Published: Oct. 6, 2023

Moved by their clients’ tenacity, student consultants worked night and day to fortify entrepreneurs with what they needed to succeed.

Aerial view of Cape Town

Students who’ve ventured on the Entrepreneurship and Empowerment in South Africa (EESA) program collectively agree: It ranks up there as one of the most life-changing experiences they’ve ever had.

Described by students as the most hands-on, entrepreneurial learning experience of their college careers, EESA is a six-week summer course for credit, transforming students into consultants to help low-income, emerging entrepreneurs in the early stages of building their businesses.

This past summer, business, engineering, and arts & sciences students from the University of Colorado Boulder formed teams with local South African students as well as those from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Florida.

Their assignment: Do anything and everything to set up their entrepreneurs for success. But no one said it would be easy.

Erick Mueller, the executive director of Leeds’ Deming Center for Entrepreneurship, has co-led the program for 11 years. “Every year I think, ‘There’s no chance I can do this again.’ But then I hear students say ‘Wow, I achieved more than I ever thought I could.’ That’s what keeps me going back year after year.”

The summer of 2023 was an intense, sometimes grueling six weeks. If the days felt long, the nights felt even longer. Pushed to solve business problems quickly, teams burned the midnight oil designing logos and implementing budgeting tools. They developed deliverables for every aspect of their client’s businesses, including marketing and sales, employee contracts, customer relations, and inventory management, to name a few.

Sorely needed renewable energy

Students became emotionally invested in seeing their clients succeed after spending countless hours with them, learning about their lifestyles, hardships, culture and community.

Madison Cataldo

Madison Cataldo called her time in Cape Town “transformative.”

Madison Cataldo’s (Mgmt, Entr’23) consulting team’s first task was to rebrand Troy Hufkie’s business, which sells, installs and maintains generators, inverters, batteries, solar panels, and security systems. A South African entrepreneur, Hufkie had named his company “The Business Consulting”—a misleading representation of his business. Given the prevalent demand for his services due to ongoing electricity blackouts (load-shedding) and rising crime rates, the team renamed it “EcoDefend,” supported by the tagline: “Powering your Future, Protecting Your Present: Alternative Energy, Security, and Generators."

Beyond that, they implemented a comprehensive HR program, modernized his website, created and executed an extensive prospecting and sales program, established a new financial management program, and introduced a new CRM platform.

“My time in South Africa was extremely transformative. The experience of making a substantial impact was immensely rewarding and left an enduring impression on me. The entrepreneurs' resilience, hard work, and their ability to confront challenges without complaint were truly inspiring,” Cataldo said.

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“Knowing we made a genuine difference was truly invaluable.”

Madison Cataldo (Mgmt, Entr’23)

An African creation

Leeds student Forrest Mondlane Jr. (second from left) helped South African entrepreneur Stacey Jane Smith (third from left) rebrand her personal care products.

Leeds student Forrest Mondlane Jr. (second from left) helped South African entrepreneur Stacey Jane Smith (third from left) rebrand her personal care products.

Stacey Jane Smith owns a personal wellness and skincare company that produces locally sourced products native to South Africa, called African Secret.

Once they got to know Smith and her business, the first thing student Forrest Mondlane Jr. (Mktg’24) and his team realized was that she needed a major rebranding of her products. Thus ensued a packaging makeover to convey high quality and validate increasing the price—all accomplished with zero budget.

Mondlane’s team also streamlined the production process for more efficiency; Smith makes her products by hand. They established an effective bookkeeping system to replace a haphazard system of tracking revenue and expenses. Lastly, they got African Secret into more stores and trained Smith on building relationships with retailers.

“The most challenging piece was having our entrepreneur accept big change. While she was open to it, we could tell there was some hesitancy in some of the things we were suggesting,” Mondlane said.

But by the end, he said, the most rewarding part was seeing how inspired and empowered she felt. “We could see that she was realizing the true value of her business, and we were able to distill a newfound confidence that her products were meant to be out there making a change in personal care.”

Big rewards from big effort

“Leading this program,” Mueller said, “is the most intense thing I do all year. But I do it because it literally changes lives. Students see right before their eyes how they make lives better.”

This year, they changed the lives of 16 entrepreneurs and families.

To date, 136 CU Boulder students have participated in EESA and emerged with a newfound respect for the critical role entrepreneurship and innovation play in the economic development of a nation.

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