26 Jan 2017
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Finding a Path out of Poverty

Once homeless, Frank Magwegwe used education and business skills to gain financial success and give back to poor communities in Johannesburg.
Re: Richard Vietor; Clayton Christensen
by Margie Kelley

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Photos by Bridget Corke

“Pleased, but not satisfied.”

That’s how Frank Magwegwe (AMP 185, 2013) describes the drive that helped him to overcome homelessness as a young man in South Africa, get an education, and build a successful career in finance.

As CEO of the middle-market segment for large insurance house Momentum in Johannesburg, Magwegwe can often be heard on CNBC Africa and other local and national media, offering advice on financial matters, from simply saving more money to planning and sticking to a budget.

Helping people learn and improve their lives is of utmost importance to Magwegwe, and now that he’s found personal success, he’s using a nonprofit organization, Inspire Belief, to lift others—especially young people in South Africa’s poorest communities—out of poverty and set them on the path to find their dreams.

Inspire Belief provides scholarships, grants, mentoring, and financial literacy programs for teachers and students, as well as many other educational opportunities.

“Education was the bridge to a better life for me,” observes Magwegwe, whose own dreams of going to college in the early 1990s were, at first, dimmed by a series of tough breaks. Unemployed and too poor to afford college, he traveled to find work in Johannesburg after losing his job as a barman in Port Elizabeth. When a job eluded him, he wound up living on the streets for nearly seven months.

“The biggest challenge with being homeless isn’t the homelessness itself, but rather the daily struggle between hope and despair,” Magwegwe recently told the online magazine Destiny Man.

His first break came when a street vendor selling fruits and vegetables struck up a friendship with Magwegwe and learned of his dream to go to college. She offered him a job running her cart, which very quickly led him to start his own business selling produce. The next break came after a chance encounter with a clerk at a local library who gave him advice on how to apply for college and get funding.

In 1997, Magwegwe completed his undergraduate studies with honors in maths of finance at the University of Witwatersrand and then earned a master’s degree in finance from the University of Pretoria.

From there he took on a series of positions in financial services, including head of trading, head of sales and marketing, and vice president, that culminated in Magwegwe’s appointment as CEO at Momentum. Yet his drive was not quelled.

“I was not content with this achievement,” he says. “In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust writes that ‘the voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’ I was pleased, but not satisfied, and I saw greater opportunities ahead to contribute to a better South Africa and world. Rather than ‘seeking new landscapes,’ I believed a profound change within my current field and gaining ‘new eyes’ on the world was what I needed most.”

Magwegwe found his new way of seeing when, in 2013, he spent eight weeks immersed in leadership training at the Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program (AMP).

“For me, the AMP was about taking a pit stop on my journey to becoming a transformational leader, and my time in Boston helped me achieve that and more,” he says. “I worked on my purpose statement: to be a transformational leader who inspires people to reach their full potential. It was during one of these sessions—and just after I read How Will You Measure Your Life? by Professor Clay Christensen—that I had the idea to start a nonprofit whose mission is social transformation through education in South Africa’s poor communities.”

Magwegwe was overwhelmed to find himself at Harvard almost exactly 20 years after he’d been homeless. “It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster, at first. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would study at one of the world’s top business schools,” he says.

Even so, he quickly settled into his classes and made lasting friendships.

“The leadership classes gave me great frameworks and current scholarly thinking in this fascinating and dynamic field,” he explains. “And the strategy classes brought a laser-like focus on concepts such as competitive advantage, Porter’s five forces analysis, sustainability, and value creation.

“The AMP increased my ‘can-do’ attitude. I had a unique, if not once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to mix with such a diverse global group of leaders and to engage them in and outside of class on various issues. The HBS experience gave me the power to think differently.”

One course that sparked Magwegwe’s imagination was Business, Government, and the International Economy (BGIE), taught by Professor Richard Vietor, author of How Countries Compete. “It provided great insights for strategic planning, particularly for companies looking to expand globally,” he says.

BGIE also drove home the idea for him that a well-educated country will be better able to compete in the global economy. Magwegwe immediately set about deploying all that he had learned in the AMP and established Inspire Belief in 2014, just two months after his time at HBS ended. Since then, the organization has been making a difference for young people in Orange Farm, a poor community south of Johannesburg.

The nonprofit awards top-performing students Inspire Belief scholarships at Masibambane College and fellowships to study at universities, recognizes leading teachers, and provides a mentoring network to let students explore a variety of careers. It also funds leadership camps for students and provides financial education to students and young adults in the community.

“After starting out with only my initial financial contribution, we are now starting to attract donors, including some of my dear friends from HBS,” says Magwegwe. “Donors will allow us to include more schools in the broader Orange Farm community. The long-term plan is to become active in other poor communities in South Africa.”

Magwegwe also plans to write a book about his life and his work to bring positive change to South Africa.

“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start,” he says. “Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa and 1993 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’ This has certainly been the case in my life.”

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