Isaac Shongwe is a South African entrepreneur and businessperson who founded Letsema Holdings Ltd., African Leadership Initiative, and Letsema Consulting Pty Ltd., and who has been the head of 5 different companies. Presently, he is Chairman at Open Society Foundation of South Africa, Chairman of African Leadership Initiative and Chairman for Letsema Holdings Ltd. Isaac is also on the board of Barloworld Ltd & Ceppwawu Investments Pty Ltd. In the past, Isaac has also held the position of Non-Executive Chairman at African Phoenix Investments Ltd and CEO of Barloworld Logistics Pty Ltd.
Isaac received a graduate degree from the University of Oxford and an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University. Isaac became the second black South African to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1989. An exceptional communicator, manager and business professional, Isaac is passionate about business being a catalyst for social change. Isaac is also Deputy Chairperson of the Wits University Council.
Isaac was recently in Dubai and we at Young Vision Magazine spoke to him and asked to share his valuable insights.
TYV: Tell us about yourself – what inspired you to start Letsema Consulting? What is the vision and mission of your company?
Isaac: I was always fascinated that people could be paid for thinking “out of the box” and problem solving. When I started Letsema, the vision and mission was to prove that business can be a force for positive refinement of our society. At Letsema, we believe that business can be a catalyst for social change. We are value driven and realise that as society has given to us, it is our duty to give back through our shared intellect and values.
TYV: How do you encourage creative thinking within your organisation?
Isaac: In the vast and mammoth world of consulting, no two situations are the same. At Letsema, we ensure to hire intelligent and sharp-witted people. They are expected to think on their feet. We provide them with a rudimentary framework of the task at hand and they are encouraged to be creative and devise innovative ideas!
TYV: Who is the one person in your life who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader or mentor; why and how did this person impact your life?
Isaac: Despite having harsh financial constraints, my grandmother was able to make ends meet by making Ndebele beads and hand woven bags. It was her undying focus and steadfast determination that really and truly inspired me. Growing up during apartheid, black people were not allowed to be in business. As such I didn’t have mentors who were coming out of the business environment to look up to. Watching her persevere motivated me to pursue a career where I was in charge, rather than working for someone else. I’d like to thank her for allowing me to break the shackles and emancipate myself from the prison of poverty.
TYV: What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should inculcate in oneself?
Isaac: Anyone who wants to have a bigger impact on the world and in their own life needs to study. Nothing beats studying, reading and learning. Carbo load as much knowledge as you can, as it makes you a more rounded human being. As a leader, I believe humility and compassion are absolutely essential. You must believe that every person has something special about them, and always be open and willing to help others. As a leader, you always must be able to put yourself in the shoes of other people.
TYV: According to you, what are some of the biggest challenges the youth is facing today?
Isaac: I believe the biggest challenge the youth is facing today, is one of patience. In today’s techno-centric world, we want everything now, this instant. Unfortunately, for the most part, life doesn’t work that way. Doing work you don’t like is important. This isn’t to say that a job should be miserable. But unless you are fortunate and have found success early, all jobs have parts that are not as enjoyable as others. This is because by doing so, you learn. That is how you carbo load your mind and get to place where you can do that which gives you joy.
TYV: In your path to success, have you encountered any obstacles or judgements presented by society?
Isaac: From a very young age, I witnessed the very prevalent ills that exist till this day in most of South Africa’s townships. Poverty remains the most crippling factor that derails the radical advancement of people and adversely affects their quality of life. Due to the harsh and oppressive apartheid regime, I encountered enormous hurdles. However, through hard work and resilience, I paved my own path. The greatest challenge I had to face was prejudice and racism. Instead of giving up, I turned my obstacles into my motivation and continued to demolish the bias generated by apartheid.
TYV: Can you describe the impact, if any, that social networking and Web 2.0 has had on your organisation or on you personally?
Isaac: It is no secret that the Internet has evolved magnificently since the advent of the 21st century. Our company has undeniably benefitted through effective marketing and increased knowledge sharing. Our company aims to tightly integrate Web 2.0 technologies with the work flows of our employees while also creating a “networked company”, linking ourselves with customers and suppliers through the use of Web 2.0 tools. This results in greater scope of growth for our company. The ‘anywhere, anytime’ functionality of these technologies has been clearly acknowledged and utilised.
TYV: We thank you for your valuable time. Lastly, what is your message for The Young Vision readers who are either high school or university students and are presented with the opportunity to lead others?
Isaac: You may have heard it before but I just want to remind all your readers that ‘there is no cookie cutter recipe for creating the perfect leader’. Every leadership role is unique and requires a tailored plan of action. What works for me, may not work for you; one person’s strength may very well be your weakness and that is completely okay. Please don’t ever compare yourself with others and lose heart. What will make the difference in your life will be the initiative and drive you have to lead by example and be the trendsetter rather than following the trend. You will get knocked down but those who seek help when most needed are generally the winners!!!
Sir, to conclude a big THANK YOU from all of us at the Young Vision Magazine. It has been an absolute pleasure.