XAPO BANK brings you stories of The Few: Part 1 of 4
In this four-part series, Xapo Bank brings you the extraordinary journeys of The Few. Four South African changemakers share their stories of quiet revolution, purpose and impact beyond their own realms and limitations. For The Few, vision is the key to new possibilities.
Introducing Rapelang Rabana, tech entrepreneur and believer in self-determined agency.
Rapelang Rabana is first to share her non-conformist life story.
A self-determined start
It all starts at the beginning of her life, when she was named Rapelang, meaning ‘Pray’. “For me it signifies the trust that I have already been given everything I need to do well in this world – I just need to embark upon it.”
Rapelang credits her upbringing for her self-worth. “I definitely won the parent lottery. It was such a blessing to know, maybe in my early post-university years, when I entered the big, bad white world, just how much my parents gave me in terms of discipline, focus, how to look after myself and my home, how to eat well, exercise well, read all the time, and to stay grounded.”
But beyond just good life habits, a sense was also instilled that she “could get stuff done” if she worked hard enough, focused and maximised the hours in the day.
“Your attention and time are the most valuable assets you will ever have in your life, and it’s more about picking the struggle that is compatible with who you are. Then you make it work.”
Born in Botswana in 1982, eight years before Mandela was released from prison in neighbouring South Africa, Rapelang grew up in a family that fell out of political favour, lost everything and had to move to Johannesburg. Trauma informed a part of her early years, and so did her unease with the limiting, Western education that was imposed in her early childhood. “I have always been inquisitive, and just wanted other perspectives. I wanted to keep growing.”
Perhaps it was the foundational antithesis to cynicism and a leaning into curiosity, but Rapelang never saw herself as small or inadequate. “Or less deserving of a career in technology because we were at the bottom of Africa and we’re not in Silicon Valley, per se. You need to stay focused, keep your head down, and simply just get better. You can be from an emerging economy and do world class work – you just have to commit to it,” she muses.
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An entrepreneur emerges
Rapelang realised at 16 that she wanted to be an entrepreneur and went on to excel at Computer Science at the University of Cape Town before starting businesses. She was nervous about disappointing her parents who preferred a corporate path for her, but stuck to her guns. Today, the media label her a Tech Pioneer and Serial Entrepreneur.
Why did she start businesses? “Because there are so many problems to solve and so many things to do. The corporate world was never an option for me. I had spent quite a lot of time doing internships, and I just didn’t get a sense that I would have that agency I needed.”
This questioning nature guided her on her entrepreneurial journey. Very few girls took a similar route at the time, but Rapelang was determined and soon became a computer scientist, entrepreneur, speaker and even graced the Forbes Africa magazine cover before age 30. She also served as an Ambassador for the UN World Summit Awards promoting technology.
A prepared mind
“There’s a particular quote that I love by Paul Graham, and he says that when you look at the way successful founders have come up with their ideas, it is generally about an external stimulus hitting a prepared mind, you know, and that prepared mind is the sum total of your life journey.
“The skills you have, yes, but you also have your lived experience. And as students, you know, in the bottom of Africa who maybe didn’t have credit on their phones and having done a computer science degree, there was a closeness in the technology, and in the kind of stuff we were trying to solve.
“And, that’s how I think the best and most authentic entrepreneurial journeys start. When there is an external stimulus that connects to your lived experience, direct capabilities and skills. We managed to build one of the earliest mobile voiceover IP apps for the old feature phones. That really launched my career and our journey in technology.”
Pick your battles
Rapelang learnt early on not to try to be all things to all people. Focus was more important.
“One has to pick your battles, and I picked the right struggle for me and had the sort of self-awareness to know this entrepreneurial struggle was suitable for me.”
“When you pick an entrepreneurial path, you know it isn’t all going to be fun and games, free time and whatever else. It meant that I had to work insanely hard. Because, you know, there was no direct manager or system like in a corporation that was telling me that I was good or not good, that I was making progress or not making progress. You just have to try and exceed what you think is good.”
One of the realisations that changed her path was that she did not want to specialise in telecoms and was more interested in building interesting software. She and her partners sold off much of what they built in mobile technology. “That initial loss of agency was a shock to the system. And now you know how this baby grows as somebody else’s and it’s not dressed how you would dress it.”
After seven years in the business she took a sabbatical and attempted to go to business school to earn an MBA. When she didn’t get into any of her chosen schools, she took it as a sign to get back on the horse and start a new business.
Finding purpose in hard times
“The big thing I learned was that you’ve got to do stuff that you know deeply resonates with what you care about, what you value, what you think is worth your time.”
Her first business solved a problem, but it didn’t feed her soul. She also experienced the entrepreneurial pressures to pivot and raise funding when a venture ran out of money. “You know, while you’re running out of money, you’re still trying to raise funding. And then came a month where we were not going to make payroll. But we had so much shame around not having the money to pay salaries that we just said nothing, which was, of course, a million times worse for the team. It affected me so deeply.”
One of her mentors taught her that businesses don’t close in a day and there was still time to find their way. “That was lifesaving advice and also taught me the importance of having a network.” She found a network of soft loan entrepreneurs who were willing to save each other and learnt that “if you can overcome your shame to actually speak to people or someone, you can get guidance”.
These experiences propelled her forward, to create purposeful ventures, and to build a life of financial independence. It also inspired her to get involved in a number of fintech accelerator programmes.
Her advice to young entrepreneurs, and especially women entrepreneurs? “Always choose what the most important things are for you to spend your time and energy on. And be certain that you are worthy of the outcome.”
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