Encouraging very young entrepreneurs to use the strength of their weak ties

By Tanya Mutepfa ( Young Entrepreneur Portfolio Manager at The Anzisha Prize)

Seven years ago, I came across a book that in my opinion shaped my former years and changed the trajectory of my life. The book by Megan Jay titled ‘The Defining Decade- Why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them” is one I would highly recommend for any twenty-something-year-old.

While I may not be in my twenties anymore, I have been reflecting on, working with Very Young Entrepreneurs (VYEs) in their early twenties to build and develop job and cash generative businesses as part of the Anzisha Prize Venture Building Team. In the past three months, I have been extensively involved in a project that assists a group of selected VYE’s in securing, scheduling and taking part in a 7- 10 day shadow program/ internship. The Shadow Program itself is designed to expose VYE’s from the Anzisha Prize Fellowship to successful businesses whose operations offer the opportunity to “see the movie” and learn best practices from growing enterprises in Africa.

Megan Jay defines a weak tie, as “people we have met, or are connected to somehow, but do not currently know well. Weak ties are also our former employers or professors and other associations not promoted to close friends. Weak ties give us access to something fresh.” She further states that often, information and opportunity spread farther and faster through weak ties, as weak ties have fewer overlapping contacts. Weak ties are like bridges you cannot see all the way across, so there is no telling where they might lead. In her work, Megan Jay postulates that young people, particularly twentysomethings trying to define and develop themselves professionally and personally, should reach out to weak ties that they do not necessarily know well for opportunities for growth and development.

Given the challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, most shadows occurred in-country to limit the risks associated with travelling. VYEs were given the agency to approach a company they admired and wanted to learn from What we discovered is that VYEs who were successful in securing shadow host opportunities on time relied strongly on their weak ties. Similarly, when our team had to step in to assist those who had not found any opportunities themselves, the successful options predominantly came through a weak tie.

I am sure you must be wondering from a practical perspective what do weak ties look like and how one can encourage VYE’s or young people to make the most of their weak links. Within our ecosystem, weak ties can look like other contacts or individuals you have within other accelerators, incubators, or other entrepreneurship programs. For VYEs, this can be older entrepreneurs or contacts they have met at conferences etc. They can similarly rely on the Anzisha and African Leadership Academy ecosystem.

From a psychological point of view, particularly given this current pandemic we are in, altruism has had a way of being more apparent. Most people will indeed agree to help other young people by agreeing to favour them, as long as it is not a heavy burden. If you find yourself in a space where you work with young people, encourage them to use their weak ties and seek out to use your weak ties to help them advance a little further. After all, the BBC reports that whilst close friends are important- research has shown that building networks of casual acquaintances or weak ties can boost happiness, knowledge and a sense of belonging.