The Entrepreneurial Spark: What’s the Essential Ingredient?

Posted By: Judy Miller|Dated: October 4, 2011

After ten years of doing community development work in rural South Africa, my curiosity has only grown over time: What is the essential ingredient of the entrepreneurial spark?

Entrepreneurial Spark Wheelbarrels

Is it a willingness to take risks or the capacity to envision something that doesn’t yet exist? I know it isn’t desperation or opportunity or education that makes the difference. It’s something else. And, when that entrepreneurial spark is lit in one person, the whole community benefits, for it enlivens all.

Gertrude Mbetsi, a sixty-seven-year-old mother of eight and grandmother of thirteen in Rooiboklaagte, South Africa, has this spark.  When faced with the return of two of her four sons, who had been unable to get jobs in Johannesburg, she came up with a brilliant plan to provide more income for her extended family.

Every grandmother in Rooiboklaagte would like to have a freshly-killed chicken for her family’s Sunday dinner, but chickens are expensive out here in the rural village and transport is dear. Gertrude found a young man who raised chickens and asked if he would come out to the village once a month, the day after the pensioners get their monthly stipend. When she went to collect her own pension she told all her friends about the fat chickens coming to the mission yard the next day.  She earned one rand per sold chicken and her friends happily came with their wheelbarrows to take home chickens for their Sunday stew.

Four-year-old Sampiwe Mololo is another example. I was there when she asked her mother please to buy her a bag of candy. When handed the 20-rand bag with thirty-five individually wrapped hard candies, she walked right into the women’s weaving cooperative and sold them individually for 1 rand a piece. She was delighted to show her mother her pocket full of change and all the women laughed and laughed about their four-year-old shopkeeper. Was she exhibiting an inborn gift for mathematics or the attraction to play with money as though it were a game, a form of mental gymnastics?

In an article for the NYT, Nicolas Kristof uses the term ‘grit’ to describe a defining character trait of a prostitute who became a successful seamstress by ripping up old wedding dresses to create fanciful children’s dresses. And David Patient, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1983 and has worked to empower individuals worldwide ever since, answered my query about the one essential quality of the entrepreneurial flare with one word: hardiness. “When you unpack the emotions and ethos behind their actions and way of being, you find they have a thing called hardiness,” he told me.

Maybe Gertrude herself answered the question when she chose the name for a group of unemployed women from her community. She suggested we call the group “Tiyiselani.” When I asked what the Tsonga word meant she said, “It is to be victorious over all obstacles that come in your way.”

I will continue to ponder this and would appreciate any input!


What do you think defines an entrepreneur? Is it a quality one is born with, or a trait that can be cultivated? How do you think we can encourage this entrepreneurial spirit – in India and abroad?


About the author:

Judy Miller divides her time between Portland, Oregon and Limpopo Province, South Africa. In 2000, she left a private counseling practice in Portland and spent the next ten years working in community development in rural South Africa. Currently, Judy continues to support the Mapusha Weaving Cooperative and the Katlego creche in Rooiboklaagte while working in Portland as a writer, speaker and teacher. Her passion is to inspire and to help create a vibrant global community with ever-deepening bonds of connection and understanding between peoples.


The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.


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  • Giri

    Good Article.. Whether Entrepreneurial thinking is a born talent or not it can be acquired by learning .People say entrepreneurship cannot be thought ! yes i agree but it can be learnt .

    If entrepreneurship is made as a part of curriculum in india and abroad then the world will get lot of  successful entrepreneurs who can help the society to raise…

  • Santosh Singh

    Good article! The essential ingredient is a burning desire to make a difference in the life of others and self and to facilitate financial independence.

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