The mind of a mentor: Insights from SA’s leading innovators

The Mentorship Challenge connects people across geographical, cultural and industrial boundaries. And this is all thanks to the time, talent and wisdom of the mentors featured on the show and online. We wanted to unpack their insights more fully, because ultimately, it’s all about the meetings, moments, milestones – and mistakes! – that led them to the leaders they are today.

And those leaders don’t come humbler or more driven than Thato Moatlhodi. When Thato saw the scourge of nyaope addiction ravaging his Sowetan community, he couldn’t sit by and do nothing. The Great Poroza Football Development Academy was borne of the desire to get addicts hooked on the natural ‘highs’ provided by the beautiful game of football: ‘Let’s fight drugs through football’ is their rallying cry. He’s since partnered with the likes of Mamelodi Sundowns FC for regular face-offs, has ongoing outreach programmes, and has gone way beyond sports, to upskilling kids through robotics and other future-fit initiatives (#SchoolLikeMe).

For Thato, purpose is everything, and that’s what drives him daily. We sat him down and asked him to answer a few choice questions.

What is your understanding of the term ‘mentorship’?

Mentorship, quite simply, is about guidance. It’s taking everything you’ve learnt in a particular industry and sharing your knowledge with someone else, with the aim and intent to guide that person.

What, in your view, is required to forge a successful mentoring relationship?

I think it’s about the mutual commitment to make time for it. If both mentor and mentee stick to a scheduled time to chat and catch up, it makes the mentorship process really worthwhile.

Tell us about the earliest memories of mentorship in your life – with specific reference to the people who had the greatest influence on your development.

Sadly – and strangely enough – I never knew what mentorship was until after college. But my earliest mentor was probably my late cousin. He was always so willing to impart knowledge to me of what he had naturally taught himself, and that was a real blessing. From trying to replicate photographs of 80s celebs, to drawing images of cartoon characters from an old M-Net TV guide – those were the defining moments that inspired my decision to pursue a creative career.

Looking back on your life, what changes would you make and what would you do differently? What would you say to your younger self?

I would say to myself, ‘never underestimate the little opportunities’. I say this because I was once offered a weekend job on a commercial radio station, which I just didn’t take seriously. Now, ironically, I constantly get remarks from people about how my voice would be suited for radio! Note to self: the little opportunities are usually an indication of the prospect of something bigger.

The second thing I would say to my younger self would be to fall in love with the process, not the result. Too often we obsess about being a hot-shot award-winning creative director, for example, but we forget to focus on the process of getting there.

If you could pick anyone in the world to mentor you today, who would that ‘fantasy’ mentor be?

I would definitely pick Michael Jordan. He retired from the NBA so many years ago, but he has built such a powerful brand for himself that even today his brand remains both a reinvention and a classic – all at the same time!

What legacy would you like to leave in your lifetime?

A legacy of ‘each one, teach one’. I want to leave a legacy of ego-less leadership. I want to serve as a thought leader for successful social entrepreneurs who aim to develop the African continent as a whole.

What does it take to develop an entrepreneurial, innovative mindset?

It takes someone who is willing to challenge themselves enough to take that first step towards realising that dream that has always frightened them. Because we all have that big dream inside us that truly frightens us – but we tend to procrastinate when we have to go for it.

What changes would you like to see in our education system (pre-primary through to post-matric) to make it more supportive of disruptive, entrepreneurial thinking?

Our foundation runs a STEM robotics programme to improve the quality of education in a creative way, using a Lego-like block-based platform. Robotics is typically reserved for private and former model C schools, so we took a disruptive approach and set ourselves the task of improving maths and science in township schools. More and more programmes like this are needed, where teachers are upskilled to run classes, and kids are exposed to STEM subjects. And this will naturally inspire them to improve their overall academic performance.

What role can corporates, SMEs and NGOs play in rebuilding South Africa, and how can they make a meaningful impact in the communities that need this most?

Not enough SMEs are collaborating with NGOs – and that thinking has to change. Corporates, SMEs and NGOs need to embrace collaborative opportunities and stop operating in silos. The impact of such a mind shift could boost our economy phenomenally. But it requires dedicated cross-pollination.

What advice would you give a passionate young person who wants to start their own business in today’s economic climate?

There’s no harm in trying something until it succeeds. When you are young, you have the time. So, learn to start with what you have, and learn something about the business you are in, so that you perfect the process, while you grow. 

We’re hoping these mentoring dialogues will deliver some meaningful food for thought for you to digest, and that they’ll inspire both mentors and mentees to join the challenge.

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