Profile of Purpose: What About My People?

Individual success alone isn’t enough for this Botswana-based entrepreneur — he wants to pave the way to success for all of his people.

January 18, 2022

Meet Lerang Selolwane, co-founder of Lucient Engineering, a company that’s bringing water, power, roads, and rail to the people of Botswana. By constructing and maintaining the essential infrastructure his country and people need, Lerang is also creating pathways out of poverty.

Selolwane is not your typical 20-something entrepreneur. He began his career working for the largest diamond mining company in the world — a job that literally took him around the globe. It was an exciting time, but he realized that his priorities were somewhere else… specifically, back in Botswana.

“These experiences I’m having are great, but what about my people? Who’s going to build a London for my people? And after a while, it goes from being a great experience to not being so great because you realize that this isn’t yours. Your people, people who look like you, don’t get to have this,” he said.

So, he came back home to build a business that would make an impact on his country and people. He started by focusing on the basics — roads, water, power, and transportation.

Selolwane explains“When you don’t have access to clean, reliable water… when you don’t have access to transportation that can get goods to market… when you don’t have power that allows you to even dream about building a tech or an IT company… everything else just doesn’t happen.”

While Selolwane has recently transitioned out of Lucient Engineering, the company’s work continues. And, in true entrepreneurial spirit, he’s involved in two new ventures designed to drive further economic development in Botswana.

Listen to his mini profile to hear how a strong purpose can drive both value and impact for mission-minded entrepreneurs.

Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.

Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.

Darius Teter: Welcome to Grit & Growth from Stanford Seed. I’m your host, Darius Teter. Thank you for joining us for another installment of our Profiles of Purpose documentary series. These short-form stories are told entirely from the perspective of business owners, and they offer first-hand accounts of the struggles and joys of building impactful businesses in challenging markets.

You’re about to meet Lerang Selolwane, a business leader from Botswana and co-founder of Lucient Engineering. Now, Lerang might not fit your vision of the typical entrepreneur. And while his path hasn’t always been clear, his purpose has been. He wants the people of Botswana to thrive. And his work at Lucient has built the infrastructure to make that possible.

Lerang will share the opportunities that took him around the world, as well as the realizations that brought him back home. We’ll see how a company can be built to impact communities in multiple ways. Because Lucient isn’t just changing Botswana through the products it provides; it’s also a model for how companies in the country serve their employees.

Here’s Lerang Selolwane.

Lerang Selolwane: The stereotype of an entrepreneur is a 20-something-year-old whiz kid who figures out something in his university dorm. It’s not often, you know, the mid-thirties, married with a family on the way, with a house and a mortgage. I certainly wasn’t a born entrepreneur. I had to learn this, but we knew that if we got this right, we could change the industry in our particular corner of the world.

My name is Lerang Selolwane. I’m an electromechanical engineer and I come from a small, wonderful country called Botswana. I run a company called Lucient Engineering and Construction. We essentially do the maintenance and physical asset management that companies either don’t want to do or find too expensive to do in-house. Just to give an example of the size, a dragline weighs about 15,000 tons and would cost about a billion dollars and it would take a crew of about 300 people two months to fix it.

In my part of the world, the companies that provide the most scholarships are mining and engineering companies. So I was literally told: You want to go to university, you’ve got to go study this engineering thing. I never fell in love with the engineering, technical aspect of it, but I fell in love with what engineering opened up for me, the ability to actually build things and solve problems.

I worked for a company called De Beers, which is the largest diamond mining company in the world. Before the De Beers came along, people weren’t using diamonds for engagement rings. “Diamond is forever” is considered one of the greatest marketing slogans ever. The entire diamond industry was created by De Beers. It was a really interesting company to work for. It gave me some fantastic opportunities. You can imagine a young boy from Botswana, you get to London. It’s fabulous. I went to most of the world’s great cities, New York, Miami, Toronto, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Dubai, you name it. We got to go there.

Darius Teter: Lerang’s experiences abroad were formative. They helped him realize what his priorities were, but also where.

Lerang Selolwane: At first you’re impressed. And then you start looking and saying, well, these places are great, these experiences I’m having are great, but what about my people? Who’s going to build a London for my people? And after a while, it goes from being a great experience to not being so great because you realize that this isn’t yours. Your people, people who look like you, don’t get to have this.

When you don’t have access to clean, reliable water … when you don’t have access to transportation that can get goods to market … when you don’t have power that allows you to even dream about building a tech or an IT company — everything else just doesn’t happen. And one of the things that has prevented my part of the world from taking off is that we still haven’t gotten the basics right.

You’re not going to build a YouTube or Google if people don’t have enough food to eat. You’re not going to build a General Electric if there are no roads. So it’s not just utilities, it is the foundation upon which everything else needs to be built. So that was the real kick in the butt that made me want to find out what else I could do.

Darius Teter: Lerang found there were also improvements to be made in how companies themselves operated in Botswana.

Lerang Selolwane: In many ways, we brought a level of professionalism to our industry in our part of the world. Our industry offered people short-term contracts. People would work day-to-day, month-to-month. And we were amongst the first to offer long-term contracted employment. We provide pathways out of poverty and pathways into the middle class for the majority of not just our employees, but the smaller businesses, SMEs, in our supply chain, who are then able to offer the same to their people.

Our industry is highly skill intensive and not just the academic skills that you acquire in your training, but the practical skill that you get from experience. And we are a bit of a talent factory. We give an excellent education to everyone who works for us or works with us.

Botswana is a small economy, it’s 2 million people and there’s nothing we can immediately do about that. So in order for us to grow economically, we have to change our mindset.

And I truly believe that all aspiring entrepreneurs in Botswana need to look to the rest of the continent for opportunities to grow their business. I get nervous about this because the vision sounds really, really crazy. We’re an engineering company and currently we construct and maintain equipment.

My vision is simple. I want to bring water, power, roads, rail to my people, and that’s why I wake up every morning.

Darius Teter: I’d like to thank Lerang Selolwane.

Since this interview, Lerang and his co-founder, Masego Mokitimi, have stepped down from their roles at Lucient Engineering, successfully handing over the reins to the leaders of the future. Together with other Botswana-based Seed alumni, they have recently started two new ventures: Tsoga Africa and Sunrise Beverages.

Tsoga Africa loosely translated means “African awakening” in the local language, Setswana. It’s a network of accomplished entrepreneurs who leverage their experience, resources, and networks to drive economic development in Botswana by nurturing the country’s next generation of entrepreneurs.

One of the first initiatives to emerge from Tsoga Africa is Sunrise Beverages, a company focused on fast-moving consumer goods. The goal is to improve Botswana’s food security by building a local FMCG manufacturing ecosystem in Botswana, and thereby reducing dependence on imports. To date, they’ve raised just under $1 million and are looking to raise a further $3 million over the next year.

To find out more about Lucient Engineering and Lerang’s next chapter, visit the links in our show notes. And to stay current with all that’s happening at Stanford Seed, visit our website at seed.stanford.edu, where you can also follow our social media channels.

As we develop new episodes for season two, we invite you to participate in a paid focus group to help shape the future of the podcast. I’ve included a survey link in the show notes where you can share your thoughts and your availability for the focus groups. It is stanfordseed.co/podcastsurvey. I am really looking forward to learning more about you, our listeners, and to delivering content that helps you grow your business, so thanks for taking the time to do that.

Darius Teter: Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed. Laurie Fuller researched and developed content for this episode, with additional research by Jeff Prickett. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator, and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

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