The education ecosystem is key to entrepreneurial success

March 4, 2021

Margie Worthington-Smith, E3, South Africa

Entrepreneurship is often touted as the key to economic and social advancement, and reduction in youth unemployment recovery post pandemic. As an entrepreneur with many years’ experience, I agree that the goal of unleashing human potential and innovation is paramount in this regard. However, as an educator as well, I believe that too little attention is often paid by technologists to the whole ecosystem surrounding education of the young, and that addressing some of the long-standing challenges in education, especially in developing and disadvantaged societies, will lead to greater entrepreneurial success overall.

While not an expert in digital technology myself, like many others in the educational field, I have had to rapidly adapt to online learning as schools were closed during the COVID-19 lockdowns in South Africa. This has forced me and my colleagues to quickly adapt our teaching methods and styles to the new remote learning experience. For some, teachers and students alike, this has been a welcome and liberating experience. As in many places around the world – both developed and developing economies – this experience of ‘digital transformation on steroids’ has exposed a range of underlying issues in education and in society that we knew were there, but which have been put under the microscope by the pandemic.

The digital divide is something that has been talked about for many decades already, at the international, regional, national and local level. However, there was, I think, little recognition of the extent of disadvantage amongst pockets of our societies when it comes to access to education, which has now been exposed across all nations. In South Africa, this has spurred on the effort that we began post-apartheid, to drive systemic change in the educational system, and educational outcomes of all children and adolescents.

The holy grail in this regard has been the desire to spread equality of opportunity throughout all communities, with the ultimate goal of a significant reduction in youth unemployment. In other words, we have been seeking a relevant and effective educational answer – which includes digital solutions – which does not perpetuate and exacerbate disadvantage.

So, what has the pandemic and our response to it taught us – both about our objectives and also about how we need to go about achieving them? And what is the role of entrepreneurship in this picture, and how can we bring about cultural change in education to achieve our broader goals?

Let’s first clarify our understanding of “entrepreneurship”.  For us it is the notion of being an “entrepreneurial” rather than an entrepreneur in the accepted understanding of the word.  An “entrepreneurial” is like a millennial – but rather is someone of the search and discovery generation who believes in “if it’s going to be, it’s up to me”.  An entrepreneurial has an opportunity-seeking mindset that drives purpose in the search for an intersection between his/her interests and abilities that also serve the needs of their fellow human beings.  

An entrepreneurial is self-directed in the pursuit of opportunities that create value for others and through this empowers him/herself.  

Having observed the response to online learning over the past year, and the individual responses of both educators and students to the challenges we have faced, I firmly believe that the key lies in creating and perpetuating a new type of educational culture. A culture of educational entrepreneurship – a mindset that will motivate the young to learn through their pursuit of solutions to meaningful problems and who therefore seek lifelong improvement. 

The issue is not only and fundamentally one of access to technology – although of course this is a pre-requisite to being able to get online and take advantage of all that the online world can offer. But even if we do solve this challenge, and can give everyone equitable access to technology, the challenge runs much deeper. The issue is one that goes to the core of the educational ecosystem.

What do I mean by the educational ecosystem? Everything from the question of why education should be different; to how we should learn differently for the 21st century; to what that means for the way classrooms are set up, the way the timetable and curriculum are organized and run, to teacher training and skills requirements; and to the reward system that is put in place to encourage young people to develop an entrepreneurial solution-seeking mindset.

In South Africa, we have initiated a new approach by developing and trialing a locally adapted learning model of playful project-based learning. A pilot scheme was introduced in 2018 and culminates at the end of 2021 in a “blueprint” to be presented to the Education Department.  The pilot is being rolled out in all 9 provinces, where the concept and its implementation can be evaluated.

In this process we also continue to focus on the role of teachers as coaches – a role which they have embraced during the remote learning experience during the pandemic. Here the teacher has become a motivator, a sounding board, and a mentor: all roles that are familiar to the entrepreneurial community, but which have not been seen as a traditional part of the teacher’s interaction with students.

In addition, we have recognised that teachers require their own particular support in challenging times such as these. We have partnered with the Praekelt group1, the creators of Nurse Connect, to develop a Teacher Connect application connecting 333 schools and 6,000 teachers across the country. This app works via WhatsApp to empower teachers with new resources, and with connection to other teachers, to develop tailor-made solutions for their students – all based on the key elements of the SA learning model.

This model is driven by the goal to prepare teachers for their changing role in delivering engaging, meaningful learning opportunities that prepare solution-seeking learners to be able to engage purposefully in life after school – either as entrepreneurs, being employable or continuing their education or life-long learning.  (Hence the name E3 (cubed) – i.e. the 3 Es of entrepreneurship, employability and education).  As teachers are the key drivers, they need to be happy and intrinsically motivated by feeling driven to improve their mastery, their purpose and their autonomy.   These elements of motivation and happiness are key to the teacher development model currently under construction.  The learning model includes scaffolding tools (technological or otherwise) that support teachers to shift from the transmitters of information to being flexible facilitators of learning.  Besides flexibility, teachers need to apply pedagogies such as experiencing, conceptualizing, analysing and applying where and when appropriate to ensure that the process is learner-centred.

Core to the SA learning model is the element of play. We believe this should be present in all learning throughout the inquiry, problem and design phases of project-based learning.  This learner-centred approach takes place within the 7 critical key principles specific to the SA context of Ubuntu – the notion that “I am because we are”.  These 7 learning principles are SPECIAL i.e.:  Socially interactive, Purpose driven, Enjoyable, Curiosity inducing, Iterative, actively engaging and Learner-centred.

All of these elements of the SA learning model and the SA teacher development model create an ecosystem where learners will have honed their competency and mindset tools over 13 years of iterations that will result in them having a solution-seeking mindset that ensures that they are actively engaged and participating in life after school. 

In this and other ways we are developing a whole of ecosystem approach to tackling the problem of educational disadvantage, and ultimately the root causes of economic and social disadvantage. 


Margie’s life has been driven by the desire to improve the lives of South Africans and particularly the youth. Margie established two civil society organisations – the job-creation organization, Triple Trust, in the 1980s and The Institute for Entrepreneurship in the 1990s. The latter focuses on developing learning materials to inculcate an entrepreneurial mindset in young South Africans. Margie has spent time as Executive Director of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, established to identify, grow and support high potential young South Africans to be high-impact entrepreneurs. She is a founding member of Activate Leadership, an organization with a network of over 4000 young South Africans, established to provide growth and connection opportunities for young people to become active innovators for public innovation. Currently Margie is the Executive Programme Director for E3(cubed) – a non-profit organization which is also a unit in the SA Department of Education.  Its mandate is to prepare teachers through SA-designed learning and teacher development models that will result in learners who are prepared for life after school – thereby ensuring the lowering of the enormously high levels of youth unemployment in South Africa. The goal of E3 is to inspire 100% of learners to complete school and for 100% of these learners to study further, get a job, or start their own enterprises. It does this by using student-centred learning, including projects and games, in the existing curriculum to better prepare learners for the modern economy.