Activism is not a linear path, and while it is often boxed into the pursuit of political freedom, we have non-conventional activists who dominate boardrooms, advocating for the advancement of the most elusive form of freedom: Financial Freedom. Born to activist parents, Olwethu Mhlana carried on the tradition of militant reform and placed herself front and centre of the 4th industrial revolution.
The South African Tech entrepreneur based in Cape Town, Western Cape, is passionate about STEM [Science Technology Engineering & Math] education and BIPOC [Black Indigenous And People Of Colour] community empowerment.
The founder of Lulibo Market connects customers across South Africa with high-quality, locally sourced products from black and indigenous-owned brands ranging from beauty, homeware, toys and more, but this is the tip of her entrepreneurial iceberg.
Beyond contributing to the emergent culture of purpose-driven consumerism at the front end, Ms Mhlana provides backend support to creatives, entrepreneurs, freelancers and brand owners with her second business, The Collective. The agency serves as a brand directory for brand construction, connection and fostering of strategic partnerships that feed into the Marketplace, as mentioned earlier.
With her sights set on bringing Silicon Valley to our shores, if not creating our valley altogether, Moziak caught up with Olwethu to talk about her endeavours, plans, and everything else concerning her businesses and who she is.
For those who don’t know who you are, could you please introduce yourself and take us through how you ventured into tech entrepreneurship?
Olwethu: Oh, goodness. The most daunting question! Haha. Well, before I am anything else, I am the daughter of activist parents. For those who know me, I think that explains so much of who I am. Entrepreneurship wasn’t a path I ever envisioned for myself. But in many ways, it has become my way of merging my passion for STEM [Science Technology Engineering & Math] into a path of finding meaningful ways to impact, reimagine and build a sustainable digital landscape where Black and indigenous communities have access to the market, are supported and elevated, and have the resources to start, grow, sustain, or pivot their businesses.
Your website is highly user-friendly and functionally efficient. Did you use the many online templates for creating the website, or did you do the coding and design yourself?
Olwethu: It was really important to me to create a platform that wasn’t intimidating to navigate and is also visually appealing. I wanted functionality, accessibility, and customers to essentially enjoy their shopping experience. I worked with a very talented web developer, Granville, who was able to create something from all the ideas I had swarming in my head.
Do you also collaborate with other BIPOC delivery/courier companies to facilitate the delivery of products we buy from the store?
Olwethu: I collaborate with BIPOC in all the ways I possibly can. It’s my favourite part of being an entrepreneur, being able to collaborate and create magic with people who understand how important it is for us to lift each other up.
As an educator, you create STEM education programs. Given the importance of technological literacy and access issues, does this include assisting government schools?
Olwethu: As an educator, I design Coding and Robotics curricula for schools. I also partner with educational institutions and NGOs to help build inclusive and accessible EdTech programs, create engaging after-school initiatives, address digital literacy issues, and empower educators through coding workshops. The objective is to have these programs as widely accessible as possible. And I work with equally passionate partners in ensuring that it not only reaches government schools but also benefits the communities those schools are in.
You are also the creator-in-chief of The Collective. Could you tell us more about that and how it serves the community?
Olwethu: One issue that became a recurring theme in my journey with Lulibo Market was how many entrepreneurs were winging it. I did, too, for a while. But nothing is quite as valuable as a solid strategy, partners that can propel you to the next step, and a community that not only believes in your product but believes in you. Unfortunately, we don’t get a handbook when we start off and sometimes learn the hard way. The Collective is a way to provide entrepreneurs with that support, facilitate their growth, and cultivate partnerships and communities that ultimately allow small business owners to scale.
There’s a trend among BIPOC where the phrase “Support Black Businesses” is used as a marketing hook, which unfortunately drives sympathy-orientated consumerism more than quality customer service. What is your opinion of the use of this phrase in the marketing of a BIPOC business?
Olwethu: I think there will always be a heightened awareness of Blackness in almost every industry. It is a sad reality for a lot of us because it means we are held to a different standard than other business owners. We are scrutinized more. We are given fewer opportunities and expected to outperform the next guy for half the recognition or compensation. Being proud that you are pursuing your dreams, regardless of those obstacles, is nothing to be ashamed of. I am an entrepreneur, and my journey has not been smooth sailing. I am also a Black woman, and I am proud to say that with my chest. It does not mean I expect you to support me because of those qualities. In fact, in many cases, people don’t support us because of it. But my pride and Blackness remain unshaken.
A little birdie told me there’s a major project that you are working on. Does it tie into The Collective or Lulibo Marketplace in any way? What can you share about the project?
Olwethu: I absolutely can! Right now, we are busy with a complete rebrand that will merge the two tenets (Lulibo Market and The Collective) into a one-stop hub for small business owners to learn and thrive and for consumers to support and champion. It will be a bigger, better marketplace. And we have some of our own strategic partners coming on board to help see this vision through.
Our South African cultures are ones where intention, purpose and prayer go into naming things and people. Please translate Lulibo for non-Xhosa speakers and share your prayer for how you’d like Lulibo Marketplace to evolve in the next decade?
Olwethu: Lulibo translates as the first ripe fruit of a tree. To me, it signifies how many of our young entrepreneurs, change-makers, and powerhouses are the first of their lineage to experience prosperity. They are the first ripe fruit of their tree, and with the help of the collective, they will not be the last.