Contestants on Cell C’s Hangman will have to prove their mettle through a series of gruelling challenges but will also have to show honesty and transparency to win the approval of the ‘Backers’; captains of industry and investment with keen business acumen and ruthless standards including economist Dr Iraj Abedian.
Born to humble beginnings in a rural village in Iran to a family of subsistence farmers, Dr Abedian learned from an early age that the only way to escape that life was to apply himself to his learning. He scored top marks at school and won scholarships, which eventually led him to South Africa after the fall of the Shah of Iran.
“I grew up in a village without water, sanitation and electricity,” recalls Dr Abedian. “We were a poor family so I had to work my way up and the only way to do that was to excel and be one of the top students. This led me to getting a place at a university in South Africa.”
He started his academic career at the Univeristy of Cape Town. Abedian soon wanted to expand his borders beyond the Western Cape and he took up a lecturing position at the Univeristy of Trankie (nowadays Walter Sisulu University) in Mthatha whilst studygin towards his masters degree. He took the opportunity to explore the diversity of our cultures..
“I spent more than a year – literally on horseback – going from village to village, understanding the economy, trying to quantify – as part of my master’s degree – what happens in a subsistence economy. How do people blend factors of production and what type of productivity they get. That helped me a great deal to understand first hand the structural duality of the South African economy.”
He says that what he saw was a hard life, but very human one. “At no point did I feel unwelcome. People embraced me, accepted me and I loved them and I loved what I was doing, because it was so educational for me. It wasn’t just economics it was also a blend of humanities – sociology, anthropology – and I found it very exciting. I had come from a background that was in some way similar to what I was experiencing in the Transkei.”
He quickly ascended the academic ranks, culminating in an appointment as Professor of Economics at UCT. Sought after by the Mandela cabinet, Dr Abedian was asked to serve in an advisory capacity on the RDP White paper GEAR, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission. His corporate life saw him serve as the chief economist for Standard Bank and he later founded the Pan-African Capital Holdings and Pan-African Investmnet and Research Services.
After doing his PHD in Canada Dr Abedian returned to South Africa to work with the ANC: “I was privileged to be invited to join different think tanks and different policy formulations and then I went into joining the team to draw up the RDP White Paper.”
It proved to be a life-changing experience for Dr Abedian.
“Very seldom in your professional life do you get an opportunity where your country is changing from one regime to another and which needs completely new matters of thinking in Economics. And even less seldom in your lifetime you’ll get somebody such as Madiba leading the transition.”
Abedian’s experience has taught him that economics must also be about morality. “To me, it’s about an underpinning of moral values as forefathers of modern economics told us back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The fact that modern global environment has deviated from that has caused an enormous amount of pain socio-politically. It is really a vindication that we have to go back to the basics of spiritual and moral principles.”
Abedian explains entrepreneurship: “Spiritually, entrepreneurship is everywhere. No country, no part of human beings is denied the spirit of entrepreneurship. The question is do we have a favourable and supportive socio-political and economic environment that unlocks that capability? Have we done enough to cultivate and promote entrepreneurship in the country? No. But that doesn’t mean that the spirit of entrepreneurship doesn’t exist. But we need to distinguish between the two, correct our failures of the past, and jointly build the future, a much better future for all within the nation“
He strongly believes that South Africa has the opportunity, in terms of its broad natural resource base, together with human entrepreneurship, to be one of the most successful countries in the world.
” I believe as a society we should learn from our mistakes. We have to do the right thing and have absolutely no doubt that if we put the right settings in place, the entrepreneurs will multiply, innovators will emerge and human capability will shine.”
Dr Abedian became involved, as a ‘Backer’, in Hangman to help with emerging innovators. “We will discover people out there who have ideas with potential beyond their situations. We will also learn for ourselves how to enhance entrepreneurship better. I’m excited when I see new things, when I see young people having a new vision.”
So what is this successful man’s advice for budding entrepreneurs? “Success in business is a complex process. It’s not just about having the technology or having an idea. Be excited about what inspires you and what you have innovated but, at the same time recognise upfront that you need complementary skills, be it on the financial side, be it on the marketing side, be it on the networking side.” This is key to shortening the journey to success in his mind.
“A lot of the time people have wonderful ideas, wonderful entrepreneurial initiative but they are so narrow and they are so protective that they don’t invite in complementary skills to turn that idea into a business,” he concludes.