Helping the next generation of African creatives to compete and lead in the world
Media personality, entrepreneur, and PGDip alumnus, Thato Molamu, believes that the marriage of creativity and business can be a powerful force to spearhead social cohesion and build the economy – and that young township and rural creatives can lead the way.
Thato Molamu likes to repeat the maxim that has become synonymous with ‘Spider-Man’ movies: “With great power comes great responsibility”.
That line in part inspired him to create the Leaders in Motion Academy (LIMA) in 2018, a digital creative skills academy and production hub based in the township of Eersterust in Tshwane and Alexandra Township. LIMA’s aim, he explains, is to normalise access to digital creative (technical) and business skills for township-based creative entrepreneurs, and to connect them to markets in Africa and beyond. Working with corporates and government, LIMA has since trained over 200 young people.
The venture is personal to Thato in many ways. But perhaps most critically, it speaks to the widespread reputation of creatives as having no head for business. It’s a shortcoming he has had to confront in his own multifaceted career, eventually leading him to sign up for a Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice at Henley Business School Africa. It was to prove a good choice.
“Today I sit where I sit because Henley lent a hand and said let us walk with you in this vision that you have about your life, about your business, and your social entrepreneurship venture,” says Thato as he reflects on his journey to this point.
An early love for acting
The creative bug bit Thato early, at school in the town of Mahikeng – then known as Mafeking – in the former Bophuthatswana where he grew up. Performing in children’s productions staged by the North West Arts Council convinced him that he wanted to be an actor. In a family that valued entrepreneurship and education, that made him the odd one out.
“It wasn’t the easiest conversation to have with my family,” he says, laughing.
After completing some training in acting and film broadcasting, he would perform regularly on stage, appearing in several Shakespearean plays. That paid off in 2011 when he was cast in ‘Generations’, the hugely successful SABC1 soapie that drew in some seven million South Africans five nights a week. Thato appeared in the show for three years, until its controversial ending in 2014 with the firing of 16 cast members.
When life mimics art
Aside from becoming a household name and being recognised on streets everywhere, it was his role as a brattish young advertising executive in Generations that first inspired Thato to think of himself as a businessman as well. “That’s when it first clicked to start my own business,” he says.
He went on to start what would prove to be a very successful communications company, Gateway Media, in 2013. But although buy-in was quick and plentiful – “a lot of people believed in me and the business” – it soon dawned on Thato that he was lacking some essential business skills. “I realised that I didn’t know how to manage a business or even finance one. All I knew was how to sell.”
To fill that gap, he completed a certificate in project management, and later a certificate in leadership and entrepreneurship. This, while his acting career was going from strength to strength. He had prominent roles in a number of local television dramas, and even hosted a game show, among many other projects. But it was an introduction to the concepts of mindfulness and self-reflection, followed by a pilgrimage to India, that would eventually lead him to the doors of Henley Business School Africa. “All my paths led me there, I realised.”
Stepping into a new family
Although he says that he initially felt anxious being a creative in a business school, he soon realised that he didn’t need to worry. “Henley have cracked it,” says Thato. “It is so family-orientated that you don’t even feel like an outsider. You feel like you belong. It’s just in the culture of how they do things.”
Other than the essential business skills he acquired over the two-year programme, the course also demanded that Thato, in what he describes as one of his favourite modules, reflect on himself and the kind of leadership he most desired. “I have always wanted to be a compassionate rather than a toxic leader, someone who can inspire others.”
But what really clicked into place with Henley was that it showed him a way to align with his true purpose in life. “Henley’s vision …that we build the people, who build the businesses, that build Africa, aligned perfectly with my ethos around African development and how we can use the creative sector to spearhead education and social cohesion, and to heal divisions of racial discrimination using media because it’s such a powerful tool.”
It was this unexpected alignment of values that gave Thato the extra push he needed to breathe new life into LIMA and his dream of giving other creative young people a business boost.
His performing career speaks for itself: local and international acclaim, nominations and awards as performer and director. He has also stepped into roles beyond the entertainment industry, be it as advisory board member for the Tshwane University of Technology, for instance, or as media strategist with his company Gateway Media and most recently to sit on the Gauteng Film Commission Board. He even speaks to other students about his experiences in the entertainment industry.
But it is as a social entrepreneur and founder of LIMA that he longs to make a lasting impact.
Thato understands the uncertainties of working in the entertainment industry, where pay cheques can stop very quickly. To make the sector sustainable, especially for those working in it, requires creatives to have a better understanding of business and finance principles, who are trained in the art of compassionate leadership.
“I have a vision for building a sustainable Africa in the new digital world that is increasingly moving towards online content streaming,” he says. “I want to see empowered creatives who are able to compete and lead in that world.”