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Five Questions with Social Innovator Philile Shongwe

Master of International Development Policy student Philile Shongwe founded Govuka, a nonprofit based in Eswatini that teaches a proven sexual health curriculum to young girls so they can avoid unwanted pregnancy and HIV infection. In addition to placing in the top 12 finalists of this year’s prestigious Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge, Govuka also won the Women Innovator Prize. Here, she shares stories and takeaways from her entrepreneurial journey so far.

What factors contributed to your decision to become an entrepreneur?

Prior to founding Govuka, I had spent several years working as a development consultant in East and West Africa. I invested a lot of my energy and thinking towards answering very technical questions that I felt did not always translate to improved lives on the ground. I wanted to change that and use some of the lessons I had learned from my consulting work to execute, learn, and impact lives in a more direct way, and becoming a social entrepreneur seemed like a good way to start.

How has being at Duke impacted your entrepreneurship journey?

When I applied for the Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) at Duke, I was excited to explore the focus area in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. As a new entrepreneur, I was looking for a program that would allow me to explore what entrepreneurship and innovation is, in a flexible way. I’ve been able to get that introduction, as well as key connections to the world of social innovation through Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. My first semester, I made the fortuitous decision to take Matt Nash’s Social Innovation class, which accelerated my learning and connected me to so many opportunities that have brought me even closer to realizing Govuka’s mission. My first year at Duke has been busy, to say the least. I applied for the D-prize and won, I joined the Student Founder Program, took Social Innovation, then Jamie Jones’s “New Ventures Development” class, applied for the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge prize and became a finalist. It’s been an incredible ride and it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of many great humans at Duke. Special shout-out to Taylor Conger [Program Manager of the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator], who continues to give of her time to helping me grow as an entrepreneur!

Philile Shongwe, right, and Thandwa Maphalala, Communications Director for Govuka
Philile Shongwe, right, and Thandwa Maphalala, Communications Director for Govuka

What’s a particular challenge you’ve faced so far with Govuka? How have you or will you tackle that challenge?

Eswatini’s problem with sugar daddies and their role in accelerating teenage pregnancies and new HIV infections in the country is complex to say the least. As my Communications Director [Thandwa Maphalala] has often said, what we are trying to do is difficult, yet necessary. One challenge for us is making sure our solution is sufficiently addressing both the social and economic dynamics or the problem, while also remaining socially acceptable in a conservative context. The best way we can achieve this delicate balance is by continuing to engage the girls we want to work with, so we empathize and co-generate solutions that have the most impact potential.

Describe your experience with the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge and what you’ll take away from it.

I’ve really enjoyed the FGSIC. I’ve been impressed with the quality of the programming even in the virtual format. Apart from Govuka’s assigned pitch days, I also received 1-on-1 coaching from Debi Kleiman and learned more about managing personal finances while building a startup. From the judges’ feedback, I learned that we need to get creative about Govuka’s business model to better deliver value to our target users.

What advice or resources would have been most helpful to get at the beginning of your entrepreneurship journey?

The following things stick out for me:

  • Having a great mentor early on in your journey. You’ll certainly get a lot of feedback/opinions whenever you pitch or just talk about your venture—but nothing beats having a true thought partner to be an encouraging sounding board along the way.
  • Some training on putting together a financial model. It is arguably the most daunting task new/non-MBA founders must do.

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