by Thokoza Mjo, Founder, Beyond the Lemonade Stand
My entrepreneurial journey began a while ago. I perhaps did not see it that way at the time. When I was in high school, I was at boarding school, and part of the school policy was that we can’t sell anything to other students because we couldn’t compete with the tuck shop. A friend of mine was selling snacks “illegally” and I decided to join her in that pursuit: There was a need, why would we not provide for it? At that time, it wasn’t necessarily something we thought of as an entrepreneurial endeavor, but a need that needed a solution.
The next experience was when I was at university, we started a business where we printed t-shirts with scriptures, didn’t really take off, but that was also another step towards my entrepreneurial career. Shortly after, I went for an internship and the office block I was in did not have a café or a place where my colleagues could get refreshments etc. So I started another venture, where I would stock up and sell a box of snacks, drinks etc, so everyone came to me to purchase those goods.
I then took up a corporate career after university, I worked as an investment analyst. I realized then that my interest was in the area of helping young people prepare for the world of work and gain relevant skill-sets so that they can be resourceful and enterprising. So I went and studied Social entrepreneurship at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, then I started my organization, Beyond the Lemonade Stand in 2014, taking on the mission to teach young children to be enterprising and self-sustaining.
My parents had a hard time accepting this decision. As the eldest at home, they had sent me to the best schools so I could climb the corporate ladder and have the security of a job. I was also pursuing a business opportunity that wasn’t conventional. It seemed that what I was trying to do was something teachers had to do. To add to the panic, two years after I started my venture, my sister also started her own business- my parent’s reaction was imaginable. They did not understand, they had worked their whole lives to secure us the best education and make sure we had careers, and here we were “throwing” all that away and pursuing things that had no guarantee for success.
The Turning point.
Although my parents weren’t about the idea of quitting a job, in 2016 they started coming around. For me, it was when they interacted with some of the young people that had benefitted from my programs- they had started businesses and the skills that we teach were evident. That seemed to convince them of the value of what I was doing. In the same year, my sister also won a prestigious designer of the year award, they also celebrated and supported her success. I don’t believe parents are against their children becoming entrepreneurs, they are not against anything. But it’s a huge concern for them that their children are secure in their careers and are able to take care of themselves. That’s all it is. The “formula” that most parents are familiar with is one of getting a job and climbing up the ranks. Once you prove that you can take care of yourself as a responsible adult, they are happy for you.
The most challenging moments.
The most challenging time was at the very beginning- when I first started and had quit my job. My parents couldn’t understand: Why did I just quit a job when I was not fired? All I had was an idea, but nothing tangible to show for it. I had nothing to point at to prove the validity of what I was doing.
As an entrepreneur, the dream possesses you, and you put everything into it. It creates conflict. You question yourself every day, and sometimes, choosing to stay with your dream is not logical.
My one memorable experience.
This was when I was able to finally pay for my own stuff, and my parents didn’t have to worry about feeding me. When my parents would call me and ask if I needed help, and I was able to say that I didn’t need financial support. Then a year later, you still don’t need help, it’s a great feeling.
My advice to parents of very young entrepreneurs (and potential entrepreneurs)
What’s important is you must be the sounding board for your child. If your child comes to you with an idea, allow them to discuss it with you, give them feedback and guidance.
Give them time to figure things out on their own, to explore, they grow up to try and find solutions to problems that matter to society. Your conversations at home must enable them to give their opinions and show them that their opinions matter. Allow them to solve some problems at home. That’s what builds the confidence in them to go out into the world and solve bigger problems.
Finally, partner with your child. It does not have to be a financial support that you can provide, but you can give them access to some people you know, networks and above all, advocate for them.
Message for my parents: Thank you for creating the safety net while I was trying to build something, even when you were doubtful, you still created that safe space for me to explore, it’s hard to allow your children to tinker and explore after working so hard for them. But it’s also partly your fault because you raised me to believe that I can do anything I put my mind to. One day I truly believed it, and then I took you up on it. Thank you.
Thokoza Mjo is the founder and executive director of Beyond The Lemonade Stand, an organization that works with young people and their families to build an entrepreneurial culture that allows them to be self-sustaining and productive members of society.