If there is one thing that keeps Leànne Viviers up at night, it’s thinking about how to bridge the ever-increasing gap between the millions of new job seekers coming on the market and the shortage of skilled workers that small businesses face in South Africa. This problem frustrated her so much that the social entrepreneur created an online platform, Mintor, connecting an incredible pool of young and untapped talent with companies who couldn’t previously access such resources.
But despite her achievements, Leànne continues to be challenged by another more systemic problem.
“Don’t let the prospect of potential failure deter you from getting into it – it’s the most exciting journey and learning opportunity to be an entrepreneur … whether you reached your goals or not.”
“The mindset of the business community needs to change radically in terms of onboarding educated young people. Companies are still expecting schools to turn out the finished product, perfectly ready for integration in the workforce. But a majority of graduates are not at that stage and companies cannot keep blaming the tertiary education system. They have to take responsibility and invest in building the talent of the future. A fundamental mindshift change needs to happen if we are going to reach our goal of getting South African youth into the workplace.”
Leànne is a native of South Africa’s stellar Cape Winelands’ capital Stellenbosch. With an industrial electronics engineering degree from the University of Stellenbosch, the ambitious Arikaner left for the UK where she worked for a few years before getting an MBA in social entrepreneurship from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. It would 11 years before she would return home, with stints in Rwanda and Zambia before moving to Washington DC where she managed a global SME development program at the World Bank Group.
“I was keen to return to South Africa, where I felt I could make a difference. I wanted to be part of the effort to drive the growth of small businesses in order to create jobs and bridge the gap between the unemployed youth and employers’ need for access to skilled labor. When I finished at the World Bank Group, I had no idea how I was going to do this but knew that I had to first understand the complexities of the problem before coming up with a solution,” she explains. “And then, when I was on an airplane back to South Africa, a businessman next to me asked me how I am going to address this social issue that I’m so passionate about. So I just made up something on the spot and said the first thing that came to mind: ‘an online skills-marketplace connecting educated youth and SMEs’, which ended up being the core of what Mintor is today.”
In the summer of her return to Africa, Leànne did an online MOOC (a massive open online course that’s free to anyone) with Stanford university on tech entrepreneurship and suddenly all the dots connected.
“I’ve always had a heart for youth empowerment and addressing unemployment. I started a development program for street kids when I was an undergrad that was taken over by an NGO and was amazed at the impact this had. In the UK, I launched a young professional development network to activate talent for change. It’s been my personal passion for many years to help solve the youth unemployment problem in South Africa and beyond. The MOOC brought it all together – it provided a platform to quickly test the concept with a global team, and mostly, it connected me with Kripa.”
Leànne is referring to her co-founder, Kripa Rajshekhar, a former partner at Ernst & Young, who’s based in Chicago and currently also CEO and co-founder of another startup Metonymy Labs, a platform for machine learning researchers to commercialize their ideas. Amazingly, the pair have never met in person.
Mintor (mentored interns) is an entry-level recruiting innovation for SMEs – in essence, a jobsite that cares. By leveraging technology, it turns the conventional recruiting process upside down and enables small business to recruit inexperienced but skilled youth with confidence as all candidates are pre-screened using algorithms and skills verification tools. Mintor connects employers with students on short- or long-term projects, providing the latter with opportunities to build market relevant skills and the former a means to cost-efficiently vet millenials as potential future hires while getting pending tasks done.
“Students create a LinkedIn-type of profile on Mintor. They then undergo various skill verifications we’ve created that do not necessarily need to be linked with any type of formal education they’ve had. For example, a student who studied accounting will be able to apply for writing jobs if he or she can demonstrate proficiency. The student then builds credibility and the hiring company gains confidence that they wouldn’t normally have if viewing the applicant through a jobsite or on paper.”
As a first step, the Mintor team has approached tertiary education campuses in South Africa to build up their applicant pool. The platform currently hosts more than 2000 profiles. When any of these are placed in a job or contract, Mintor takes a small fee from the employer. Although Mintor is still in the business development phase and selecting only a limited number of candidates mostly in the Cape region, there are plans to scale to the national level and then within the Continent more broadly. Beyond that, Mintor has contacts in India, South America and even the US where this type of tailored platform would most certainly be helpful in matching entry-level skilled and vetted candidates with small businesses.
A word to the wise, can in while you can! Mintor has been identified as one of the most promising Social Enterprise startups in South Africa by Spark International, Seedstars World and Mustard Seed. And this year was one of 15 startups selected from a global pool to be part of Santa Clara University’s Global Social Benefit Institute’s socent accelerator.
Part of the challenge that a platform like Mintor faces is understanding the complexity of why skilled people are unemployed in SA. There are so many issues at play, Leànne does not deny it has been difficult navigating a path. Tertiary education shortcomings are compounded by cultural issues where youth haven’t seen role models and are not tuned in to the private sector’s expectations. And, for its part, business underrates its responsibility for onboarding and educating while government programs can be misaligned with reality.
“It’s complicated finding solutions as the problems are numerous. We are only at the start of the process, but we’ve got an excellent foundation to kick off with and move forward as we go along.”
And for now, that’s definitely more than sufficient. Matching skilled students with small businesses is clearly a win-win for the youth and growth in South Africa but also from a personal perspective as far as Leànne is concerned.
“When we place under- and unemployed talented youth from townships with a company that values their potential, it invigorates me still so much that I feel I can take on any hurdle that comes my way. I strongly believe that God created every person with a purpose, and it’s a privilege to play a small part in helping people realize this and be given the opportunity to prove it.”
- Let go … don’t try to do it all, you’ll move faster if you bring on the right partners early on.
- Know the critical value of patience. Ambition can be a double-edged sword. You need it in order to mobilise a product or service into existence, but also be very careful to exercise it wisely and not let it move startup phases forward prematurely.
- FOCUS. FOCUS. FOCUS. Our mentor, Spike Morelli, instilled in us the value of focusing on what matters absolutely most at each stage of the business. As you as entrepreneur, can easily spend a lot of time on the 110 things that you think needs to happen, but that might not really be key to moving the business forward at the time.
- Try – adapt – try – adapt – try adapt.
- Don’t let the prospect of potential failure deter you from getting into it – it’s the most exciting journey and learning opportunity to be an entrepreneur … whether you reached your goals or not.
- If you are really creating value, customers will come. You’ll have sufficient initial income to grow organically in the early stage, and hence build enough investor confidence to help take the business to scale. So most importantly, a startup needs to absolutely understand the value that it is creating that’s not met by the market already and clearly demonstrate that it is valued by a large enough market segment.
- Let your mission be the driver of every decision.