Tenacity, attention to detail, the courage to persevere and overcome seemingly massive obstacles are just some of the characteristics of good entrepreneurs. It comes as no surprise, then, that many members of the Deaf community have overcome tremendous challenges to not only succeed in business, but even set up their own businesses to create jobs for others.
This emerged during a recent event sponsored by eDEAF, a Deaf owned, B-BBEE Level 2 company which is the leading provider of Deaf skills development training in South Africa, and hosted by leading Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) company, Rewardsco.
The event set out to do just what Deaf Awareness Month does – help hearing people to understand deafness whilst also showcasing the significant achievements of resourceful members of the Deaf community.
Lesego Gumede, is 27-years-old and the owner of shoe cleaning business, Sneaker Cleanic. Having completed both his matric and tertiary education despite having bilateral hearing loss and no hearing aids, he went on to work in sales at a large corporate. However, despite benefitting from good people skills, he struggled to communicate with clients and decided to quit his job in January 2021 to set up Sneaker Cleanic in a carport in a Pretoria township.
Within three months of setting up, he partnered with chemical guru, John Peterson, to develop a range of shoe cleaning products which were trialled on almost 6 000 pairs of sneakers that came in for cleaning. Ultimately, he wishes to sell this range (and other cleaning products which he plans to develop in the future) to major retailers around the country.
In the meanwhile, he and his team of eight are cleaning between 700 and 800 pairs of sneakers per month at two shops in shopping malls in Mamelodi and Mabopane, Pretoria.
“We are nailing it because we are really good at what we do. We are a youth-owned business – so none of my team members is over 30. I am the leader and I have a disability – but our customers are happy, the reviews are good and the shoes keep coming in without many complaints. I’m really happy with what our team has achieved,” he says.
Nevertheless, Lesego believes that his biggest achievement so far was accepting that he had a disability. “That made me get my confidence back and it made me a doer. Today, I am a business owner and this is just the beginning. I would love to develop this into a franchise and help build more entrepreneurs,” he says.
DEAFinition, a leading provider of diversity and inclusion solutions for the wholesale and retail sector is, in itself, an example of entrepreneurship. (W&R is one area, but also Hygiene & Cleaning, IT and Adult Education and Training for the Deaf)
The organisation’s comprehensive approach to integration ensures the seamless integration of Deaf talent into the workplace. This is important as Deaf school leavers, who have encountered many barriers along the way, are seldom ready to enter the world of work.
In South Africa, there are only 10 schools for the Deaf that offer matric which is widely regarded as a work entry benchmark in South Africa. Some children with hearing loss are only identified when they are as old as eight or nine and may spend the rest of their lives trying to catch up with their peers. Most Deaf children attend boarding school from the age of three and lose out on the opportunity to socialise with other Deaf children from different schools, learn from Deaf role models or acquire any form of work readiness skills.
Shubnum-Nabbi Maharaj, one of the directors of DEAFinition NPC, is one such role model.
Although profoundly Deaf, she is the only member of her family to have matriculated. She was previously a learner through e DEAF and, when it was decided to set up a non-profit organisation to provide training, she was the obvious choice to take the lead.
Recently, Shubnum was asked to represent Africa at the World Federation for the Deaf conference that took place in Jeju, South Korea.
“It was exciting to know that we are ahead in helping Deaf learners. All our training is free to Deaf learners. They are able to participate in essential work readiness training prior to being placed in places of work. Our learnerships are equivalent to a matric on the skills development matrix, so even if they haven’t been able to complete their matric, they can still get an equivalent qualification,” she explains.
Maharaj says that, in the world of business, perceptions (an inability to see a person as capable or competent) are often the biggest challenges for the Deaf.
She says that Deaf people are often culturally different from their hearing counterparts. “They are very straightforward which can be perceived as abrupt or rude. Their facial expressions are often misinterpreted. We provide training to bridge the gap between the Deaf and the hearing world, as well as sensitisation training for companies that want to employ Deaf persons
Since Deaf literacy is low, causing many to battle to communicate and be prepared to participate in the world of business, Maharaj says that over 80% of South Africa’s Deaf population remains unemployed. Fortunately, with the right skills development, the sky is the limit.