Young Entrepreneurs in the Business of Enlightenment
A year ago, LeeConnect and EnlightenEdu pitched for the Golden Circle. LeeConnect presented a stronger business case but both organisations offer a necessary service that goes above education to also inspire learners to dream.
Golden Circle is a platform hosted by Motsepe Foundation for young, semi-established entrepreneurs who are searching for capital injections and looking to build national and international networks that will expand their impact and their capacity to do good. Winners were chosen based on strict criteria including the business ability to address a social need and ensure financial sustainability.
“Rather not consult with parents beforehand.” This is the advice of Golden Circle winner Lindelwa Mahlalela, who assists young people with university applications through her organisation LeeConnect. While the advice sounds harsh, Lindelwa is adamant that self-awareness and informed choice can improve university outcomes.
Since winning Golden Circle in 2022, Lindelwa has expanded her company LeeConnect into Botswana. She has been recognised by the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in their Festival of Ideas Top 10, and by the Mail & Guardian as one of the 200 Young South Africans making an impact.
Using the library internet, Lindelwa initially volunteered her assistance to others for free. But in 2020, without access to the library, LeeConnect grew into the self-sustaining enterprise it is today. “Everyone was home, and people were starting to think about their future. There was interest across the country.”
Since 2020, she has assisted over 11 000 learners, of which 8 000 have been accepted at university. Lindelwa’s mission is to increase the number of learners from underserved communities who are accepted into university. This requires her to go above and beyond to ensure young people are making the right decisions.
“Helping young people understand who they are will help them know the career path to take.”
Lindelwa is a witness to the unrealistic career expectations many young people have when they exit high school. “When you are funded once, and you have made a wrong decision, the universities and funders will not offer another bursary. Students either fail, drop out or continue on a path that makes them unhappy.”
Several reasons exist for young people’s unrealistic expectations. For some, a lack of information can skew their choices towards careers that offer titles and status, such as medicine and law. For others, academic choices are made based on careers that are considered employable, such as teaching and accounting.
In response to South Africa’s devastating youth unemployment crisis, Lindelwa has had to hone an ability to manage parents’ expectations with learners’ abilities. She discourages seeking the advice of others and promotes an internal assessment for learners to interrogate their own strengths, weaknesses, as well as their ideal work environment and areas of interest. Lindelwa hopes this approach will also improve university pass rates because more young people will enrol in areas where their passion aligns to their abilities.
Lindelwa faced, and has overcome, her own difficulty of deciding what to study. Confused with too much choice after matric, she pursued IT and then business at Stellenbosch University. She intentionally selected this broad skillset, to give her space to try new things and discover her passion.
A year after Golden Circle, and at 23-years-old, Lindelwa has found her purpose. “It gives me great purpose to see people become better versions of themselves,” says Lindelwa. “When you enter a classroom, you enter a space filled with hope and big dreams. The children aspire to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. And those dreams may seem impossible for them to achieve. Through LeeConnect, I want to challenge them towards their path.”
In the science faculty, the dress code skews towards casual jeans and a t-shirt (sometimes no shoes!) to signal an exclusive focus on acquiring knowledge. For Apiwe Hotele, who loves to wear her statement dresses and high heels, her expression of femininity made her feel out place.
By nature of proximity, Apiwe imagined she would become a doctor. Inspired by a black woman medical doctor in Queenstown, whose practice was always busy, Apiwe pursued maths and science in high school. Without a maths or science teacher to support her aspirations, she was obligated to teach herself. After matric, when Apiwe was rejected by universities due to low maths and science scores, she learned that hard-work and dedication had not been enough. Apiwe was devastated.
It took a chance meeting at the communal tap for her to realise that many others are in the same situation. Apiwe overheard the frustrations of learners, who were also struggling and considering quitting altogether. She refused to allow melancholy to settle over her community.
“Someone needed to send a message to these girls: That we are capable and can do it.”
Apiwe enrolled into the foundation phase at the University of Fort Hare, with the hopes of bridging into medicine in the future. But instead, she fell in love with computer science. “I saw an opportunity for technology to solve maths and science education problems.”
She went on to complete her honours year with only one other woman from her 1st year cohort. “During practical’s, it was intentional that women take notes and compile reports. But femininity does not erase technical expertise.”
By the time she joined The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and realised how far she had come from the rural town in the Eastern Cape, she became passionate about sharing her newfound interest in STEM with others. In 2016, while volunteering in Langa on weekends, to tutor learners in maths and science, she developed EnlightenEdu.
EnlightenEdu officially launched in 2022. During this time, Apiwe experienced the ups and downs of entrepreneurship before quitting her job and running her organisation full time after Golden Circle. “I was working, running Enlighten and completing my masters at the University of Cape Town simultaneously. It’s taken years of adapting to discover what Enlighten can be.”
In a year, EnlightenEdu has retained 300 learners on the platform. Apiwe has also been recognised by the Mail & Guardian as one of 200 Young South Africans, she won the Accenture Rising Star Award in the ICT category, and is acknowledged by Inside Education as one of the 100 Shining Stars in Science.
Apiwe is currently working on initiating an Adopt-a-Learner campaign that will allow companies and individuals to subsidise the maths and science education for learners who cannot afford the full subscription. This will allow her to return to where she grew up to resolve the lack of maths and science education.
By battling the pressures to conform, Apiwe says it’s her daughter who gives her the inspiration she needs today. “Raising a girl is pushing me to do more to avoid her encountering the same obstacles I did. She shouldn’t fight my battles.”