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From the Flats to social entrepreneurs

For youngsters Brandon Como and Grant Oosterwyk, growing up on the Cape Flats was about economic survival and avoiding gangs. No one talked about university. But they had other ideas – and they changed the trajectory of their and their families’ lives, and their community.

In his 30 years as a policeman in Elsies River on the Cape Flats, UCT PhD candidate Grant Oosterwyk’s father twice survived being shot. Stellenbosch University master’s candidate Brandon Como lived his first seven years in a Valhalla Park shack. The symptoms of poverty and gangsterism were unavoidable.

“We had two choices after school: work at Shoprite/Checkers or Edgars,” said Oosterwyk, whose early quest for independence saw him working part-time for the clothing retailer.

No one talked about university.

“It was never a topic,” said Como. “No one in our road finished school.”

Today Oosterwyk and Como are partners at a start-up in Johannesburg, Atnetplanet SA, a digital agency that’s a spin-off of the European company that has branches in France and Spain. They develop digital marketing strategies for big brands and list Nutella, Barcelona Football Club and Haribo as clients.

Both learnt early (although they met much later in life) that education was the way through and out for them and their communities.

The odds were daunting. Of the 1 500 pupils Como began school with, only 600 started grade 8. By grade 12, 120 remained. Of the five who qualified for university, he was the only one who graduated.

“People thought I was smart. But I was only smarter than those who didn’t study. I worked extremely hard because I wanted it [opportunities] more.”

Mental jog

Oosterwyk’s awakening was similar. Previously head boy of Elsies River High School, he recalls how the guest speaker at his valedictory emphasised the value of education. She was working on her PhD and he wondered what it would be like to be called ‘doctor’.

“We attended university open days, but for kids from the Flats these were more like fun days. No one really thought of university as an option, certainly not ‘the big names’ like UCT or Stellenbosch. And when you got back to school you didn’t really have any further engagement with the teachers regarding this.”

But the valedictory speaker had given him the mental jog he needed. He got involved with Reconstructed Living Lab (RLabs) founder, Marlon Parker. Athlone-based RLabs is a community-driven organisation and its values of hope, change, learning, innovation and community struck a chord in the young man. Parker became his mentor.

“One day he asked me, ‘What makes you different from anyone else?’ I had to find that answer in myself.”

For Oosterwyk it was technology. He got a bachelor’s degree in information technology at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and interned at MMI Holdings.

“But that wasn’t where I wanted to be. I knew I could do more. I started challenging myself.”

In 2012 MMI Holdings sponsored his studies at UCT where he did his master’s degree in information systems. Five years later he was ready to start a PhD in the same discipline. (His thesis is a study of the risks involved when moving from an intuitive decision-making culture to a big data decision-making culture within the private sector.)

“I remember the day I told my mom and dad I’d been accepted at UCT. My dad just smiled and said, ‘Wow, that is big.’ ”

Good policy

Como also set goals early.

“When we moved from a shack to a house, things got better. I was top student in primary and high school. I wanted to change people’s lives through good policy.”

At Stellenbosch University he studied international relations, politics and economics. Elected to the Students’ Representative Council (SRC), he found an immediate opportunity to make a difference to the community by working to change policies.

“It was my way of ensuring that the students coming up after me would have a better student life.”

After graduating he worked in student affairs at Stellenbosch at the height of the Fees Must Fall protests. Como loved the job.

“I was part of #FMF and part of the negotiations during a rough time, when the university managed the transition with minimal damage [to the campus] and where students and staff got together to speak about how we could work together.

“It’s always been about how I can use my position, on the SRC, in business or in my community, to change policies to better society.”

Como is the quintessential social entrepreneur.

“I like travelling, whether with friends to build a school in Mozambique or to start a community project in Namibia.”

Paying it forward

After Oosterwyk completed his master’s degree, he landed a job at a large IT company and success followed. But he wasn’t happy.

“I wondered, is this guy from the Cape Flats supposed to be working in a corporate environment, working towards a pension? Or is he supposed to be making a change in his own life and within the community?”

When the Atnetplanet opportunity came up in Johannesburg, Oosterwyk sensed a way to marry entrepreneurship with community. Meeting Como, he found a kindred spirit. But the Joburg entrepreneurial scene was hard to break into. It was all hustle and networking and no one identified with the gritty stories of the “boys from the Cape Flats”.

Como said, “Grant was passionate about using IT to improve people’s lives. I saw the viral effect social media has and the conscious way it brings about change; we do this by mentoring in the digital space.”

The company is heavily involved in social initiatives, partnering with WeThinkCode to provide bursaries to talented students at programming schools, as well as internships and employment opportunities. It’s their way of paying it forward; transferring valuable coding and programming skills to young people who share their ethos of building communities, from the inside out.

“We want to build a diverse South African company of people with the best skills across society.”

One of their students offers a case in point. He is white and grew up in Krugersdorp but was unable to complete his engineering degree because his parents couldn’t afford the fees. Como and Oosterwyk took him on because of what they saw in him. He was hungry to grow.

Como said, “We want people who are dedicated and hard-working, willing to learn, grow their skills and become integrated into their business model, willing to change their own lives and develop an entrepreneurial and business sense, irrespective of where they come from. We call them conscious programmers.”

Oosterwyk added, “We get really excited when we walk out of a meeting and we have a community project [to work on]. Not only can we build their social media and digital strategy, but we can put the organisation, NGO or NPO’s brand out there.”

They hope their story will inspire others who walk a similar road.

“Our success is not our success alone,” said Como. “That inspiration is needed for the next generation, not just on the Cape Flats, but in society.”

He has seen that chain reaction in his own family. His brother and sister followed him into tertiary studies. A cousin whose parents were illiterate went to university.

“It took one person in the family who said: ‘Guys, let’s make it.’ ”

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