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The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News



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View into a Dialogue: Social and Sustainable Entrepreneurship in Cape Town

Crystal Zhang, third-year computer science and design combined major, sits in the rain on the edge of Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town City Centre and Woodstock. Students on the Social and Sustainable Entrepreneurship Dialogue were able to explore Cape Town by hiking up Table Mountain and Lion’s Head Peak. Photo courtesy Ethan Truong.

On a hotel rooftop in Sea Point, Cape Town, 20 Northeastern students sat with laptops open, adjusting details on their final projects and watching the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean. The next day, they would present to the deputy mayor in the city council chambers, and the program would conclude. 

Northeastern University’s Dialogue of Civilizations to Cape Town, South Africa has been running since 2008, led for 14 years by Dennis Shaughnessy, a senior academic specialist for the D’Amore McKim School of Business. This year the program was led by Dr. Nikki James, assistant teaching professor of social innovation and entrepreneurship, for the first time. James shadowed the program in 2022, and said she was excited at the prospect of taking over a program with such a long-standing legacy and to have the chance to innovate it.

This year, the program focused on sustainability in conjunction with social entrepreneurship. For the first two weeks, Northeastern partnered with TSIBA, a business school in Cape Town, to consult for small businesses. Groups of students were assigned entrepreneurs and proposed plans for areas of improvement within their businesses. The latter half of the trip was focused on examining the social context of South Africa and developing solutions to systemic issues that would raise the GDP of the country by 1% within 10 years. At the end of the trip, students presented their solutions to Eddie Andrews, the deputy mayor of Cape Town.

“I really value understanding how the context shapes the way you need to develop an intervention or make a positive change,” James said. “And so I think Cape Town has one of the most complex contexts that you can learn in, and also because its history is so recent.”

Many of the dialogue’s guest speakers and entrepreneurs grew up during the era of apartheid, South Africa’s former policy of racial segregation that officially ended in 1994. One guest speaker, Antoinette “Toto” Sithole, spoke with students about the Soweto Uprising of 1976, the day her 12-year-old brother, Hector Pieterson, was shot and killed by police. Sithole recounted that day. She talked about moments of her life during apartheid and ended with a message of compassion by sharing how she grappled with forgiving her oppressors.

“I don’t have words to explain the resilience that she has,” James said. “I don’t know how you stand in front of the nation and forgive the people who killed your brother when he was a child. Living the majority of her life during apartheid and fighting the system, but still having the amount of joy and happiness and optimism with which she faces the future just blows my mind every time.”

The class poses for a photo while assisting with a trash cleanup in Langa July 18 for Mandela Day. The city engaged in at least 67 minutes of community service, representing the 67 years Mandela gave to serving the public. Photo courtesy Ethan Truong.

The dialogue curriculum largely centered around learning about post-apartheid South Africa and tracing back long-standing issues such as loadshedding, lack of sufficient housing and waste management systems to their roots in apartheid. The consequences that are felt 30 years later are still strong, and since many people involved in the dialogue lived through the apartheid era, the student cohort gained insight from hearing their stories.

Fifth-year marketing analytics major Sam Theodore remarked on the lasting friendships he formed with the people he met in Cape Town. Cultural exchange was an important aspect of the dialogue, and Theodore remembered late night conversations with TSIBA students and golf outings with the program’s in-country coordinator, Brent James, as highlights of his experience.

“We had more in common than I thought we did,” Theodore said. “I thought we came from two different worlds, and in a way we do, but there’s so much that transcends culture these days. As a world, we’re so interconnected.”

The candor and openness of the TSIBA students to share their culture, life experiences and perspective on South African politics gave Northeastern students a unique glimpse into South Africa. Theodore said the conversations he had — learning about the TSIBA students’ lives and sharing about his — are some that he will remember for the rest of his life.

Annie Reed, a fifth-year international business and international affairs combined major, was a student on the dialogue in 2022. When she was presented with the opportunity to go back to South Africa as a program assistant for the dialogue, she jumped on the chance. Along with Northeastern alumni Meghan D’Arcy and Veronica Tait, she helped coordinate the logistics of various program activities for the group.

“In Cape Town in particular, there are so many people who are very passionate about driving change within their communities,” Reed said. “The program works really well in that regard because it’s not going in and doing something for people, but it’s going in and assisting people with something that’s already their mission.”

The vibrancy and joy of the communities in Cape Town created an infectious energy that inspired students to change the way they think about entrepreneurship and business as a whole. Third-year international business and international affairs combined major Emily Colaiace went into the dialogue with no expectations and came back with an entirely new perspective on her future career.

“In my classes, it’s always about ‘How can we become more profitable’? But to [Cape Town entrepreneurs] it’s like, ‘How can I make the biggest impact possible’?” Colaiace said. Determined to drive positive change in the world, Colaiace said she returned to Boston with a newfound passion for her major and credited the dialogue as the best experience she’s had at Northeastern so far.

Outside of class, the Northeastern cohort busied themselves with experiencing Cape Town to its fullest extent. They hiked Table Mountain and Lion’s Head Peak, toured Robben Island, spent a weekend going on safaris at Aquila Game Reserve and visited local townships like Langa. For Colaiace, the entirety of the trip was enhanced by the people she met in Cape Town, and the close friendships she formed with the Northeastern cohort. 

“It was the last morning, and we went up this hill and just looked at the sunrise for the last time together,” Colaiace said. “There was just a moment where I stepped back and looked at everyone watching the sunrise, and I almost started crying because I was just like, wow. I’ve built such strong connections with these people. I just feel so lucky that I was on this trip with such amazing people.”

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