#500EmpoweringAfricanStories: Vusi Thembekwayo
By: Amy Xiang
Speaker. Rockstar. Venture capitalist. These are the words used to describe Vusi Thembekwayo on his website — and, while these are true, he is much more than that.
In June 2017, Vusi sat down with Anele Mdoda in Cape Town, South Africa on her show, Real Talk. There, the Benoni native shared some candid thoughts about family, social media, fame, trauma, and much more. Audience members were able to see a new side of the so-called “rockstar of public speaking.”
Vusi may have become a millionaire at age 23, but he was not born into money. He had a rough childhood where he witnessed his father being shot nine times and eventually passing away; Vusi says the two things that got him through the hard time were excelling at school and the support of his mother, his “hero.”
“I've calculated that what my mother made in a month when I was in high school is probably less than my fuel bill for my cars for a month. I don't know how she did it. You know that old expression, ‘where there's a will, there's a way?’” Vusi says. “That stuff's true. She just made it happen. My mom made magic happen.”
Vusi’s mother encouraged him to put all his focus towards school, even if that meant he wouldn’t be “popular” or “cool” in the eyes of his fellow classmates. She had extremely high expectations for Vusi. So when his teacher caught him talking when he wasn’t supposed to be talking and sent him to detention, he was terrified.
“I begged her, ‘anything but detention,’” Vusi says. “And she says, ‘I’m in the public speaking society and there’s a competition taking place. If you agree to come and compete, I’ll put you off detention.’”
And the rest is history. At the International Public Speaking Competition, he ranked first in Africa and third in the world for public speaking at only age 17.
Vusi calls public speaking “the single most important skill of any person who sees themselves as a leader in the new age,” adding that a person’s ability to communicate often determines “the extent to which [they] will succeed in life.” Even small things like speaking confidently at an interview, he says, will help that individual in the long run.
Vusi knew he wanted to be a public speaker, but he, like everyone else pursuing the career, had to figure out what exactly he wanted to speak about. Did he want to be a professional speaker who made a living purely from speaking? Or did he want to be a different kind of speaker?
One of Vusi’s other passions lies in entrepreneurship, defined as “the activity of setting up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.” He was immensely successful at business, becoming the CEO of multiple multinational corporations.
This is how Vusi decided to become a business speaker, which he describes as people who “run successful businesses and get invited all over the world to tell people what we do and how we do it.”
Now, at age 35, Vusi is one of the most sought-after speakers in South Africa, with sold-out shows all around the world. Although he says he did not plan to live a public life, he is grateful for where he is and wants to help future generations of young South Africans realize their own dreams, just like he did.
The first step? Getting an education.
“Regardless of where the country is now, regarding availability of jobs and economic growth, we need more young Black people who are able to fend for themselves and think for themselves,” Vusi says. “And a big part of that is just getting an education.”