The mind of a mentee: insights from SA’s future leaders

The Mentorship Challenge connects people across geographical, cultural and industrial boundaries. And this is all thanks to the time, talent and wisdom of our mentors, and the passion, ingenuity and drive of our mentees.

And there are few as focused as 22-year-old photographer and entrepreneur Akido Malabela. He grew up in the resource-strapped township of Dukathole in Aliwal North, where a lucky break as a lead in a local community-based movie led to a career in acting, dance and photography. Despite serious setbacks – severe injuries in a car accident stymied his dance career and his first gig as a wedding photographer – he’s built two businesses, Malabela Photography and Help a Student, and is on a mission to make his mark. And to help other young cash-short creatives find their own way forward. He joined the Challenge as a mentee and has partnered with mentor Hiten Keshave to help manifest his personal mantra of always moving forward.

We sat him down and asked him to answer a few choice questions.

What do you understand by the word ‘mentorship’?

Mentorship is when someone assists you in building your career or business by guiding you, and by giving advice based on their experience.

What do you need to build a strong mentoring relationship, and what’s the value for mentees?

Firstly, a mentor needs to take the time to get to know their mentee. Spend the first three sessions listening to their ideas and where they want to be. Discover any challenges they might face. You need to be brutally honest with your mentee if you want them to grow – let them know upfront if something is impossible. As a mentor, you need to always inspire the mentee and invest a lot of positive energy in the journey.

Mentees often have amazing ideas and dreams they want to achieve, so when they are comfortable around a mentor and don’t feel intimidated, they’ll also do their best. The more solid and trusting the relationship, the greater the results.

Tell us about the earliest memories of mentorship in your life – with reference to the people who had the greatest influence on your development.

I grew up in Dukathole township where very few people are exposed to opportunities. In 2013, I joined an organisation called Rozary Productions, founded by Moalosi Leeuw. He taught me so much, including how to operate a computer. He believed in me while I was young and inspired me to always do more. Moalosi is born a leader because he never gives up and continues to inspire young people. My journey started when he taught me how to dance pantsula in 2013, and I believe that is when I discovered that I want to be an entrepreneur.

My mother, Selina Malabela, plays an important role in my life and is my best mentor. She’s the first person I discuss my ideas with. Then she tells me what to look out for and how to make everything possible.

I borrowed a camera from Samuel Molefe who gave me amazing ideas on how to grow my business. I am proud to say if he hadn’t believed in me, my business would have been nothing but a fairy tale.

In late 2017, I was involved in a terrible car accident on my way to photograph my first wedding in Kagiso. That day my dancing career came to an end, but my journey continued with growing my photography business.

An international actor, Denzel Washington, played an important role in my life as well. I watched his motivational videos on YouTube every time I felt like I wanted to give up. In 2019, I became a student at Tshwane University of Technology, studying a national diploma in photography. Mr Hein Grové became my mentor, discussing ideas with me and advising me. In 2019, I decided to apply for The Mentorship Challenge, and in August I met up with Hiten Keshave. Since then, my businesses are growing every day, thanks to his input. We listen to the same music and communicate every day on WhatsApp. This has built a strong, solid relationship between us.

One thing I celebrate about myself is that I don’t give up easily, because I always see myself as a winner.

What is your personal mantra, saying or aphorism?
Nothing can stop a moving train. This inspires me to never stop pushing until I achieve my goals.

If you could pick anyone in the world to mentor you today, who would that ‘fantasy’ mentor be?

Vusi Thembekwayo! I just love his confidence and personality. He is one of the most outstanding public speakers. I have never met him in person, but I watch him on YouTube and Instagram almost every day.

What does it take to develop an entrepreneurial, innovative mindset?

You need to be willing to learn and to always ask if you are uncertain. As an entrepreneur, don’t be afraid to fail; keep trying until you succeed. Entrepreneurs are not afraid of rejection – in fact, rejection, and failing big time, must make you stronger. Don’t wait for funding or investors before starting your business; use what you have and let the rest follow you.

What changes would you like to see in our education system, to help build a culture of entrepreneurship?

Our high school system needs to do more to educate young people about entrepreneurship, and help them develop their own businesses, from Grade 10 to 12. The system needs to support entrepreneurs by training them to build their businesses and self-fund. A lot of funders kill the spirit of so many start-up ideas, therefore the education system should train learners to draft proper proposals, for example.

Why is mentorship such an important issue in South Africa?

Many people just don’t have access to information, and the internet can be overwhelming. Mentorship assists people to do things correctly because they work with experienced people. Entrepreneurs need successful people to guide them, or else we will have many business failures, through lack of access to information.

How can we mobilise leaders in SA to join the challenge – and the Challenge?

I believe the best way is to approach influential leaders and explain the impact this project will bring to upcoming entrepreneurs. SA leaders need to know that by giving back they are not losing anything. All we want is acknowledgement, assistance – and their time, perhaps once a month.

What advice would you give another passionate young person who wants to start their own business in today’s economic climate?

Don’t waste time. If you have an idea, start! And always make room for disappointments. If someone says ‘no’ to your idea, go home and work on it and come back to the same person. You need to be willing to learn, but also take things that are relevant to your growth as an entrepreneur. Funding will not make you rich; it will only give you a starting platform. But hard work and dedication will make you rich. Never let your background define where you want to be in the future. Anyone can be successful if they work hard. Spend more time developing your business, and less time socialising – although networking is also valuable. You are the one responsible for your success and failures. Don’t blame other people.

What are your dreams for the future, and what do you hope to achieve

I want to be a self-made millionaire and assist entrepreneurs from the townships. Township people are talented and resilient, but they are not exposed to many opportunities. One of my big dreams is to travel the world, brokering big business deals for South African photographers. People who have information should share with those who don’t. Not every entrepreneur needs money to grow; most of them just need more information on how to grow. As young as I am, I want to help other people do their best, by giving them basic skills and training.

We’re hoping these mentoring dialogues will deliver some meaningful food for thought for you to digest, and that they’ll inspire both mentors and mentees to join the challenge.

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