The Saturday Star, page 14, 15th December 2018
Despite his humble beginnings, Thembalihle Baloyi was crowned last week as Entrepreneur of the Year
AS YOU drive down Sandton Drive in Johannesburg you’ll see big billboards. They say simply “Themba has The MBA.”
At first it looks like a misprint; Themba has Themba. The next time you see it, you wonder if there actually is a Themba and, if so, who he is.
Themba does exist. Themba actually has an MBA. In fact last week he was crowned Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2018 All Africa Business Leadership Awards.
Thembalihle Baloyi, 42, won the title for Discovery Insure, a combination of what he calls “gamification and behavioural economics that is changing the way people drive”. It’s an insurance policy that rewards good driving in the form of incentives.
Horrified by South Africa’s annual road carnage of around 17 000 deaths a year and determined to do something about it, Baloyi was inspired to create the service after watching a National Geographic documentary about aviation safety and the role the “black box” plays in recreating crashes for investigators and how that knowledge is passed on to pilots and in turn makes aviation one of the statistically safest means of transport in the world.
The black box though was expensive, then he looked to other areas which were also statistically safer than driving a car on South African roads. Formula 1 racing provided the answer, it too used black boxes extensively. But even then, that was just the beginning of what would be an eight-year journey to launch his dream.
Baloyi’s fascination with solving problems and making a difference was sparked at a very young age, in a village between Dundee and Newcastle and KZN. He was brought up by his gran, while his mother worked in Nelspruit. He’d see his gran getting the community to work every day, he remembers everyone having to be crammed like sardines into buses in order to get to town to do their shopping and he vowed that one day he’d find a way to be able to treat others with the dignity and safety they deserved, especially when it came to transport.
He moved back to Nelspruit for high school. After matric, he had two options: to study actuarial science where he had been accepted or do cost and management accounting at the then Natal Technikon. He only had enough money to register at UCT. When he told his mother, a teacher, she asked him where he’d find the fees. He told her insouciantly that he’d get a bursary.
She would have none of it, she’d seen too many promising careers end up in ruins in the township as people who qualified to study lost their way waiting for funds. Baloyi went to technikon, coming out with his national diploma. He’d fulfilled his mother’s first injunction: finish what you start. Her next one was about to realised: build on what you’ve done.
“If you started like I did,” he says, “a lot of people become despondent; they didn’t become CAs or doctors like they’d planned, so they give up.”
That was never in Baloyi’s lexicon. He had an insatiable desire to learn more about business. He met Jon Foster-Pedley at UCT 15 years ago during a leadership course at the Graduate School of Business where Foster-Pedley was the programme director.
“Jon sparked a curiosity in me about the development of theories and models. His approach was that it wasn’t enough just to learn, you had to apply them too,” remembered Baloyi.
The admiration was mutual, Foster-Pedley nominated Baloyi for an executive MBA, but Baloyi was too young and was turned down. Undaunted, he looked elsewhere; to Unisa and to Henley in Johannesburg.
Foster-Pedley would keep in touch with his protégé throughout, a mentor and a sounding board when the going got tough – and it did. Working at Discovery, Baloyi was determined to get the company to buy into his vision.
He had used what he had been taught to come up with his concept, now he had to use those same lessons to pitch the idea. A keen Comrades runner, he would jog with Discovery founders Barry Swartzman and Adrian Gore.
“Adrian is a real chatterbox, you don’t get a word in edgeways normally, so I’d wait till we were halfway up the hill on Catherine Drive when he would be too tired to speak anymore before pitching it to him.”
The tactic worked, he was invited to do some work on the idea in 2003, but it would only be in 2006 that he would successfully present it and only finally in 2011 when it would be launched with him as the founder and executive director of Discovery Insure.
“When the going gets tough, when you hit the wall, like you do in the Comrades, like I’ve done, you’ve got to go back reflect and then try again, double down, but many people don’t have the stomach for the batterings of life.
“A lot of people when they see the award don’t remember I was rejected more than seven times; seven times I was told ‘no it’s not going to work’.”
Baloyi ignored it, he remembered what his mother had taught him, he remembered the lessons of his MBA, he practiced what he’d learnt in the 14 Comrades marathons he’s finished.
He also learnt yet again not to be afraid of failure.
“There’s nothing embarrassing as long as you learn from it, unfortunately we run away from failure. If you’ve failed, it’s a sign you’re a doer, a trier. Those who are willing to take a chance are those who discover new theories, new worlds.
“There’ll be heartbreak, there’ll be rejection, there’ll be moments of self-doubt but then it becomes a question of how you structure yourself to go on when you are at your lowest point.
“When I was having my struggles at Discovery, with people not taking me seriously, I’d sit with Jon and share my experiences. He’d give me the energy to go back. That’s the power of mentorship it’s often forgotten. There’s a whole structure of people behind us when we succeed – the All Africa Business Leadership Award was like that too.”
For Foster-Pedley, who is now dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, it’s a dream journey come true.
“Themba learnt the importance of doing something for others at his grandmother’s knee. He was galvanised by the injustice he didn’t just see but lived to want to make a difference. He saw the potential of business to be the greatest enabler of all of that. We didn’t teach him that, we just gave him the tools to achieve it.
“He’s an ordinary guy with an extraordinary passion and commitment. That’s the message for me – I know there are many others like him, just as implacable in their purpose and as eager for that opportunity. Because Themba has The MBA, I hope this will be that opportunity to ignite so many others who never had the chance.”