One of the main aims of our Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) programme is to identify and grow our EIR’s to their fullest potential. As Nick Allen, Savant CEO said; “Throughout the years of running our EIR programme we have always enjoyed witnessing the massive growth that our programme participants experience both personally and professionally. It is wonderful to see the work that they do and how, after a year, a clear path forward has often already presented itself. Several of our previous EIRs have ended up joining the start-up companies they worked with, some have ventured out on their own journey’s often working for agile and exciting companies, while others have stayed on and become part of the Savant team, which is exactly what happened with one of our recent EIR’s Thabelo Ratshihule.”
Thabelo was part of the Savant 2022 EIR Programme and he recently accepted our offer to stay and join the Savant team as a Commercialisation Manager. We sat down to chat with him about his journey so far, and his vision for the future.
An entrepreneur at heart
Thabelo Ratshihule grew up in Soweto and currently lives in Greenside, Johannesburg. He left Soweto and moved to Pretoria after school, where he enrolled in the then MEDUNSA to study radiography. After graduating, he spent over ten years working in the healthcare sector (both public and private). Thabelo notes that even then he had a natural interest in entrepreneurship and was constantly starting little, “informal” businesses on the side.
“Whilst working in the healthcare industry I made several failed attempts to start my own business. I learnt hard lessons from every venture. In my first venture, a waterless car wash company, I learnt the importance of “watertight” agreements (excuse the pun). In the second, I founded a medical facility in collaboration with a physician (radiologist) and a former university classmate. Although the company was making a gross profit of over 65%, recruiting a co-founder on the basis of friendship proved to be a blunder that ruined the company.”
In 2014, after numerous failed attempts to start his own successful start-up, Thabelo enrolled in Business Studies at WITS, where his interest in investing was inspired by a distinction earned in ‘Introduction to Investment and Finance’. To further his studies, he then enrolled in a BCom in Investment and Corporate Finance the following year, before transferring to Wits Business School to pursue his passion for entrepreneurship.
Thabelo says; “I believed that I required some formal education to prevent what I now like to call “schoolboy or textbook” blunders”. Thabelo graduated with an MBA in 2022.
“My current start-up, TiiCO Telematics (www.tiico.co.za) was the result of a course assignment. The goal of TiiCO, which is still in operation today, is to disrupt the vehicle tracking market by adopting a customer-centric strategy that avoids hijackings and prevents financial loss. In contrast to the current established market leaders who create products for tracking and monitoring, TiiCO seeks to propose a prevention rather than cure approach.”
Joining the Savant EIR programme
During Thabelo’s MBA he completed two modules, specifically Career Management, and The Leadership Quest module, that would end up having a significant impact on his future growth plans. These modules, and respective lecturers, helped Thabelo to see entrepreneurship as an actual career path.
Things changed significantly for Thabelo in 2021, when he saw the advert for the Savant EIR Programme.
“When I first saw the Savant job posting for an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) position, I had no idea such a role even existed. On reading the description, it was like they were describing me. I didn’t think twice about applying. Later, when Savant offered me a 12-month contract, I didn’t hesitate. I immediately resigned from my permanent position at the hospital, after more than ten years. I just knew I had discovered what the Japanese call “the IKIGAI,” – one’s reason for existing.”
Everything falls into place
The EIR program gave Thabelo the chance to really put his MBA to use.
“I was given six start-ups to work with, and the lessons I learned from working with these business owners was priceless. I appreciated the dynamics of learning about their markets and goods, as well as the various people that make up the human side of entrepreneurship. It can be challenging at times, engaging with so many different personalities, but the advice I received from the Savant core team and the other EIRs was priceless.”
The EIR program has given me the foundation I need to pursue an entrepreneurial career
Savant encourages its EIRs to engage with their entire portfolio and to participate in weekly deal flow, process development, portfolio analysis, and more. Our approach with our EIR’s is hands-on, and they are involved in all aspects of the business, from development and strategic business support, to engagement with our portfolio of early-stage technology businesses.
“Even though I had no prior experience with any of these things, Savant onboarded me within three months. The EIR program has given me the foundation I need to pursue an entrepreneurial career, and ultimately one in the venture capital sector.”
Stepping into the role of Commercialisation Manager
Thabelo’s new role as a Commercialisation Manager at Savant will require him to focus his efforts on improving internal systems. He will need to do research and learn how best to identify start-ups that are a good Savant fit and that will be viable venture capital candidates.
As the only Savant team member based in Johannesburg, it will also be his job to establish Savant in Gauteng and to make sure that our portfolio companies have access to reliable and high-quality service providers, including participation in industry events and the establishment of meaningful partnerships with strategic partners. The role will essentially require him to do everything he did as an EIR, but with a more global and scalable perspective.
Great aspirations for the future
Thabelo has big plans for his first year in his new role.
“First, I want to learn more about Savant’s approach to venture financing and business incubation. Then, I want to develop our relationship with the South African Universities. The academic community, government development finance institutions, and the country’s entire venture capital market are currently very disconnected from each other. While Savant has strong relationships with DFIs and has been successful in bridging the access gap for early-stage companies to DFIs and venture finance, my goal is to develop relationships with South African Universities, to ensure the really innovative work being done there doesn’t simply end up in a library collecting dust – or on the global market, without helping the South African economy.”
With a busy year ahead of him and some fantastic goals in place, Thabelo is keen to share a few words of wisdom for the new cohort of EIRs
“Grab the chance with both hands and use every opportunity to learn. I believe that MBAs that enrol directly into an EIR (or EIR-type) programme have a far better chance of success – like a student doctor completing their clinical practice before qualification. The key to learning is in the application. I would also like to take this opportunity to say a special word of thanks to everyone at Savant for their patience where I faltered and encouragement when I got things right.”