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Class Of 2020: Nico van Rensburg On Failing Well - And Being A Better Entrepreneur

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

Failure is inevitable. That may not be the best message to convey during UWC’s Autumn Graduation, but it’s true. It’s what we do after we fail that matters - especially for entrepreneurs, as entrepreneur and UWC PhD graduate Nico van Rensburg explains.

(Published - 1 April 2020)

South Africa has one of the highest entrepreneurial failure rates in the world. But some entrepreneurs manage to succeed - and Dr Rensburg’s work explored what helps local entrepreneurs thrive.

For his thesis, UWC PhD graduate in Management Studies, Dr Nico van Rensburg, explored what helped local entrepreneurs thrive. Interestingly, he discovered that extra-curricular involvement and spirituality were among the factors that led to success.

His thesis – Determination of the critical success factors of resilient entrepreneurs: A South African perspective – investigated high-stature entrepreneurs who have lost it all at one stage. Yet, they managed to rebuild and come back stronger than ever - thanks, the research revealed, to their dedication to extramural activities and continuous education, and also, interestingly, to their faith and spirituality.

Dr van Rensburg knows firsthand what it means to be an entrepreneur. He has a business growing, packing and marketing table grapes globally.

“Here’s what every entrepreneur needs to understand: you will fail. Sooner or later, in ways big or small, it will happen - but it’s what you decide to do with the circumstance or experience of failure that makes you progress or fall behind in life,” says Dr Van Rensburg.

This is what Dr van Rensburg has to say about the lessons he has learned, from research and life.

Can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in De Doorns, a small town in the Western Cape. As a kid, I didn’t have the luxuries that many others might have had. But playing rugby, cricket, golf, and soccer on dirt fields, and exploring nature in the mountains with my friends, helped shape my character and appreciation for life. I happened to be in the right place at the right time during a primary-school sports day, and I got scouted by a senior sports coach and ended up furthering my sporting and academic education at Paarl Gymnasium High School. That one fateful incident probably changed my whole life - you never can tell what opportunities and challenges are waiting for you.

What is it about entrepreneurship that interests you most?

Entrepreneurship is the key to changing the way we live and work each day. Entrepreneurship allows the opportunity for us to consistently come forth with innovations that may improve standards of living, create and share wealth, and continue to create jobs and contribute to a growing economy.

What were some of the chief findings of your work?

The thing that probably stood out the most upon the conclusion of my findings is that not one entrepreneur is the same as any other - and the opinion of success, whether being highly successful or less-successful as an entrepreneur, will vary depending on one’s personality, faith, character, and overall drive in life.

Also, through the strategic application of factors such as entrepreneurial orientation, extra-curricular involvement, network-ability, motivation, mind-power, faith/spirituality, and continuous education, any entrepreneur can confidently face and overcome any obstacle that comes their way consistently. And when we fail, we can learn from that - and do better next time.

Finally, the entrepreneurial process is never-ending - it is a life-long journey that requires continuous effort, learning, and giving back to the next generation. 

Can you tell us about a failure in your own life? What did you learn from it?

During my second year as an entrepreneur, I experienced one of the biggest droughts in the Western Cape’s history. I ended up losing more than 50% of my crops and had to completely restructure my business. With more than 100 employees at the time, I had to dig deep into my spirit to recover from the circumstance.

What was it like, running a business and studying at the same time?

I felt welcomed and supported at UWC since the first day I set foot on campus. Professor Ricardo Peters took me in with both hands, enrolled me into the PhD programme, and introduced me to Dr Kanayo Ogujiuba, who eventually became one of my mentors along the way. UWC will forever hold a special place in my heart, and I will carry what I have learned from the people and professors I have met with great dignity and respect all my life.

What do you do when you are not studying?

I enjoy reading, and I have always believed that balance in life, or as a student, is critical to remaining mentally healthy. I enjoy working out in the gym, and on weekends I try to invest as much quality time as possible into my golf game, to stay sharp and be ready whenever competition arises.

Where to from here?

What I have learned in life - and reinforced through my research - is that one should always expect the unexpected. You can prepare and work as hard as you want in life to achieve your goals, but one can never be sure that things will work out exactly as you have planned. So I try to live each day in the present moment and give everything I do 100%. If I can look back 10-years from now and notice that my efforts in life have positively impacted the lives of others, I will be satisfied.


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