Vusi Thembekwayo loves to talk. He says he will do for talking what Muhammad Ali did for boxing. Ali told the world he was “The greatest”. So does Thembekwayo.
To him, great public speakers, like boxers, are not trained, they are born. His wit is the glue that binds his diverse audiences. John Howard, former Prime Minister of Australia called him the “rock star of public speaking”; global strategist and scenario-planning guru Clem Sunter said he was “simply riveting”; Sir Bob Geldof said “Vusi is a f*cken great speaker,” according to Thembekwayo.
Thembekwayo has always been an overachiever. At 21, he ran a successful consulting firm, then South Africa’s only black-owned Forensic Marketing agency. At 25, he was the youngest director of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, a bourse turning over $1.3 billion a year. At 29, he delivered 214 presentations, in 21 countries charging up to $8,000 a time. At 30, he influences over $300 million in seven companies he holds shares in. His companies operate in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria.
As a child, Thembekwayo studied by candlelight and used to wake up before dawn to prepare for school. His father had started a business with their house as collateral.
“The bank was about to repossess our house so my mother and my siblings had to move in with relatives. We stayed in a small backroom and had to wake up very early, make fire and make porridge to eat,” he says.
“One minute we had a home and were being dropped off at school in our father’s car and the next we were suffering commuting kilometers in taxis to school. That experience shapes how I look at the world and my understanding of risk. I understand that whatever it is you have, tomorrow it could be all gone.”
His father resolved the debt situation but couldn’t escape tragedy. Thieves shot him nine times leaving him to bleed to death at the side.
“This was a very difficult time in my life. My dad and I were best friends. We did everything together and went everywhere together. The only reason I wasn’t with him that day is because my mum was ill and I stayed with her at home when my dad was shot for his cell phone.”
At this moment, a tear forms in Thembekwayo’s eye. “South Africa has a violent past and that narrative continues to find expression in modern South Africa, we condone violence because we find reason to defend why it’s ok to do it and we have a justice system that isn’t sufficiently punitive for people who perpetrate the act. We need to come together as a society to say no matter the reason it is not ok to take a life.”
Left with a single mother, at the age of 15, his big mouth got him into trouble long before it became his fortune. He was forced to take up public speaking as punishment for misbehavior in high school. He was booed off the stage for what everyone thought was a male chauvinistic speech titled: What Women Want.
“The best way to get me to do something is telling me I can’t do it. When they booed me off stage I started working harder to get to where I am,” he says.
Thembekwayo studied for a BCom degree at the University of the Witwatersrand but dropped out because of money. He believes entrepreneurship is practice more than theory.
“Some of the people who get the education are the people who will not move the dial in any meaningful way. The education system in South Africa is and continues to be archaic. I also did a course at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) which was supposed to be a year but took me three years because they didn’t understand how I think. South African business schools are behind on how you educate a Vusi.”
“You don’t need too many things to start a business. Start where you are. South African young people are really challenged. They have access to DSTV and they see the world in a particular way but the reality doesn’t reflect the world they see. You must recognize what’s around you and build with what you have. If you have a vision for the future, it is important to know nobody starts where they end up.”
This is not just advice for him. It is exactly how he started building his fortune after receiving a standing ovation for a speech for which he was paid a mere R35 (less than $3).
“Former president Thabo Mbeki was the keynote speaker at the event and he gave me a hug and endorsed me at that event telling people to give me more work,” he says.
He used the R35 to make phone calls to all the people he met at that event. He says entrepreneurship is starting something that other people don’t see and getting them to see it, believe in it, buy in it and help you build it.
Even when he became a well-known figure, life has not always been milk and honey. When he decided to start his company, My Growth Fund (MGF), it ushered in six of his worst months as an entrepreneur.
Thembekwayo failed to acquire funding for the company. When he had money, in the 2011-2012 financial year, he invested $274,000 in a steel company. Excited, he neglected to do proper due diligence. The investment went into a black hole. There were neither contracts nor legal documents to save him.
“I wasn’t thorough. I didn’t check if the company I was buying into had legacy liability or legacy issues. I was over eager. The entrepreneur convinced me that everything was going to go well, only to find out my money was used to pay off her debts. She had creditors and suppliers who she owed and she did not disclose this to me. She also had the South African Revenue Services coming after her.”
Part of this $274,000 was supposed to pay his own staff.
“I didn’t know what to do. All that I had was gone. What was I going to tell my staff? They also had their own lives and bills. But this situation taught me that if you are honest with people they understand. I told my staff the truth about what had happened and they worked hard, booked me for more speaking jobs and I was able to pay them,” he says.
“I learned an important lesson to take my time. Where you are going is guaranteed. There is no doubt, so don’t rush, follow the process.”
Thembekwayo started over.
“No matter how much you trust the other person when doing an investment, make sure the numbers support it, make sure you cover your basics, and the legal side holds water,” he says.
Today if he buys into a business he moves all the capital and operating capital into a separate business to make sure there is no history to infect the investment. Public speaking is one of the ways he makes money as an entrepreneur.
“Vusi is a very funny guy when he gives his talks. He is always well informed on the subjects he talks about such as business and investment opportunities. I always watch his YouTube videos and follow his advice,” says Thato Mokoena, a South African small business entrepreneur.
Thembekwayo studied by candlelight, his father was brutally killed, business schools didn’t understand him, he was booed off stage, he lost millions, but survived to tell the tale from the stage where he was once scorned.