Teaching teens to fish

life-text1 Selebogo Molefe runs the Open for Business campaign on behalf of Virgin’s Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, a programme that provides entrepreneurs with practical business workshops. (Image: Lifesgud)

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Tiisetso Tlelima

Rather than simply throwing cash at the problem, social entrepreneur Selebogo Molefe has joined hands with German social development organisation Zenzela to help destitute young South Africans become more independent, autonomous and self-sufficient through a programme called Changing a Million Lives.

The vision behind Changing a Million Lives is to empower teenagers who live in shelters by equipping them with knowledge and skills. When these teenagers leave the shelters at the age of 18, they often have nowhere to go. But this programme gives them the opportunity to make something of their lives.

“A lot of these kids fall by the wayside when they leave shelters,” explains Molefe, the project’s pioneer. “Although the shelters do something positive by rehabilitating them, there’s only so much they can do. They don’t have enough resources and the government can only do so much in terms of grants.”

The idea is to put the teens in touch with companies – depending on the career path they want to pursue – so that they can learn the ins and outs of the respective industries. So far, the project has benefitted eight youngsters from shelters across Johannesburg, including Kliptown Youth Centre, The House Group and Othandweni Children’s Home in Soweto.

The teens are integrated into the workplace during the school holidays. They are mentored and given practical work experience.

Molefe and his business partner Phakiso Tsotetsi, use their connections in the corporate world to link the beneficiaries with the companies so that they can get career advice, while Zenzela helps them handle any psychological problems they may have.

“We teamed up with our friends from Germany because they are social workers and they have a passion for Africa and kids,” Molefe says. “We had access to corporates and we needed someone who could help the kids with the psychological stuff.”

Building solid relationships

The programme’s intention is to provide a space where the youngsters can build solid relationships with the companies. Its desired outcome is that the relationships built must be strong enough to prompt the company to take in the teen after the programme, and even send them to university or college to study.

“We want them to be sustainable so that they can also make a difference,” Molefe points out.

Changing a Million Lives recently took two youngsters, Thabo Mbele from Kliptown Youth Centre and Meshack Mbangi from Othandweni Children’s Home, to Miami in the US for a seven-month long working holiday. The two were enrolled in youth and cultural exchange programmes called Students J1 Work Travel and Seasonal Work USA, which gave them a chance to work in five five-diamond hotels in the US and Canada. This allowed them to hone their skills in the hospitality sector.

The programme covered their accommodation and living costs; however, Molefe had to raise money to cover their flights, which he did through various sponsors.

Mbele returned to South Africa four months ago and is now volunteering at the shelter where he once stayed. He plans to further his studies in 2013, using the money he earned overseas. Mbangi is still working in Canada at a ski resort called Whistler Blackcomb. He will return home in February 2013.

Changing a Million Lives began at the beginning of 2012, and operations have been somewhat haphazard. Molefe’s dream is to formalise the initiative and he has, in the past few months, been vigorously campaigning to get more people on-board so that the project can benefit more young people.

“I want to formalise it into a programme,” he explains. “My main mission is to connect these kids to people who can help them. From there, on they can start their own relationships.”

Sometimes what these teens need is someone who will talk to them and make them feel like they matter, adds Molefe. “You have to find out what their dreams and aspirations are, and try to mentor them.”

Brought up in a Christian home, Molefe and his siblings were taught to lend a hand to the needy whenever they could. Growing up in the streets of Hillbrow in the 1990s, where prostitution and drugs were rife, Molefe knew he would have to help turn his environment into a better place.

He has since worked with numerous charities in Hillbrow, including Twilight Children. Today, he sits on the board of The House Group, an inner city charity that rehabilitates destitute and abused girls.

Life’s good

Apart from his philanthropic work, Molefe is a forward-looking businessman who has a passion for people. In 2009, he started a company called Lifesgud.com, a lifestyle brand that specialises in creating unique experiences through niche events and decor. Lifesgud.com also designs and sells bean bags, ottomans, tents and mobile flooring.

Although he runs a thriving small business that has attracted big clients such as Nedbank and Deloitte, things haven’t always been easy. Molefe recalls his first job as a hairstylist at a salon opposite the Universal Church in downtown Johannesburg. “I wasn’t a great stylist but I had a lot of customers because I would listen to their problems,” he says.

When the hairstyling job dried up his uncle, who had been contracted to build Newscafés across the city, took him in. He worked as a cement mixer for his uncle’s construction company.

It was only in 2000 that business opportunities started opening up for him. He teamed up with his friend to start a clothing label called Umoba, which sold ethnic, funky jeans and tops. Initially, the business did very well – the pair got their clothes into the Y-Shop and dressed celebrities such as prominent DJ Rude Boy Paul.

However, like any start-up there were challenges and they eventually had to close shop. “There was a problem [with] delivery because there was no commitment from the designer,” explains Molefe. “I couldn’t sell without the other part doing what it was hired to do, so we were getting a lot of backlash from the clients.”

At the time, he was renting a lavish property that had a swimming pool and a tennis court in Lombardy East, a suburb east of Johannesburg. After the clothing business fell through, he started organising private parties and matric dance after-parties on the property to make the rent.

“My housemate was into the LG brand and we would often sit there and say, ‘Life’s good,’” he recalls. And that is how the brand Lifesgud.com was born. Today his business employs five people and he hopes to grow it until he can employ 50 people, directly or indirectly.

The Hook Up Dinner

Molefe also runs the Open for Business campaign on behalf of Virgin’s Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, a programme that provides entrepreneurs with practical business workshops. Occasionally, he also gives talks to entrepreneurs and owners of small, medium and micro enterprises on how to use social media for businesses.

In August, he launched an initiative called The Hook Up Dinner. It’s a monthly network session where entrepreneurs can get together and share ideas on how to grow their businesses.