Luleka Mkuzo "You might not always get what you want, but your character will transform"

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Meet Luleka Mkuzo, a Community Engagement Strategist and social entrepreneur using her rural roots to change her community, the country and ultimately the world. After years spent in corporate, Luleka started Urglobal, an organisation that runs programmes on the premise of ensuring that they equip and empower rural communities with digital & entrepreneurship skills. On her way to the 2018 Mandela Washington Programme this coming June, Luleka speaks to us about overcoming difficulties and using them to build your character…

Interviewer: Zimasa Qolohle Mabuse

Luleka, outside of being a Community Engagement Strategist by profession, you are a social entrepreneur who founded Urglobal , an organisation that runs programmes under different portfolios and is founded on the premise of ensuring that these programmes equip and empower rural communities with digital and entrepreneurship skills, effectively bridging the gap between rural communities and the global community.  Tell us your story? What was the catalyst that propelled you to start this venture?

I was born in a rural community called Kubha, located between the Alfred Nzo and Oliver Tambo District. Growing up in a rural community I witnessed how the lack of ICT infrastructure creates unequal access to opportunities for those coming from rural communities. Students struggle to adapt when they get to Universities because they have not been exposed to computers. Majority of students cannot afford to go to University due to a lack of funds; they end up not ever seeing or having access to a computer. Growing up witness to these challenges I have always wanted to help these communities. That is the reason behind the mobile computer classes. I was lucky because I had parents who were working. My dad left us with our mother and went to Durban to find employment. This gave my mother the opportunity to send us to stay with our father in Durban and enrol in better schools. At times our parents couldn’t afford to pay for our fees. My mother would go seeking for help from her siblings and community members. They would help pay for our fees while their children went to rural schools. I have seen Ubuntu through our rural community. I’ve always known that no matter where life took me I would go back to help transform the community.

Below: Kubha and Luphilisweni community members welcoming visitors who came with me from Johannesburg to help with community engagement initiatives

Prior to starting Urglobal, you were employed by one of the largest mining companies in South Africa and held various positions over a period of 10 years. How did corporate prepare you for starting (and maintaining) your own business venture? 

I started working in the mining company on 23 January 2006. When I started I was employed as a three months temp to help relieve employees when they take leave. After the three months my contract was extended for another three months. During that period, a position opened up in Sales where I applied and got awarded a sales position. While I was in Sales, a position in imports opened up. In the company I was the only one who had been trained in that position so management approached me and suggested I apply for it which I applied and got it. This position was a group imports position and was very demanding but I was able to perform great in it and that gave me recognition. I dealt with all top management (directors, general managers, sales managers, financial managers, despatch managers, clearing agents, shipping lines, overseas suppliers and customers).  I was also nominated to be an internal ISO auditor which gave me full access into the company processes and policies.

When the company restructured and centralised a few departments in 2012, creating a shared services platform in Johannesburg, a few retrenchments occurred and I got a promotion into being a group procurement analyst. I was completing my Masters degree at UKZN at the time and asked if I could relocate to Johannesburg in 2014 to be full time in the new position. I completed my studies, graduated in 2013 and relocated accordingly. In the new position I was responsible for all group tenders and contracts, ensuring the company met its procurement BBBEE targets. I still responsible for overseeing the imports for the Group.

One of my gifts is the ability to engage with all people from diverse cultures. This was harnessed during my employment and strengthened as I had close relations with high positioned personnel as well as lower level employees. I was able to communicate with and negotiate contracts with big corporates and get them to assist and work with new entrepreneurs. My rural communities in the Eastern Cape couldn’t get help from our mining company because of distance. This always pained me.

I learnt a lot here, acquired many skills amongst which were:

1) Communication, both written and spoken

2) Procurement tenders, imports, sales,  finance, community engagement, negotiating, drawing up contracts, dealing with foreign currency transactions

I would say corporate prepared me by giving me the confidence to be able to communicate with everyone from all over the world. I speak with Chief directors from government offices, potential sponsors as well as local rural community members who are not impressed by position or status -they look for respect. With my experience I’m used to all these relationships.

In getting to know more about you, I stalked your Instagram profile and found that you recently got accepted into the Mandela Washington programme as a 2018 fellow – what a phenomenal achievement! From reading the Instagram caption, I saw you applied 3 times (!) before landing the fellowship on your 4th attempt. What made you apply again and again? Tell us about what the previous rejection taught you about life and business?

Hahaha!! Thank you very much

The first time I saw and read about this programme in 2014, I felt like it was the highest endorsement I could get for the work I do in rural communities. When I saw it I was still on full time employment so my time was only limited to leave days in rural communities. I also put forward suggestions for community projects around our mining branches which management approved so I would be involved in those apart from my job description work.

The 3 times I was rejected I was on full time employment in the mining company. I have always worked hard and tried to excel in everything I do. In my undergrad I graduated top student in my group with CUM LAUDE and a DEANS Certificate for academic excellence. When I did my first application I guess I had a bit of arrogance and sureness and overrated how great I was. I asked the Director of our mining company to write me a reference, I was one of the star employees so he wrote me a fantastic reference. I was sure that I would make it. Little did I know that I wouldn’t even make it to being shortlisted for interviews. I called the embassy and asked to speak to the Manager for the programme I asked him to explain why I wasn’t accepted. The manager was such a gentleman he explained the competitive nature of the programme and even went on to tell me that he had applied 3 times before he could get his position in the embassy. He said if I really believed that I’m worthy to be part of the programme then I wont give up applying. This is what made me apply time after time. The second and third time rejections were not as painful as the first. I had been humbled and my character had developed. I made a decision that I would keep applying until I reached 35 years which is the max age one is able to be accepted. When I did the last application I was content, focussed in doing the work I wanted to do full time. Either way I was happy I had given the applications my best shot. Then I got the call that I was shortlisted for interviews. The call I had waited more than 3 years for and I couldn’t even make it for the interview. I did the interview on skype and was lucky to be accepted. I broke down in tears when I read the letter.

The biggest lesson the process has taught me is:

1) There are people doing amazing things in our continent, at times we are too focused in ourselves to see that, our arrogance limits us from seeing that greatness.

2) Sometimes we are good at what we do but we are not positioned in the right place, in my case I was in Johannesburg on full time employment in the procurement department but in my applications I was talking about doing work in rural communities in the Eastern Cape. My resignation contributed to the success of my last application as it showed that my focus was no longer split.

3) If you really want something bad enough you have to be resilient, you will be rejected many times. learn from the rejection, cry if you have to, but wipe those tears and try again. You might not get what you want but your character will have transformed in ways you never expected.

What has been your most painful business lesson or failure to date?

When I left mining after more than 10 years I thought I had built a network that could assist me in my new venture. The biggest lesson I’ve leant is that help will not always come from your existing network. When starting out as an entrepreneur we must tell our story to whoever will listen, when you get an opportunity to tell your story tell it because you never know who will help you. Rely on your work ethic, experience and believe in why you do what you do. It will be difficult at times but find circles that will motivate you to push forward.

Let’s talk more about the Urglobal, what are the practical steps and services you provide that ensure you fulfil its mandate; namely unearth and cultivate rural potential? Tell us about Urglobal’s services…

“Urglobal” is a name derived from Ubuntu Renaissance Global. Our core focus is in facilitating rural development. I introduce initiatives that have potential to drive social and economic transformation. Currently our flagship programme is the mobile computer classes which we run in rural schools. I communicate with the Department of Education and the schools. Currently I run the programme in 3 schools that cater for various communities. I teach students from grade 7-9, as well as teachers in those schools and members from the community.

I currently have 17 laptops, the number of students outweigh the available laptops so I normally create various groups and teach 3 classes per day in a 1 and ½ hour sessions. The school principal allocates me the available time slots in their time tables.

I have other schools that want to be part of the programme but I will take on more schools when I am able to get more resources. We have applied for accreditation with MICTSETA to get the programme accredited. We are still busy waiting for approval.

Below: Photos from Luphilisweni Junior Secondary School, Eastern Cape & Photos from Bushulas Junior Secondary School at Lusikisiki Eastern Cape

How can others who wish to make an impact, contribute towards Urglobal?

We currently run mobile computer classes in rural schools for students, teachers and community members such as leaders, entrepreneurs and unemployed graduates. We need assistance with more laptops or even computers, second hand or new.

We have also been given land by the Chief and the Department of Agriculture from the Eastern Cape Alfred Nzo District. Our vision is to build a skills centre that will be able to equip rural people with various skills (e.g digital, entrepreneurship and agriculture). We do need help in building the centre. We are currently busy with an architect that is doing the plan for us. We currently have one sponsor from London who is interested in helping but we need more sponsors. Assistance doesn’t have to be financial, one can utilise their skills if they are able to spare us the time.

Below: The Province of the Eastern Cape Department of Agriculture measuring and giving the ownership papers for the skills centre land – In the Photo is the Department representative the Honourable Chief, my mother and the community leaders.

What practical advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs?

Go out and engage, engage, and engage – where there are opportunities to learn grab those whether they are from courses, workshops or just engaging with people more knowledgeable than you. You will feel intimidated by others but remember everyone had their beginning like you and went to find their feet. If you push and hold on you will also find your feet.

Below: Photo from the 2017 GIBS Festival of Ideas National Competition. Sponsored by GIBS, SAB Foundation and Barloworld (I won joint first place and received R55,000.00)


Corporate Quickie

The best personal branding tool is…being your authentic self

More entrepreneurs should…work together and learn from each other

Best investment…is in continuously learning and growing yourself

Worst investment…is in only thinking about yourself

Africa needs…authentic leaders

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