Last night I had the privilege of addressing the classes of 2009 and 2010 at the Glenwood High School Senior Speech and Prize Giving Ceremony.
22 October, 2009
Mr Kershaw and the rest of the Glenwood Family which has and continues to play such an important role in my life, thank you for inviting me to speak here this evening.
Before I get going, I would like to acknowledge my friend and business partner, Carl Petzer, who has put up with me and my flavour of insanity for well over ten years now. I am sorry he cannot be here tonight.
I came to Glenwood in 1995, a very nervous and geeky young 12 year old and made a new but strange home in Gibson House. My time at Glenwood brought with it some of the most important learning experiences of my life. Particularly, in Gibson House, like all true family, I was given a new set of brothers who I never chose to have; people who are now friends of mine for life – people who made my life richer than it would ever otherwise have been.
So when I say it is a privilege to come and address you today, I mean it. Glenwood is, in my completely impartial opinion, of course, one of the finest educational institutions on the continent, and consistently produces, amongst others, strong leaders. Glenwood Old Boys hold leadership roles in business, politics and sport all over South Africa and the rest of the world.
Ours is a unique institution which marries solid middle class values with the lofty inspiration that we can all make a difference in this world. Wherever I go, I am proud to call myself a Glenwood Old Boy.
So briefly, my background is that of a typical English speaking South African family, from ex-Rhodesians stock, lived in KZN/North Coast most of my life, schooled in Umhali and here at Glenwood, tried but failed spectacularly to get a degree at University but through the sport of rowing got invaluable life experience or what I like to call a QBE instead. QBE stands for Qualified by Experience – it’s the sort of thing that people who didn’t manage to get a Degree come up with to make themselves feel better.
University was however, a fantastic and valuable experience for me. I started in 2000, fresh out of Glenwood and starry eyed, enrolled for a Computer Science Degree at the University of Natal. Computer Science was a disastrous choice motivated by the same sort of faulty logic that saw me choose Geography instead of History at high school: what will be most worthwhile to you in the job market.
I say faulty logic because I honestly believe that far more important to the criteria for making such decisions is whether there isn’t another course which you actually find 100 times more interesting than maths, more maths, some applied maths and some operations research which is another way of them assigning more maths to you without calling it maths. In my case, this should have been clear. Maths at School was not a strong point of mine and that made sense because quite frankly I wasn’t the slightest interested by the subject. (I finished at Glenwood with 4 A’s, a B and a D if I recall correctly. The D was for Maths and I think they made a mistake in giving me that!)
People do better at things they enjoy doing. Now that’s what I call sound logic. Do what you enjoy, and you will be good at it. That just makes sense.
So, in my case, Computer Science lasted 6 months and out of my four subjects, I passed one: Geology. So for the next 6 months, I did what I loved: I rowed. I coached rowing. I fixed rowing boats. I dated a rowing girl. I was, in a word, committed to rowing and the rowing club, and I loved it. Of course, I was also working to pay for all this rowing, incidentally here at Glenwood keeping the computer network in shape.
Then, at the beginning of the next year, I decided with all this rowing and computering, the only way I had a hope of getting a Degree was by signing up for something I truly enjoyed, so I signed up for a Bachelor of Arts in History and English. Those are things I truly enjoy, and the marks reflected that. At the end of my second year, however, I decided to leave varsity and move fulltime into the little business myself and my school friend, Carl Petzer, had started.
So in the end, I never did get that University Degree, but I did get 3 years of experience in a University Sports Club which taught me more about people, politics, leadership, South Africa and especially about myself than I ever would have had I just been an academic student. Whether you get to University or not, I urge you all to get involved in a Sports Club if you can, or a public benefit organisation like Round Table or similar, where through teamwork you achieve more than you’d ever have been able to achieve alone. That sort of life experience will serve you well in whatever else you choose to do with your life.
Carl and I started our business, THUSA, 8 years ago. While we have in no way arrived or made it big, we have lived and learned on our journey which far too few South Africans choose to take: that of the entrepreneur. Today THUSA employs almost 30 people and we make a difference to hundreds of clients through our commitment to taking care of them on a day to day basis. Most important though, is the fact that we love our work and the people we work with. We wake up in the morning and feel excited to get into the office; and ask anyone who’s been through life a little and they will tell you that loving what you do is something worth working for!
During our journey we’ve learned a few lessons:
We’ve learned to have faith in and trust the people you lead, empower them to do things better than you ever could yourself; and if you need, pay them more than you pay yourself.
We’ve learned to identify those instances where good enough will just have to do – especially when your plate is overloaded.
But, we’ve also learned to instil a culture of continuous and cyclical review and improvement so that good enough becomes better, better becomes excellent, and one day excellent may just become the best.
We’ve learned to make use of technology. Success in the 21st century will very likely involve you having an understanding of social networking and design as much as it will rely on your hard work and guts. The Internet and the technologies which have spawned from it are well and truly part and parcel of the way the world is doing business, and the design choices you make, visually and practically, affect your message, profile and offering.
We’ve learned to network and communicate. The way humans connect and interact via the Internet builds a body of data which makes up your ever growing online profile. Things you share with your friends and comments you make will stick, so think about them; maintain your credibility and stay on message.
The power of the mind and personal determination is something which never ceases to amaze me and I’d like to relate a simple story from my teenage years which I feel was important.
I was a boarder at high school and for the first couple of years was quite a reserved and very homesick young lad. One of my tactics for getting back home was falling ill and being sent home to recuperate; something which happened a few times each term.
But something else was also happening during that time: I derived ever improving self confidence through my growing skill and ability with computer networks and the subsequent responsibility which the school placed in my hands as one of the few boys helping to maintain the IT infrastructure. This confidence started flowing into the rest of my life and by the middle of 4th Form/Std 8/Grade 10, I decided I wanted to be a prefect.
So one morning shortly thereafter I woke up with a scratchy throat, normally the precursor to some terrible infection which would see me back home in Ballito, and right there and then I decided to shake it off and get on with the day. By the time breakfast was over, there was no more sore throat. If I went home 50 times during my first 2.5 years at boarding school then during the second 2.5 years I maybe went home 4 times. Instead, I stayed behind, read, learned, worked, honed my skill with IT and grew in confidence. At the end of my penultimate year at high school, I was selected as one of the 6 form 5 boys who would form the core of the prefect body the next year. A trivial achievement in general terms, but symbolically one of the most important in my life.
Another very influential experience of mine was last year while I was fortunate to be a participant on the two month long Mozambique section of the Kingsley Holgate Outside Edge Humanitarian Expedition. During May 2008 we spent a few days travelling through the far northern coastal area of Mozambique, a couple of hundred kilometres south of Tanzania. The area is extremely poor with practically no infrastructure, no shops, virtually no employed people, and extremely basic schools if the village was lucky. Kids would roam the dusty tracks through the villages chewing on a cassava root. Some had not seen white people before and were intrigued. We handed out hundreds of mosquito nets and spectacles to people in this area to aid in the fight against Malaria and give sight to people who had never been able to see properly before.
Shortly after this experience, I was sitting on a beach in Pemba, Northern Mozambique, and started getting the first bits of news of what sounded like Xenophobic attacks happening in South Africa. As the picture became clear, I was overcome by a deep and tragic sense of disappointment in the people of our country. South Africans had so much more than the people I had just visited and yet they were massacring their African brothers and sisters. I wished at that moment that every South African was able to have seen what I’d seen in the days before; and wanted from that moment forth to help normal South Africans appreciate just how much we have as a nation.
I believe that one of the key answers to the prosperous future of this country lies in the hands of the entrepreneur and their small businesses, guided by hard working and responsible political leadership. Small businesses are massive employers and important centres of innovation, and the great economic powers of the world were built by 20th century small businesses. Small businesses in South Africa are innovating and making waves around the world, but we need more of them, we need more gutsy young men and women to follow their dreams and start their own businesses.
I don’t think it matters whether people are born to lead or learn it along the way. Remember that nothing is more common than wasted talent, and nothing more inspiring than down to earth, hard working people making a success of their lives through sheer guts and determination.
I encourage you all, when the time comes, take calculated risks and then jump in because sometimes all there is that separates a leader from everyone else is guts, the guts to jump in and do everything you can to make something work out.
And if your mission is especially inspiring but far too large for you to undertake on your own, you might find that people will fall in around you, follow your lead and help you make things happen. People want to be part of something, especially if it is doing some good in the world.
This great country of ours, South Africa, is a particular passion of mine. We have much to be proud of in this country, and much, much more work to do as a nation before we realise the unity that has been so spoken of over the past 20 years. The rainbow nation remains under construction and needs good people to help the nation building process along. Good South Africans need to use each day to break racial, sexist, classist stereotypes. Good South Africans need to acknowledge the inequality that exists in our society and ensure they are doing their bit to help someone less fortunate than themselves. Good South Africans need to be doing these things every day, until they become integrated components of our South African culture.
In a country where so very many people are poor and have next to nothing, it does seem almost criminal that very rich South Africans spend and waste money so frivolously on luxuries. It seems to me that expensive imported cars and massive hotel bills run counter to the spirit of compassion and nation building which is required to give a leg up to all those South Africans who have little or nothing to start with.
I would like to encourage all of you to take an active interest in the politics of this country. As boring as politics can seem to most and as frustrating as it is for those who do take note of what is going on, I urge you to ensure you know why you are voting and who you are voting for. Remember also that if you choose not to vote, you are forfeiting your right to complain should you feel things aren’t going the way you’d like them to in South Africa.
For many of you here today you’ll be making choices in the future about what it is you’re going to do with your lives and more importantly, how it is you’re going to live your life. You could take the 20st century approach of trying to make as much money as possible at the expense of as many people as possible, but perhaps the 21st century approach needs to be built upon compassion instead of greed.
Whatever it is you want to do, you need to decide how it is that you want to do it. How many people will you trample over in the process, or hopefully, how many lives you improve in the process? How much of your advantage will you use to other people’s advantage as well? This does not mean being Mother Theresa, but it does suggest that one should find opportunities to use the skills and resources at their disposal to help other people improve their lot.
We live in a world today where the human problems of the future are dominated by the poor, the “have-nots”, and it becomes all of our responsibilities as people who “have” to work to solve those problems. Now some of you might have just said to yourself, “But I am poor”. I can assure you that compared to the majority in the rest of the country, while like them you might actually not have much money, you are educationally rich and advantaged having spent time in an institution like this one. Your insight, experiences and the influence of the many good people around you have already given you an advantage many people will never have.
Use that advantage to make the world a better place.
There’s nothing quite like worldly perspective to help us realise that we truly do live in a beautiful land of hope and opportunity. If you get the opportunity, travel your country and travel the world if you can. And if you do have the privilege of travelling or living abroad, please avoid being one of those South Africans who feel the need to rubbish the land they come from simply to justify their not being there. Go abroad, work with the best, and then come back and help secure the future of this wonderful country.
Remember, South Africans are now free and welcome citizens of the world, so when you travel, you can travel with your head held high, and if you choose to emigrate, for whatever reason, your decision should be respected.
But, for me, it is those people who choose to stay here in South Africa, despite some of the frustration and uncertainty, and do what they can to make this country a better place that deserve the respect and recognition. There are many unsung heroes who each day get down to doing the simple but important tasks which must be done to make this country see the progress it needs.
I think there are great examples of such people sitting behind me right now. People who could be using their skills to be earning significantly more money elsewhere, but they don’t, because they believe that what they are doing, shaping and moulding your lives, is a worthwhile cause. Those are the sorts of people this country needs to salute every day, the sort of people I salute every day.
Mr Kershaw and his team are dedicated to giving you all the tools you need to succeed. Myself and my colleagues are working ward to change politics in South Africa so that it works for and not against the rainbow nation. People all over South Africa are doing their bit for this country.
So, all that remains is to ask you, how are you going to use your advantage to make South Africa a better place?
Perhaps that is a good question to guide your decisions in the future.
Thank you for listening.