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I Am UWC: Charleen Duncan

Charleen Duncan: On Entrepreneurial Spirit and Promoting Women in Business

To develop the next generation of successful job creators, innovators and world changers, entrepreneurial spirit must be a competency that we develop. Charleen Duncan and the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation are doing their best to promote this mindset and spirit at UWC.

For a healthy, stable and competitive economy, we need job creators, not just job fillers: we need entrepreneurs. And entrepreneurs - and especially female entrepreneurs - need role models, mentors and leaders who can journey alongside them. At the University of the Western Cape, Charleen Duncan, Director for the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, fulfils all those roles.

A past student of UWC herself, Charleen grew up in Rondebosch East and attended Garlandale Secondary School, the eldest of three children  (her middle brother is also at UWC, an academic at the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences, and her youngest brother works in a corporate environment). She left the University for the business world, and attained great success - an executive at the age of 28, she’s worked in Europe, the USA and across the African continent. working on national and international projects with the likes of Bill Gates, the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Health Organization, managing many projects for the Department of Health, the Medical Research Council and more.

Her work brought home the relevance and the importance of the Triple Helix – the relationship of government, academia and private sector partnerships - as vital to the delivery of the national goals of economic development and SME in particular.

Returning to UWC, she’s built the CEI into a force that consolidates and coordinates entrepreneurship and innovation activities at the University, highlighting student and staff successes, promoting sharing of knowledge and expertise, and helping to develop an entrepreneurial mindset across campus.

Here’s what she has to say about entrepreneurship, education and women in business...

What got you interested in entrepreneurship?

I was always an activist both socially and politically and was involved with many social and political movements growing up. And I have had an awesome journey with many opportunities and firsts in my career - and I witnessed firsthand how an entrepreneurial understanding of the business world can impact society at home and abroad.

Why did you decide to study at UWC?

As with most young black South Africans in the ‘80s, my choices for tertiary education were fairly limited, both academically and financially. So it wasn’t really a conscious choice to come to UWC - but I’m glad I did. I learned a lot here - and I’m still learning.

What made you decide to come back to work at this University?

Again  it wasn’t really a conscious decision. I was headhunted to set up the project - and I made it very clear I am only staying for a year.

But the programme very quickly became a part of my genetic make-up.  All my experiences  from the NGO, government, parastatal and corporate spaces provided me with the skills, appetite and networks to help the Centre grow into the great space it has become today.

It was as if my life had gone full circle and all the growth that I experienced in the different pockets of my life came together to help me realize this space - and help others realize their own dreams as well.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love that I can work with people, and  the fact that I can design programmes, see entrepreneurs grow in leaps and bounds, and listen to people’s passion and dreams - and help them work towards it.  Academia has been by far the most challenging space I’ve ever worked in - but it’s also been the most rewarding. It’s a space where we can work across disciplines and within silos to create unity.

What’s been the biggest challenge with running the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation?

Funding, funding and more funding.

The CEI is self-funded, and all the funds we generate go back into teaching, learning and research. So  sustainability of programmes through viable funding is one of my biggest concerns.

Thus far we have managed to keep the Centre going for five years with very limited resources, and every year we are able to develop new programmes. One of the most exciting projects currently, for example, is that we have students from every single faculty participating in our student entrepreneurship programme.

What do you think are the main challenges entrepreneurs face today?

For entrepreneurs of all sorts, access is the biggest issue: access to training, access to funding and access to opportunities. For student entrepreneurs and first-time the need to identify entrepreneurship as a career option is vital; we need to create students who become job creators and not only job seekers - especially in a country with such a high youth unemployment rate.

Are there any special challenges for female entrepreneurs specifically?

Female entrepreneurs need role models - they need support from other women and other leaders who can journey alongside of them, and we don’t need to just use men as a yardstick to measure success against. One of the things that I am so often dismayed about is how we as women fail to support each other.  Along with that, I think women have a fear of failure that is counterproductive for entrepreneurs - we try so hard to balance family and work life that we sometimes think too much effort on one side can lead us to fail on the other.

Any advice for young women out there who want to be successful entrepreneurs?

  • Look for an opportunity that maximizes your personal style and personality, lifestyle and skills.

  • Understand the landscape and the ecosystem you’ll be operating in - familiarize yourself with challenges linked to red tape and bureaucracy, join a business support group like a chamber or networking groups.

  • Understand the importance of training, and never stop learning: You may have the talent and possibly even the skill - but do you have the business training that complements that?

  • Familiarize yourself with the various technological and financial tools and tricks available to you.

  • TRUST your instincts.

  • And don’t be shy to ask for help and advice.

Are there any female entrepreneurs at UWC that you think we should be chatting to (or telling stories about)?

We have some awesome students and business owners on our programmes and I am happy to give out their names.

Who are your biggest role models? Or supporters that you’d like to send a shout out to?

My biggest role models are the UWC students who participate in our programmes; the business owners we mentor; the funders who believe in me and give me my drive and my passion for entrepreneurship. My staff who devote endless late nights, weekends and holidays to work with entrepreneurs. My husband - himself a successful entrepreneur for 25 years, who taught me how to chase a dream with passion and the importance of always trusting God’s purpose and God’s timing.  All these people and more have supported me in my efforts, and worked to make an entrepreneurial university a reality, and I thank and admire them for that.

Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation