HOMEBOY Mthembu is a jewellery design and manufacturing student at Durban University of Technology’s (DUT) City campus.
When he isn’t juggling his demanding studies, he is working on his jewellery brand, BigHomie and Co, designing attractive pieces for his growing customer base in his rental studio.
He had ambitions of becoming an entrepreneur from a young age. And, preceding his studies, he was a tattoo artist.
“I was a tattoo artist, but it wasn’t a professional thing; I just had the skill,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to build a business. But I never understood the dynamics of building one.”
Fashion design student Diva Mobedi is no stranger to the business world. Her mother, a successful business owner and fashion designer inspired her idea to start a business.
“When I came to DUT I didn’t have a business, but I had an idea,” Mobedi said. “It was after I joined DUT’s entrepreneurship centre that I was groomed to open up a business.”
“I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps. Seeing her as an entrepreneur as well as a single mother inspired me. But the only difference is that she had to learn everything by herself, without any assistance. With me, there was extra help from the university,” Mobedi added.
Today, she is the proud founder of Fashion by Leelah, a modest female fashion brand that specialises in kimono apparel.
Mthembu and Mobedi are two of 50 students selected to participate in the pilot phase of an online entrepreneurship programme offering students a one-of-a-kind, interactive six-module course on the best practices of starting and managing a business.
“Over the course of six modules, students will explore what it means to be an entrepreneur, why entrepreneurship is integral to economic development and how to start and run their own business.
“They will have the opportunity to hear from like-minded entrepreneurial students in South Africa and Ireland who will present some of their insights and findings through each step of the programme,” the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) said in a statement announcing the programme.
The course was developed in partnership with Munster Technological University (MTU) in Ireland, THENSA and the Technology Innovation Agency in South Africa, with DUT as the implementing university through its entrepreneurship centre.
Firstly, the course’s ingenuity lies in the fact that it will be taught and administered on Telegram, a messaging app. Secondly, the approach to the content essentially opens up participants to a technique that encourages start-ups to treat their business ventures as scientific experiments.
Applying science to entrepreneurship
“The task that I was [given] was to contribute an alternative to travelling to Durban and doing a week-long course in a big meeting room,” said Dr Niall O’Leary, who is a research fellow at MTU’s Hincks Centre for Entrepreneurship Excellence.
O’Leary’s role was to assign the content which entailed researching the best approach to the course, writing the course, narrating it on the platform as well as recording videos, among other tasks.
“We wanted to make the course accessible to participants who did not have a laptop and so this led to a view that it should be accessible on mobile and laptop. So our technical lead came up with the idea to use Telegram,” O’Leary said.
His strategy for the content of the course was informed by a 2020 randomised controlled study conducted on 116 early-stage start-ups in Italy, which found that training founders to think and act like scientists could help reduce the risk of sticking with business ideas that would ultimately fail.
“The basic concept of the [study] is that it’s not the ideas that are short. There are lots of entrepreneurship ideas, but the question is how you spend your time and money developing them,” O’Leary said.
“The innovative, scientific approach to assessing business models is about prioritising those finite resources. What we do in the course is that we [ask students to] develop a business model canvas – a succinct business plan.”
He said that, once the participants have completed their business model canvas, they are asked to decide what key factors would influence whether the business would be likely to succeed or not.
This allows start-ups to experiment, discover and learn what could make a business venture a potential hit or miss.
Architecture of the programme on Telegram
Telegram is an instant messaging application that was launched in 2013 and has, from time to time, been regarded as the main rival to the Facebook-owned instant messaging application, WhatsApp.
“Telegram is so flexible; it allows for the integration of any kind of application you can imagine. And, like any application, it allows for a response from a user and you can deliver content to them,” said Willie Cloete, who is the technical lead of the course. “There’s user input and response back to the user.
“Within the context of the course, as soon as the person has registered and subscribed to the course from the THENSA site, they’ll be sent an introductory message that explains a bit about the navigation within the messaging application, Telegram,” he added.
“It can start by asking them a specific question to take them into this journey. That response will go back to the system which runs in the background, process it in a way that they sent and, based on their response, send them the next response,” he continued.
The response could either be content that participants need to study, or it could be a video, text, audio or a document that they need to input responses to in order to get to the next question or module of the course.
All of this happens through the chat function of the application, including the assessments.
“For example, an assessment can be a PDF document. Let’s say we send a PDF document to the user within the chat window. That document could be opened inside Telegram by the user after receiving it.
“They can fill in the different form fields and then send that as a reply back to the application. We will receive that data, working through the PDF automatically, as this is all done by the software.
“[This is] essentially marking, in an automated way, whatever their responses were in the assessment,” Cloete said, explaining how an assessment would be delivered on Telegram.
Students participating in the online programme will receive a recognised certification of participation from THENSA, MTU and the participating university in South Africa.
Teaching students to be job creators
THENSA’s objective following this pilot phase is to roll out the entrepreneurship programme to all first-year students in their partner universities.
“Our aim at THENSA is to ensure that every student who gets into a university takes this programme during their orientation period so that, even before they embark on their careers, they have the necessary skills to become entrepreneurs,” said THENSA CEO Dr Anshu Padayachee.
Padayachee pointed out that, thus far, most universities have been training students to be job seekers and not creators. This programme aims to change that narrative.
The hybrid official launch of the programme was held at DUT on 27 October 2021. This article is part of a media partnership between THENSA and University World News.