- Player: Xolani Mtshizana
- Company: Mara Communication, Keep Digging Africa
- Launched: 2006 and 2008
At 16, Xolani Mtshizana learnt a harsh lesson: life doesn’t always turn out the way you planned.
Sometimes, you need to let go of old dreams to make way for new goals. By 17, he had sold his first business. By 22, he was named Absa’s entrepreneur of the year and sent to Paris. By 29 he had left the world of entrepreneurship and was a high-rolling ad exec – until another of life’s tough lessons caught up with him.
Today, he is the founder of Keep Digging, an organisation that focuses on inspiring and fostering the youth and entrepreneurs in South Africa.
Letting go of the old
Growing up in the Eastern Cape, Xolani learnt from an early age the importance of being self-employed. While still in school he worked part-time at CTM selling tiles, until a poor economy led to retrenchments. Part-time employees were the first to go.
Refusing to be daunted by the loss of much-needed income, the budding entrepreneur let his contacts at CTM know that he was available to lay tiles and do grouting. Since CTM didn’t offer this service, it was only natural for the tile salesmen to point clients Xolani’s way. Within months he had a fully functional network and his business was off the ground. He would sell this business by the time he was 17.
But, while he was running his part-time business and attending school, tragedy struck. “I loved fashion and pageants,” he recalls. “At this time in my life I was entering – and often winning – every local pageant I heard about. I planned to be Mr South Africa eventually.” But fate had other ideas. A local gang member stabbed Xolani in the eye. Three months of recovery later and a school year lost, Xolani emerged from hospital with the clear understanding that his pageant dreams were over.
Finding new dreams
That didn’t mean he couldn’t find new dreams though. The sale of his tile-laying business gave him enough money to launch Mara, a local clothing apparel business. He couldn’t be in pageants any more, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be involved in the pageant world.
“While in hospital I had read about the launch of FUBU in the US, and I was inspired. Our youth were wearing international skating and surfing brands, and I decided it was time to give them a local alternative – an African brand that wasn’t traditional clothing, but spoke to the youth. I used my connections in the pageant world to really connect with my target market.”
Not yet out of his teens, Xolani was still trying to matriculate and launch a business at the same time. His peers thought he was crazy — Pringle in South Africa? It would never work. Except that it did, and as the money began to accumulate in his bank account, Absa began to take notice of their young client, eventually nominating him for their National Entrepreneur of the Year prize.
“Going to Paris was a big eye-opener for me,” he recalls. “It was my first real exposure to the power of branding, and I realised I didn’t only want to make clothes – my real passion was creating a brand.”
But, despite a growing brand, a strong manufacturing partner and a prestigious award, Mara would not be immune to the devastation that the influx of Chinese goods wreaked on the local textile market. Within two years of returning home from Paris, National Converter Industry (NCI), (the company that held the licence to manufacture Bodyglove in South Africa) was forced to close. Since NCI also manufactured Mara apparel, the brand was hit hard. By this time however Xolani had focused on building a Mara brand, over and above clothing, which included training himself in the InDesign and Adobe graphic design platforms.
“Losing the factory was a blow. My skills set had really grown, but we couldn’t stay in the Eastern Cape. I took my wife and child and moved to Joburg.”
From entrepreneur to exec
Once in Joburg Xolani started from scratch. His entrepreneurial dreams were not over, but he needed to support his family. He joined the local CTM while he figured out what to do next. His branding experience with Mara, his focus on the youth and township troubles, and his newfound love of design led him to a printing house. He wanted to start an educational youth comic book, Gulova, and he needed a company that could print it for him. The printer hired him, and agreed to launch the comic book. Only three issues ran, but it was enough for The Firehouse media agency to notice Xolani, his passion and his talents, and he was head-hunted in short order.
By 2008 he was a high-flying executive, driving a sports car and enjoying his late twenties. It took a car accident to pull his life back into sharp focus. “It’s amazing how quickly we can lose focus,” he admits.
“I was always willing to be humble and put in the work, but a few years of ease and good money meant I had forgotten my passions. Sitting on the side of the road, next to a smashed sports car, I realised that I needed to get back to those passions. I needed to keep digging. I am a passionate advocate of South Africa and our youth, and I had lost sight of that.”
Xolani resigned there and then, and got Mara Communications, which he had launched two years earlier, back off the ground. With a focus on corporate communications, publications and branding, Mara pays the bills. Keep Digging Africa, which was formed at the same time, is Xolani’s social enterprise.
“Through corporate sponsorships we are able to educate the youth through our magazine, and develop their entrepreneurial awareness.” Xolani also drew the attention of Monash University, which has since given him a bursary for an economics and politics degree. “I’m always looking for ways to improve myself,” he admits. “It’s what ‘keep digging’ means. Never give up.”
The idea for ‘Keep Digging’ comes from a photo of Madiba which was taken at Robben Island before I was born. A tall, thin man, leaning on a spade, the image spoke volumes to me. I saw a man who kept digging his way out of oppression, until finally our country was liberated.
This is a vital message for our youth.
You need to always keep digging, and working towards your goals. No one is going to solve all of our problems for us, and township kids need to understand this. Populist rhetoric isn’t going to put bread on your table. The only person who can do that is you, and the only way to do it is to keep digging. Put in the work, look for opportunities — recognise them and be willing to make the most of them. Don’t expect things to just fall into your lap.