PUMLA VILAKAZI – GROWING SMALL BUSINESS
“When Xolani, who taught himself carpentry through YouTube, comes to the workshop every day to produce a furniture piece for a client, I just marvel. We are changing lives one by one,” says Pumla Vilakazi, CEO and co-founder of the South African School of Practical Skills (SASOPSBIZ).
A policy specialist, coach and trainer, social entrepreneur and development specialist – not to mention a driven business leader – Vilakazi has her heart firmly set on developing emerging entrepreneurs to become the lifeblood of South Africa’s struggling economy.
She co-founded the SASOPSBIZ group in 2017 to help realize her dream of contributing to entrepreneurial revolution in the country. Known for her expertise in strategy, business modelling and policy development, she has also been involved in developing entrepreneurial networks and ecosystems. She is passionate about assisting dynamic start-ups in structuring their ideas into commercial reality.
She recently ventured into supporting Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) in the furniture manufacturing space through establishing SASOPS Furnlab which seeks to migrate informal furniture manufacturers from the periphery of the economy to the mainstream.
Vilakazi’s entrepreneurial spirit and skills set stem from a childhood grounded in entrepreneurship. She hails from Umlazi Township where she says her family was firmly rooted in the informal trading which is, in effect, a repository of entrepreneurship. While her uncle was a mechanic, her father built shacks, ran a tuck shop and farmed. Her mother wove baskets and her brother handled everything from panel beating and towing to running a tavern and shisanyama.
“I grew up in a home of informal trading. I saw how it was able to set my family apart from other households. One day, I was attending a session for unemployed graduates hosted by the MEC for Agriculture at the ICC. I cried. The room was full and I could see the dreams, the hopes of many families being shuttered because education, which is supposed to be a liberator, did not seem to be the answer. I decided, there and then, that I was going to find a solution to the scourge of unemployment,” she explains.
She attended Vukuzakhe High School and became part of the KwaZulu Education Enhancement programme (KEEP), a programme which was ahead of its time in that it handpicked and groomed learners from a young age to position them for future leadership positions.
Today, Vilakazi holds a Degree in Social Work, a Master’s degree in Policy Development and a Postgraduate Diploma in Marketing Management and has worked in academia and in senior government positions. She is an active member of the Institute of Directors of Southern Africa and serves on the Board of Richards Bay Industrial Development Zone and the Kana Uvhulunga Mvelele (Women in Conservation) NPO.
Vilakazi explains that the chief problems encountered by SMMEs include a lack of on-the-ground business skills, minimal access to finance and credit, poor infrastructure, low levels of research and development, onerous labour laws, high levels of crime and difficulties accessing critical markets. As a result, the survival rate of start-up enterprises is low. It doesn’t stop there. “They are facing very real bread and butter issues. Their view is that they don’t have time to learn and experiment with new ways of doing things when they have to provide for hungry families at home,” she points out.
This is where Vilakazi steps in with her expertise in strategy, business modelling and policy development as well as experience in developing entrepreneurial networks and ecosystems. She is passionate about helping dynamic start-ups to transform their ideas into commercial realities.
One of her main passions is supporting other women entrepreneurs.
She is a pioneer of Phakamisa Girls Economic Empowerment Programme which is designed to empower girls and young women to be economically independent and she’s very proud of what the Hand Up Girls Squads (Hugs) in this programme have achieved. She is also an Executive Director of Yithi Women’s Investment Group which has a growing asset base in the agricultural sector. This appeals to her as a farming enthusiast with years’ of experience.
Many challenges later, the SASOPSBIZ group has not shut its doors but, instead, persevered to the point where it includes both a foundation and a registered company. These provide infrastructure in the form of affordable and flexible workspaces plus skills development via incubator and accelerator programmes.
Vilakazi’s personal motto is: “If it fails, try harder” and, she says, what she loves most about what she does is seeing the impact. “Recently, one of the HUGS squad wanted to start a crèche. We began by assisting with their fencing. She has built a crèche using her stipend from learnerships,” she says. This, she believes, happens because SASOPSBIZ is not afraid of meeting people at the ideation stage and joining their journeys.
Right now, SASOPSBIZ’s clients include government, NGOs and donor funding institutions and the group serves what she describes as active early stage SMMEs as well as existing traders, mainly in the informal economy, who need help up scaling their businesses.
Although SASOPSBIZ operates mainly in Pietermaritzburg and Durban, Vilakazi would like the organization to have a National footprint. She also wants to be more active in the private sector where she could assist active early stage medium sized entrepreneurs, small businesses wanting to upscale or even employed people looking to change or supplement their incomes.
Despite being a very family oriented single mother to a 13-year-old son with a lot on her plate, it seems that Vilakazi’s work and home lives are closely intertwined. Her core business value, she says, is truth.
“I want to be true to myself. I will never do anything that is against my beliefs. I also want to be true to my partners, my clients, my colleagues, my business and my family. I read a lot to inspire myself and try to learn as much as I can from everybody else.” In her very limited spare time, she enjoys baking cakes and arranging flowers as well as reading spiritual books and listening to uplifting messages from the likes of TD and Sarah Jakes and Steven Furtick.