Written by: Ummesalama Kanthawala

Ummesalama Kanthawala from Auckland, New Zealand is currently studying science at the University of Otago and has a passion for community service. She is also an aspiring entrepreneur and believes that every human being has the capacity to empower themselves through determination and hard work. In this piece, she talks about her experience being a part of a small business venture while still at high school and why she thinks experiential learning is an essential part of any curriculum to give students a better grasp of practical knowledge in addition to theory.

This year, I was honoured to become part of the Alumni Advisory group for Young Enterprise, a non-profit organisation that inspires young people to discover their potential in business and in life. This role requires me to plan the Young Enterprise scheme programme and find ways to improve it by ensuring that all ethnicities, views and beliefs are adequately represented in social events.

The reason I put my name forward for this role was because of the lasting impact the Young Enterprise programme had on me during my high school years. In Year 12, some friends and I created our own business. It was called ‘Kohine’, which is a Maori term for teenage girls. We chose this name to promote women’s empowerment in the business sphere and to inspire young girls to overcome societal barriers. I was a product designer in the company and made sure that the product development included products which were fair, ethically sourced and environmentally friendly. We then partnered with Kokako, a fair-trade coffee company and made iced coffee to sell. To reduce carbon emission, I ensured that our coffee cups were compostable. Though my team didn’t win the best company award, it was a success because I learned a great deal in the process.

First, I learned that building your own business isn’t a piece of cake; it requires mastering skills such as leadership and communication. This programme, thankfully, has helped me become a confident leader and a better communicator. Today, I can easily approach any stranger and say ‘hi.’ As a result of this, even transitioning to a new city hasn’t been a problem and has enabled me to acquire a position as a class representative for my university papers.

Kohine also made me realise the importance of hard work in the quest to achieve something. As legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi once said: ‘Leaders aren’t born, they are made, and they are made just like anything else, through hard work.’ This is a quote I refer to often. I strongly believe that with a little bit of confidence and a lot of hard work, anyone can reach their goals.

I also discovered the potential of using social media to devise and implement marketing strategies. Working alongside people who are like-minded is crucial when it comes to running a business. Kohine opened my eyes to wonderful social media platforms such as Linkedin and Instagram for promoting my business.

Another skill that I learned through the Young Enterprise programme was public speaking, something I used to admire my seniors doing with confidence and ease. At first, I was terrified to speak in front of a panel of judges for my business pitch. However, first-hand interactions with my seniors in school helped me hone my public speaking skills, which turned out to be a lifelong asset. Nowadays, it is effortless to raise my hand and ask a question in a lecture of 300 people or even converse with higher authorities.

My own endeavour in a business-minded society has taught me that everyone should receive the same opportunities. I think such programmes should be replicated in universities around the world because, as I experienced first-hand, hands-on learning has a greater impact on a student than simply sitting in a two-hour lecture. I fervently believe that when students engage in proactive fieldwork, they are better able to understand theories and apply the knowledge learned in the classroom to the real world.