“Life,” says Bruce Dube, “gets to be hard. But it’s a beautiful struggle.”
He should know. Today, the 27-year-old rules a pan-African digital media empire that incorporates youth portals, e-commerce sites, gaming and video channels, recruitment resources, and classifieds platforms. But his beautiful struggle to the top — marked by failure, hunger, and even death — has been as taxing as it is inevitable.
The Youth Village and Youth Jobs founder was born to be an entrepreneur — and raised to have a social conscience. His single mother, a self-made businesswoman who was “very focused and very determined to make a change for both herself and the community”, helped him realise that “anyone could start anything with pretty much nothing”.
That’s exactly what he had to do when she — and his father — passed away within a year of each other, throwing the then 18-year-old student’s life into turmoil.
“It was a very difficult time,” recalls Dube who, unable to find a job that covered his university fees, was forced to drop out twice. “But it really compelled me to develop more focus, to be more determined, to really want to see my business dreams succeed because that was my only option. That was the only way out.”
His first step: a 9-to-5 stint as a media project coordinator. It was short-lived. “I’m a creative. I’m at my happiest when creating, and in that work environment there was so much red tape to deal with,” elaborates the Pretoria-based businessman.
“It was a great job but my real aim was to build a digital media enterprise. I wanted the freedom to be able to mould my dreams,” continues one of the Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans for 2014.
“It got to the point where I was really depressed about having to go to work and one day I just got the balls to say: ‘You know what, I’m done with this.’ So I quit. I didn’t have any capital and I just used whatever resources I had — and that’s something I think I drew from my mom.”
And so iConcept MedIA, a web development and audio visual firm, was born. Youth Village — which today has roughly half a million users per month — became its first successful project.
“My feeling was that when you look at media trends, so many platforms focus on entertainment. But I saw a window of opportunity to create a platform that could touch on issues that affect young people — like employment, education, entrepreneurship, and health,” says the man named one of 2012’s top 60 Global Changemakers by the British Council.
“We knew we could impact positively on the lives of young people and at the same time actually build a sustainable business because we didn’t really have competitors. We also knew we could potentially go into other markets: Zimbabwe, Botswana, Nigeria. That was the dream.”
The reality? That was somewhat different — at first.
“I had a series of failures,” the managing director of Nine80 Digital, B Squared Ideas, and iConcept MedIA freely admits. “There was a point where things just weren’t working and I pretty much lost everything. I lost my car, my office, my house, and I’d wake up every morning wondering what I was going to sell so I could get through the day.”
Unable to pay back money loaned by friends and family, and often going to sleep hungry, he resorted to running his business from the local Wimpy. They had free wi-fi.
“I learned to really persevere,” the perpetual optimist remembers of that long year. “I just kept pushing. I knew what I really wanted to do, I knew what would make me happy, and that was to build my own digital media company.”
The struggle strengthened not just his resilience but his pragmatism.
“Now I’m so focused on investing for the future because when you’ve gone through hard times, you know it’s not a place you want to be in again,” explains the British Council Global Changemaker. “You worry so much about wanting to prepare yourself better so that, if things don’t go so well at some point, you always have a backup plan, you have some other investments, you’ve diversified your portfolio.”
Unsurprisingly then, growth and diversification are his focus for the immediate future.
”I’m constantly exploring new technologies that we could integrate into our platforms to make them more efficient and effective. And I’m very big on collaboration, so I’m constantly trying to find ways to identify good partners that are reliable and add value to our products,” reveals the man selected by UNAIDS as one of the country’s Young Movers and Shakers in 2013.
“I’m really excited about my company Nine80 Digital which is working on establishing a really solid footprint across the continent, creating solutions not only for South Africa but a number of African countries,” adds Dube, who already has interests in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.
“I’m also thinking of diversifying outside the typical platform we generally have. We’ve already started moving into more cultural fields, we’ve started moving into classifieds, and we’re also really identifying print opportunities in countries where traditional media is still excelling,” elaborates the man who clearly wants to have a positive impact on as many young people as possible.
“I feel that’s my responsibility,” he explains simply.
Bruce Dube’s mother, who never lived to see her son’s success, would definitely approve.
- This article originally appeared in Man, the men’s lifestyle magazine of the Foschini group.