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

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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