According to Ms Karen Snyman, Specialist in Student Entrepreneurship at Nelson Mandela University, bringing a Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme (SWEEP) to their campus meant a great deal. It marked the formation of sisterhood fitting their unique context.

SWEEP, an initiative of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme, formed to spearhead student women’s participation in entrepreneurship and the economy, was launched in 2021. This project was inspired by women’s underrepresentation in business, including in student-run enterprises at institutions of higher learning. It was introduced to empower women and to give them tools to self-determine, to obtain self-sufficiency and to assume their rightful place in society, especially in the face of the scourge of gender-based violence.

A champion of women entrepreneurship at heart, Snyman, who also serves as the Deputy Chairperson of the Community of Practice for Student Entrepreneurship within EDHE, felt that it was not enough for SWEEP to be a solely national-level programme. Hence, after the SWEEP launch at the 2021 EDHE Lekgotla, she proposed the idea of university chapters. Nelson Mandela University pioneered the concept, launching their own first chapter at the EDHE Lekgotla 2022, hosted in Gqeberha.

Almost a year later, Snyman used the SWEEP information platform on 26 April to share some insights, aiming her input at potential coordinators and executive committee members of  SWEEP chapters that are envisaged to arise at other universities.

She said introducing this initiative at Nelson Mandela University necessitated drafting a constitution. Snyman said although the approach would probably be different for each university, her institution deemed this a critical first step, to instil understanding of the Chapter’s intent and guidelines. Together with the EDHE team, they drafted a generic document that institutions could adapt to their contexts.

With years of working in Student Affairs under her belt, Snyman felt better equipped to get the project off the ground. In her assessment, the most critical functions of a coordinator are to promote campus engagement and foster a sense of community. Overall, the coordinator has to be a SWEEP advocate who supports student women in addressing typical issues such as gender discrimination and various forms of gender-based violence prevalent at their institution and neighbouring communities.

“We need to create those dialogues; light the torch for them to think about these issues and to help them develop programmes and plan of action,” she said.

Snyman said such a project needed to be eased in gradually at universities. Instead of going big scale from the outset, she cautioned potential coordinators to keep it simple until the idea catches fire within their environments — in both students and staff. She also suggested planning around known events as an ideal approach to promoting a SWEEP University Chapter, and capitalising on those events’ tractions. Examples were Africa Day or Women’s Day/Month celebrations. 

Furthermore, Snyman suggested arranging networking sessions for chapter members. She said at Nelson Mandela University, she reached out to the businesswomen’s association in Gqeberha and introduced the SWEEP University Chapter and its objectives. This had resulted in the members of her Chapter being invited to this association’s events and included as panel participants in some sessions. She said the networking could extend even to other faculties within universities and other student organisations.

Alongside this, Snyman advised keeping record of every detail within a Chapter, as that would help to identify successes and failures, thus informing ways to develop the initiative further.

Choosing a winning team

Snyman admitted that choosing an Executive Team was not easy, given general scepticism about the ability of student leaders to work together. She said her Student Affairs background had enabled her to identify potential candidates. “You need to choose students who display potential for leadership, even if they do not have leadership skills yet. Identify those passionate about entrepreneurship and with a strong desire to succeed,” she said.

Snyman also encouraged forming a team with diverse capabilities and sound communication skills.

The Executive Team at Nelson Mandela University’s SWEEP University Chapter .

“When we started SWEEP, it was not all roses,” she said, explaining that a team building exercise helped them to understand their unique characters and accept one another.

She advised against choosing candidates based on popularity on campus and amongst peers. “Choose someone you know will be in it for a long haul and want to make it a success — and never about them,” she said, adding the importance of choosing people who would be available and willing to commit to the Chapter’s activities and responsibilities.

With that said, Snyman told potential coordinators that ultimately, they would need to create a safe space for women in their SWEEP University Chapters.

“We need to create a supportive and empowering environment, to help them address the unique challenges faced by women in this space, and to be that safe space for them, that open door, that shoulder to cry on and a support system that extends to their academics. I always remind them that they are students first; their academics should take preference, before being a SWEEP member.”

The SWEEP University Chapter at Nelson Mandela University’s main campus has been so successful that they have since started another Chapter at the university’s George Campus.

Snyman offered her own support to those who desire to start these Chapters at their institutions. “We are growing, and we will have a SWEEP alumnus, soon,” she told the EDHE team in excitement.

More information on SWEEP and how to start a SWEEP University Chapter can be found here.

EDHE is determined to support the development and running of SWEEP University Chapters through branding guidelines, effective marketing and promotion, and the development of the constitution. The team is also working on a comprehensive guidelines document to share with universities.

Meanwhile, SWEEP is planning to host a three-day workshop on 19-21 July in Gauteng, aimed at empowering student women and other businesswomen interested in changing the world of entrepreneurship at universities.

Nqobile Tembe is Universities South Africa’s Communication Consultant.