In the entrepreneurial space, Mpho Sekwele is a force to be reckoned with. The daughter of parents who created their own small businesses in South Africa, Sekwele built on that firsthand knowledge by working in retail for 10 years before launching her own ventures. Bantu Hikers is her nonprofit mentoring organization, and SintuOnline is her business that sells exclusive products to the African diaspora. Knowledge at Wharton recently talked with Sekwele about her journey.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: What inspired you to pursue social entrepreneurship?
Mpho Sekwele: I think the entrepreneurship bit of it has always been in my blood. Both my parents pursued entrepreneurship journeys, starting their own businesses over 20 years ago. It was a natural progression that I would open myself in the entrepreneurial space, coming from a family of entrepreneurs. But I think the social bit was largely charted by my own life’s journey, which I’ll touch on a bit.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell us about your two enterprises and what their goals are?
Sekwele: They are so different. The first one, Bantu Hikers, is a nonprofit organization I co-founded along with my partner. It’s a mentorship platform for first-generation students. We started it because in South Africa, only about 18% of students who graduate from high school can access universities or any other form of education post-high school. Of that 18%, a large majority of them drop out within the first year. The reason is not financially related. With the end of apartheid just not so long ago, there has been an influx of people that are new to university institutions. That’s a big community of first-generation students. The aim with Bantu Hikers was to help them with that transition from high school to reduce the dropout rate in the first year and increase youth employability.
We use hiking as a metaphor. We climb mountains with the students, with us being professionals. We use the metaphor of climbing mountains because it’s similar to going to a university. It’s a new space. It’s uncharted. It looks impossible until it’s done. We also facilitate workshops where we teach them psychosocial skills and so forth, just to help them cope when they do make that transition into university.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell us about SintuOnline?
Sekwele: SintuOnline is a for-profit business I started at the beginning of . The reason for starting it largely had to do with my own retail experience, coming from a retail corporate background. But I took a sabbatical in 2017, when I relocated and lived in Slovenia in Central Europe. I got to travel quite a bit within Europe — the countries are so close to each other. But what stood out for me, having traveled in Italy, Austria, Croatia and so forth, was their great sense of pride in their culture and heritage. You would always find an Indian restaurant or Asian restaurant, but there was never a piece of Africa that could be found anywhere, which really, really was a big mind-boggler for me.
In addition to that, I was in a fellowship program in the U.S. at Dartmouth, where again you connect with various people who are longing for an authentic African experience or are curious to know more about African heritage and culture, but there wasn’t a platform that gives them access to those products. So, Sintu was then born. Sintu is a Zulu word which means “people” or “of culture.” We sell African heritage-inspired clothing and accessories at affordable prices, largely targeted to Africans in the diaspora, meaning Africans who are living in the U.S., U.K. or European markets.
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about launching a social enterprise?
Sekwele: I think the biggest misconceptions are that if you plan right, it’ll work out. Far from it. There is so much that comes along the way that you could never possibly plan for. It’s a challenging journey, both social enterprise not for profit and for profit. There will be things that will definitely test you. I’ve always advised people to surround themselves with like-minded people or people that build them up, because the journey is definitely not one that is easy or that you could plan 100%.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you talk about one unexpected challenge that came up with either of these enterprises along the way, and what you did to tackle it?
“The vision is nothing without a strategic plan.”
Sekwele: With SintuOnline, there’s a lot more work that goes into the brand awareness or the customer acquisition. I think what has worked for me in terms of putting the brand out there has been going to the desired markets, doing exhibitions and understanding what the American people’s understanding of African heritage is, compared to our own understanding or versus the U.K. markets. I found that they all differ, but had I not tried to put myself in the customers’ shoes or to understand what that customer is, I would not be able to even get the brand awareness out there or do the customer acquisition.
Knowledge at Wharton: I’m guessing that there’s a little bit of an education piece when you have a customer coming to the site, looking at what you have to offer. How do you do that without making it feel like school?
Sekwele: When you land on our homepage, sintuonline.com, there’s a one-minute video that gives you a little insight about who we are, the type of products that are available on the platform. If you go into the products, there’s a little bit of a narrative that’s attached to each product that gives you the unique information about a product or the educational element about it. I’ll give you an example. One of the garments that we have would typically have a descriptor that says the fabric was inspired by … Ghana and West Africa. However, it’s made by emerging designers in South Africa, so at least you get a sense of where that product comes from or which piece of heritage inspires it.
Knowledge at Wharton: You spent 10 years working for established businesses in the retail sector. What are some key lessons you learned from that world that inform what you’re doing today?
Sekwele: I think the main thing is that the vision is nothing without a strategic plan. Have strategies in place. Secondly, have processes in place. Without processes, things can always fall apart. Those are things that I apply in my own business that are taken from that. Lastly, I think another lesson is that there will always be someone who is more skilled to tackle any problem that you might encounter. One must not be shy to ask for help or think that, because I’m an entrepreneur, I can do everything myself. There will always be someone available who is a subject-matter expert.
Knowledge at Wharton: Who have been some of your most important mentors as you’ve built these two enterprises?
“As one journeys along, you have to pivot in a direction that is viable for the business.”
Sekwele: They’ve both been largely different by virtue of the nature of work that both enterprises do. For Bantu Hikers, there’s a platform called Dreamgirls Academy where professional ladies mentor first-generation females from underserved communities. My co-founder and I were part of that mentorship program, where we used to mentor young girls as well. We learned so much from that initiative. Their model was an international model, so there was a lot we could learn in terms of facilitating workshops for our own students.
With regards to SintuOnline, I think a great source of support or mentorship for that has been what is called Silicon Cape, which is an ecosystem of technology networks and incubators. One business incubation program or accelerator that SintuOnline has been on has been supported by Barclays Rise, so that has been a great source of mentorship where we’ve been provided with accounting, an advisory board, business coaching skills and so forth.
Knowledge at Wharton: Are there aspects of either business that you planned at the beginning to be one way, but after talking to mentors and having these experiences, you ended up pivoting in a different direction?
Sekwele: Definitely. With SintuOnline, the business model initially was to buy all the products from these emerging designers and pay them everything upfront. But one becomes very inventory heavy. As we pivoted along the way, we were looking at ways of not keeping large inventories but acting more as a marketplace, as opposed to a retailer that warehouses inventory. That was not part of the plan initially, but as one journeys along, you have to pivot in a direction that is viable for the business.
Knowledge at Wharton: With Bantu Hikers, why was it important to combine mentoring and education opportunities with this health and wellness component of hiking?
Sekwele: I think the health and wellness part was so critical because without a healthy mind and body, the mentorship is irrelevant. Everything starts with the mind. Trying to think that you can achieve anything at all starts with the mind. Hiking is more wellness and mental. It was the only way that we felt that the mentorship could be delivered in a way that is not conventional, that is very casual, where the kids don’t feel forced into something and is very laid back. You are achieving the wellness aspect of it, the networking aspect of it and the mentorship at one go.
Knowledge at Wharton: What kinds of things do you see coming out of the hiking trips, specifically?
Sekwele: I see people who are more open to engaging with other people whom they wouldn’t previously have [engaged with]. When you hike, along the way someone else will always need someone else’s help, and we engage. I’ve seen friendships among the professionals. I’ve seen the kids being a lot more open to discussing some of the challenges in their communities and schools.
“The customer wants an experience with each product that they buy, and they want a unique experience.”
Another thing that has been worth noticing with the hikes, especially for the students we mentor, is that they are more open to engaging with people who are not similar in terms of race or so forth. They don’t feel intimidated because it’s a large group of us that is also occupying an uncharted space.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are the challenges in balancing a nonprofit like Bantu Hikers with SintuOnline? How do the two feed into each other and allow you to enhance both experiences?
Sekwele: I think the challenges are capacity. With Bantu Hikers, I am very grateful that I’ve got a team that helps out — my co-founder and another team member who’s on our management board. We split a lot of the roles among the three of us, so definitely capacity. With SintuOnline, the challenge is stretching yourself out and trying to get the support and the relevant skills to make certain things happen. But where the two merge is the common element, the common thread that the social effect is to uplift people who are either first generation as students or professionals. If you think of the SintuOnline model, the designers who produce our exclusive ranges are all first-generation professionals. They have never had opportunities to produce for big retailers or big corporates. SintuOnline’s social aspect is that it gives them a platform where they can distribute their own products on an international scale, whereas that previously would not have happened.
Knowledge at Wharton: How were you able to source the different designers that you work with for SintuOnline?
Knowledge at Wharton: Because of my retail experience, I have managed to be exposed to quite a wide network of buyers and designers. They go through a vetting process where they would have had their own brands for over two years, and we take them through quality assurance checks. If they have proven traction and a track record in their own distribution channels — be it they’re only selling off Instagram or Facebook or in their own little shops — what we then do is arrange for them to create exclusive ranges that wouldn’t otherwise be found. Those ranges will go through our own quality checks before we endorse the product on our website.
Knowledge at Wharton: Sometimes we tend to romanticize people when their first foray into business is to launch a startup. You worked at a bigger business and then launched a startup. What would your advice be to people who are trying to figure out what to do first?
Sekwele: I can certainly say, based on my experience, that going into big retail has taught me so much; I have an understanding of how big the industry scope is, how the different players play in the industry. It allows one to imagine in a much bigger way, and I don’t think I would have been able to do so had I gone the startup route first and then corporate.
Knowledge at Wharton: Looking at your experience in retail, how have you noticed the customer changing in that decade? Is what the customer wants out of retail, what they want out of a garment, different than what they wanted 10 years ago?
Sekwele: Definitely. I think the customer is a lot more specific these days. There’s a lot more competition. They’re not as loyal as they were about 10 years ago. I think the customer wants an experience with each product that they buy, and they want a unique experience. They want to feel special, so it certainly has shifted from what it was 10 years ago.
Knowledge at Wharton: There’s a lot of global interest in the African market. People often talk about it as one market, but it’s really hundreds of diverse markets. What is your response to that misconception?
Sekwele: There are so many countries in Africa and they are all so diverse, not only from a language point of view but religion as well. It’s split into Christianity and Islamic religions, but also the traditional indigenous religions. Don’t look at Africa as one big country.
“Don’t look at Africa as one big country.”
I’m going to give you examples…. Think about the different parts of Africa that are now mini-hubs for different things. Take Kenya, for example. It’s now known as the tech hub for Africa; there’s a lot of tech innovation that’s happening there. Then you look at a country like Rwanda, which has grown in great strides since the genocide. They’ve now repositioned themselves as the cleanest country in Africa — so from a green economy point of view, they’re the go-to country.
Then you look at South Africa, which is the gateway into Africa itself because of its infrastructure, compared to other African countries. We’ve got a lot of business and companies that are competitive and have the right expertise that can compete with first-world countries. It’s a very different strength that each African country has, so I wouldn’t necessarily look at it with a blanket approach.
Knowledge at Wharton: Who are your inspirations as a leader and why?
Sekwele: I think largely it’s my parents, having seen where they started with a very, very small base compared to my own starting base. But what they’ve been able to build over the years has been nothing short of amazing, with the limited skills and resources and education, compared to myself. But they keep pushing. They keep evolving. They keep innovating.