The Saturday Star,18th April 2020 – John Vlismas feature
WHAT does a business do if it’s caught in the middle of a 21 Day lockdown? If your executive in charge of marketing is South African comedian John Vlismas, it’s simple; you give away the product for free.
Except this is no joke. Ever since the lockdown came into force on Friday March 27, Henley Business School has been running 21 Lessons for 21 Days; 21-minute webinars hosted by academics, thinkers, creatives and even relationship councillors on getting through this unprecedented national quarantine.
For Vlismas it makes perfect sense. There’s a crisis, people have to act. He credits the school’s dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley for inspiring him to set up the programme – and the faith in him to break the mould and make him head of marketing.
“Maybe this is what’s driving my 16 and 17 hour days at the moment, but his message has been that we must carry on – especially those of us who have the resources, the education and the security – because the damage (of the Coronavirus) is going to go so deep if we all just pause.
“When I see how people are sort of sitting back as if this lockdown was some kind of holiday, I’m like ‘guys, every moment you waste is a moment you have to catch up times five’. I love the fact that Jon shifted the entire business school online in about 12 days before the lockdown and was resolute about not closing for. It inspired me in my other businesses too.”
Vlismas has been teaching disruption and other classes at the business school for more than 18 months, while completing his MBA. It’s a transition he never expected, having famously been expelled from his Durban high school and then becoming an actor before moving into comedy, where he enjoyed incredible success in the local scene, running his own club in Melville, Johannesburg, for 10 years and establishing the comedy awards which are now in their ninth year.
“My dad was a brave man, he let his son be a drama student and he supported me. That was my first learning point, that someone can back you on something they might not like but recognise it’s your journey, it was a massive life lesson.”
Before his dad died in October 2018, Vlismas stopped what he was doing and spent five months at his side.
“By then I had already started studying and thinking about a career change when he got sick. And in that time, especially the moment he died, I realized that I’d been doing something which was lovely, but it wasn’t important enough.”
Vlismas credits Foster-Pedley for giving him the chance to study.
“Anyone who knows Jon will know that his approach is a beautiful mix of deeply institutional, but at the same time radical, and that’s my favourite kind of human being. I wasn’t a natural scholar, I had always had a curious mind, but I rebelled against authority. I met Jon and he asked “why don’t you come and do an MBA?” He’d seen something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself – just as my dad had.”
“I think quite a few people are stunned,” he says about his journey first into academia then in to teaching and now into marketing the business school, “but in truth it’s a consequence of something I’ve always been obsessed with, which is breaking patterns. It’s very easy to break the patterns you don’t like, but the real challenge if you really want to learn how to think differently, you’ve got to break the patterns that you like.
“I’ve always said in business that anyone can make it once and not everyone does. But it takes real skill to fall down and make it again. I had a great time as a comic. I did it for a long time, I was really lucky to be only one of very few comedians in my sort of generation compared to how many there are now. But I realized early on that we didn’t have an industry so we had to build one. So that’s what I did, starting a management company for talent, opening a club and creating the awards.
“But I wanted to stop it immediately while it was going well, because that’s the harder choice. I had very mixed emotions on the last show I did which was at an arena in Cape Town with five of my good friends. It felt like I was losing something, but what I’ve gained in breaking that pattern and realizing what I’m made of beyond how I’ve defined myself for my whole life has been incredibly rewarding.
“Being able to shape the 21 lessons campaign with this great team of people is so outside of my normal realm of capabilities. I kind of wish my dad had seen it, because I’d love to show him that I could do something else well, too, after all the support that he gave me.”
Vlismas isn’t just involved in the business school he has two other companies that he has founded; one is a production company that blends events with social media, which oversaw the inaugural virtual first ever virtual Savannah Comedy Bar on Thursday night and the other is a start-up working virtually with companies on the happiness and wellness of their staff and customers – but remotely.
And 21 Days doesn’t just end on Thursday next week either – when the lockdown is scheduled to expire at midnight.
“It’s not 21 Days, it’s going to be a very prolonged economic depression and people are going to need the tools to help them to be ready to start rebuilding what it is that they’re going to do and then reshape South Africa. What we are planning is a whole series of granular workshops – also free – on how to how to conceive, how to optimize and how to build your SME, particularly with a digital focus.”
This series is Foster-Pedley’s brainchild, says Vlismas.
“I call him the human hurricane, he has arranged a bunch of experts from around the world, including South Africa and the African continent, but also from the UK and Europe and put together a really good, useful practical set of workshops on SME. And that’s very, very cool.”
As Foster-Pedley explains: “The old normal is gone, we are now in the realm of the unknown which is shaping and informing what will be the new normal when we overcome this pandemic. We have to be ready for that change and commit the education sector to rebuilding the economy, creating jobs and prosperity.”