What makes it difficult to transition from entrepreneurship to formal employment?

In 2017, I left my job as a commercialisation manager at one of the best research councils in Africa. I was so certain that I had made the right decision. With starry eyes and a bucket full of hope, my partner and I started Washesha, an online grocery store. The first few months were very exciting. This is the moment I’d been waiting for, to start my own company. I could finally stop feeling underemployed and work at a company that required me to use all of my skills and qualifications. To be sure, this was not my first rodeo. I left another lucrative job in 2011 wanting to start my own business. I had no idea then what I would do, how to manage a business, or how to even procure the finances to sustain operations.

Taking the plunge and entering into the world of entrepreneurship felt like I was bungee jumping all over again.

When I first ventured into entrepreneurship, I was a Masters level graduate but I felt like my knowledge of business management was inadequate. So, I went back to formal employment and then decided to get an MBA which I was certain would help me to succeed in my next business venture. I had so much confidence when I cofounded Washesha in 2017. I had my education, including an MBA, and work experience. I was ready to become a businesswoman and felt better prepared than the last time. However, when we started operations at Washesha, reality turned out to be a massive brick wall.

We find out that despite my partner and I both having MBAs and more than 20 years of work experience combined, there were still a lot of things that we had to learn about running a business. And we had to learn fast if we wanted to keep floating and keep operations going, real-life MBA class was in session.

Our little distribution centre for Washesha.

One of the major obstacles we faced was a lack of capital. Our savings couldn’t sustain the company. We applied for funds at different institutions to help us get our business off the ground and eventually to help us expand. This proved to be difficult and we had to learn to be self-sufficient throughout the lifetime of the company. We tried to be agile and to pivot as much as was required to meet our customer demands and be sure to keep up with the latest developments. We didn’t want to fall by the wayside for lack of innovation and reinvention.

Despite all of the pivoting and our agility, we were not able to foresee the outcome of what the COVID-19 pandemic would do to Washesha. We were one of those companies that had to pause operations and reconsider the validity of continuing with the business as it was. It was time to decide whether or not we could pivot and find a new way of working in these new circumstances. And that brings me to the reason for writing this current blog. I am in a position where I have to either find a new, lucrative way of doing business or find employment to survive. That is not an easy decision because what I’m most afraid of is being underemployed… again. My favourite definition of underemployment is from the Corporate Finance Institute: “Underemployment occurs when a person does not work full time or takes a job that does not reflect their actual training and financial needs. That is, their job doesn’t use all their skills and education, or provides less than full time work.”

One of those moments of looking into the distance and wonder what comes next.

I have a Masters in Science (MSc), I have a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), and I have worked at a law firm as a candidate attorney for four years. I’ve also worked as a consultant. So, my sphere of skills and qualifications is wide-ranging. I wouldn’t want to be put into one box. For instance, I have considered registering for a Ph.D. in science. However I am not just a scientist. This is the same as if I was going to work as a manager for another company and utilise my business management skills, I could do that as well. However, I’m not just a business manager I’m also a scientist, I also have experience in the field of intellectual property law.

So, where does a person like me fit in? It’s not just one box that I could be placed in and I would be unhappy in any company that expects me to just one skill and not utilise my other skills. In my previous blog post, I wrote about looks and how people use them to judge us, from who we are, what jobs we have, etc. As people, we have this annoying tendency of putting things in neat boxes. Companies do that too. If we freed ourselves from these boxes, I believe underemployment would be minimal because then people would be allowed to do what they love and excel at without limitations from a job description. This is why I liked working as a patent candidate attorney. I’m also fascinated by careers such as bioinformatics where a scientist has to also have programming and a sprinkle of artistic skills.

One more anecdote to try and explain further what I’m saying. In my second or third year at varsity, we were learning to identify chromosomes. We struggled a bit and the lecturer brought in two cleaning ladies to assist us. They identified those chromosomes so fast; they could’ve hosted a master class. If they didn’t have the job description of “cleaner”, could those women have been granted the opportunity to be more? Like getting some form of training so they could officially tutor students? Liz Ryan wrote about ten reasons to hire someone without a four-year degree. Some of these include the fact that some people learn better out of school; smart and accomplished individuals are not overlooked for jobs that they can actually do; and people gain on the job experience at work even without a degree.

One of the perks of working at Washesha is meeting incredible people like our organic produce suppliers.

Universities recognise prior experience and can waive entry requirements for applicants who don’t meet some of the basic entry requirements such as matric (final year in high school in South Africa) or an undergraduate degree. You might not have a matric but still, be able to enrol for a degree based on your previous work experience. That is a bold step. If companies could also recognise the fluidity of people’s abilities, skills, and interests, it would make for a very interesting scenario where people wouldn’t be limited by job titles and qualifications. I’m not saying I can wake up and decide to practice as a doctor. However, with the right training, it’s not unheard of that an accountant can decide they want to study medicine as well. An artist can decide that they want to be an astrophysicist.

With such fascinating skill combinations, it would be disappointing if somehow the astrophysicist wasn’t able to use their art qualification in their new job. In another scenario, the world would stand to lose a lot of talent if someone with a matric qualification and experience in a certain field would not be given a chance to work in some spaces simply because they don’t have a degree. Some university dropouts and people who didn’t complete their matric have offered this world so many innovations. It would’ve been a shame if they didn’t succeed because somebody told them they couldn’t do certain things for a lack of a degree and title.

After graduating with Honours in genetics, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be stuck in a laboratory and conducting experiments forever. Being in the laboratory is not a bad thing, I just wanted to see what else was out there, especially since I already had a keen interest in law. So, my job as a candidate attorney with a science degree proved to be a great for me at the time. I became interested in the business aspect of intellectual property and from there I realised that I needed to improve my business acumen and there lay my interest in studying for an MBA.

Whilst studying for my MBA, I found a job as a consultant and that proved to be very exciting because again this was a job that used my legal knowledge as well as my business administration and management knowledge. It seemed great that I had found a job where I could exercise most of my skill sets and qualifications. A better offer came along and I worked as a commercialisation manager at a research council. Working there was also great for me because I got an opportunity to interact with entrepreneurs who were researchers just like me. I tried to help them get their ideas off the table and help them with market research and taking their products from the lab to the market. And this just triggered something within me because I also wanted to be an entrepreneur and helping other people make the entrepreneurial dreams a reality gave me the courage to start my own company. Working at Washesha was the ultimate dream.

A typical work day doing deliveries.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t carry on working in this ideal environment since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and negatively affected small businesses worldwide. So here I am pondering my next steps. Wondering if I should go back to formal employment and risk underemployment. Should I find a different way of conducting business and carrying on working at my own pace doing work that I love and with the rules that I dictate for myself? In the upcoming blogs I will also be talking about the gig economy which also has a certain level of freedom but for now, let me know what you think about the trap of titles and underemployment. Do you feel underemployed? How do you try and find fulfilment in those circumstances?

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