Often when we think of leadership and community involvement, our immediate response is to focus on the largest firms and enterprises in our country or region.
The argument goes, broadly, that these organizations have greater resources and can, therefore, invest more into their local community. What is not given full consideration in these observations is that large organizations have enormous demands on their resources, time and staffing. As such, the ability to make a significant impact in a local community is limited. In addition, given the numerous offices and facilities of a global organization, their involvement, and knowledge of the local community’s needs can be limited (and often related to individual employee involvement that ceases when that specific employee is moved or retires).
What is being suggested here is that smaller firms and organizations can take significant leadership in community involvement and provide the spark of leadership to make real differences, precisely because of their intimate involvement in the life of the communities where they are located.
As an example, we will look at a community outside Cape Town South Africa. My colleague Dr. Gloria Vollmers and I took a group of graduate students on an international field trip in May 2017 and visited the community of Khayelitsha, where 1.2 million people live in an area of 40.2 square kilometers. The name comes from the Xhosa language and generally means “New Home.” It is reportedly the largest and fastest-growing township in South Africa. The poverty is as overwhelming as the metal shacks that constitute housing, yet the entrepreneurship, spirit, and sense of community also are overwhelming.
They practice what is called “Ubuntu,” which loosely translated means “I am, because you are.”
It is part of a longer Zulu phrase that means a person is a person through other people. It is an essential building block of society here and we offer three examples below of very small organizations struggling for survival, but providing leadership and involvement in their community that could be adapted by other organizations globally.
The first place we visited was the “Department of Coffee” and Wongama Balenin, a co-founder of the firm, was our host. The day before our visit, the major facility was vandalized, but you would never have known that from his presentation, enthusiasm and pure joy.
The leaders of the business were very clever. When they first started the business, it was under another name and they could not get into other organizations to solicit business, so the name “Department of Coffee” was born, as it sounded like a governmental agency and they were able to get immediate access to larger organizations. But far more interesting is their deep involvement in the local community via giving muffins to local schools and providing support for additional education, even though they operate on a shoestring budget. Their enthusiasm for their business and for their community is infectious. They recently opened a laundromat and, in order to gain some attention for it, they named the business “Money Laundering.” One of their goals is to provide employment opportunities for others in the community and, of course, to grow their businesses.
The second business we visited was Spinach King, where we were hosted by the founder Lufefe Nomjana. His goal is to educate all on the benefits of healthy eating, and he contributes food, gardening, and farming skills to local schools and to members of the local community. While there, he shared some of his product with us. His infectious grin and his almost missionary-like zeal for his product, his firm and the need to eat healthy foods are hard to visualize but is very very real. In his own words:
“I chose Khayelitsha because I live here and I wanted to do something for the community. There’s a problem with people eating unhealthily and there aren’t affordable healthy options. I wanted to offer a healthy alternative that is nutritious and tastes good.”
Finally, we were able to meet some of the members of Heavenly Quartez, an a cappella singing group that provides musical instruction and equipment to the Khayelitsha community.
What is so impressive about these three organizations is that all very small, all running on shoestring profitability, yet there is deep commitment to their community, and unwavering enthusiasm and creativity. All on this trip were absolutely stunned by these entrepreneurs and their extraordinary involvement and understanding of the needs of their community. It is difficult to describe the conditions of Khayelitsha, and the level of enthusiasm and commitment of these three organizations to the local community.
Perhaps we could learn from these small, struggling businesses in an impoverished area. It would be interesting to have organizations consider “Ubuntu” as an approach to leadership and involvement in their local communities, no matter what the size or resource base of the institution.
-By John F. Mahon, John M. Murphy Chair of International Business Policy and Strategy and Professor of Management at the Maine Business School.