They came of age during the global financial crisis. They have seen the twin towers of capitalism torn down by terror, and are not willing to take success for granted. They have grown up in a digital world, roaming with apps and aptitude in their back pockets. 

It was controversial feminist writer, Maggie Young, who in describing her generation, best captures the DNA of the millennials.

“We lost the genetic lottery. We graduated into terror attacks and wars. We are often more educated, experienced, informed, and digitally fluent than prior generations, yet are constantly haunted by the trauma of coming of age during the detonation of the societal structure we were born into. We will have less money to buy the material possessions that entrap us. We will have more compassion and empathy because our struggles have taught us that even the most privileged can fall from grace. Our hardships will obligate us to develop spiritual and intellectual substance. Maybe having roommates and buying our clothes at thrift stores isn’t so horrible as long as we are making a point to pursue genuine happiness.”

Corporates and governments are tripping over each other trying to understand Young’s generation. The manual on millennials has proven to be somewhat elusive with tons of studies on this generational group that despite reporting on some common themes, have not nailed what makes millennials tick.

What we do know is that the term ‘millennial’ is about as old as the average millennial, coined in 1991 by Neil Howe and William Straus, in their co-authored publication: Generations: The History of America’s Future 2584 to 2069. They described millennials as people born between 1980 and 2000. This generation is also commonly referred to as Generation Y.

Millennials matter because they make up the world’s largest generational group since the soon-to-retire Baby Boomers. The first cohort of millennials is in their early to mid-30s, at the beginning of their careers, and will become an invaluable engine of the global economy in decades to come.

Millennials matter even more in Africa.

The African Development Bank has reported Africa has more than 200 million people aged between 15 and 24, about 65% of the continent is made up of millennials, making it the youngest continent in the world. Demographic forecasts show that this figure will double by 2045.

In just four years, three out of every four people in Africa will be on average 20 years old in Africa.

While millennials may be dismissed as a generation obsessed with selfies, they also seem to be intent on being part of finding solutions to the world’s biggest problems.

The 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey highlights millennials are tuned into the purpose of a business – what it should do – as much as they are tuned to the impact of the business – what the business is actually doing.

Millennials are increasingly disconnected with traditional approaches to the workplace. They are easily turned off by stiff corporate structures and working within silos. They want dynamic work environments, they are not keen on putting in the slog of years working the corporate ladder, they believe in rapid succession, and they value mobility over the bum-on-seats approach. These insights are pulled from extensive research done through a survey administered to over 4,000 graduates across 75 countries by KPMG to understand what millennials want from the workplace. Although the survey was done in 2011, the insights will continue to shape corporate talent strategies for years still.

What millennials want out of the work of experience is like nothing before that. Top of the list of headaches is that old reward and recognition systems aren’t retaining millennials in their positons. Millennials subscribe to “loyalty-lite”, happily hopping between employees.

The unparalleled access to the internet and mobile phones is part of the millennial DNA. This generation has no concept of the world before technology. They take as a given that you can have a movie theater, your next taxi ride, and your diet all in your back pocket.

 The Wall Street Journal in Millennials: Love Them Or Let Them Go reported millennials don’t just view social networks as a communication tool but as a global language that embeds them in various communities. Interestingly, despite the uptake of social media connectedness, millennials still value family and friends even though they will overwhelmingly engage with them on social media platforms.

Millennials value education and are more likely to spend more time investing in their education than the previous generations. The manual on millennials is still missing but if the statistics shared by the World Economic Forum that millennials are increasingly becoming the biggest influencers in the world, that more than 50% of the world’s population is under 27 years old and rising to 70% in Africa, it needs to be written. Yesterday. 

 – The writer, a millennial herself, is a senior anchor on CNBC Africa, and presents the show Young Money on the channel.

Caution: Millennials At Work

We brainstormed for weeks to put together this list of profit- and impact-driven South African millennials, also going to prestigious corporates and organizations committed to developing entrepreneurs, for their recommendations. This compilation is but a small sub-set of a generation characterized by their proclivity to take risks – and be their own bosses.

Bonang Matheba, 28
Media entrepreneur

 Bonang Matheba

She beams down from billboards in South Africa, is a presenter on two premier TV lifestyle shows, was voted the most stylish and sexiest celebrity in the country, travels the world rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous but if fate hadn’t intervened, Matheba would be teaching pre-school children English. That was her dream, even with a distinction in matric.

“I am a Cancerian, I am a nurturer at heart. I love children and I just wanted to work with them but the wind blew me in a different direction and I’m really grateful, now I can’t imagine my life doing anything else.”

Matheba grew up in Mafikeng, in the North West province, surrounded by a family of academics. Her mother, a business executive, a stepfather lawyer and her professor father, were initially concerned when she didn’t follow the academic route but eventually made peace with her choice when they saw her focus and passion.

“I used to sing and dance and I loved being the center of attention from the age of seven or eight. I got attention from everyone, including my aunts and uncles, because I was the only child and grandchild for the longest time.”

At age 15, destiny would see her enrolling for a television presenting course. She was ushered into the world of television through SABC2’s Manhattan Fantasy but it was the music show Live on SABC1, with seven million viewers, that launched her career. She became a regular voice on YFM radio, and is now on MetroFM. Her popularity and exposure would soar to such heights that she became the first face of Revlon outside the United States.

None of this came easy for a woman with over a million followers on Twitter and over half a million on Instagram. She was turned down at least 25 times on auditions before her first break. Live rejected her six times, YFM ignored seven of her demos and Metro four.

“Top Billing as well, I went through an audition after an audition after an audition. You know with me I’m very resilient. There’s always a voice at the back of my mind that says push, push. People say no to me so many times but I’ve learnt that they are not rejecting me as a human being, it’s just that at that particular time I’m not what they are looking for,” says Matheba.

She also runs Bonang Matheba Entertainment (a production company) and has a lingerie line with Woolworths.

“Entertainment has a very short life span. For me, longevity has always been a very big part of it. The only way you do it is by expanding [your business] because, let’s face it, I won’t look like this for the rest of my life and I understood that from a very young age.”

The year 2016 for Queen B, as she’s known, is about giving back. She is sponsoring a young lady who wants to study her master’s. In September, she will be taking girls from across the country to a seven-day motivation camp.

– Tsidi Bishop

Claire Reid, 29
Founder, Reel Gardening

Claire Reid

South Africa is experiencing the worst drought since 1982, leaving farmers in debt worth billions of rands. Could Claire Reid’s gardening solutions be the answer? 

Reid discovered her “revolutionary planting method” at the age of 16 when trying to earn pocket money growing a vegetable garden and selling the crop to her parents. That’s when she realized gardening was no child’s play.

“I would put more seed than necessary, I didn’t know how far apart or how deep it was. The whole thing was frustrating,” she recalls.

Frustration gave way to fortune. Her teacher encouraged her to enter a competition simplifying gardening, based on marking small areas of ground with biodegradable color-coded paper strips encasing organic fertilizer and seeds at the correct depth and distance. The paper helped save up to 80% of water. The project won her a gold medal.

The Department of Water Affairs sent Reid to Stockholm, where she became the first South African to win an international award, beating 28 other countries.

“All of a sudden I was being sent overseas to represent South Africa and being given an award by Thabo Mbeki [former South African president]. It was quite a whirlwind time being nominated for Checkers Woman of the Year while I was only 17.” 

Reid studied Architecture, Geology and Civil Engineering at the University of Pretoria. While on internship, she landed a project with Anglo American that took her to Marikana, an area that needed her gardening skills. She pitched the idea to Anglo American that gave her a start-up loan to form her company Reel Gardening in 2010. A social enterprise that employs 10 mothers from diverse backgrounds, it has been rolled out in 280 schools. Though its focus is online, new mom Reid has recently set up operations in Kenya. The company has sold products in the UK and plans to expand to the UAE, Japan, South Korea, Canada and the US. In November last year, she also made it to BBC’s 30Under30 list. 

– Tsidi Bishop


Aisha Pandor, 31
Founder, SweepSouth

With Aisha Pandor’s down-to-earth demeanour, you would never guess how much she has achieved at such a young age. Her tiny physique is just as deceptive. She was the Vice Chairperson of the Karate Club in 2006 at the University of Cape Town, where she completed her PhD in Human Genetics.

Pandor, the daughter of South Africa’s Science and Technology Minister, Naledi Pandor, and Sharif Pandor, received the David and Elaine Potter Fellowship and the South African Women in Science Award for her thesis on retinitis pigmentosa, a type of hereditary blindness, and research on a therapy that may cure other hereditary diseases.

Because she has powerful parents, some might feel Pandor’s achievements were handed to her.

“My mother was the minister of science [when I received an award], but she had become the minister of science after I started studying science. My mother didn’t write my thesis for me. I sleep four hours a night; my mother doesn’t sleep for four hours doing my work. I work incredibly hard,” says Pandor.

“My parents were activists and teachers. I didn’t grow up rich but I have parents who believed in empowering their children. It’s the nature of the upbringing, I feel, that put me at an advantage, not the label behind my mother.”  

In 2013, Pandor dumped her management consultant job to start a business with her husband, Alen Ribic, who is a software developer. They formed SweepSouth, an online service that provides domestic workers and cleaning products at the click of a button.

The business had a rocky start with no external funding for more than a year, forcing Pandor to sell her house and car.

“I had a negative bank balance multiple times. I have a child and I was honestly worried if I was going to be able to pay school fees, and you can’t keep asking family to help you. There were times, from an emotional point of view, where I felt like I can’t do this anymore,” admits Pandor.

She eventually got funding after pitching the business to angel investors at a conference in Cape Town. In June last year, the couple spent four months in the United States after being selected to join a business accelerator program offered by global venture capital seed fund, 500 Startups. SweepSouth has created thousands of job opportunities for women, the vast majority of whom were unemployed.

After successfully navigating her way past various pitfalls, Pandor wants to be a role model. She wants to mentor young South African women who want to clean up with their businesses.

– Tsidi Bishop

Thato Kgatlhanye, 23
CEO, Rethaka

Thato Kgatlhanye

One day, when you wake up to a rubbish bin that tells you when it’s full and needs to be emptied, it will probably have been designed by Thato Kgatlhanye, CEO of Rethaka. This is her wish. Her company already produces recycled schoolbags that double as solar-powered lights children can use to study in the evening.

From Mogwase, a small town 40 minutes outside Rustenburg in the North West province, she’s in the process of creating a business empire out of waste.

She founded Rethaka at the age of 18. It now employs 20 people, with nine volunteers, and supplies its products to the likes of Standard Bank, Red Bull, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Unilever. The company exports to Namibia, Turkey, the UK and Brazil. The aim is to expand to 24 African countries.

“Our company is set up to be a leader in Africa, in the transition towards a circular economy, where we look at waste as a resource and use it to remanufacture products. At Rethaka, we say we’re resourcing Africa’s future,” says Kgatlhanye. 

Her mother is a nurse who managed clinics in their district. Her father is a taxi owner and driver.

“The quiet tension between their careers built something in me way before I knew who Thato would be,” she says.

“Yes, I am an entrepreneur like my father, but I also have a social conscience and that can be attributed to my mother. I’m not just in business for profit; I’m in business to do good.”

Kgatlhanye’s parents had to deal with her independent mind at a very young age when she chose all the schools she attended from grade four onwards.

After graduating from the Vega School of Brand Leadership, Kgatlhanye was offered an internship in New York with marketing guru Seth Godin.

“This changed my life. It gave me a perspective of what was possible. I think being in a city like New York, you start thinking of yourself being capable of doing anything. All you have to do is make a decision on what is it you’d like to do, and kill it,” she says.

Kgatlhanye is killing it. She has won several awards, from the Samsung Student Excellence Award in 2014, third place in the SAB Foundation Social Innovation Award, to finalist of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award in 2015.

With this bright young mind, anything is possible. Get ready to listen to your rubbish bin.

– Tsidi Bishop

Sara-Jane Blackie, 32
Managing Partner, Bloss & Co

Sara -Jane Blackie

After a degree at the University of Cape Town, she lived in London for five years, starting her career in digital advertising, but didn’t find it too glamorous, so returned to South Africa, and with a little help from “a family member” (who she has to repay in five years), bought the Bloss & Co business in 2014, turning entrepreneur at 30 and building it up.

Her “affordable luxury handbags” are available in tony boutiques in Parkhurst and Dainfern. They are also at her Parktown North showroom, and their USP, she says, is personalized service, the cappuccino and warm environment.    

A company of three employees, including two other partners, they source the leather and metalware from markets in China. Going forward, there are plans afoot to manufacture in South Africa and collaborate with local talent, as they did most recently with South African botanical artist Kelly Higgs, who designed beach bags for them, showcasing South African fauna and flora.

Blackie’s structured posh totes in bright colors are the most sought-after.

“Our vision is bright colors and versatility – a backpack that can be used as a clutch and sling bag; a clutch that also turns into a cross-body bag. What we have found is that the SA market does not follow what happens in the catwalks of London and Paris. It comes down to practicality… They are bags that look luxurious but don’t cost R50,000 ($3,120).” A genuine leather Bloss & Co bag would only set you back R2,499 ($156), so it’s worth a look.

Blackie married a commodities trader in December last year, but she has a busy year planned: to roll out a luxury range in Lagos, and a “sophisticated” Afro-chic line in London.  

– Methil Renuka

Mmabatho Mokiti, 31
Founder and CEO, Mathemaniacs

In 2011, Batho, as she is called, took a leap of faith and started Mathemaniacs, to put the fun back into STEM (science, tech, engineering, maths) teaching, drawing R500 ($31) from her savings.

Raised by a single parent – her father passed away when she was five – her mother was insistent she and her brother received quality education. Every night, Batho watched her entrepreneur-grandfather do his accounting work and also spend quality time with the family. That was the life she wanted.

She loved numbers, noting down every numeral in sight – barcodes, house numbers, telephone numbers – in a secret book. While at university, she had to pay her own petrol bills, so applied to be a private tutor, teaching mathematics to three students; soon she had 20, mostly through referrals. 

“I tell my students ‘your brain is a muscle you need to exercise every day’. I have had to work hard for it to be at that particular level,” says Batho.

She speaks about mathematics as a child would talk about video games.

“I spot maths in everything I do. I love coding, algorithms. I keep asking ‘what makes an app an app’, ‘what is the algorithm that makes DSTV work?’ I feel blessed to fuse education and business together to do something I love. It’s fulfilling knowing I have given someone the key to change their life through education, to break the cycle of poverty.” 

She used her R500 capital to buy text books, and drove to her clients, mostly in the higher-income bracket. In 2012, she found a partner willing to invest, and started employing other university students who would tutor in the afternoons.

A two-hour tutoring session is anywhere from R500 to R700 ($44), but Batho does not want “an admin-heavy business, or a 100 students”. She wants a company “with low operating costs and high profit margins”, meaning “more money in the bank”. Since its inception, Mathemaniacs has been able to impact over 1,000 learners.

Part of her modules is a leadership development and career guidance course to create future leaders.

She was among the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans in 2013, was part of the President Obama Mandela Washington Fellow Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) class of 2014, and is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.

Her ultimate dream is to build maths and science schools across rural Africa.

– Methil Renuka

Linda Mabhena-Olagunju, 32
Managing Director, DLO Energy Resources

She is the fresh face of renewable energy in Africa. By a twist of fate, this young lawyer, who grew up with her grandmother by candlelight, is now spearheading Africa’s dash for energy.

“I’ve always known I was going to go into resources. I just didn’t know if it was going to be mining or oil and gas… The biggest thing for me is why Africa, which is so well-endowed in resources, remains the poorest continent. I always hated injustice, growing up in apartheid South Africa,” she says. Her deals have put two wind farms and two solar photovoltaic (PV) farms onto the barren landscape of De Aar in the Northern Cape. Two deals she patched together that will contribute 254MW to South Africa’s energy grid.

Olagunju’s childhood was far from electricity. She grew up in Matatiele, a village in the Eastern Cape 782 kilometers from the boardrooms of Sandown where she now works and lives with her Nigerian-born husband.

This may be a drop in the ocean but it’s a very important one. Renewables have been a saving grace. According to Olagunju, 39 of these projects are up and running, supplying 2,050MW to the South Africa’s energy grid.                                               

– Jay Caboz

Nothando Moleketi, 32
COO, ReWare

Who does not need a smartphone? But its cost can be prohibitive to many in Africa. Seeing a demand for high-quality affordable cell phones, Nothando Moleketi started ReWare offering certified pre-owned smartphones to South Africans.

“Being a self-starter and taking initiative, learning and absorbing information as quickly as possible are traits I truly value,” says Moleketi.

The Harare-born entrepreneur toyed with the idea of her own start-up after working in telecom major Cell C.

“Smartphones are a key enabler in the South African and African markets, by providing access to transacting, banking, healthcare, and education which are imperatives in the social and economic growth of our country and continent.”

Her work ethic comes from her mother, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, the Special Envoy on Gender at the African Development Bank.

“My mother is a true example that one can pursue more than one career in a lifetime while doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”                      

– Aviwe Mtila

Bonolo Mataboge, 21
Founder, AfriBlossom

It is a business born out of boredom and need.

From the age of 12, Mataboge enjoyed making money selling clothing design sketches. At 15, she began making clothes from her own designs. At 16, she hosted her first fashion show.

For years, she had struggled with Blount’s disease – a growth disorder of the shin bone that causes the lower leg to angle inward, resembling a bowleg. An emergency operation forced her to drop out of the LISOF fashion design school in Johannesburg. 

“I was in so much pain and I had to leave school. While I was home, I got very bored and decided to do what I always loved,” she says.

Inspired by a previous student-exchange visit to the US, where Mataboge discovered shopping for the curvy was much easier than it is in South Africa, she founded AfriBlossom – an Afro-chic clothing range designed for curvy women.

“My struggle will not become my identity. I have learned to love myself despite my physical differences and I hope my clothing will enable others to do the same,” says Mataboge.

The designs are influenced by African culture.

She says being a young female entrepreneur isn’t without its troubles.

“People don’t expect young people like me to know exactly what they are doing. It’s hard to be taken seriously as a young person because investors are sometimes unsure because they think it is a hobby. It is important to do things towards the business yourself first before you approach anyone. This will help investors and sponsors see how serious you are,” she says.

Mataboge is building her brand one stitch at a time.

– Ancillar Mangena

Amy de Castro, 25

Owner, Bamboo Revolution

Amy De Castro

Amy de Castro’s Bamboo Revolution was born out of an assignment for a postgraduate degree in entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town. With R50 ($3.12) as seed capital and a team of five other classmates, her bamboo watch was created.

“We knew we wanted to take a functional object and redesign it – something people use but incorporates the idea of sustainable fashion… At that point, we had never seen a bamboo watch being made before. I didn’t even own a watch until then,” says de Castro.

The team set on the idea of selling coffee on campus to finance their project. Within a couple of days, their capital became R21,000 ($1,311).

They designed a simple wristwatch with a bamboo face and a leather strap. They created a prototype, found a Chinese factory on the internet and placed an order for 500 pieces. The team assembled the watch themselves and launched it at a stall on campus. They sold 100 watches in the first four hours.

With a degree in hand, de Castro bought out her partners to become sole owner of Bamboo Revolution in February 2013. She turned her project into profit, and was a finalist representing sub-Saharan Africa at the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards in 2014.

Her watches are now distributed in seven countries across the world. A part of her profits go to charity greening initiative GreenPop. 

– Sunita Menon

Naadiya Moosajee, 31

Co-founder, WomEng, Cape Town Hub

Ten years ago, Naadiya Moosajee came up with a plan to put 10,000 women engineers into Africa. Ten years on, she wants to see a million by 2025.

“We had a very different look when we were going into an industry that wasn’t very progressive. When I was a student, there was an incredible lack of female role models. We were 20 years old.”

Now the Cape Town-bred engineer, also a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, has fought tooth and nail to see women in this male-dominated industry.

“It we think about economic development in Africa we think about energy, power and water. The only way to do that is through engineering and mega structure projects. For that we need capital, for that we need engineers. Currently in engineering, gender parity on the African continent is less than 10%. Which means we are under-utilizing resources,” says Moosajee. 

With 50% of the African population being female, interest is key. In order to attract young capable females, she runs projects for high school girls to make engineering sexy.

It has been a 10-year journey for Moosajee, but she is starting to see the fruits of her labor from the other side of the fence.

“We started a revolution before revolutions were popular,” says Moosajee. On a continent that desperately needs engineers and infrastructure, many people would agree.

– Jay Caboz

Kim Whitaker, 31
Co-founder, Once In Cape Town

Kim Whitaker, a Cape Town-based entrepreneur, co-founded hospitality company Once In Cape Town, a combined backpackers’ lodge and luxury hotel. Whitaker acquired a struggling two-star lodge and turned it into a “poshtel”.

A Stellenbosch University graduate, she obtained a post-graduate certificate in marketing and communication at Red and Yellow in Cape Town. During the holidays, she worked in ski resorts in Austria and saved money to start her own business.

Last year, Whitaker was named Sanlam’s Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year. The Tourism Grading Council of South Africa recognizes Once In Cape Town as four-star accommodation.

Her hotel employs 25 permanent staff, and has a guest ratio of 1:5, well above the international hostel average of 1:8, which she thinks is necessary for quality and attentive service.

– Thobile Hans

Katherine-Mary Pichulik, 28
Founder, Pichulik

Katherine -Mary Pichulik

The Cape Town-based artist started Pichulik in September 2012 after a trip around India. Her jewelry is a bespoke range of accessories handcrafted in The Mother City.

“Being an entrepreneur in my twenties in South Africa is exciting because it gives me agency to cultivate a new conscious way of doing business, based on sharing and kindness. Being young with no dependents or high personal expenses, I can use my capital and energy to be creative and innovate,” she says. She feels South Africa has room for growth and endless possibilities for young people.

“There is a ‘Phoenix rising’ feeling of hustling, bootlegging and a community of young courageous creatives forging a new South African identity in the global circuit. We are not accepting that it’s over and boarding the ship to Australia. We are revelling in our complications and diversity and making magic in response to it,” says Pichulik.

Mogau Seshoene, 26
CEO, The Lazy Makoti

Seshoene is founder and CEO of The Lazy Makoti, a cooking start-up that teaches women to conjure up epicurean magic in the kitchen. She started the business in 2014 when she had to teach a friend to make traditional meals.

“A friend of mine was getting married and she is a typical Sandton girl who grew up with a helper and didn’t know how to make traditional food. She knew she had to go to her soon-to-be in-laws in the rural areas for two weeks and learn to cook. She searched for cooking schools for African food but she couldn’t find any and she asked me to help her,” says Seshoene.

Through word of mouth, her lessons turned into a business.

“There are shockingly so many people who don’t know how to make South African foods. It is also hard to find a traditional food recipe book; so I knew that I had to concentrate on traditional food although I do other cuisines too,” she says.

She also sells branded chopping boards, recipe journals, aprons and tea-sets.

“Innovation is not only building a spaceship and being in the information technology field but also having an eye for what problems are around you and think of ways that you can solve them while you make money from it.”

She holds a degree in Consumer Science from the University of Pretoria. She swapped her nine-to-five job as an intern auditor at KPMG to pursue her dream and it’s paying off. 

– Ancillar Mangena

‘Scale And Speed Is What Inspires’

Matsi Modise, Managing Director of South African entrepreneurial initiative, SiMODiSA, on the millennial entrepreneur:

What distinguishes millennial entrepreneurs from the generations before?

Millennial entrepreneurs are globally plugged in and connected, so they see the world beyond just a regional but in a global context. Scale and speed is what inspires them and profits must be accompanied by care for people and the planet.

What are the biggest challenges entrepreneurs are up against?

The world is rapidly moving towards the 4th Industrial Revolution, underpinned and enabled by technology. Many African entrepreneurs are still living in environments that emulate former industrial revolutions, i.e., not much access to enabling infrastructure (cannot get from one point to another with ease), energy (have no access to electricity) and access to the internet is still expensive. So the biggest challenge is how will young Africans lead the 4th Industrial Revolution, instead of having to play catch up with the rest of the world?

You are one of the leading voices on entrepreneurial ecosystems. How do they work?

Entrepreneurial ecosystems are all the individuals, organizations and institutions that contribute towards creating an enabling environment for entrepreneurs to thrive. All the different parts of the ecosystem must be consolidated and properly facilitated.

– Interviewed by Nozipho Mbanjwa

This article was first published in the Feb/March 2016 edition of Forbes Woman Africa and has been republished with permission 

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