The one clear outcome from an EDHE Lekgotla 2023 think tank on How do we support artists to sustain and grow their businesses in the creative industry? is that there is no one specific way. What works for one initiative might not work for another. However, it seems a good idea to create situations where creative people can learn from one another.
EDHE is the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education Programme. It is an initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) administered by Universities South Africa (USAf), the umbrella body of the country’s 26 public universities.
Ms Beth Arendse (below), CEO of the South African Creative Industries Incubator, which she started six years ago, and who is also a member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation, spoke in the think tank on day two of the lekgotla held from 6 – 8 September at the University of the Western Cape.
She believes that “it’s a natural thing among creatives to collaborate. Peer-to-peer mentorship is automatic. You don’t even have to try and make it happen”. She said every WhatsApp group that has been created for every programme she has ever done, still exists. “Nobody ever leaves, and they start creating their own get-togethers and groups and ideas and they trade with each other. And it’s informal, and I can’t say we could take credit for being clever and thinking of it. That happened because that’s how creatives work,” she said.
Learning from interacting with others
Another panellist, Ms Palesa Molefe (below), Programme Coordinator for the Arts and Culture Trust (ACT) – which is working with Arendse on a programme at present – said they had a different experience. “I’ve been nodding my head a lot with what you’re saying,” she said to Arendse, “because I agree, although I’m seeing things a little bit differently”.
She said participants in their group mentoring do not spontaneously start talking to each other to the point where they collaborate. “We constantly have to encourage them,” she said, referring to both herself and the group facilitators. And if she, as the programme coordinator, does not start a WhatsApp group, it does not happen.
She quoted the well-known expression “no man is an island” to show what they reinforce to their participants about how ACT wouldn’t have survived for 29 years if it had operated in isolation. “It’s because of the mentorship that we as the ACT team get from the people we work with. And we hope they can also feed off us. We try out best to make sure that people understand that mentoring is good, but you need to want it,“ said Molefe, saying their participants tend to wake up to its benefits and value during the implementation phase of their training.
How to cultivate the value of informal interactions
Ms Levinia Jones (below), also representing ACT in the think tank – she is on its board – joined the discussion online from her base in Montreal, Canada. She said formal mentoring programmes are exactly what one would imagine: a measured structure, contract, time – and all very specific.
Yet the few creative hubs in the South African creative sector – there were also examples elsewhere on the continent and worldwide – were “imperative”. People needed responsible, safe, and brave spaces where they were “able to share and create links and connections and networks and mentorship, both formal and informal”.
She said although this was difficult to measure, over the years the projects she had worked on — and she has about 20 years’ experience across the creative industry in different capacities, both in higher education and in cultural diplomacy — she has learnt the value of informal interaction in the sector. “I’ve been really privileged to have worked in a number of different spaces that have shown us this and there’s some good academic and research grounding this as well,” she said.
What came through research done at the end of projects was the need for “creating opportunities for artists we were working with to not do, not learn, not perform nor train. Instead, they were spaces where they could talk and be informal, she said, referring to “collaborative, experiential moments that happen, where so much extraordinary kind of magic takes place as well”.
These spaces could be a bar in Braamfontein where a group of people would be having a drink at the end of a project, or standing outside while offloading a truck, “and there’s a moment of exchange between people because they’ve had an experience that they can share”, she said.
The challenge was to cultivate such moments without orchestrating them too carefully, she said. “Those little exchanges are so valuable. When I speak about informal mentorship, I really am speaking about peer-to-peer kind of exchange,” said Jones.
“So, from a research perspective, how do we capture those moments? How do we interpret them? How do we know that they’re working? We usually don’t allow for them in projects that we set up in training programmes. These are very difficult to foster. They happen quite organically,” she said.
Their impact, however, was clearer than its measurement, which was “lived experience that is exponential, that keeps rippling through a creative’s opportunity to see a different perspective and one outside of their own”.
How to build trust among peers
Ms Samantha Layton-Matthews (below), a training and development consultant and guest lecturer in the School of Public Management, Governance and Public Policy at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), who facilitated the think tank, pointed out that it wasn’t just about peer mentorship per se, but peer learning.
“How do you get them to start building a level of trust so they can learn from each other in those spaces, because I think some of them may be competing in a way. How do you facilitate a process to build that trust?” she asked.
Arendse said one can intentionally create a suitable space. “By the time someone gets into our programme they feel like a rock star. They got a call back twice. We make them go through four or five steps before they get accepted. You don’t just apply and you’re in. You’ve got to sweat a little bit. We want some skin in the game because you usually get into this mentorship for nothing. And if something is for nothing you don’t value it. So, when they do get in, they all feel ‘wow, we made it’,” she said.
She said they made participants feel special as if creative entrepreneurs are the solution to the entire country’s problems. As a result, they have a 98% retention rate. “It’s creating that sense of belonging, and that you are going to go places with us,“ she said, coupled with incentives at graduation such as awards for the best entrepreneur and the most turnover. Many of those in their programmes come back as peer mentors and trainers.
And the company’s energy is youthful. She is the only one not aged 35 and younger and their excitement rubs off on everyone. She admits she does not know if these perceptions are “deeply academic” or even counted as research “but it is the practical way,” she said.
QUESTION: “What are the criteria for one to be part of a mentorship programme?”
Molefe: “It’s different depending on what programme you’re looking at doing. For our programme, you need to be South African and an artist or be in the industry. You need to have a project plan. You need to have clients or people that you invoice all the time. You can’t be a business just because you’ve registered and not have been active over the past 10 years; you need to be very active. Also, you need to have a viable business plan. If it is not going to work in the long term, then you need to rework it and come back for the next cohort.”
Arendse: “It’s different per programme that we do. We do take startups who are just an idea, but we’ve got a different way of testing whether that could be viable or not. We do have some programmes for existing businesses that are stronger. So, it really depends on the programme and often on the partner and industry partner that we’ve working with, as well as in terms of the criteria. Just follow our social media. all the calls go out there.”
Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.