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@Wharton recently talked with Sekwele about her journey. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@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@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@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@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@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.