“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost
It is true, as they say, that all roads lead to a proverbial Rome. If you remain steadfast in your efforts and diligent in all that you do, the land flowing with milk and honey will eventually avail itself to you. A testament to the courage of her convictions, though unconventional, is Nwabisa Mayema. The self confessed, “curious adventurer,” dared to go against the grain to forge her path to greatness.
“When I look back, I realise I didn’t have the option to not be a top achiever,” Nwabisa shares. Raised in a single-parent household in the city of Bhisho, the accomplished entrepreneur and public speaker strived to do well at school. And she did. Nwabisa not only served as the head girl at Kingsridge High School (formerly known as Kaffrarian High School), but in matric, she formed part of a team representing South Africa in the Model United Nations competition hosted in New York.
“Travelling was such a life-changing inflection point for me because I got to see how much more there was out there,” the seasoned globe trotter reminisces. So it came as no surprise when Nwabisa announced that her plans to attend the University of Cape Town (UCT) would be deferred for a year because she resonated more with the liberation of travel than she did the expectation of a “noble,” career – as she puts it.
“I thought I wanted to be an accountant,” she begins, “but after my taste of life outside of South Africa, I decided to take a gap year through Rotary International’s Youth Exchange Programme and I went and lived in Belgium.”
This is when the importance of storytelling became apparent to Nwabisa. More than 13 000kms from home, in a French-speaking country, she realised that she was in full control of her narrative and could articulate it in the manner she decided.
Upon her return to South Africa, Nwabisa attempted to complete a commerce degree but her heart was no longer in it. Through the great fortitude she had overcome abroad, she realised that telling her story through numbers and figures, was no longer appropriate – the socially-responsible connecter wanted to pursue a profession in political science. “The power of a humanities degree, for me, was that I could be anything as long as I could understand what the stories and patterns are. Stories about power; who has what, who distributes what and how resources are allocated – that all sits in stories,” Nwabisa explains.
During her final year at UCT, the self-made woman founded The Collective Genius with Abdullah Verachia. “Opening a business was a survival move. Commerce students were being snapped up by recruitment programmes; the medical students also had a clear trajectory; I was sitting in this grey area.” Nwabisa managed to bridge the foundations of trade and business skills she had gained from the brief time she spent studying commerce with the disciplines she was mastering in humanities to create the business model that catapulted her into a career she enjoys today. Nwabisa made a space for herself – paving the way for those like her to follow.
The corporate social responsibility business was birthed from a dis-ease that so many competent graduates felt going abroad was more appropriate for realising their potential. “I was so driven by the idea to stem the tide of young South Africans flying off to London,” she begins, “I decided I was going to do my best to convince people not to leave the country.” The Collective Genius began facilitating corporate citizenship. Nwabisa and her team needed only to explain that investing in young people was an investment in future markets. They had a vested interest in ensuring the country succeeds. Their efforts were purely economical.
10 years later, armed with limitless knowledge and invaluable connections made through sharing stories, Nwabisa founded Nnfinity with business partner Nicci Stewart. Here is a company whose sole focus is celebrating and elevating women entrepreneurs. Nnfinity believes the African poverty crisis can be solved by women creating sustainable employment opportunities in their scalable business – all that is required is an initial investment whether that be time, funds, resources, or training. “I continually position myself, being the founder of Nnfinity, as a connector. It’s not just a matter of suggesting you go talk to so-and-so; I come to understand what either person needs and can provide so I can direct you appropriately,” Nwabisa explains.
“It feels like a kind of hangover of my old business,” Nwabisa jokes, but what sets Nnfinity apart is the consulting firm encourages corporates to invest in the female landscape. Through Nnfinity, the social capitalist has given herself the opportunity to re-emphasise the importance of storytelling. “We need to tell better stories about ourselves,” Nwabisa stresses. Nnfinity offers public speaking training through their SpeakerBox programme which comprises of coaching workshops that helps build confidence and tools women entrepreneurs with personal and professional narratives. The social enterprise also helps women gain confidence in telling their story in-person to potential investors, or collaborators. “Who we are and what we say we are is so important because we don’t have another chance to share that,” Nwabisa shares.
“Upon reflection, my first business feels like I was trying to learn my story whilst in the panic of trying to get my story to make money,” she begins, “with Nnfinity, I know my story but I’m understanding that stories, by nature, are ever evolving and they need to be malleable.” Nwabisa continues to confront conventional restrictions by breaking through them. “Borders, or in essence, limitations don’t exist to me,” Nwabisa admits. Not only did she manage to explore Western Europe (from Belgium to Czech Republic) in the year of her Rotary exchange, but Nwabisa has made five trips to India, one of her favourite places to be, saying, “it’s slightly chaotic but it always forces me to remind myself that I am the fixed point.” The brave business woman lives in the world with no permanent physical address, because travelling tends to force her to ask herself big, introspective questions. “I’m continually GPSing my feelings, finding my coordinates in terms of how someone else might respond to me,” Nwabisa reflects.
No human is an island, and even the accomplished Nwabisa acknowledges that she is in-part, the product of those who’ve informed, inspired, and assisted her. Had it not been for the Rotary exchange, she wouldn’t have been exposed to the possibilities she had the opportunity to explore. Nwabisa also recounts all that she owes a great deal to her connections in the United States of America, not only as a result of the Model UN experience, but also when she returned to the country in 2015 and 2018 as a participant in the International Visitor Leadership Program to network, workshop and collaborate with fellow social entrepreneurs and “economic multipliers” who hailed from over 40 different countries. “I was lifted up by the US, it’s been incredibly influential in my career,” she shares.
Nwabisa has been a guest of the Austrian Prime Minister, hosted a pop-up social entrepreneurship academy in Bulgaria, and rubbed shoulders with industry movers and shakers across the globe. If anything, her absolute resolve is proof that any dream supported by hard work and tenacity will eventually be realised.