As a young and naïve teenager growing up in Mdantsane, East London, in the ’90s and heavily influenced by the black American consciousness of the likes of Tupac and the Notorius B.I.G, Mtshizana found himself mixed up with the wrong crowd.
Things came to a head when at the age of 16 he was involved in a gang fight that left him seriously injured when he was stabbed in the left eye and needed to have 37 stitches.
Mtshizana’s lengthy stay in hospital gave him the opportunity to reflect on his life and the choices he’d been making, and he made the decision to turn his life around.
At the age of 17, he started his first business, called ‘Tile with a professional choice’, a tile-laying business that he ran on the side with the help of referrals he received from CTM. Within that first year of operation, his little side-business attracted a buyer who offered him R20 000 to take over the business and its name.
Mtshizana says he used this money as seed capital to launch a clothing range that he aptly named Mara, which stands for Made Alone Ride Alone – ironically also his gang nickname.
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His range of T-shirts became an instant hit with young white teens who he says identified with the graffiti design and the MARA message. And before he knew it, Mtshizana went into a joint venture with the National Converter Industry (NCI) which helped him manufacture his clothes.
But, with the boom of Chinese imports undercutting the local textile industry, the NCI was forced to close down and Mtshizana had to shelve the brand.
He decided to start again by relocating his family to Gauteng to establish Mara Communications, a corporate communications, publications and branding company which he started to develop an educational youth comic book.
This led to him being offered a full-time job as head of innovation at media agency The Firehouse in 2008.
He had a cushy job, drawing a decent salary, but a near fatal accident a couple of years later once again made Mtshizana take stock of his life.
Sitting next to his sports car that was wrapped around a pole, he noticed a construction sign of a man digging. And in that moment he says it became clear to him that had a higher purpose in life and that’s how Keep Digging, a social entrepreneurship enterprise, was born.
Bring me your child. Let’s mentor him or her and create an entrepreneur – not just a tenderpreneur, but a social entrepreneur. Once they are able to identify their niche, they will be able to assist and be active within their communities and in this way they keep paying it forward
“I believe that it was God telling me to move on, and that’s what I did,” he says.
“I took my life story and turned it into a business model where I could talk [to] and assist people… to say ‘go out there and keep digging, don’t settle’. So I started a publication called Keep Digging.”
The Keep Digging movement is about encouraging youth and community development through social entrepreneurship in the hope of tackling the high youth unemployment rate.
“As Keep Digging, I say bring me your child. Let’s mentor him or her and create an entrepreneur – not just a tenderpreneur, but a social entrepreneur. Once they are able to identify their niche, they will be able to assist and be active within their communities and in this way they keep paying it forward and develop the next generation of social entrepreneurs,” he says.
Fourteen years after abandoning the Mara brand to focus on his other business interests, Mtshizana’s son, Mara, is a self-taught designer who has now taken over the baton from his father.
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Through his designs, Mara recently raised R3 500 to help bail out students arrested for participating in Fees Must Fall protests.
His advice to budding entrepreneurs is to understand the reason why they are starting businesses and to find a deeper purpose in what they are doing.
“If you lack that passion and you call yourself an entrepreneur, then you’re in trouble because entrepreneurship is all about a spiritual journey, persistence and never giving up on your dreams,” he says.
Having received a scholarship, Mtshizana will be heading to the UK next year to study towards an MBA at Oxford University and he’s hoping to raise funds overseas to keep his vision alive and positively impact more of South Africa’s youth.