University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng (right), said she wondered if young people these days were smarter than in her own youth days, or just had more opportunities.

She was speaking at the EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity 2022 finals in Gauteng on 18 November. The Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, which organises the annual Entrepreneurship Intervarsity, is a facility of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), implemented in partnership with Universities South Africa (USAf).

Delivering this address in her capacity as Chairperson of USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group, Professor Phakeng told the studentpreneurs: You rock, guys. You rock.

Her UCT team (below) had represented their institution well. They had rocked, winning three of the four categories (Innovative Business Idea, Existing Business – both Tech and General). Furthermore, UCT won the new Entrepreneurship Learning and Teaching Excellence Award for its revolutionary Genesis Project that is run through its faculty of Commerce.

Demonstrated leadership

“It begins at the top”, EDHE Director, Dr Norah Clarke said, adding that the VC’s wide-ranging support of entrepreneurship had fostered an entrepreneurial culture at UCT.

Dr Phakeng believes that people erroneously think of entrepreneurship as being about a small business making enough money to support an individual or a family. “But it is not about the size of the company, or how much money you make; entrepreneurship is a way of thinking.  The definition of a successful entrepreneur can be expressed in two words: Problem Solver. If you can identify a problem and develop a solution that can make people’s lives easier or more pleasant, you have entrepreneurial thinking,” she told the spellbound student audience.

She added that being able to develop an idea that solves problems that enough people are experiencing means “they will support you as customers, shareholders, business partners, financiers”.  Being an entrepreneur did not mean having to forge ahead alone.

Building networks

“You can provide the key to building a network that can grow in many ways by delivering a product or service to different markets.” This led to the creation of jobs and the building of wealth that could then be invested into other new businesses or sectors “by strengthening a community or society, by raising the overall quality of life, and reducing poverty and inequality,” she said.

She told how, at UCT, there was focus on building the kind of entrepreneur that had a vision at the core. UCT’s vision 2030 defined a massive ‘transformative’ purpose. “This is our WHY. Why do we do what we do? We do what we do to unleash human potential to create a fair and just society.  “Young entrepreneurial thinkers need to achieve this, all working together to achieve the goal. We need people who think like entrepreneurs.”

Problems needing solutions

Professor Phakeng said South Africa had difficulties in a host of areas that needed solutions: unemployment, education, poverty, housing, medical care…“Each person can think of ten different problems within their family circle or community. We can’t wait for the government to solve our problems. But, our problems are solvable if we work together.”

She talked about global inter-connectedness — how rapid change was the norm in the 21st century. “When Russia invades Ukraine, it affects us. Our food and petrol prices go up. We need to be prepared to face challenges in our communities and around the world.” The Chair of USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group said South African ingenuity could solve both global and local problems adding that higher education was no longer just about getting a degree.

The unscripted future

“It’s about training future leaders to address the many problems we see here and on our continent. We need to be prepared to identify the new issues that arise in an unscripted future.”

Anticipating what the future looked like was not a possibility which was why universities needed to train problem solvers. “We don’t just need students to be certificated, asking for jobs. That’s why USAf is working with the government to develop entrepreneurship education training experience and mentorship on our campuses.”

Turning to the USAf CEO, Dr Phethiwe Matutu, Professor Phakeng said UCT was delighted to be partnered with USAf, and EDHE, working on building this programme. This was why UCT had welcomed the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking – now with an office on its campus – this year. “Our aim is to develop new ways of teaching, learning, thinking and doing in our approach to the many problems we are addressing through research and scholarship.

“Academics have identified the concept of an entrepreneurial ecosystem that acknowledges local challenges and opportunities, national priorities and policies, and international drivers – including the economy and migration. “It recognises that the interaction of these factors creates new opportunities for responding in innovative ways to meet needs and create value.”


She went on to say that institutions of higher learning are uniquely positioned to engage with disruptors to entrepreneurship, approaching them as opportunities to create new systems that are better aligned to national interest. This recognised that what entrepreneurs create extends beyond their direct field of application to impact the wider ecosystem.

“Universities teach us to observe, study and seek understanding about the many problems we are facing as a society through research and scholarship. This is our responsibility as public institutions: to align our limited resources to help the wider society to live up to the aspirations and values of our nation.”

USAf, she said, was attracting more and more partners from universities and research institutions around the world, especially in the Global North.

Building relationships

“We are using these opportunities to build relationships. We know solutions we can develop in Africa today, that can help the rest of the world. When we partner with the Global North, we don’t go in as beggars. We might not have money, but we have something to contribute; we have intellectual capital – that comes from lived experience on this continent.”

She said success in the future meant being able to thrive in uncertainty, that there was no formula that foretold what the unscripted future would look like. Entrepreneurial thinking meant being able to adapt.

Speaking directly to the students, Professor Phakeng said they needed to factor in the possibility that their hopes and aspirations might change when they entered the world of work. “Remember, you are changing too. Each of you has achieved a certain level of success.” She told the Intervarsity finalists in the room that those who do did not win an award will still have learnt valuable lessons. “Sometimes not winning can be a wonderful teacher. Not winning shows us what kind of person we are; how to find ways to persevere.”

Winning is not everything

She told how in 2004, in the 3rd season of American Idols, international singing star Jennifer Hudson made it to 7th place before being kicked off the show. Two years later she made her debut in Dream Girls with Beyonce for which she received an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony award. The woman who won the reality show that year, Fantasia, also did well.

“These women have amazing voices and built fabulous careers. The one who is more famous started out losing in front of an international audience – Jennifer Hudson. Winning your dream is not about a day or event, but a lifetime commitment you make to yourself.”

The UCT book

UCT launched a new book, Entrepreneurship at UCT: More Than Learning, during the EDHE Intervarsity.  Professor Phakeng said the book, which would be shared with the EDHE community, explained why universities are so important to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

She described three elements of every entrepreneurship endeavour:

  1. The problem to be solved
  2. The people who solve those problems
  3. The solutions they create

The story of entrepreneurship at UCT was about the personal stories of the people who populate its ecosystem – alumni, students and academics, professional and support staff and their families, loved ones, neighbours and the wider society.

“These entrepreneurs within UCT are acting on the belief that the many challenges in SA can be met with innovation, ingenuity and perseverance. For decades we have placed a strong emphasis on social impact.”

Since 2009, a UCT social responsibility award has been given to an academic or team that demonstrates how social engagement can enhance the teaching and learning process.

“We drafted UCT vision 2030 with a massive transformative purpose in mind. ExcellenceTransformation. Sustainability. Those are our three pillars.

“We cannot pursue excellence in and of itself; we have to do it with transformation – to disrupt tired old ways. We need fresh perspectives.” This thinking, she said, is demonstrated in the UCT book that showcases change-makers telling their own stories of initiatives they’ve set in motion.

Professor Phakeng said it was her hope that other universities would share their stories.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

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