Techpreneur Rapelang Rabana

Pragmatic and forward-thinking, Rapelang Rabana is a business intellectual with uncanny prescience. This techpreneur has never been one to stay in her lane – and she’s reaping the rewards of her boldness

Rabana’s raising the stakes of Africa’s involvement in education and learning through technology. She has an impressively long list of accomplishments for someone so young: a former World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Shaper and curator of the Cape Town Hub, she was also one of the youngest Grand Jurors for the UN’s World Summit Awards and is an ambassador for the same programme, as well as a 2007 Endeavour “High-Impact” Entrepreneur.

Her most recent honour was being selected as a 2017 WEF Young Global Leader. “I’m thrilled to have been chosen,” she says. “The WEF has been amazing for my career because I’ve met people who share my outlook, passion and commitment.”

GETTING TO THE MONEY

Always proactive, rather than passive, Rabana’s response to problems is to seek solutions – which is why she’s also involved in private equity. “I didn’t want to be 40, sitting around and complaining about the lack of funding for techpreneurs. I joined Nisela Capital and I’m starting with the basics, learning how to build up a general private equity fund to gain insights into how I can build up a successful tech fund. Very little has changed since I was looking for funding 12 years ago. Most techpreneurs don’t understand how venture capital funding works. We see the investors as stumbling blocks to the finance, but we have to understand life from the other side of the table.”

Nisela Capital – an advisory, asset management and private equity firm – has several years of investment banking and transactional experience in sub-Saharan Africa. The team has a solid track record, having previously invested over $100 million in the subcontinent and advised on more than R20 billion worth of transactions.

“It’s been a tough journey, but I drive myself more if there’s lots on my plate,” says Rabana. “It would have been easy to stay in my tech comfort zone, but it’s important to have a diverse range of skills. I’ve learnt a great deal since last November, when I had only about 5% of the 60% industry knowledge I have today. I see myself one day running a successful tech fund – and this is how I’ll get there.”

GUIDED BY INSTINCT

While Rabana seems to have the Midas touch, she’s humble about her success. “I’m still surprised, because all I did was trust my instincts regarding what I wanted to do and believe that my view of the world was valid. I had no idea it would bring such significant rewards,” she says.

“For me, it’s about having greater self-understanding. There are people who are far smarter than I am and with more financial and social capital. Some of my peers are capable of doing anything, but they aren’t sure how to proceed. That indicates a lack of clarity or self-direction. Without real motivation and understanding of your purpose, you won’t succeed.”

Her innate altruism, confidence and enquiring mind have always underpinned her innovative projects. Fresh out of the University of Cape Town (UCT) with a degree in computer and business science, she and some of her peers hit gold in 2006 with their start-up venture, Yeigo, which developed some of the world’s earliest mobile VoIP applications.

“Yeigo was the first expression of what we Africans can build for ourselves. We wanted to enable cheaper calls on our cellphones, because that’s what had impacted us personally as students. No-one told us to do it or gave us a gold star or pat on the back. However, without internal self-validation, we wouldn’t have been able to keep going.”

The company was later acquired by the international Telfree Group, a pioneering telecoms operator.

Rabana stayed on as the Global Head of the organisation’s R&D, but eventually left to follow her passion for education and learning. She spent the next six months “just breathing and sleeping” she says. “I’d had no idea how tired I was. I registered Rekindle Learning, but I wasn’t sure about what direction to take, so I did some random things – consulting, speaking engagements and travelling – until I could find the clarity I needed. I was also working with the WEF, which gave me a lot of bandwidth to explore those opportunities. That was a really important phase, as I didn’t want to jump from one business to the next.”