by Monique Jacobs

INSPIRING SA's YOUTH ENTREPRENEURS

South African students and school-leavers are going through a wave of intense negativity and lack of enthusiasm in the face of an uncertain future. Fortunately, there is hope to be found in Dr Thea van der Westhuizen’s doctoral thesis that explores ways to boost entrepreneurship among our youth

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Dr Van der Westhuizen, an academic at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, was recently awarded her PhD in Leadership Studies for her thesis titled, “Developing Individual Entrepreneurial Orientation—A Systemic Approach”, and she has emphatic advice for the South African business community on how they should be operating.

“People need to develop business friendships —as opposed to partnerships—and when they engage with each other, they should have an open mind, an open heart and an open will in order for ideas to transform into actions that might sustain.

The rationale behind having an open mind and heart is to bridge the disconnect people have amongst themselves and with different social systems,” she explains.

Like the majority of South Africans, Thea is concerned about the current unrest amongst the South African youth, coupled with the fact that we have a 62% unemployment problem.

Thea began the research for her doctoral thesis using 60 second-year university students to determine whether Theory U (a management method to change unproductive methods of behaviour) and Individual Entrepreneurial Orientation (IEO) can be used to boost entrepreneurship amongst the youth in South Africa.

The students participated in an action learning and research project over nine months. Thea’s findings indicated that participants IEO propensities, entrepreneurial self-efficacy and learning preferences developed significantly and positively, and the conclusion was drawn that using the conceptual framework of Theory U as a social technology has a positive impact on the development of Individual Entrepreneurial Orientation.

“Through the involvement of various roleplays in the systematic action learning and research project entitled SHAPE, systematic goals were met,” she comments. “The core of transformation is that we need to inspire people before we educate them. Leaders need to inspire the youth—and we need more inspirational leaders.

“That is what will transform society. We need to breach the disconnect between the student, the unemployed—and society. Inspiration fuels passion and the drive and will to succeed,” she explains.

In an article featured on Get It Durban titled “Youth Brain Drain motivates Durban academic to inspire change”, Dr Van der Westhuizen explains that, during her research, “it became clear that all our country’s systems—political, social, ecological, economic and educational —are in crisis and that the group being most affected by this were young people between the ages of 18-32”.

It was evident to Thea that the youth lacked inspiration and, as a serial entrepreneur who had started many businesses during her youth (including a silkworm business at the tender age of five), this reality resonated with her.

“It became clear to me that the ‘leadership’ was there and maybe even the desire and intention, but what was seriously lacking was the ‘transformational know-how’. South African youth are continuously bombarded with negativity and conflict, so for us to get the youth mobilised positively, we need to replace the old, traditional ways of thinking with new approaches and we need inspired leadership that inspires positive action. This is not only necessary but crucial as a way forward,” she says.

Thea adds that, although the government is investing large amounts of money into entrepreneurial programmes and skills development, the outcome is not what was hoped for—the youth are not empowered enough to start and run their own businesses.

In the article, she emphasises that the situation will continue to be fragmented until inspirational leadership is present across the board. It is for this reason that she is dedicating herself to working with young people, from school-attending age to university, school-leavers and entrepreneurs, aiming to take her research findings to the next level.

Thea’s career has come full circle, having started off as a student en route to the highest levels of international business and now back to research and the academic environment. Her research interests include corporate strategy, the entrepreneurial mindset, systems thinking and inspirational leadership.

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