman continued. “The mission of our Chapter is to create a supportive and entrepreneurial sisterhood that empowers female student entrepreneurs, built on the values of SWEEP which are respect, commitment, determination, honesty and sisterhood.

“Our vision is to encourage and bridge the entrepreneurial dreams of student women entrepreneurs within universities. Long-term, we aspire to establish student chapters at all 26 public universities and grow a national network of young female student entrepreneurs who, when they leave university, have a strong foundation and a skillset for the world of work.”

Meet the executive members

Ms Atlehang Nkotha, Chairperson: “I was raised by a community of women who are leaders and entrepreneurs. They say they wish they had had such opportunities and encourage me to take up every opportunity that comes my way. I decided at the launch of SWEEP to be part of it.

“I’m driven by the vision and mission of SWEEP – it will equip us with transferable and practical skills that will help us become good leaders and entrepreneurs. Being a leader is challenging but rewarding. I’ve seen every executive member grow. We’ve learnt skills to take into the workplace and into our own businesses. We’re shining stars.”

Ms Olwethu Nxumalo, Public Relations Officer (far right): “Being a member of SWEEP gives student women the chance to take part in entrepreneurship and development workshops held by EDHE, as well as events we organise. They get the opportunity to network and have access to mentorship.”

Ms Felicia Khumalo, Events Officer (2nd from far right): “Our institutions are already teaching the theory of entrepreneurship. As the SWEEP chapter, we want to fill in the gaps between students and graduates who do not have practical or networking skills. Our events aim at offering an opportunity to get practical experience and learn practical skills.

“Our members include aspiring entrepreneurs, who do not yet have a business idea, and business owners with existing businesses. We aim to deliver to them both.”

Ms Whané Constable, Treasurer (middle): “My role is to control all finances. Because we are a new society, we get funded through an SRC grant. To cover our society expenses, we also aim to have a small entry token at our market day and use those funds for our events. We also have a R50 SWEEP membership fee.”

Ms Monalisa Mapapu, Co-chairperson (far left), described herself as the shy one of the executive. “I’m the batman of the group, my own superhero. Belonging to this group makes me a better version of myself.”

Ms Sibabaliwe Zwide, Secretary (3rd from far right): “SWEEP, for me is a dream come true. It’s not a daily thing where you meet women as inspiring and powerful as these women. I’m the recruitment officer – everyone is going to hear about SWEEP.”

Ms Sarah Collins (left), CEO of Wonderbags World and a SWEEP Patron, said the “incredible bunch of economic sisterhood women inspire me. You young women have the future ahead of you. You are rocking it. The challenges you faced during CoViD, loadshedding and not having the right resources, is the stuff entrepreneurs face every day.

“My wish for all of you at SWEEP is that you find your passion, that it burns inside you no matter how hard the challenges are. Some months I can’t pay my staff and want to give up. But the passion to get a Wonderbag (an insulated slow cooking bag) into the home of someone who needs it drives me forward.

“My inspiration is the women of Africa. With that heritage of African strength behind us, you all will fly. Believe in yourself. You know what you’re worth. Go for it.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

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