Raymond LedwabaITTHYNK Smart Solutions & Diski Nine9

Favorite quote: “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt

What is your story (tell us about yourself)?
I’m a huge problem solver at heart. Sometimes this gets me into a lot of trouble and leads to issues such as burnout and fatigue. I’m trying to pick my battles wisely now so that I don’t spread myself too thinly.

The problems I’m curious about the most right now lie in the education and youth development space. I’m using my experience as a Chartered Accountant, a CEO of a technology consulting firm (ITTHYNK Smart Solutions) and a CEO of a sports for development NGO (Diski Nine9) to come up with ideas and solutions focused in the education space and trying to get young South Africans upskilled.

When did you start your first business and what inspired you to start?
Entrepreneurship is new to me. I grew up in an environment where I did not see lots of people around me starting businesses. Apart from my mother who ran a small business selling secondhand clothes as well as various snacks to children after school, it never occurred to me to ever start a business. What made sense to me was to go to school, get a good job and have a good life. Which is what I did for most of my life. I enrolled for a Bcom degree at the University of Johannesburg by mistake – I got a bursary in matric from a company that was funding students to study a finance related course. I had wanted to become an aeronautical engineer but since I was given a bursary to study accounting, I ended up becoming a Chartered Accountant.

After graduating from UJ, I worked for PwC for 5 years (in South Africa, Nigeria and the United States) and then moved to Banking where I worked for Absa for another 5 years and worked across various markets in Africa such as Egypt, Ghana, Kenya and Botswana. I decided to pursue an MBA with UCT Graduate School of Business whilst working at Absa. It was at Absa where a friend of mine, Phehello “Master” Monamodi approached me to help him run a sports NGO. He was a soccer coach and needed a business guy who can run with the business side of things in the NGO.

I suppose my CA & MBA qualifications have made people see me as the “business guy” because my brother, Jeffrey Ledwaba and his friend Gideon Ogongo, two “techies” that started ITTHYNK Smart Solutions also approached me to join them run ITTHYNK. So, I never really started a business of my own from scratch, but I have been involved in helping two small companies grow. I left full time employment to join ITTHYNK in 2017 and to continue running Diski Nine9 on a full time basis. I have now been the CEO for Diski Nine9 for 6 years and the CEO of ITTHYNK for 4 years.

What is the Key Objective(s) and Vision of your business? (Has it changed overtime or is has it always been this?)
Let’s start with Diski Nine9. The objective is simple – we use sports (soccer and netball) as a tool to engage, educate and empower young people from Soweto. We achieve this by running after school, holiday school and leadership programmes for young people (aged 10 – 35). We combine lifeskills education with sports and ensure young people not only have fun in our programmes but also gain valuable lifeskills such as problem solving, communication, leadership and teamwork amongst many other crucial lifeskills. Diski Nine9’s vision keeps on changing in response to changes in the environment we operate in. For instance, before Covid, our goal was to use traditional sports (such as soccer and netball) to identify and nurture the next generation of responsible, healthy and empowered citizens who will contribute positively to building their communities. Covid has changed that vision. We have now pivoted into the digital space and although we continue being invested in traditional sports, we are now running programmes in eSports (electronic sports) and we have a goal of developing a professional eSports team in the next 3 years.

With ITTHYNK, our objective is to use technology to solve African problems. We do this by providing ICT related consulting services as well as custom software development for the private and public sector across Africa. Our main market is South Africa, but we have done work in Nigeria, Zambia, DRC, Tanzania and have also worked with a client in the Netherlands. Our core service offering – consulting and software development services – require highly skilled software engineers, solutions and enterprise architects as well as project managers. We punch above our weight and we compete with big tech consulting companies in the market but we are still a small business. As a result of being small, it is a challenge to attract top talent from the market for obvious reasons. For example, our brand is not well known in the market; we cannot offer salary packages that are on the same level as your big consulting firms and most people want permanent jobs which we are unable to offer because we do contract work. So to solve the problem of recruitment, we have built a Tech Academy that trains unemployed youth through bootcamps and internship programmes. Our Tech Academy creates a pipeline of talent to recruit from whilst imparting valuable critical skills to unemployed youths. To date, we have trained over 100 youths and 73% of our alumni are employed in the tech sector in the country. 30% of our current payroll is made up of our Tech Academy graduates.

What challenges did you face in your journey? What’s the biggest obstacle you had to overcome (are still overcoming)?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced in my entrepreneurial journey has been a mental one. Since I did not grow up seeing entrepreneurs or CEOs that look like me, I did not ever see myself becoming an entrepreneur or a CEO. So, I’ve had to deal with a lot of self-doubt (and continue dealing with self-doubt). “Am I making the right decisions?”, “Do I know what I’m doing?”. “So many people depend on ITTHYNK and Diski Nine9 to feed their families – what if something goes wrong and I let all these people down?”. These are some of the questions I ask myself almost on a daily basis. I’m very lucky to have a very good team that help me carry the load so that I don’t suffer alone and in silence. When I need help, I ask them for help. When I’m unsure of a decision, I consult them. When I doubt myself, they remind me that we are in this together. My team has helped me confront my self-doubt and confidence challenges about running and growing a business.

How did you manage to navigate your company through this period of the Covid-19 pandemic? (What business strategies/operational adjustments have you made over this period and how has it impacted your business model?)
Since ITTHYNK is in the Tech Space, the company has been growing through the Covid19 pandemic. We have won new work and have been very lucky not to go through any retrenchment process. We have a team of 46 staff members and I’m very proud that no one has lost their job due to the pandemic. Initially, it was a challenge to have all our staff members work from home but we are now all comfortable servicing our clients from home.

With Diski Nine9, the pandemic put a stop to our sports programmes in the initial phases of lockdown. We had to think creatively about entering into new sports markets and we experimented with eSports (competitive video gaming). Never waste a good crisis, right? I’m excited about the eSports space because I’ve now merged my love for youth development and my experience with ITTHYNK in the Tech Space. Due to the Covid19 pandemic, we have started a new business (ITTHYNK Gaming Solutions) that will develop talent in the eSports space whilst helping young people learn new skills in video game development. Through our partners at ITTHYNK, we will be launching a Video Game Development Incubator focused on helping 30 young people develop video game prototypes. We have already secured seed capital for this business and we are launching our programme on 1 July 2021.

How do you approach networking and building partnerships in your industry?
I always take the long-term view when developing partnerships and building relationships. It’s very rare (at least in my experience) to meet someone today and then do business with that person immediately. I believe in doing business with people I can trust and as we all know, trust takes a long time to build. Trust requires a give and take philosophy. It’s always important, especially as an entrepreneur to be aware that one cannot always be a taker in relationships. One needs to also be a giver. And being a giver does not always have to be thought of in monetary terms. For example, making time for staff members when they need guidance or going an extra mile in solving a client’s problem goes a long way in building sustainable long-term partnerships. Taking a long term view and building trust forms the core of my networking and partnership building process.

Do you have (or ever had) a mentor in your journey, and do you believe it helped (if yes, in what way)?
Yes – I’ve had and continue to have many mentors. I am a product of the people I have around me. I consider myself very lucky and privileged to have a lot of wise people (some younger and some older than me) that continue to share their time, knowledge and experience with me. I’m indebted to so many mentors (too many to mention) that have opened a lot of doors for me. Without them, I know for a fact that I would not have the opportunities I have in my life.

What is your perspective on the South African entrepreneurial landscape before and after Covid-19 pandemic? (Would you say the “new normal” context drives more or less opportunities for entrepreneurs?) How can entrepreneurial policy development aid in expanding opportunities in this new context?
My view of the South African entrepreneurial landscape before and after Covid has not changed. I think one of the biggest challenges that entrepreneurs face in South Africa remains a mental one related to how failure is seen and judged in South Africa. Covid has certainly accelerated the failure rate of small businesses in South Africa. Supporting entrepreneurs bounce back quickly is very important and will determine how quickly the economy bounces back in the “new normal” context.

On a separate note, having spent 10 years working in Corporate South Africa, and now having jumped into the entrepreneurial space, I have seen a huge disconnect between how Enterprise Development (ED) initiatives meant to assist entrepreneurs gain access to markets look good in Annual Reports but in reality, a number of ED initiatives I’ve engaged with as an entrepreneur are just tick box exercise for corporates to comply with BBBEE. Some corporates I have dealt with are trying very hard to get small businesses into their supply chains which is fantastic because when small companies win, they employ more people who in turn have more money in their pockets to spend on goods and services sold by those very same corporates. So, it makes business sense for ED programmes to move beyond tick box exercises and form part of a corporates’ business development strategy. We need more companies that see ED as a core part of their business and not a BBBEE compliance requirement.

In your opinion, what are the secrets to being a successful entrepreneur?
I believe that luck plays a huge role in anyone’s success story. Hard work also plays an equally important role. I think if anyone works hard, their chances of being lucky are increased (although this is not guaranteed). But if someone doesn’t work hard but is lucky, that luck is surely going to be short lived.

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
My advice to young entrepreneurs is borrowed from Theodore Roosevelt. To me, I think it’s far more important to be in the arena than to be a critic. There is no risk at all in being a critic. Being in the arena and solving problems, however, is much riskier. Entrepreneurship is all about risk. So, take the risk – it will pay off in the end.