Interview with Cebisa Mahlukwana, a 2008 South Africa Field Study Program student

by Cassandra Chan

I recently had the oppor­tu­nity to inter­view Cebisa Mahluk­wana, a mem­ber of the 2008 South Africa Field Study Pro­gram. At the con­clu­sion of the pro­gram, Cebisa was awarded a schol­ar­ship to attend North­east­ern Uni­ver­sity to ful­fill his MBA, which he will begin in the fall. Upon doing addi­tional research on the TSiBA grad­u­ate, I dis­cov­ered some inter­est­ing facts about him. He is estab­lish­ing him­self in the entre­pre­neur­ship world, both in South Africa and abroad. Cebisa has par­tic­i­pated in MIT’s Global Youth Sum­mit in 2009 and was selected as one of South Africa’s 100 Bright­est Young Minds, attend­ing a sum­mit in Stel­len­bosch. His busi­ness plan for one of his busi­ness courses was selected by Syra­cuse University’s Whit­mann School of Man­age­ment who stated that the work was above expec­ta­tions for stu­dents at his level. Finally in 2010, Cebisa started a job at Santam’s, a South African insur­ance provider and entered their Grad­u­ate Accel­er­a­tion Pro­gram. When I emailed him to ask him if he was avail­able for an inter­view, I encoun­tered a very mod­est, qui­etly strong man who has the drive to take him far. Fol­low­ing is the inter­view con­ducted through email.

Ques­tion: What is your back­ground? Where do you come from in South Africa?

Answer: In South Africa, I come from East­ern Cape, But­ter­worth, Qeqe vil­lage. I was brought up there by my grand­mother. I then went to Cape Town (in 1992) to stay with my father and also get an edu­ca­tion, in Cape Town I stayed in Khayelit­sha, a town­ship that is on the out­skirts of Cape Town (50 KM away).

Because my mom failed to send my school report in time from the East­ern Cape, I had to redo my school grades from start, going back from Grade 3 to Grade 1. So my pri­mary, Sec­ondary and Ter­tiary edu­ca­tion was done in Cape Town.

I am the fourth of five boys…my mother, since sep­a­ra­tion from my father remar­ried and she has three kids (two girls and one boy), so all com­bined I have seven siblings.

Q: What moti­vates you?

A: My daugh­ter is my main dri­ver at this point.

Q: How did you become involved with Business/Entrepreneurship?

A: The pick of my involve­ment with business/entrepreneurship started to take a seri­ous turn at TSiBA, and the friends that I met at TSiBA were also like-minded peo­ple, and that helped a lot.

Q: How has TSiBA helped you both per­son­ally and career wise?

A: Per­son­ally TSiBA helped me to look at chal­lenges that are fac­ing the soci­ety that I come from in dif­fer­ent light, all the project that I did for my town­ship and the work that I have done in respect of “pay it for­ward” have helped a lot in my per­sonal devel­op­ment. Career wise; dur­ing my projects work and the time I spent at TSiBA I met quite a num­ber of peo­ple who were instru­men­tal in my career, there are many oppor­tu­ni­ties that I have received dur­ing my time at TSiBA.

Q: What was your involve­ment with MIT’s Global workshop?

A: Peter Kraan, the head of the Entre­pre­neur­ship Cen­tre received a spon­sor to attend the work­shop and he had to take a stu­dent with him. So because our group (Fan­Con­nect) was per­form­ing very well he chose a per­son in the our group because of my con­tri­bu­tion to the group and the class. So I rep­re­sented the class there and I was expected to report back on my expe­ri­ence. It was an expe­ri­ence of a life time and I learned a lot. I got involved in the “Ele­va­tor Pitch Com­pe­ti­tion.” I didn’t win but it was quite an expe­ri­ence. I am still in con­tact with some net­works I made from that workshop.

Q: What was the impact of the 2008 North­east­ern pro­gram with TSiBA?

A: It was the most talked about event dur­ing that time, the biggest impact for me was the con­sul­tancy that we gave to the busi­nesses from the Entre­pre­neur­ship Cen­tre. As South African stu­dents we got to expe­ri­ence how it is to work with for­eign stu­dents, we got to learn about each other’s work ethic, cul­ture, opin­ions of Amer­i­can stu­dents about Africa and South Africa and many other things.

Q: Can you elab­o­rate a bit more on being selected as South Africa’s 100 Bright­est Young Minds and the con­fer­ence in Stellenbosch?

A: The BYM sum­mit selects final year and post-graduate stu­dents and young pro­fes­sion­als who they think have lead­er­ship qual­i­ties and have worked in projects that address South African social issues. Peo­ple who pro­posed ideas have the poten­tial to change the face of our soci­ety for the bet­ter. Every­body that was selected among other things pre­sented their ideas at the sum­mit and we were all grouped accord­ing to the cat­e­gories of our ideas and we had to come up with one idea, which we pre­sented at the end of the Summit.

Q: You are plan­ning on attend­ing North­east­ern to pur­sue an MBA. How did this come about? What are your feel­ings on com­ing to the States? 

A: Yes I am plan­ning to, I believe that this Sep­tem­ber I will be mak­ing my way to Boston. In 2008, dur­ing the Northeastern/TSiBA pro­gram I met Pro­fes­sor Den­nis Shaugh­nessy, because of my con­tri­bu­tion to the class he then together with the then Dean Moore called me to tell me that they are will­ing to offer me a tuition waiver to study for an MBA at North­east­ern. I was happy to hear about the news but I could not take up the offer for 2010, but I had a dis­cus­sion with the pro­fes­sors and we agreed that I would work first and then make my way to Boston.

I am very excited to know that in just few months from now I will be step­ping into my future in Boston, I am plan­ning to make it a very mem­o­rable experience.

Q: What are your future plans/goals once the degree is acquired?

A: My plan is to come back to South Africa and work on the busi­ness plans that me and my group have put on hold due to the fact that we are work­ing now and in dif­fer­ent regions in South Africa. I also plan to work while I pur­sue my per­sonal and busi­ness goals.  

Q: You have accom­plished a lot in your busi­ness career thus far that is rec­og­nized both in the US and South Africa. Any words of advice for peo­ple in sim­i­lar situations?

A: I don’t think I have accom­plished lot though, I feel that there is still a lot that I must achieve; I don’t think I have the author­ity to give advice as well as I am still a young man, so I will bor­row words from those who have expe­ri­enced life before me. “It is wise to keep in mind that nei­ther suc­cess nor fail­ure is ever final” – Roger Bab­son and “If you shoot for the stars and hit the moon, it OK. But you’ve got to shoot for some­thing. A lot of peo­ple don’t even shoot.” Confucius

 It seems that North­east­ern will be for­tu­nate to have a stu­dent such as Cebisa, and we’re excited to see how his jour­ney plays out in the States.

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