YALI Voices Podcast: Bongekile Radebe on Legacy, Responsibility and Building Her Brand

Growing up near Soweto, South Africa, Bongekile Radebe understood both history and economic hardship firsthand. Radebe shares with YALI Voices her journey in witnessing racial and economic disparities following apartheid and the way it has influenced her leadership and quest for equality in the world of finance and entrepreneurship.

Bongekile Radebe on Female Entrepreneurship
Courtesy of Bongekile Radebe

As the founder of Taste of Legends, Radebe — a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow — inspires other young women to become business leaders, develop useful wellness techniques and engage in tea agriculture in South Africa. Through her work, Radebe serves as a leader in uplifting other young female entrepreneurs by sharing advice and insights on how to successfully start a business and engage with communities.

Radebe believes in giving back: “You have a responsibility to really take the opportunities that you’ve been privileged to experience and make them to be of useful purpose — not just to you, not just to your family — but to the other kids as well who are still in the township, who are still struggling to get into school, who are still struggling to get employed.”

Radebe also shares her tips on entrepreneurship and best business practices, such as how to leverage a network, attract investors and market skills or products. Radebe’s advice to the YALI Network is to engage with local government leaders to build capacity and ultimately create a better society for everyone from the ground-up.

“That [hope] in itself is something that, number 1, keeps you working even when you don’t want to — even when the journey gets tough, even when the journey seems impossible — but waking up every day thinking around how part of building our countries lies greatly in how well we’re able to build its people.”

Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below to hear more of Radebe’s story of entrepreneurship.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE

YALI Voices Podcast: Bongekile Radebe on Entrepreneurship

Transcript

Bongekile Radebe: If you are going to be an entrepreneur, your “why” is what will literally make a difference in where you are today and where you can be tomorrow.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪

VOICE OVER: Welcome to your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices Podcast on iTunes and Google Play. And visit yali.state.gov to stay up to date on all things YALI.

Radebe: My name is Bonge, and I’m from South Africa.

VOICE OVER: From the time she was born, Bongekile Radebe was given a constant reminder of sacrifice and service each week on her way to church. Growing up, she attended church on Vilakazi Street, the Soweto home of Nelson Mandela. Now, a Mandela Washington Fellow and YALI Network member, she believes it’s her responsibility to help create lasting legacies of economic empowerment and entrepreneurship, especially for women.

In this edition of YALI Voices, Bonge talks about her childhood in Soweto, creating a place for herself in the male-dominated world of finance and starting her own business, Taste of Legends, a tea lifestyle-and-wellness brand. Bonge holds a degree in finance and investments from the University of Johannesburg. Through her company, she plans to strengthen the use of tea as a driver for inclusive economic progression for women across the continent.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

Radebe: So I grew up in a small township in the west part of Johannesburg called Mohlakeng, which is where my mother also grew up. Later moved to central part of Johannesburg in the north, and I went on to study as well my high education at the University of Johannesburg, where I completed my B-Com Finance degree and went on to work within financial services. I worked within Waltham Investment Management and moved on to banking.

But an interesting thing around that — and I don’t know how my mother managed to parent me. I was always a very curious child, and I was always a child that really wanted to do more than just school, and so I participated a lot in extramural activities. And it’s something that’s never left my character, so even in university I participated on a national TV program on SABC-1 called One Day Leader, which is a debate competition as well as an opportunity for us to provide solutions around socioeconomic challenges across the country. I guess that was where my own youth leadership nationally got solidified. Went on to be a One Young World ambassador as well as an ambassador for Brand South Africa, which is the marketing wing of our country.

So part of my childhood was — I was raised in the Seventh Adventist Church, and the church that I went to since I was 2 weeks old was a church that is in Vilakazi Street. And Vilakazi Street is actually globally known because Nelson Mandela’s home was there, or is still there now as a museum, but as well as Desmond Tutu. He stayed right down the road as well from Nelson Mandela. So, it’s been such an interesting journey having grown up in that street where, I mean, this great icon lived at, and today I can say that I am a Mandela Washington Fellow.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

Radebe: I think what Soweto means to black South Africans, especially having had Nelson Mandela there, was you actually get to realize how it was more than just Nelson Mandela. How the comradeship was really part of what has set the tone of the township itself. So Soweto’s a township — compared to other townships is actually quite progressive. It’s a fully fledged city, right. That is because of, I think, the full history that it has. One of the things again around the township is just how it probably is the home to different part of the cultures of South Africa as compared to when you go to other provinces, it’s just honest speaking people, Xhosa-speaking people predominantly there.

But it’s all culturally diverse. I think also there’s both a spirit of hardship because I think with townships they were never really created as a place of economic livelihood, you know. It really did come about from apartheid, and so to have the black community be segregated from the main economic activities you really get to see it from a land perspective. Just how small the houses there are. It’s only now later in the years that people would then build much bigger houses and it would really become a place where people enjoy being there. But when you learn about the history, especially around youth month — which is in June annually — where the youth of Soweto literally took what was going on in the country and they revolted, not only against the Bantu education system but it really became an opportunity to transform the country and itself.

And so when people visit Soweto, you cannot go there and not take away the historical part of what it means to have been a young person in Soweto in leadership as well. So I think they’ve done very well in terms of pioneering the township from that angle.

One thing I’ve learned about leadership growing up in South Africa is that, from a personal perspective again, I got the opportunity to experience having as well as not having. And I think oftentimes people who haven’t experienced South Africa, if they’re just coming there to visit they get to see the Johannesburg Sandton part and they compare it to Europe and they think that South Africans are so privileged — “you guys have a very developed country,” “the infrastructure is great,” “you guys are doing well” — but there’s these much deeper issues that really becomes a tug of war again between those who have and who have not. And that is also seen in the Gini coefficient, which is quite high. As much as you have a beautiful suburb like Sandton, right across the road will be Alexander Township, where people are still living in extreme poverty and harsh conditions.

And so, growing up both with privilege — but again, like I said, a lot of my childhood was spent in the township — you really get to almost have a responsibility to live outside of yourself. You have a responsibility to really take the opportunities that you’ve been privileged to experience and make them to be of useful purpose — not just to you, not just to your family — but to the other kids as well who are still in the township, who are still struggling to get into school, who are still struggling to get employed. For some reason I remember — one of the things that I actually battled with going into my 20s was I felt like am I a very serious person? Because in as much as I love serving, I love doing youth leadership work. At some point when you look at your other peers they almost get an opportunity to just be kids because mom and dad can pay for everything. They literally get spoon fed with everything and so you’re literally in a tug of war between am I being too serious or how do I look at what am I doing and how it will actually pave the way and go and rewrite my family’s history.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

Radebe: The obstacles I faced being a woman in finance and I guess just in corporate in general, you actually get to realize the systematic challenges that are still there. I mean again the legacy of apartheid in a country like South Africa where systems were created to really cater to white males. And so when you come like me, you’re a black woman, you’re literally at the bottom of that food chain. They call it the triple threat of race, gender, as well as class. But one thing that I’ve found is you almost have to work twice as hard as well, and at times you’re not even getting half of what everybody else is getting.

One thing I think I’ve also struggled with is people will judge you according to how you look. They’ll judge you according to how you dress. They will judge you according to your gender. And so by the time they get to your level of work, it’s almost been watered down because of all the external factors that have nothing to do with the work that you’re there to do. And I think it almost becomes such a challenging environment to be in because it’s not just something that you experience from males but from other women as well.

You actually get to realize how you doing great work isn’t just a form of getting certain credentials to your name, but it also becomes a duty because you would want the journey to be easier for those following, and you then also establish the role of mentorship and representation — the power of representation that plays in having women role models who are in boardrooms.

I left the world of finance to start my own company called Taste of Legends, which is a tea lifestyle-and-wellness brand. What’s interesting — I think I almost cheated the entrepreneurship route because most people, especially with Fellows, it’s people who after studying they just went on to start their businesses; they’ve never really worked in corporate. And for me I had my own business since I was 14 years old doing women’s hair. I could do my own hair and then I started doing my friends’ hair and their family members, and then it just became referral and I had clients through that.

I think that’s the role of entrepreneurship is that it’s not just about innovation, it’s not just around the technology that we can use that can allow us to probably have online businesses, but it’s also how — when you are obedient to your call, and if your call is entrepreneurship, it’s not just for yourself, but it’s equally for the other families that you’ll be feeding and the other families whose life stories can be changed through that.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

Radebe: If I had to advise the YALI Network on starting their own businesses, number 1 fundamental word really does become your network. Often times we focus a lot on … when we think of opportunity the first thing we want is funding opportunities, right, which is important. You do need capital to get your business going. But there’s certain skills that a network has that you as an individual just can not have. You can’t have it all. You can have the vision, you can have the idea, but number 1, you need to establish a network of people who — if you need legal services have that person in your network. If you need to know how to establish a pricing model — so that’s something that’s very important with the teas that I have, is knowing how to price them correctly — you need to have those financial management skills. And again, touching on financial management skill. Personal finance is also a very important skill to have because oftentimes what we want to do is we treat the business’ money as our money, which is very different. And in the long run when you want to get investors, they look at your books. And they look at how you have spent so far with your books, but also how well you know your numbers.

I think my experience, both having been in the U.S. and being back home, there’s always two fundamental questions that come up when it’s got to do with entrepreneurship: What do you do? How does it make money? Those are the two fundamental questions — whether you’re meeting with investors, whether it’s people who you’re trying to build a network with, you really need to know how to answer those two questions very well.

And I think another thing I would add is your true investor is your customer. Oftentimes people want to live off pitches. And you know, the startup community is such a big train to own a startup. And this is what my startup is doing. That’s great. So you could go pitch. You could win at a pitch, they could fund you, but the true investment and the true test of whether your idea is good becomes your customer. So I think focusing on your customer is very important. Knowing your numbers is very important.

And again, knowing how to package your business beyond just the product or service that you’re selling. With tea, there’s so many tea brands out there. Anybody could start a tea business, but the fundamental difference isn’t because I have a great idea. It’s all in execution. So you really need to know how to execute very well. But again, find a purpose and brand story that moves just beyond your product or service ’cause that’s what people buy into. People literally buy into your “why.” You know, your “how” could be completely messed up right now. That’s fine; you can find an accountant, you can find a marketing manager, you can find a brand manager, you could find technical assistance for the technology that you need. But people invest in people, and if you are going to be an entrepreneur, your “why” is what will literally make a difference in where you are today and where you can be tomorrow.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

Radebe: My hope for the YALI Network, I think we know how incredible we are as young people but we need to truly believe it, live it and breathe it each and every single day. The opportunity of lives being changed beyond the Network, the opportunity of other young people coming across a YALI Network member and finding out just the incredible work that we’re doing.

I think one thing that makes me hopeful, and that really does lead to one of my hopes for the YALI Network, is that we really become the people who run our countries. It’s such an important thing to have good governance, good politicians, good business people — we need the money. Having good business people, good people who will hold the rest of us accountable from a civic perspective, and when you just think of the possibilities of how I probably know it is five future presidents by now.

That in itself is something that, number 1, keeps you working even when you don’t want to — even when the journey gets tough, even when the journey seems impossible — but waking up every day thinking around how part of building our countries lies greatly in how well we’re able to build its people. I think one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is it’s very easy to do good work, but when it comes to leadership is the ability to be interested in issues that you share no interest in. That also allows you to not only be about yourself but have a purpose that is really there for the greater good.

One thing I have learned, there’s so many issues that need solutions. There’s so many people that need our help. And sometimes you want to be that person that’s everywhere. When you’re in a network, you don’t need to be everywhere. You just need to be in the place that you occupy, but you need to occupy that position well. Because that teaches you that in as much as you can’t do it all, but together we can do it all.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

VOICE OVER: Thank you, Bonge.

Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories on entrepreneurship from young African leaders on the YALI Voices Podcast.

Join the YALI Network at yali.state.gov, and be a part of something bigger!

Our theme music is “E – Go Happen,” by Grace Jerry and produced by The Presidential Precinct.

The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State, and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.

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