Michael Luptak of Dlala Nje | Providing Opportunities and Challenging Perspectives

Michael Luptak is the co-founder and managing director of Dlala Nje (meaning “just play”) – a games and cultural emporium situated in the heart of Hillbrow. The venture grew out of Michael and his business partner Nickolaus Bauer’s desire to have a positive impact on the community and in doing so, work towards eradicating the negative views that many people have of Ponte City and it’s surrounding areas. Dlala Nje is comprised of two channels: the community centre – which makes games, workshops and learning opportunities available to local kids, and the inner city adventures – which are guided city walks that aim to “dispel the myths about Johannesburg’s most notorious suburbs”.

Michael is one of the speakers at the Pioneer Nation conference this year where he’ll be sharing his insights with young entrepreneurs. Leading up with the event, we chatted to him to find out more.

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What inspired you to start Dlala Nje?

The story would have to start with moving into Ponte City Apartments. My friend Nickolaus Bauer​ moved in after being sent to do a story on the building. I went to his house warming and the rest, as they say, is history.

Moving in we realised a need for a youth engagement platform. At that stage, the youth in our building had nothing but an uninspiring, misunderstood environment to find the meaning of life in. Given our backgrounds, we understood the need for kids to be kids, just like we were. Whether that meant climbing trees and swimming in pools or playing Nintendo and reading books, it didn’t matter. It shaped us growing up and made us who we are. In an under-resourced community, a platform like this is imperative.

So we opened an arcade…

Can you tell us a bit more about your own journey and the various things that have led to where you are now?

​I’m just a regular dude from the West Rand in Johannesburg. Spent my days BMXing and staying out of trouble. I went to a government school. Had the opportunity to go to University. I studied to become a Chartered Accountant. This taught me a lot. Particularly around discipline, knowing what you want and what you’re prepared to give up. Working at a global audit firm taught me that I had more to offer. I was also more into lifestyle than money. I wanted more control over my time, and where it went.

Taking the plunge into full-time entrepreneurship probably taught me the most. Not only about business, but myself too. My journey of personal development is priceless. Doing business as the truest human you can be just feels right.

Where I am now is a culmination of good and bad decisions. I’m still figuring things out.

What personal characteristics and skills are key to doing what you do?

​Knowing when to give a fuck, having the courage to be yourself and listening.

What were some of the unforeseen challenges you were met with while the venture was in the start-up phase? How did you overcome these?

It was pretty difficult balancing Dlala Nje and Ernst & Young. It was a part time gig at first. You just kinda carry on as if it weren’t a job but something you really digged doing. It was tough, but manageable.

Finance is always an issue but learning how to live on the bones of your arse isn’t the worst thing in the world. It taught me a lot. Particularly around how wasteful humans can be sometimes and what you REALLY need to survive.

Managing relationships would also be another tough one. There’s always ups and downs​. Working with passionate people can be frustrating sometimes. Learn to forgive quickly. Move on.

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There are two aspects to running Dlale Nje. One is a community centre, the other is the inner city adventures. What role do each of these serve and how/why do they co-exist?

​The community centre aims to provide an exposure platform for kids to be themselves. It offers an alternative to being on the streets of the inner-city where the underworld is so prevalent. We aim to expose our youth to opportunities that may, at some stage, provide careers and livelihoods for them. We are still in the process of quantifying our impact through our store. Currently, we have homework facilitators, run programs like yoga, ballet, music, reading and many more. We also have arcade games kids can play with access to internet and a library. A stage for performing art is there to unhinge some of the creative talent in our area too.

The inner-city adventures aim to challenge perspective around the inner-city’s reputation. Often South Africans have the worst things to say about their country making us our own worst enemy. Having said this, the majority of our clientele are foreigners. This says a lot about South Africans. There are people from other countries who have experienced the CBD on a much deeper level than our own inhabitants.

In addition to the tours we run, we also consult around organisational culture. We aim to take business leaders out their comfort zones with an idea of selling perspective and empathy through immersive experience. The results have been fantastic!

The 2 aspects have to co-exist. We are not reliant on any funding at this stage. The experiences business gives us the ability to run operations in our store. A social enterprise in its truest form. They are now 2 separate entities with different goals and objectives. The relationships are highly symbiotic.  

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What role does creativity – things like games, performance art, etc – play in community upliftment?

​Creativity is incredibly important, especially with youth. It encourages friendships, debate, constructive engagement and most importantly, learning. Thinking creatively is also immensely fun. Dlala Nje in isiZulu means “just play”. It’s entrenched in our ethos and vision. I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t fun. I’m pretty sure the kids would tell you the same thing.

​Community upliftment happens when people take ownership of their future. It’s not only Dlala Nje’s responsibility.​ It’s a collective approach. The creative programs we run bring people together emphasizing unity.

What does it mean to you to be a Pioneer?

​Pioneers do things first, before anyone else. Being bold and audacious is obvious.​ Fortune will always favour the brave. Pioneers also deal with a great amount of failure. The quicker you get used to this, the less opportunities you miss.

We have a saying here at Dlala Nje. Rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. It promotes action and trying new things, just like pioneers. Pioneers deal with mistakes more often than most. Finding comfort in complacency is what pioneers NEVER do.  

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What are you looking forward to at Pioneer Nation this year, and what can we expect from your talk?

Meeting the incredible speakers and being introduced to their own personal stories. The food. ​

My talk will be very honest, off-the-cuff and raw.

Do you have plans to expand Dlala Nje into other areas of the country? How else will you expand or add to the venture going forward?

​Absolutely! We would like Dlala Nje to reach beyond our borders as well. Emerging markets have become key to global economic growth. Africa is probably the best place to be at the moment.

The beauty about the Dlala Nje brand is that it has the most massive scope. As long as we are providing opportunities and challenging perspectives, we’re in business.

Given the education crisis in the Eastern Cape, we may be moving into that area in the near future…

www.dlalanje.org

Catch Michael at the Levi’s Pioneer Nation conference on 25 September. Purchase tickets here.

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Photographs: Jono Wood



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