IBM programme opened my eyes to new possibilities, says tech entrepreneur

Being part of IBM’s enterprise development programme for the past year has “opened” his eyes to new growth possibilities, says Kuben Naicker, the founder of IT Aware.

“It has pretty much opened our eyes on how to grow our product… to look for new subscribers,” says Naicker, whose 17-year old IT firm conducts skills and job profile assessments on behalf of the country’s Skills Education and Training Authorities (Setas).

Naicker, who is due to exit the programme at the end of this month, has benefited from both training as well over R400 000 in software and hardware support. It includes a new server, access to IBM’s Watson — an artificial intelligence (AI) solution — and development of online videos for marketing the company’s new subscription-based service.

IT Aware is one of three black-owned IT companies and four aspiring black tech entrepreneurs that IBM has assisted

He says with the entrepreneurship training that he received through business incubator Raizcorp he got help on how to put in place a growth strategy and pivot his firm from providing project-based work, to a more sustainable subscriptions-based model.

IT Aware is one of three black-owned IT companies and four aspiring black tech entrepreneurs that IBM has assisted in the last two years with business support and funding. The two others are information storage provider WeSolve and app development startup Mfactory.

Support for black startups

Black entrepreneurs who have tech startups or who have innovative tech ideas, can get business support and funding from IBM, as part of the multinational’s equity-equivalent initiative that it launched in 2015.

Under the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) codes multinationals that are reluctant to give away ownership can provide the equivalent value in training black people or assisting black entrepreneurs.

Bhavya Rama, who oversees IBM’s R700-million Equity Equivalence Investment Programme, says IBM has spent R1.2 million on incubation support and about R2.5-million funding software and hardware development for WeSolve and IT Aware.

IBM’s Equity Equivalence Investment Programme includes three parts – an academic programme, research stream and enterprise development programme.

The multinational launched its enterprise development programme in January 2015. It includes three streams – a six-month programme to assist aspiring entrepreneurs, another to help and fund black-owned IT companies and a third (which the company aims to launch next year) to help existing black-owned tech firms to expand.

Rama says the aspiring entrepreneurs stream is aimed at those who have an innovative ICT business idea. Applicants must undergo an IBM assessment to determine whether they have entrepreneurial capabilities or not.

Once selected for the programme participants have access to a R50 000 stipend spread over the period of the programme and get hot desking space at the Tshimologong Centre, while a mentor assigned to them helps them to developed a bankable feasibility study.

Rama says IBM received 53 applications last year to the stream, with 39 made in the first quarter of this year. She said IBM’s efforts to increase the participation of young women on the programme are paying off – 17 of the applications in the first quarter were from women, up from two last year.

‘Funding helped take on 40 interns’

She says the R2-million in funding WeSolve will cover the cost of staff training in IBM products, which will help prepare the company to become an IBM reseller.

WeSolve, head of innovation and business development, Neo Makgoba said the training has helped the two-year-old company to take on 40 interns. The company mainly supplies government department such as the Department of Justice, with online archiving solutions.

Rama says two more startups joined the programme this year – Cygninet and Strata Game Changers, with an additional one yet to be confirmed.

She says Mfactory had to leave the programme for now because it was taking up to much of the startup’s time. She cautioned that startups need to be available three days a week to take part in the programme and be available for monthly performance reviews.

‘Not easy to find black firms’

It’s not always easy to find black-owned IT firms, says Rama. “We’re finding that the market has challenges. Every startup claims that they have ICT capability, but when you look it’s only a few that have it.”

Another challenge, she notes, is that many black tech startups getting support currently through incubation programmes are serial incubatees. She says a number of applicants approach IBM with ideas on education apps but that the multinational is at “the point of saying that its looking for the next WhatsApp”.

If IBM can get past finding the right candidates, the programme could help build more black tech startups and IT companies — which may go some way to addressing the lack of diversity for firms in the IT sector.

Featured image: Kansir via Flickr (CC 2.0 license BY-SA, resized)



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Ventureburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.