Young entrepreneurs help South African community
SA photo

Photo courtesy of Northeastern University

January 29, 2009

Last summer, 20 Northeastern undergraduates teamed with students from the Tertiary School in Business Administration in Cape Town, South Africa, to help local entrepreneurs in the country's formerly apartheid-driven townships build and finance community-based businesses.

As part of the project, students from both schools helped 10 local "micro-entrepreneurs" to write business plans, create marketing programs and build financial models in an effort to boost job creation in communities ravaged by HIV/AIDS, high unemployment rates, gang violence and drug abuse.

"Students realized that business has a far greater reach than profits alone indicate," said Dennis Shaughnessy, an executive professor in Northeastern’s entrepreneurship and innovation department, who accompanied students to South Africa. "Though profit incentive is at the center of business, we think a more effective model is one that also positively impacts entire communities and countries."

The Tertiary School, a scholarship-based college of roughly 200 students, provides emerging young leaders from impoverished local communities a chance to study entrepreneurship and leadership. The collaboration between the Cape Town university and Northeastern students lead to the creation or improvement of several businesses headed by low-income residents of the townships and, in many cases, women and children from families impacted by their country’s problems.

Entrepreneurial projects undertaken by the students included a magazine for black South African men addressing issues not covered by existing media; a one-person business offering non-traditional tours of townships; a small textiles company looking to expand its client base and a consulting firm pursuing opportunities to develop recreation areas near township schools to engage at-risk youth in healthy activities.

Entrepreneurship major Timothy Vitulli’s experience in South Africa inspired him to want to become a social entrepreneur.

"Before South Africa, I was completely unaware of the inner-working of social enterprises," he said. "I feel that all new businesses should incorporate some type of social bottom line, aside from profits."

Studying in the country gave international affairs and economics major Danielle Dobson a first-hand look at the transformative impact of business.

"I saw how business actually had the ability to transform people’s lives—to make them self-sufficient and to provide a way for them to break the cycle of poverty," she said.

"It’s one thing to sit in a political science class and talk about the fall of apartheid, and it’s another to be able to interact with people who lived through that time and learn what it means to them and their community," she added.

Emphasizing the importance of interaction between the two cultures, Shaughnessy recalled Tertiary students teaching their American counterparts the importance of their cultural values, including their "us together" ("ubuntu" in Zulu) mentality.

"In the West, we are very inward looking," he said. "We ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ That’s not really their culture. If a poor person in South Africa finds $10 on the street, he finds five people to share it with.

"South Africans don’t want to live in America. They want to change their country. They want to be the future of the African continent."

The South African project is part of Northeastern’s new Global Development Entrepreneurship program, one of the initiatives undertaken by the College of Business Administration’s Social Enterprise Institute.

This summer, the program will expand to the Dominican Republic to focus on microfinance and village banking. Within the next few years, the program is expected to bring up to 100 students into the field and perhaps more than 200 students into the classroom.

For more information, please visit http://www.cba.neu.edu/portal/index.cfm?page=713&nav=565.

Watch a video about the work Northeastern students did in South Africa in our multimedia section.

For more information, please contact Jason Kornwitz at 617-373-5729 or at j.kornwitz@neu.edu.

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