In South Africa the creative economy accounts for approximately 2,9% of the national GDP. So while full-time employment is the perceived golden ticket for most, following the path less travelled and pursuing a creative career of one’s own making can be a lucrative and fulfilling too. For Mpumelelo ‘Frypan’ Mfula, founder of online streetwear store RHTC, hustling has been in his blood since he was a small kid selling sweets to his friends at school. However, growing up he often felt caught between the desire to do the ‘right’ thing by his parent’s eyes and follow his passion for street fashion and culture. At university Mpumelelo began to realise that these two perceived opposing forces could in fact become aligned through entrepreneurship. Today Mpumelelo is a strong advocator of the power of micro businesses – young people making their own opportunities for themselves and growing their ideas, and businesses, from the ground up. Last year Mpumelelo hosted a series of workshops called ‘Let’s Play outside’ that aimed to expose young people to the potential that different creative careers offer. Through this entrepreneurship journey, Mpumeleo’s meshed his love for street culture and hunger for cred. With the tagline “we sell culture”, Mpumelelo has indeed turned his passion into his profession, and he has the swag tees to prove it.
Did you have any entrepreneurial experience before you launched RHTC online store?
I did not have formal experience, I was just a kid that sold sweets to his class mates in primary school and in high school I sold pop culture logo badges to my school mates and later worked at a commercial sneaker outlet during my senior years. It started as a natural reaction to the fact that my parents’ were unemployed for a long term and I just wanted to equalise my social status with other kids by being able to afford nice things for myself then later on it was more about creating a kool identity for myself as a hustler among my peers. Hip-hop made that image look kool.
Did you ever have plans for ‘formal employment’ when you were growing up or studying?
Yes I did, growing up in a lower middle class family and a black community, the default route is to work hard, get a fancy qualification and hope that earns you a good paying job. I used to make more money selling badges than I did from working at a sneaker store, however, I got more credibility from the latter so that encouraged me to pursue formal employment.
It was only when I got to experience and participated in the social culture of Wits that I realised that my peers were actually doing fun and impressive things independently and that’s when my perspective on formal employment kind of changed. However, I still find formal employment great if one acts as an entrepreneur within a company they work for.
I read in another interview that you started RHTC with R3000 capital. What else did it take?
It was actually R2000. It was the little I was left with after recklessly spending earnings from a commercial advert I was featured in. I used that to develop the basic online structure of the online store which was rather manual at that time. The operations were quite informal and I managed to convince three brands to give me their stock on consignment. I had my girlfriend and a few friends to help and I was good to go.
What would you say are some of the barriers that prevent young people from pursuing creative entrepreneurship projects?
There are a great number of challenges I may not even know of but with what I have experienced, a lot of us want to start too big and that requires great resources that we either do not conveniently have access to or have the adequate skills to raise. I recommend that we not shy away from starting small and give ourselves fair time to develop.
What are some of things that previous generations don’t always understand about the youth but you wish they would?
I don’t think it’s a matter of understanding but a matter of inferiority complex, at least in the black community, I can only speak of that from lived experience.
Our parents still suffer from inferiority complex just as we do, so it follows that if they don’t believe in themselves then it would be hard to believe in their seeds, hence why the recommendation of “get educated and get a job” in actuality means “get trained so that the white man can help you provide for us, your family”. A lot of us have the same insecurities in our hearts and minds but when we work together and achieve, we cure ourselves so that we can believe in ourselves more and hopefully believe more in our next generation.
RHTC is evidently more than just a business to you, more a passionate extension of your lifestyle. How important is it to love what you do?
Love for what you do is sometimes the only thing you have left with your business. It can help one go through the toughest times yet at the same time it can blind an entrepreneur and prevent one from making rational decisions that would be good for the company.
At first I was in love with my ideas and business and it helped with keeping me going through the tough times but equally slowed me down by being too in love with ideas that did not make good business sense. Moral of the story, love what you do and your ideas enough to make tough and sometimes decisions that might feel like a compromise but in fact allow them to grow more.
In addition to selling streetwear fashion you’re also a curator of culture and social connector. Do you think it’s important for young people today to embrace the slashie approach?
Mosdef. That’s one of the privileges of being young in this day and age and also having access to the internet. A lot of us are in our 20s and are only starting to discover ourselves and engaging in a number of disciplines offers us a progress route towards self discovery and growth as a person and entrepreneur.
Are young people being taught the skills, tools and ways of thinking that they need to create develop their own entrepreneurial projects?
There are a number of programmes by the government and private sector that offer such however they are not accessible to all for a number of reasons. I believe the culture of independence and creating starts at a micro level and can be developed at a macro level. So it’s important that we, who are already within that culture, start initiating the culture of creating in our homes and communities.
In what ways has creativity enabled you to shape your own future, and what advice would you give to other young people to empower them to realise theirs?
Creativity has allowed me to enter into the culture of entrepreneurship with great convenience; all I did was to offer a distribution service to my friends and we all qualified as creative entrepreneurs at that point. That was how we all started engaging in entrepreneurship and we’re still learning while doing well for ourselves.
So the secret for us was to collaborate with each other as friends by firstly defining what each person’s role would be in the eco-system and then take it from there. We can all engage in entrepreneurship with great convenience if we work together as young people.
How do you think young people today are using fashion and other cultural forms to express their identities?
Clothes are a daily tool of expression and since we’re on the ground, we know how our friends feel and want to express themselves. This gives us the privilege of creating the perfect tools of expression for the local market. The main challenge now is resources and efficient structures to allow efficient operations.
How would you define this generation and how does it differ from previous generations?
We’re the same, we’re as artistic; as scared and equally brave. The main difference is the tools and opportunities we have to express ourselves. The struggle is fundamentally still the same.
Photographs of Mpumelelo by Olivia Mortimer.
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