Listen and Build Relationships
I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Cape Town, South Africa alongside five other Fisher College of Business students to work with two local entrepreneurs from one of the townships, Philippi Village. The goal of our project was to assist these entrepreneurs, Blax and Space, in increasing funding and expanding their business operations. We spent much of the spring semester learning about Cape Town, conducting preliminary research, getting to know Blax and Space via conference calls, and building a business plan to achieve our goals.
We thought we had a pretty good idea of what we would do when we arrived in country, but many of our plans changed after meeting the entrepreneurs in person and receiving additional information. Before arriving, we knew that their business, Estratweni Mobile Foods, consisted of a food truck which served burgers and was operated by Blax and Space. We also knew that they were interested in increasing their funding and expanding their operations.
After speaking to them in person, we realized that there was a lot more to Estratweni Mobile Foods than met the eye. Blax and Space had met each other through volunteer work with a local religious organization years before they would start their own business together. They both served as youth mentors and spent much of their time working with kids from the local community. When the vision of that organization no longer aligned with theirs, they left to start Estratweni Mobile Foods, but their passion for working with youth in the community remained. They were interested in expanding their operations for more reasons than one. First, they want to employ more people. They currently employ two women from the community that they explained would not otherwise have a job without them, and their ultimate goal is to operate ten trailers so they can employ 20+ other women like them. Second, they hope to use profits from Estratweni Mobile Foods as well as outside funding to establish Estratweni Youth Development, an after school development program that will also include an annual camp within the coming years. Finally, they want to expand their operations for themselves. Estratweni means “in the street” in Xhosa, the language spoken by the people who live in Philippi Village. That’s how they explained to us where they started: from the lowest point people can begin working from. After years of “hustling”, as they would say, they eventually built a reputation of excellent customer service and delicious food. Expanding to additional locations will not only allow them to give back to the community, but also to enjoy the recognition that comes from achieving success through years of hard work.
After we better understood Blax and Space’s goals, we were able make quite of bit of progress on their behalf. We increased their marketing presence by creating Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts to supplement the Facebook account they were using. We also helped them purchase the rights to a logo, order business cards, and created a website that they can use to display their menu and interact with customers interested in hiring them to cater events. We helped them write a mission statement that summarized the essence of their business, discussed ways to save money in terms of transportation, and created an investment strategy to help them save for the additional trailers they plan to purchase. We left Cape Town confident that Blax and Space had the tools to succeed after helping them complete tasks they had long wished to do themselves, but had put on the backburner while they focused on their day to day operations.
While we were able to use our knowledge to help Blax and Space, we ultimately learned more from them than they did from us. There was no better experience to remind me that there is no one best way to run a business. Business in Philippi Village is more informal, business transactions take more time, and relationships are extremely important. There wasn’t always WiFi, so we used the down time to tell stories and get to know each other, which proved beneficial in our business relationship as well. Building those personal relationships helped us to think about what Blax and Space would like when making decisions, and as a result they were very happy when we presented our work to them. In addition, that offline time gave us a chance to learn more about our fellow group members thanwe would otherwise have known if we had just spent our time discussing business, and that allowed us to delegate roles based on our strengths more effectively. It is amazing to think about how close we became and all that we were able to accomplish working together in just two weeks. My time in Cape Town allowed me to broaden my perspective on business and also the world, and it will certainly help me to think outside the box and work effectively in group settings in the future. Spending the time to get to know the people you are working with and thinking about business challenges in the context of your environment can make a huge difference, and I have this project to thank for making me a better person and professional.