Bronwyn is a social entrepreneur through a variety of different ways, including by building educational programmes, in Oxford, where she work on a number of student-facing programmes with the Skoll Centre.
One of her programmes is called the Impact lab. They support 50 MBA students, who are impact leaders. They come from a variety of different backgrounds, including NGO’s, corporate sustainability, impact investing or they could be social entrepreneurs. We bring all of these students together and support them on their impact journey, we provide new knowledge and skills but also focus behaviours needed to be able to affect change. I am the co-founder of an organisation called Engage South-Africa, a human-rights based educational organisation in South Africa. We focus on youth and civic education, specifically on how young people can get involved and support democracy.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Growing up in South-Africa, in one of the most unequal societies in the world, I recognised the inequality in society There’s a huge need to support and develop entrepreneurial thinking and skills such as innovation, resilience, resourcefulness – to address inequality in South Africa. Being a very young country, new to democracy, I have experienced social change first-hand and developed a deep sense of agency, I’ve seen this both in myself and definitely in others! I suppose that was a driving force for me, to really step-up and start becoming more entrepreneurial, and be more of an active agent in society. I started my career worked with the United Nations for a number of years, and I felt a lot of change was not being made there, because it is very bureaucratic. I became very disillusioned with the work I was doing there in my early career. So I pivoted into education, and I really feel that access to education and ideas really empowers and enables people, to take charge of their own lives. At this time, I started an organisation with a friend of mine called Coolpolitics, and we use to bring together different political leaders and young people with music, like jazz and popular artists, to debate relevant and important topics. That was one of the first entrepreneurship programme I got involved in. From then, I just fell in love with this opportunity to work with young people, to help them become agents of their own lives. I have worked in higher education for a number of years now. Working at Monash South Africa a partnership through the International Youth Foundation first introduced me to the concept of Social Entrepreneurship. When I first heard the term “Social Entrepreneurship”, I was like “oh wow, this is what we were doing for all these years and we did not know it was what we were doing!” and so we finally had a term to define the work that we had been doing. From then, I started a number of social entrepreneurship programmes and activities, which led-up to founding Engage South-Africa and now to my work at Oxford University.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me, entrepreneurship is really about innovation, resilience, resourcefulness. I think social entrepreneurship is using these traits of entrepreneurship mixed with an additional sense of urgency to solve social and environmental challenges.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that are needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Perseverance… Because it’s always harder than you think it is going to be! You are always stronger than you think you are, but it is always going to be more difficult and challenging. I think an ability to see the bigger picture is really important as an entrepreneur too, because you fall in love with your own project. You need to be able to take a step back and see the bigger picture. And finally the ability to let go, where you’re like “ok, this is not going to work anymore!”
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
My favourite thing about supporting young entrepreneurs, is that because they are starting off themselves, they can redefine their own rules and dream big! Social entrepreneurs willing to take on big challenges, broken systems and big projects, I think, are exceptionally inspiring, and I get a lot of energy from my students. I am challenged every day to find ways to better support their important work. Also, I think, the best thing about being an entrepreneur is that you can decide who you want to work with. In a company, you normally have to start working with whoever is there. If you are starting your own business, you can go back in your past and go “collect” all those people who you know are amazing, and bring them into your work.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I would definitely say my colleagues at the Skoll Centre. Moving to Oxford and working with the Skoll Centre was a very important moment for me. Just to work with so many people who are so dedicated to their work and so good at what they do is really inspirational. I just learn so much from the team. And students! Students do not come as vessels to be filled, they come in with all this experience and background. MBA students at Oxford are exceptional people already, .. Being able to really think through problems together, as a group, is really inspirational. I probably learn more from my students than they learn from me! In terms of my idols, they are mostly authors. One of the authors who has been with me my whole life is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love her, I love her work! She inspired me as a young woman early-on, she’s just so incredible, she speaks her mind, her words are so powerful, she speaks such truth! She is somebody that I have seen talk over and over again, and I think she’s an incredible inspiration to many women. She is one of my favourite authors.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I always like to discuss with students what keeps them going, how they sustain themselves and their work. Impact work is really hard work, a lot of people burn-out, and I think how they sustain themselves is really important to both themselves and to the people they work with and I want to know how to support them on that. How they can sustain themselves longer term for social entrepreneurship, I am particularly interested in this. If I had to meet some of my “idols”, I would probably ask them about how they make decisions, what is the decision-making process. Who do they go to? How do they make these choices? Who is on the “board of advisors” of their lives? On what do they base these major life decisions?
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?
Rushing forward without getting consensus from the team. Probably the biggest mistake that you can make, you get too excited, you rush forward. Maybe being too overconfident: you need to learn how to slow down and do more testing before moving forward. A little bit more focus on a lean start-up sort of approach. That is a mistake that I have made before, wanting to move to fast. And sometimes believing in people too much, struggling to let go, especially the people you hire at the beginning: you become really attached to them, and the work they have done for you, and you know they are not good for the company anymore but it takes longer to let them go than you would want to. I have also learnt to trust my instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is wrong and you need to address it.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
The Skoll Centre, definitely! Go to the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship! Let’s make every business in Oxford a social business! Let’s use our resources to help address the problems in this area, the UK, and globally as well. Oxford has incredible resources, if you want to start social business then I encourage you to go to the Skoll Centre definitely.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman who supports entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Definitely. South Africa is a very patriarchal society. Often, the challenges that you have there is that people do not take you seriously if you are young and a woman. The way I overcame that was working twice as hard as everybody else! And being able to stand your ground. As a female entrepreneur, you need to surround yourself with other female entrepreneurs as well, who understand you and go through similar challenges. My mentors, my friends, the people I surround myself with are amazing social entrepreneurs, and I would not have been able to do the work I do and face the difficulties I have faced without a strong group of female friends.
Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Being an entrepreneur is the greatest gift you could ever give yourself! It is allowing yourself to really believe in yourself. I would say that if you are thinking about it, you should definitely do it. Every time you have this feeling of self-doubt that comes up, just squash it! Squash it and be your own best friend and find ways to encourage yourself. Being female entrepreneurs, we sometimes doubt ourselves more than we doubt others. I think that one of the greatest gift you can give yourself is self-belief, and stepping-up as an entrepreneur really takes a lot of self-belief. Also, there are a lot of things in life you cannot control, but you can control your choices and your own integrity. If you know yourself, your values, your integrity, and do not compromise on that, your name will go before you. I think it is really important as an entrepreneur, when people have to put a lot of trust in you, that you know your values, you have integrity and you are a trustworthy person.
What resources would you recommend for women entrepreneurs?
The work of Brené Brown has been really important in my life such as “Dare to Lead”, podcasts, particularly for women; I love The Guilty Feminist!, and for entrepreneurs who are wanting to create a true impact in the world, of course listen to the Skoll Centre Podcast! Second series, it is just outstanding.
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
I think Oxford could be really intentional about creating spaces for women. If you look at events around Oxford, for networking and entrepreneurship, they are mostly in the evening, and I do not always have childcare in the evening! We have got to think about what are the best times to do these types of events. Is it always in the evening? Or should it possibly be during school hours, when children are at school and we can attend a lunch event? Institutions can unintentionally marginalise women, and we need to be more aware of that.
Any last words of advice?
There is a great book I just finished reading, it is incredible: Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado-Perez. It is about how most of the data we have in the world is built around men and that women are often missing, we have ignored half the population. My final word of advice is please read this book I think we need to educate ourselves, as women, and fund more research that is helpful to us as well as men. I think women are going to need to fund it, because historically we have seen that men won’t fund it! I would encourage women, as they start becoming economically empowered , to support research that includes us.