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Solving unemployment in South Africa

- Wits University

Professor Boris Urban's goal is to create a new cadre of researchers in the field entrepreneurship.

Twenty years ago, the field of entrepreneurship was just a vague concept, only taught as a subject at MBAs around the country, but Professor Boris Urban, the Lamberti Chair in Entrepreneurship in the Wits Business School, has spent the last six years of his life establishing it as a dedicated field of research.

Being appointed as the first Chair in 2009, Urban believes that it is critical for South Africa to establish a business friendly environment wherein entrepreneurs can thrive.

“Entrepreneurship is one of the most important tools that we have to solve the unemployment problem in South Africa but to do this we need to create the right environment as well as an entrepreneurial mind-set for it to prosper,” he explains.

Our country, which is lagging behind our neighbours like Angola and Mozambique in creating citizens with a true entrepreneurial spirit, needs to create a critical mass of quality high-growth entrepreneurs to help root out unemployment and to create jobs. The only way to do this is through good education and legitimising entrepreneurship as a field of research.  “The scholarly part is critical. Unless we have good education, we are never going to have a critical mass of entrepreneurs,” he says.

Urban’s research is interdisciplinary and juxtaposes commercial and social issues. To advance scholarship, his published works reflect a deep understanding of the multifaceted nature of entrepreneurial behaviour.

His primary research agenda is to integrate the personal and social foci of causation within a unified explanatory structure in order to understand entrepreneurial behaviour at the individual, organisational and societal levels.

“Hopefully through my efforts and my international collaborative projects, we are moving the field beyond just policy discourse. By adopting an evidence-based approach which follows the science-informed practice of entrepreneurship, we are building relevant African theory and models,” he elaborates.

His goal is to create a new cadre of researchers in the field in South Africa and to take entrepreneurship to the next level.

“I would like to elevate the field so that more nuanced and complex relationships in entrepreneurship are unveiled so as to identify differential typologies and impacts of entrepreneurial actions.”

While it is difficult to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem, Urban – who sits on various government and private sector advisory boards – believes that in time, an entrepreneurial culture can be cultivated in the country.

“It takes time, it takes realistic interventions, and it takes more than just building hype or setting up development agencies,” he says.

“It takes serious investment in human and social capital to increase the country’s total entrepreneurial quotient. Unless individuals feel that they are empowered with the relevant knowledge and skills required to create value – not only as entrepreneurs, but for established companies and society as a whole, we are never going to have a critical mass of entrepreneurs.”

Urban, an NRF-rated scientist, is a leading researcher and Professor in Entrepreneurship, has published more than 70 peer-reviewed academic journal articles, including in high-impact ISI and Financial Times top-ranked journals. He has also won a number of awards including the Research and Knowledge Exchange award from the UK-based Institute of Small Business and Entrepreneurship.