Selebogo Molefe was not what I expected.

I first heard of him and The Hookup Dinner (THUD) while filming Marcia Simelane, one of The Emerge Project’s featured leaders; she spoke highly of him and THUD. She had won Pitch of the Night a couple of years back at THUD, this win set her firmly on her way to being a small business owner. Selebogo had been a key mentor to her, an advisor and cheerleader during the early years of getting her manufacturing business off the ground. It was obvious she had great love and respect for this man and appreciated all that he had taught her.

Intrigued, I knew I had to learn more about the man and the movement.

My mental image of him was someone older, more seasoned and verbose, maybe even a bit more pompous. So when I walked into his office for our first face to face meeting, I was briefly taken aback to see a tall, handsome young man with a quiet, somber demeanor approaching me.

We chatted for over an hour, maybe more. Time flies when you’re talking about things that touch the heart and soul, when you become overwhelmed by the glorious weight of vision and purpose, the wonder of knowing you’re an integral part of something far bigger than yourself.

I began to understand why Marcia had spoken so highly of Selebogo, why he had been created and molded for such a time as this – to help lead a new generation of entrepreneurs into a different future. But not just any future, not just business as usual; rather, a movement built on and driven by community, collaboration and collective investment. And most of all, heart.

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In August 2012, a group of friends gathered one night to have dinner and commiserate with one another over the struggles they were experiencing in their own endeavors. They offered each other insight and advice, hope, encouragement, constructive feedback, and held each other’s dreams in the sacred space they had created.

They agreed to meet again the following month, and the next month after that. And each time, their size grew, and the meetings took on greater relevance. By the end of the third meeting, they knew they were onto something meaningful. “I realized that this was not just for the average person,” Selebogo recalls, “but this was for entrepreneurs, because those were the majority of people that we attracted. So we started focusing and taking a targeted approach based on the needs of entrepreneurs.”

Still, it took a good year of regular meetings before they developed a strong grasp of what exactly was happening – what this thing was and where it was going. In the meantime, they built a community of dreamers, doers and collaborators. They shared time, skills and resources with one another in an effort to build each other up and spur one another on. By the end of that first year, they had a movement on their hands – THUD was born.

From its organic roots planted six years ago, THUD has evolved into a powerful, international networking platform that gives black entrepreneurs all over South Africa and the continent the chance to connect, to learn and engage around business tips and strategies, to troubleshoot and problem solve, to nurture and grow businesses. Their slogan – Connect, Engage, Contribute—reflected this evolution and helped define their identity as a growing organization.

The monthly dinners still happen; they remain a signature feature of THUD – the gateway to all the good stuff. The original eight people grew to sometimes more than 300 on any given night, with ample opportunities to network and meet prospective partners and clients. The likes of Skinny Sbu Socks, The Lazy Makoti, Native Nosi, and a host of other successful ventures can attribute at least a part of their success to THUD’s support and network.

Through their boot camps, workshops, accelerator programs, and other interventions, THUD became the place to form business ideas, and a safe space to test them in front of peers and likeminded colleagues and receive constructive feedback.

“Our premise is first to test whether you actually have a business or not, whether you have an audience or a market for it. This is why we do our pitching platform in the way that we do it. Put your idea out to the world and see how the world responds. And don’t be stubborn to listen to the world; because your idea – you may have birthed it, but it’s not for you, it’s for other people. So it’s an environment that is meant to give you a reality check in a very loving way.”

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As the father of two girls, Selebogo understands that by helping other entrepreneurs to thrive, he’s creating a safer, more sustainable future for his daughters. He adores his girls; he sees himself as a father first before anything else. Judging from the photos he regularly posts with the hashtag #fathersbegoodtoyourdaughters, confidence and security shine in their eyes and their brilliant smiles. These are girls who know their father’s love, who regularly experience his delight in them. And young as they are, they understand that what he does for THUD, he does for them.

“I am part of a generation that is about self-sufficiency, that is about community and stability. Because I’m a father, and especially a father to girls, I realized that my girls have got to grow up in a world that is safe. There’s no safety without economic empowerment.”

One of THUD’s primary mandates is building Black Economic Empowerment in South Africa. A look at some of the country’s demographics and statistics reveal the salience of this factor. South Africa has a population of 55 million, and nearly 80 percent of it is black (from Brand South Africa). The most recent statistics show the national unemployment rate at 27.2%. This percentage rose to 30 percent among the black population, and 41.5 percent if you include black people that are disengaged from the labor market.

You cannot have social and economic empowerment and stability in South Africa without actively and genuinely building up black initiatives, and investing in black entrepreneurship. This is precisely the environment THUD is trying to cultivate. As Selebogo points out, “We’re trying to show that if you build the neglected base, which is the majority of this country, this creates diversity, which is a benefit for everyone. And it helps guarantee the safety of the privileged classes as well because, if we all have the same opportunity for self-determination, we have less time and inclination to kill or steal or threaten the next person.”

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As a business itself, THUD is constantly developing and refining their own business model to align with their vision, values and purpose. A big part of what they do is to link black-owned businesses to corporates that are looking to diversify their supply chain. “We’re obsessed about helping emerging entrepreneurs get access to markets and to get a piece of the pie within the corporate value chain.”

South African corporations have a legal obligation to set aside funds for enterprise development focused on black businesses. So THUD works to create and maintain access points to these funds on one end, and on the other end they help to coach, mentor and prepare black entrepreneurs to make the most of these opportunities.

“Forty percent of what we do is focused on making sure the customer is happy, which is the corporation,” Selebogo expounds. “And 60 percent is preparing the entrepreneur. We also make sure that if the entrepreneur is on the right track but not necessarily fit for corporate, they have a way to continue doing what they do best and generate sales for themselves.

We bring in our consultants who help them to run their business as a science, and not as an art. Because quite often, most of us are not educated in how to run a business, we just know how to create. So we try and bridge that gap.”

Bridging that gap also involves financial inclusion, where individuals and businesses, regardless of socioeconomic background or physical location, have access to affordable and useful financial services that meet their needs. This is a key factor for economic growth in developing countries and regions, and it is crucial for the growth of black businesses in South Africa. Selebogo admits that THUD didn’t fully understand the importance of financial inclusion three, four years ago. Now it is one of their key pillars.

“Financial inclusion is at the center of everything because when people who were on the sidelines, or who were previously disadvantaged, are included in the economy, they get access to markets, to financial capital. And access is about everything. Without access you can’t grow, you can’t live.”

Financial inclusion, Selebogo believes, allows the black community to build and create from a position of abundance, rather than lack. Without this access, people and communities cannot grow or thrive.

“A classic example: look at how the rich are prisoners of their own environment here in South Africa. They have high walls, gated houses, barbed wire, they have to lock their car doors when they’re driving in traffic.

Everything is about extreme security because they know they built from a place of lack. They did not build so that everyone can benefit. And that’s what we are trying to solve.”

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In their six years of existence, THUD’s growth has expanded beyond South Africa’s borders. There are now THUD chapters in 14 cities in eight countries, including Angola, Namibia, Lesotho, Kenya and the United Kingdom.

They’ve co-founded and launched The People’s Fund, a crowdfunding platform born out of a desire to tangibly and practically support black-owned small businesses with real potential for growth and sustainability. It’s a crowdfunding platform built on the concept of collective investment and ownership, with a built-in reward system and feedback loop that benefits both the givers and the receivers in tangible ways.

The People’s Fund (TPF) is gaining enormous traction in South Africa, attracting the attention of investment funds and global development agencies looking to replicate this model in other developing countries.

In partnership with a major global firm, THUD and TPF are working on developing a multi-currency format on the TPF platform. This would make it possible for entrepreneurs in THUD networks throughout Africa to feature and receive support for their own small businesses. This initiative is still in the pilot stage, but the goal is to drive financial inclusion not just in South Africa, but all across the African continent, and eventually the diaspora.

And that’s in line with their great ambition to create one million African startups, connected and collaborating across the continent by 2020.

“We want to be the launchpad for emerging entrepreneurs doing business anywhere across the continent through the THUD network. A connected ecosystem of entrepreneurs across the African diaspora, with easy access to each other at low rates. So if I want to go to Brazil or do business with a Brazilian, it should not cost me an arm and a leg. It should not be just for the privileged.”

Access and opportunity should not exist just for urban entrepreneurs either. One of THUD’s next big missions is getting out into the rural and peri-urban areas in South Africa, and the townships. These areas represent the majority of the population and are key to broad-based social and economic impact.

“If you can service or build up rural spaces in South Africa, places like Nelspruit, Pietermaritzburg or Kuruman in the Northern Cape, the areas that are not highly sophisticated like Johannesburg, then you can start shifting the needle of impact. That’s what we are learning. We feel like this is our school right now. If we can get it right in South Africa, we can get it right across the continent; because we are far more similar than we realize.”

The fact is, these guys are not playing small. You will not see them keeping to the lanes and the belief systems prescribed for them by past and present realities. Instead, they are steadily and efficiently dismantling old systems, old ways of thinking and being, and creating new structures, new visions, new realities that will benefit everyone – not just black people. They are pioneers breaking new ground, and inspiring others to join in.

“We are about exporting African culture into the world, and exposing the world to the brilliance of Africa and what exists here. Not just extracting from Africa, but adding value. We are leveraging off the skills that exist among black people and we’re saying, ‘get up, corporates and everyone else, and come and contribute to this. It’s going to sustain you too’ ”.

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As the spokesperson and figurehead for THUD, Selebogo wears his heart and values on his sleeve. He communicates with the kind of authenticity and vulnerability that people instinctively respond to and trust. He shares his own struggles as an entrepreneur, of the day-to-day hustle that can be draining and defeating at times. He is quick to offer his insights and observations, and to freely share the lessons he’s learning about life, business and relationships. And he’ll tell you the truth, whether it appeals to you or not.

What strikes me every single time, what differentiates him from many other leaders in a similar position, is his unmistakable compassion: he genuinely cares about his fellow South Africans, about the wellbeing of Africa, about the entrepreneurs in his network and those struggling to make it in other corners of the world. Whether speaking in person, on stage, or on social media, his presence consistently reflects integrity, authenticity, truth, excellence, trust, “ubuntu”; and a deeply held conviction that the entrepreneurs in THUD’s network can change South Africa – and the world – for the better.

“We’re here to change the country,” he often says. “We can’t wait for the government or politicians or whoever to do it.” And THUD’s way of doing this, a position driven by Selebogo and his team, is not through bitter competition, blind materialism, or selfish gain, but rather through collaboration and community.

“It’s about the power of the collective investing in the future. ‘Ubuntu’ is a Zulu term with a universal meaning: getting people together, collaborating, self-love and community. The minute community is at the center of it all, we all get to eat.

He himself is largely a product of this collaboration and community. Having never attended university or received any kind of tertiary degree, he recognizes how his community has helped stretch and shape him into the person he is today. He has become a sought-after thought leader and influencer due in part to his community’s investment and trust in him, and this is a fact he holds with deepest care, respect and gratitude.

“When I get invited to share my story or my insights on a particular topic on some platform somewhere across the world, I accept that exposure and the responsibility that comes with it. It’s about making sure I uphold this legacy and leave a positive mark with every person I meet. The world needs to see that Black excellence exists, that black people have just as much to contribute to the world as anybody else. And black people can help grow the pie, not just eat a portion of the pie.”

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When asked what about THUD he feels most proud of, Selebogo speaks of THUD’s influence in growing an ecosystem of entrepreneurship in South Africa, an ecosystem where black entrepreneurs are finding the courage and the means to step out and drive change. He speaks of entrepreneurs achieving huge milestones, creating jobs, building legacies they can pass on to their children. He speaks of meeting successful entrepreneurs who, unbeknownst to him, attended a THUD event and received just what they needed to take the next step.

“Things are changing, perceptions are changing. A whole lot more black corporate professionals are leaving their jobs and starting out. Because we’ve shown them that it’s possible to do this thing on their own. And they’re contributing to this culture. The beautiful thing is they’re coming in educated, with skill sets that are really important, and therefore their businesses stand a better chance of surviving and thriving.

“We’ve influenced the culture of entrepreneurship here in South Africa in a way that we never imagined. And it’s not because of our brilliance. It’s because we’ve been consistent with our mission. We’ve stayed the course.

 

Want to learn more about collaborating with THUD? Want more details about their impact investing platform? THUD would love to hear from you!

Contact Selebogo Molefe at info@thehookupdinner.com.