Once a prison for slaves, now a center for openness and opportunity
“If our animosities are born out of fear, then confident generosity is born out of hope.” — Aga Khan
A shipping container turned into a museum, standing as an education landmark for young children to alleviate gangsterism and crime located in the heart of gang violence.
A medicine delivery biking service used by three hospitals started by a man who saw his grandmother wake up at 4 am every morning and wait at a hospital all day for her medication.
A disruptive board game company looking for innovative ways to implement the history and constitution of South Africa to remind the youth of their rights and where they came from.
A transport company that measures your carbon footprint when you use their service and plants trees accordingly to offset the amount of carbon emissions from your trip.
A commonality between the entrepreneurs behind these ideas is that they don’t have access to tertiary education due to financial constraints or other circumstances, and generally come from low income, under-served, poor and fragile communities across the Western Cape. However, they are all graduates of the Raymond Ackerman Academy of Entrepreneurial Development (RAA), located at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Graduate School of Business which was once the Breakwater Prison for slaves.
RAA is an entrepreneurship academy that admits 30 students between the age of 18–30 annually to participate in a six-month program offering courses ranging from business development, economics, design thinking, computer literacy, and “the art of possibility”. What makes this academy unique is its core focus on personal development as the foundation for business development. RAA believes that you grow the person and then the business. Students graduate from RAA with a UCT short course certificate and can later apply to be part of the Graduate Entrepreneurs Support Program, a business incubator offering training, group peer sessions, personal development support, mentor support and access to markets and networks to assist graduates in converting ideas into businesses or growing existing businesses. As part of my Master of Global Affairs program, I am currently working as a Growth and Strategy Intern at RAA.
There is no “daily rhythm” or a typical day at work. In fact, in my interview, Elli Yiannakaris, the Director herself, asked me whether I would be okay with ambiguity. With a leap of faith, I accepted the offer to hop across the ocean to a continent I had never been in before. While I am probably staying in the most developed area of the continent, I am certain that I am also in an area which is home to one of the richest histories and the most diverse communities in the world. And so far, I can say that ambiguity is the best part about this job. My role includes working with students and professors to understand their stories and passion and working with the team to assist these entrepreneurs in their business endeavors. From helping build a business pitch for the Director to present to the Vice-Chancellor of the University, developing insights to measure the impact of RAA to gearing students for their business pitches, my favorite moment so far was being on the interview panel for prospective students and hearing their stories and understanding their passion. It’s eye-opening to see how the same content taught at RAA to all students is connected with each of their unique stories and allows them to build enterprises with a social cause.
There is no mandatory clause at RAA to build social enterprises or work in a field with a social impact. Incoming students at RAA are often shy, scared and a large number of them have faced severe hardships in their lives. And yet, it is remarkable that from the interviews of prospective students to the time they graduate, the majority of participants want to work on uplifting their communities. RAA is a place that celebrates the histories and identities of its students and uses their stories as an asset rather than a liability. As my colleague Wajdi rightly shares, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
Global Affairs is not just one answer but several answers built around problems faced by local communities around the intricacy of the cultures that shape these communities. Cape Town remains a fragile center of a multitude of cultures divided by economic inequality which is only set to grow in the near future, fueled further by the volatility of the Rand. Despite the abolition of apartheid in 1994 and tremendous progress made over the last two decades, the city is still divided with the rich “white heavy” areas along the sea coast to black and coloured townships spread across the east and south sides of Western Cape.
The model of RAA seeks to empower young people and push them to rise above their current social and economic status and create opportunities for themselves. Incoming students are given the same advice from all graduates: “Trust the Process”. And rightly so, within just a span of a few weeks, we could see changes in their mind-set and openness to possibility. Three weeks after the start of the program, RAA hosted a “Siyabonga ceremony”, an opportunity for students to thank their parents, family and friends for everything they had done for them. Students who were once shy or felt too “strong” to talk about their feelings, were motivated to open up in front of all parents and teachers in the room. Recitations of personally written poems, speeches and artwork echoed the rooms of what was once known as the most feared prison in the world.
The team at RAA includes four core people that work tirelessly to take a keen interest in every single one of the students’ dreams. Elli and her core team collectively know the names of every single student and graduate over the last eight years. Even the office equipment at RAA is supplied from an alumnus that makes bespoke furniture. Catering for meetings and events is supplied by RAA food entrepreneurs and any company travel requirements are fulfilled by one of the RAA entrepreneurs in the transportation business.
The future of RAA relies on how it responds to the growing change in technologies that become available. The question that RAA must continue to ask is “Are we preparing our students for shocks in decades to come?” In the end however, the fundamental skill that students take from this academy is how to replace fear with hope. And for this skill alone, the Raymond Ackerman Academy should take pride in instilling the most powerful human motivation in its students.