Move over Zuckerberg – meet Liebmann and Rorke!

Millennials are not dreamers, they’re thinkers and do-ers. And they’re neither interested nor stymied by red tape and governance. Jonathan Liebmann, founder of Propertuity and Raelene Rorke, WEF Global Shaper, Co-Founder of SpringAGE are the quintessential manifestation of these ‘new wave’ virtues. Listen to their inspiring stories of innovation and success. These young entrepreneurs really are Africa’s future. – CP

GUGULETHU MFUPHI: Well, as a young and growing Continent it is very important that we take charge of our destiny and not only encourage but celebrate young people, creating and seizing opportunities in Africa. Joining us now in the studio to discuss Youth Entrepreneurship are Johnathan Liebemann, founder of Propertuity and Raelene Rorke with Global Shaper, and co-founder of SpringAGE and former Miss Teen SA here in South Africa, back in 2004. Johnathan, let’s kick off with you. Your investments are probably best known – being the Maboneng Precinct. That’s an interesting idea, but where did that stem from?

Raelene Rorke
Raelene Rorke

JONATHAN LIEBMANN: I’ve been travelling all over the world after finishing school, and when I got back here I was living in the suburbs and I kind of felt really uncomfortable, so I started to think about reconnecting with the city. When I was 24 years old I bought my first building in Maboneng, which was called Arts and Main. That was a collection of artist studios and creative office spaces, and that really was the catalyst for the regeneration of a much bigger idea, which became the Maboneng Precinct.

GUGULETHU MFUPHI: Well, clearly this needed some funding.

JONATHAN LIEBMANN: Yes, I was lucky enough to get some really, good private funding. Then over the last couple of years the banks have started coming on board, so we got a lot of money from Futuregrowth, which is a division of Old Mutual. Also TUHF, which is the Trust for Urban Housing Finance – they operate a lot in the inner city – and then we’re getting a lot of money now from Nedbank, so the banks are starting to support us, which really helps.

ALEC HOGG: You also mentioned (off air) Douw Steyn’s sons are coming to the party.

JONATHAN LIEBMANN: Yes.

ALEC HOGG: That’s an interesting move.

Maboneng
Maboneng

JONATHAN LIEBMANN: They’ve come on board very recently, we actually signed a deal with them last week, and it is great to get some new investment.

ALEC HOGG: Especially them because their family has got so big internationally now.

JONATHAN LIEBMANN: Yes, so they’ve invested in two of our buildings. One is called Hallmark House and the other is called Market Up. If that goes well we’ll start looking at more opportunities with them.

ALEC HOGG: Jonathan – and I know we’re going to bring Raelene in, in a moment – there was a guy called Adam Fleming, who took some big bets in the Johannesburg CBD but at the other side of town.

JONATHAN LIEBMANN: Yes, sure.

ALEC HOGG: They don’t seem to have come off as well as yours has.

JONATHAN LIEBMANN: Yes. His company is called Johannesburg Land Company and they bought a lot of the old, really, iconic buildings in the middle of the city. For example, the old Stock Exchange was one of their acquisitions. I think they’ve got a different strategy. I think they’ve got a ‘buy and hold’ strategy. I think they’ve done some good things and any money that’s come back into the city has helped contribute to the bigger regeneration plan.

GUGULETHU MFUPHI: Raelene to come to you, you’ve no doubt managed to break a lot of the stereotypes associated with former beauty queens (if I can refer to you as such). Tell us a little bit more about SpringAGE. Reading through your website, you mention that its people, ideas, and finding solutions, which is clearly something that Jonathan and his colleagues are doing.

RAELENE RORKE: Right, so I guess we, as young people – myself and SpringAGE – find an opportunity in getting young people around a decision-making table and we know young people are leaders, not of tomorrow but now. We’ve got ideas and we’ve got solutions. In South Africa, we’ve got the National Development Plan, so it all stems from how we come around the table and be part of the solutions. In SpringAGE we create that platform, where we get young people with some of the solutions in the room with Government and corporate, and we start innovating. It can be across different industries. We’ve worked in agriculture, where a challenge or a project is put in front of us and we’ll come up with five or six different innovative ideas that then can be funded. However, it really is about getting the idea and the brain trust of young people to create some of the solutions that our country and continent need.

GUGULETHU MFUPHI: Where are you finding these innovators? I think there’s a perception that young people in South Africa just want jobs and security.

RAELENE RORKE: Right and that was one of the motivators for us to do it because not all young people are helpless. There’s a really, good constituency of young people who are working in the JSE. They are graduates, they’re professionals, they’re entrepreneurs, and they are just looking at that platform to be part of something bigger. We are finding them at the World Economic Global Shapers as well. We’ve got over 300 hubs around the world – Brightest Young Minds and the One Young Goal Forum – and so there’s a few nodes of these filtered, really awesome young people, who are wanting to make a difference and, in fact have the space and the influence to actually do it, so they can actually have a good bias towards doing it and not just talking about it.

ALEC HOGG: This one is for both of you. When we have a look at the unemployment figures, people of your age group are right at the top of the list – people you know and people that you engage with. Are they losing hope that they’re ever going to be able to get jobs or ever be able to actually, earn an income themselves?

RAELENE RORKE: I think there’s a narrative as well. Some of them don’t want jobs. Some of them actually just want to create stuff as well, so there is a huge group of young people who have studied and graduates who don’t have jobs, but there’s a huge group who are saying, ‘actually, I’ve got this thing that I want to get started’.

ALEC HOGG: But your friends. I’m not talking about ‘them’. I’m talking about your friends’ people that you know and socialise with. What are they thinking? Are they staying or are they leaving or are they picking up money from their parents to start new things?

RAELENE RORKE: I think they are starting new things. I think there are difficulties and some challenges in them doing it. My friends are certainly starting things. Many of my friends are moonlighting as well, so the few that are in great jobs are, kind of wanting to do something more meaningful. This is this ‘youth led’ and this is this millennial kind of generation we find ourselves in so there is hope. I think that they know the situation is what it is, but I think they want to do stuff here. They do see the opportunities of what needs to be built in South Africa and Africa. The whole world is looking at Africa and they see that, so it’s just about ‘where, how, and can I be part of it’, so there’s a lot of energy.

JONATHAN LIEBMANN: I must say my experience with young entrepreneurs has been quite different, and that Maboneng has really been founded on that group. Especially in our retail category, we must have had about 60 to 70 new businesses started, over the last five years (just in that category), and then in our office space we must have another 120 businesses, of which half of those were start-ups, so I’m seeing a lot of really good young entrepreneurs coming through. I think that the private sector can play a huge role in facilitating this and, interestingly, landlords can too. Most landlords are really interested in signing leases with big corporates, whether they’re on an office level or a retail level. What we do is we take the spaces, we chop them up, and we engage with those small entrepreneurs.

ALEC HOGG: That’s interesting because the broad narrative (you used that horrible word, sorry) in South Africa, is Socialism. We have a Government that is moving us more and more towards exactly the opposite of what you are finding from the young people. Do they care about politics?

JONATHAN LIEBMANN: Look, I think the people that I generally engage with aren’t very interested in politics. They’re interested in about getting new businesses started, about creating employment themselves, and taking matters into their own hands.

RAELENE RORKE: I think that, from our group, there’s a consciousness around what’s happening and politics plays a role in what’s happening in the country. Are they getting stuck in the politics of it? Probably not, and I suppose I agree with Jonathan in saying, they want to get on with stuff. They want to create stuff and we have to change some systems for them to be able to do that quickly. If we ignore politics I think, and certain policies in place, we are not going to do that fast enough, so we can’t and they get that.

GUGULETHU MFUPHI: That makes me think of the natural question as to what is keeping them here then. What’s leading that drive for them to stay here and not pursue other opportunities abroad?

RAELENE RORKE: I think simply because there are opportunities here. If we just look at the work that is happening in Maboneng, it is so visible. When we see the plan for our country and we see there’s a lot of funding in the country – I’m not saying it is easy to get to it -, but when we see that there are policies in place for young people to get money, when we see that there are conversations happening about investment, and when we see what the world is saying about South Africa, the opportunities are here. It’s quite a hard one to just say ‘I’m upping and leaving’. Where are you going to go – Europe? Where are you going to go and what are you going to start there? Whereas, it is here.

JONATHAN LIEBMANN: I think it is also much easier to operate in your local environment, where you’ve got a bit of a network. People always think that the grass is greener on the other side but I think when you get there, you’ll find it very difficult.

ALEC HOGG: Well, we have something called the Home Bias in Economics and what that means is that you put up with a lot of nonsense to stay at home, and that’s an obvious issue here. Last question: a guy called Don Tapscott, who’s a very well-known thinker, internationally, has just done a research in the United States of 11.000 young people. The 11.000 young people have come with a universal view that the governance systems, in the world, are not really working, i.e. ‘I’m a politician. I sell you hot air. You vote for me once. Five years later, I’ll come and sell you some more hot air’. He says, in America the young people are saying they don’t like this anymore. Is that something to share here?

JONATHAN LIEBMANN: For me, Maboneng has been almost all privately driven, so I think that demonstrates how the private sector is going to stand up and lead the situation and we don’t really rely on the Government to take us forward. I think that’s what a lot of young people are seeing – that it’s time for them to stand up, rather than the Government.

GUGULETHU MFUPHI: Maybe that closing comment is from you, as to what you would like the Government to do.

RAELENE RORKE: Right, well our sole purpose is to get Government and young people in the room together. That is what we do. The work, money, and budgets that they put in place: we understand that young people have a role to play in using it. It’s kind of a thing that we won’t give up on but we won’t be stifled and slowed down by them. I think there’s a tolerance, if you like, and an accommodation. It is more ‘team South Africa’ than just Government; young people/private just won’t work. We are saying that Government is actually listening and we are finding hope in it. Government is listening to us. We are running Spring breaks and innovating for different parts of Government; not as fast as we’d like to but they are starting to open up because they understand how big this market is.