Meet Marlon Parker, the kid from the Cape Flats who loves technology so much, he’s giving it away for free. And doing very nicely from it, thanks.
Marlon’s story sounds like fiction. For two years after matric he pushed airport trolleys before interviewing for an office job. When he didn’t get it, Plan B meant bonding the family flat to enrol at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology to study IT (with no previous exposure). There, he failed his first term and took to goofing off on CPUT’s football fields instead. Fortunately (his words), a broken ankle then forced him to hang out at the university library, where he read up on the history of computers.
Discovering a real knack for the stuff, Marlon somehow turned things around, doing so well by his third year that he was offered a lectureship. Skip to the present, and today he is the National Lead SA Hero for 2015. Marlon’s training-innovation-incubation firm, Reconstructed Living Labs (RLabs), has trained tens of thousands of students previously trapped in the clutches of poverty, illiteracy, drugs and crime; incubated 22 social enterprises; and been replicated in 23 countries.
In short, he may have discovered something about using technology as a force for good that has eluded many government programmes (“too job-focused and not social-entrepreneurial enough”), IT training institutions (“too academic”), FET colleges (“too basic”), and innovation/entrepreneurial hubs (“too enterprise-focused and not skills-centric enough”).
Everyone’s a social entrepreneur
Technology is central to Marlon’s success and his views of it are radically different, audacious and simple: In his world, IT is a breathtakingly enabling tool that allows all of us to teach others something about our unique experience or environment. And almost inevitably, this something has social and/or commercial potential.
For example, he advised an unemployed man to become an unemployment consultant. Today, said homeless man runs the Uusi project, a social network for the unemployed who’d otherwise never be hired. Let’s break that down: A jobless, uneducated man in one of SA’s most notorious ganglands owns a business that supports himself, his family and employees, and does social good.
Typically, this Marlon-style business doesn’t just offer recruitment but incorporates its start-up learnings for an educational offering as well as a pay-it-forward social and business development angle, to develop more entrepreneurs, not just employees.
Another example of a commercially successful training and social enterprise development outfit is Youth Cafes, a partnership between RLabs and the Department of Social Development that offers access to learning and economic empowerment. To use Youth Cafes, young people must do good in their communities. For every act of social good, they’re awarded virtual currency to buy refreshments, attend courses, or even go to the local hairdresser.
There it is again – that inspiringly fearless adoption of technology, the audacious expectation to make something of it, and an empowered view of education. Why don’t all businesses work like that?