Sharron McPherson: Saving the World, One Social Enterprise at a Time

Former Investment Banker and Wall Street Attorney turned serial Social Impact Entrepreneur, Sharron McPherson’s entrepreneurial journey goes back to the mid ’90s when she started ISES, a successful non-profit organisation in New York City that helped local women from disadvantaged backgrounds start and run successful community based businesses.

Her next company, the Women’s Enterprise Development Initiative (WEDI) grew out of ISES when she moved to South Africa and was encouraged by women in the United States to launch something similar.

My passion remains community upliftment and investing in small and medium sized businesses has been my vehicle of choice for community transformation. It’s what led to my launching WEDI in 2007 in South Africa.

With a doctorate’s degree in Juris Prudence from Columbia University School of Law, Sharron presently teaches Project Finance at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. She also has a special certification in International and Comparative Law from the Parker School and a BA degree in economics.

Sharron defines working very hard and playing hard. When she is not scheming about how to save the world, her favorite thing to do is to lie in her hammock, wiggle her toes in the sun and watch cloud formations. She likes abseiling, driving fast cars, scuba diving reading about the global state of things.

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Which of your ventures did you submit for the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme (TEEP) and how would it change the world?
I applied to TEEP in connection with my latest social impact venture which is called Common Ground Productions, and it’s aim is to produce interactive, groundbreaking media that showcases the capacity of young African innovators to solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges.

By focusing on African innovation and solutions to global problems, my idea will not only help to change the perception of Africa, but will also bring together innovators, investors, supporters and collaborators in a unique way that will enable young African social entrepreneurs to address some of humanity’s greatest challenges. So, I’m changing the world by providing a platform for young Africans to change the world.

I’ve spent most of my life investing in others. Finally, someone saw fit to invest in me.

Why did you decide to start Common Grounds Production?
In 2007, when I started The Women’s Enterprise Development Initiative (WEDI), I noticed how many young people, particularly young women, contacted me for support for their amazing ideas. Often times, we were not positioned to help them because our target was growth SMEs in certain sectors. I began thinking about how I could help these young innovators get noticed by the right people so they could gain support for their ideas. Common Ground Productions was conceived as the vehicle to make this  happen through a reality TV show I call “BigIdeas.Africa”.

How did you feel when you heard you had been selected as a Tony Elumelu Entrepreneur?
I was actually speechless. I’d followed the results and didn’t see my name and thought, “Alas, I tried. Now back to the drawing board”. But then I got the email announcing I was included in the winners. I then got down on my knees (literally) and thanked God. I’ve spent most of my life investing in others. Finally, someone saw fit to invest in me.

What was the most difficult part about applying for TEEP?
It was actually changing my own mindset. My ancestors are Nigerian, but I was born in America. I’ve spent the last 17 years living in South Africa. I’m also older than most applicants, I’m sure (my children are out of University). Friends encouraged me to apply because of the synergies between TEEP and my media concept. But I thought I’d never make it because I believed I didn’t “fit” the profile.

Why did you decide to come back to Africa and why did you choose to settle in South Africa, instead of Nigeria where your ancestors are from?
In 2001, I was both hit by a speeding car in New York City and almost lost my life on September 11, 2001. After almost dying in the World Trade Center attack, I got the message and decided it was time to return to Africa. I feel safer on the continent.

I had developed a base in South Africa when I worked here as a researcher at the Constitutional Court back in 1998. I’ve also worked closely over the years with some pretty amazing former freedom fighters in South Africa who are my friends and who are really instrumental in my coming back to Africa in the first place.

What has been your number one business challenge and how do you think TEEP will help address it?
My number one business challenge has been finding an experienced media partner to help me produce a pilot. It’s an innovative, interactive media concept that is unlike the average TV show. TEEP not only gives me exposure that helps to attract the right partners, but the process itself forces you to focus and to recommit everyday to making your dream come true. It provides a virtual incubator and networks that include other entrepreneurs that are going through the same changes. So, in addition to everything else it provides, it helps to reduce the loneliness factor that plagues visionaries. You feel that TEEP fellows really do understand you. It’s great!

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What do you expect your business will achieve with the TEEP benefits?
Big Ideas.Africa will win an Emmy Award and will become a global concept that supports young innovators from around the world to launch the big social impact ideas.

What is your vision for WEDI and Common Grounds Production?
Whether it’s WEDI, teaching project finance, BigIdeas.Africa or advising on sustainable city projects, everything I do is about making life better. I use my formidable gifts to serve others in ways that are fun for me, commercially viable and that have maximum positive social impact. With hope, I’m contributing to creating a better world by investing in high impact visionaries.

How do you balance your multiple responsibilities as the founder of two companies and teaching in a university? How do you stay organised?
Balance is an illusion. No matter how much I seek it, it’s always just over the horizon. I cope by eating right, praying (A LOT), meditating regularly and exercising six days per week. My priority in the morning is take care of myself. THEN, I look at who and what else requires my attention. That way, I make sure there’s always a healthy dose of me to go around. I stay organised by sticking to what is important to my primary goals in life and I’ve learned to cut out a lot of the distractions. Saying “No” to invitations to get involved with ventures that take you off track is an acquired skill. I’ve learned it. Focus, focus, focus and PERSIST.

Any words of encouragement or advice to entrepreneurs like yourself?
My recipe for success if based on a version of “P Soup” that I read many years ago in book called Acts of Faith by Iyanla Vanzant. The recipe is: Pray, Plan, Proceed, Pursue AND PERSIST! Starting with prayer is key. Clarity in vision and purpose is a necessary component of resilience. I get clear as to why I’m doing what I’m doing. I trust my Creator for provision that matches the vision. And then I just keep doing what I’m led to do until God delivers on His promises. Faith is really the key to my success. You simply cannot fail using this recipe for success!

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We are sharing the stories of 30+ African women entrepreneurs who are beneficiaries of the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme. and whose ideas can change the world. Follow the TEEPcofoundHER series HERE.

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Janine Roberts: Using Packaging Technology to Empower People

After nine years in a nursing career, Janine Roberts got interested in the packaging industry and chose to take her interest further by getting a diploma in packaging technology. This led her to work with Fair Packers, an outsource food packing company, in 2009, where she was the Managing Director.

Janine’s entrepreneurship journey really began in 2010 when she started her first business, Zimele Packing Solutions, a consulting business in packaging and product development. Unfortunately, that did not work out as planned, so four years after, she closed up shop. Not one to be defeated by failure, Janine gave entrepreneurship another try in 2014 with Ukama Holdings, a social enterprise started with the aim of creating or identifying micro enterprises that act as a supply chain for various services.

Janine is passionate about reducing unemployment in South Africa and helping to ease the daily struggles of children in certain townships, which she does by ploughing some of her time into the Ukama Community Foundation. She loves reading and spending her free time with her family at home or out camping.

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Why did you start Ukama Holdings and what does the company do?
Ukama Holdings was started to address the needs of unemployment in South Africa, as well as cater to the need of small, medium and large companies needing to outsource their production and packing. In South Africa, we have huge unemployment rates. I sincerely feel that solving the unemployment problem lies in alleviating poverty and that this can be done with our unique business model.

Ukama provides contract packaging for customers in a food grade facility using solely micro enterprises as our supply chain. We identify, train, set up, and provide work and premises for micro-enterprises in our business. These micro-enterprises serve as the supply chain who pack products for our customers. Each micro-enterprise owner employs up to five people. In this manner, we have created jobs for over 60 people already. We have over 20 customers who use our services for production and packing of food products, non-food products, sewing, crafts and labeling.

Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I felt that there was a gap in the market for a lot of the niche services we offered. I had over ten years’ experience in the packaging sector and I felt that we could offer an amazing service to clients.

How would Ukama Holdings change the world?
Our business model is unique and sustainable. Not only do we offer a valuable service to other businesses, but socially we are also empowering people and creating jobs. The model is easily scalable and repeatable and makes huge in-roads to massive unemployment problems in Africa. We also enable small businesses to get to market by packing their products for them in a fully accredited food facility. This is something that is expensive and unobtainable to many small businesses.

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What is your biggest business challenge right now and how do you think the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme will help address it?
My most difficult challenge has been raising capital and getting finance in South Africa. I hope the programme will address this through the process of being able to apply for capital and through the new contacts that I will make. With the exposure, networking and funding we will receive, we’ll be able to take our business to a new level in our expansion project.

Any words of encouragement or advice to entrepreneurs like yourself?
Being an entrepreneur takes amazing strength, courage and perseverance. Sometimes it seems that you will never get where you need to be! The thing that has kept me going is my faith, the knowledge that this is my life purpose, and that the journey is worth all the struggles I’ve had to endure. Never give up!

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*To find out more about Ukama Holdings, visit their website and follow on Twitter and Facebook.

**We are sharing the stories of 30+ African women entrepreneurs who are beneficiaries of the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme. and whose ideas can change the world. Follow the TEEPcofoundHER series HERE.