Q&A with Gina Levy on UCT Upstarts:
Creating a Culture of Innovation on Campus
By Zarreen Kamalie
Gina Levy is one of the social innovators behind UCT Upstarts, the University of Cape Town’s Social Innovation Challenge. UCT Upstarts is a 20-week program designed to encourage social entrepreneurship on campus, with multidisciplinary teams of students getting together to create something to change the face of not only South Africa, but also potentially Africa.
Gina is an accomplished social entrepreneur based in Cape Town and is the founder of South African based company, ‘Supernews’. In this interview, she discusses her role within UCT Upstarts and its potential in shaping a new Africa and a culture towards social innovation.
Social Missions: Tell me about UCT upstarts , how you were approached, your role within the initiative, and how it operates:
Gina Levy: UCT Upstarts has been nurtured out of many ideas and platforms. It is, firstly, a joint initiative between my platform called SuperStage and the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which runs out of the Graduate School of Business, under UCT, and the Vice-Chancellor’s office. So theidea is that we wanted to create a culture of innovation and social entrepreneurship starting on campus because the context in SA is that there is huge unemployment among the youth. There are all these problems and not enough solutions. We thought, ‘what if we could come up with these solutions?” What if they [the students] could create jobs and then they could start to influence an innovative economy? We figured the only way we could do that was if we started this culture of entrepreneurship on campus. We wanted to keep it quite broad because we wanted many different individuals with different skill sets to come in and imagine something that could be in the line of health, or renewable energy. We wanted to include many different students from different faculties to come and participate. Part of the criteria is that students have to create teams, of 2 to 6 people and they need to be multidisciplinary. So, they need to have students, for example, from the law faculty, for example, partnering with students from the commerce or the arts faculty. So you’re getting a lot of lateral thinking, where people are just cross-pollinating ideas. This way they get to learn about each other’s skill sets and they can all contribute to a bigger business model or idea, bringing their skill sets to the table.
SM: So, the brief ‘Imagine a New Africa’, what is its relevance to you and young people today? You mentioned people who want to become problem-solvers, but don’t necessarily know of the correct avenues because there isn’t necessarily this culture towards innovation just yet. How do you think, the brief ‘Imagine a New Africa’ has gotten the ball rolling?
GL: It’s very much focused on social entrepreneurship, and what that means is that its purpose married with profit. In other words, we don’t want to advocate that this is a moneymaking entrepreneurial experience. We want to say, you can be an entrepreneur but you can also create social impact. As things stand, people come to university, and they go on to become professionals and they go into the corporate world and the cycle continues. But if there are no jobs, what are they going to do? So if they could actually create start-ups on campus before they leave, well then, they have all the potential in the world to develop new businesses and new ideas. I believe that students very much want to make a difference, or at least the one’s who have gravitated towards UCT Upstarts. A lot of students have come back to us and said they never thought of themselves as innovative. They never thought that they would’ve followed an entrepreneurial path, and strangely enough they’ve been in this context where they’re exposed to people from the outside inspiring them, coming and story telling and showing them how to problem solve and suddenly they’re saying, ‘wow maybe I can problem solve’.
SM: As for the scope, I understand this is the Vice-Chancellor’s Social Innovation Challenge, is there a potential plan to take this to other universities and possibly high schools around South Africa?
GL: I think we wanted to use this year as a kind of pilot, just to see how it worked in the context of UCT because our bigger vision is to boost social innovation in South Africa. By extension, we’d have to take it to other universities. So I’d say yes, that is definitely part of the bigger picture, to scale it. We’re still working on how that model is going to work and then beyond that, into Africa so that people start looking at Africa and go, ‘wow, this is an innovative continent’. Where we start looking at ourselves and not see this victim that needs aid, and we can actually make a difference to the broader international community.
SM: The innovators and entrepreneurs that you’ve had come present so far, what drew you to reach out to them? Is there a particular quality, or a driving force behind them, that prompted you to select those as the ones to inspire students within UCT Upstarts?
There are two answers to that, I would suggest that you interview some of the Upstarters and find out why they were drawn to our platform. Secondly, from our perspective, we literally presented ourselves within the context I’ve just spoken about and I think there is a big drive towards entrepreneurship. People were drawn to something that they weren’t already getting at university. So, for example, the pop-up classes as we call them are information, content, experiences, and access to individuals you’re not going to get in your lecture room. The other day someone said to me, “this is like a free course in entrepreneurship”, and I think that’s quite amazing feedback. When people were signing up, I said, it’s the best value you’re going to get for paying nothing. Our currency is opportunity, and if they realise that then why wouldn’t they gravitate towards something that’s going to enhance their life experience and where they’re getting something that could set them up for life potentially? So I would hope that that would be a draw card and that this presented itself as a different avenue to explore and to express their desire to give back, while also being sustainable.
SM: What are your expectations by the end of this program?
GL: It’s going to be interesting, it’s very much a work in progress. It’s organic and it’s hard to kind of be 100% sure or to predict. But what I would hope is that, firstly, we’ve developed this growing movement so this culture of social entrepreneurship and innovation on campus, such that people start to talk about it and start to attend the pop-up classes more and more because they see the value. That it’s not something that feels inaccessible to them. So that they can actually start developing networks peer-to-peer, and with people beyond the university grounds who can actually help them with their ideas. And hopefully in and amongst that there are actually teams that go on to become fully fledged start-ups, who then start to employ people who are able, through their ideas, to make a difference in the lives of others through their innovations. One of the most important things is that we’re not just hoping to develop business people or people who are only good at certain things. We’re trying to create a holistic individual, who becomes a leader and a role model. I think that will be attractive and inspirational, if students start seeing peers being able to make something of themselves in, actually, a relatively short amount of time. As opposed to potentially succeeding, and doing really well and then going ‘right, I’m ready to be more philanthropic’ at the age of 70. It’s almost doing everything at the same time, along the way, and actually being able to do it much sooner than you think.
I would like to thank Gina Levy for agreeing to this interview, and wish all the participants in UCT Upstarts good luck! UCT Upstarts is currently running at the University of Cape Town, with pop-up classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 1pm in the Leslie Social Sciences Building on Upper Campus.