Johannesburg or…Be Willing to Evolve!

This entry is a reflection I wrote during the summer of 2016, when I was teaching entrepreneurship in an MIT start-up incubator.

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting from Johannesburg, but I have been captivated by the richness of the city’s character. There is a refreshing, unabashed honesty about the issues plaguing the people and shortfall of the state, both in anecdotal observation and conversation, a survival-driven persistence and hope, racial tension, and intrinsic beauty from the history and various indigenous cultures that makes JoBurg and broader South Africa a stimulating and just plain fun place to visit.

I’ve been in Johannesburg for just about three weeks now, working for an MIT start-up incubator called MISTI GSL. I’m working with 3 other MIT students / graduates to teach fundamental business principles and software development. I’m the lead on the business side and have been teaching the students how / why to identify, select, and size markets, interview customers, prioritize sales, create marketing content, work together effectively as a team, and research competition…all in 3 weeks! HA! The other MIT instructors have been teaching software development and helping build out the teams’ products,  and organizing our finale Demo Day event in which the students will pitch and demo their products to investors and other stakeholders (MIT’s partner university, local government officials, local entrepreneurs).

I’m so excited to see where the teams will end up on Demo Day and keep in touch with them post this incubator. The most gratifying part of working in this incubator has been reinforcing the lessons I learned during my time in business school on entrepreneurship, and, watching the teams grow. I so enjoy instructing and then watching the teams apply the lessons. But, the learning that takes place in this incubator is different than the sort that takes place in a school.

Every single lesson that they are taught in GSL has to be applied right away and customized to the issues their products are facing and in accordance with the abilities of their teams. I think the learning that takes place in GSL is more challenging and requires more effort than in a traditional school because not only do students have to process the high-level principles that I’ve taught, they have to use their own judgment to administer the concepts to their particular situation. They have to know how to bend the rules for them to become relevant and that requires experience… which they don’t have (much of). The challenge and gratification for me comes almost entirely from the teams that actually do apply themselves and adapt.

That last part, adapting, is what has distinguished the strongest teams from the pack. A willingness to evolve their business ideas and learn new skills has proven to be critical to succeeding in this program. The most challenging aspect of adapting for the teams has been recognizing when to adapt. Because many of them are inexperienced entrepreneurs and new to the principles that I’ve been teaching, they have to know when to relinquish their attachment to their understanding of how to proceed and instead incorporate mine or try some other alternative altogether. that is where the iterative approach becomes a critical enabler. This process of working with the teams as a mentor and an instructor has been so insightful and productive that I’ve made it a goal to participate in a program like this again in the near future (in the next 2 years). I think working at my full-time job will add to my qualifications and make me a better candidate for what are probably hyper-competitive incubators / accelerators in the Bay area. YAYAY!

I feel so much gratitude and excitement when I think about all the opportunities to learn and make an impact out there. More than anything, the promise for output has been at the forefront of my mind lately. I noticed that starting in my last semester at MIT I became much more product and output oriented in the way that I approach my work and prioritize my time. I suppose that is what I went to business school for, aligning my time spent with what I actually want so that I can make the most impact. I now have less tolerance for spending my time on non-product related activities. Most tasks now seem bureaucratic.

I’ll have to write another entry on JoBurg and South Africa since this one turned into a personal reflection. I have a lot to say about the Rainbow Nation because of its rich character and because of the multiple vantage points that I have into the society because of my American citizenship, female gender, “coloured” status, and objectively more privileged existence.

Pictures of some of the highlights so far below:

One of the many street murals and artwork that I've seen in JoBurg. This one is definitely government sponsored, many of the murals that we see are. There's a great one of Mandela near where our office that I'll upload in a follow-up entry. there are markers of the government promoting a national identity all over the city.
One of the many street murals and artwork that I’ve seen in JoBurg. This one is definitely government sponsored, many of the murals that we see are. There’s a great one of Mandela near where our office that I’ll upload in a follow-up entry. there are markers of the government promoting a national identity all over the city.
Our classroom and students. I'm in the all black in the front of the room teaching during our first session!
Our classroom and students. I’m in the all black in the front of the room teaching during our first session!
We did a walking tour during the first day that we had off (we only get Sundays off) through the Central Business District, during which I came across this sign. The CBD is one of the most unsafe neighborhoods and even locals don't walk through the area if they can avoid it. It was absolutely deserted on the Sunday that we visited, which I think worked out for the better because I had yet to acclimate to JoBurg back then. The sight that I remember most from the walk was the row of empty buildings that were either boarded up or occupied by squaters.
We did a walking tour during the first day that we had off (we only get Sundays off) through the Central Business District, during which I came across this sign. The CBD is one of the most unsafe neighborhoods and even locals don’t walk through the area if they can avoid it. It was absolutely deserted on the Sunday that we visited, which I think worked out for the better because I had yet to acclimate to JoBurg back then. The sight that I remember most from the walk was the row of empty buildings that were either boarded up or occupied by squaters.
a view of the CBD (the tall buildings in the distance) and the train depot from our classroom. Our classroom is very, very cold.
a view of the CBD (the tall buildings in the distance) and the train depot from our classroom. Our classroom is very, very cold.

 

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