With two decades of experience in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech industry under her belt—a thriving period in which she launched over 30 successful wireless and Internet applications — Maria Pienaar is the perfect person to usher in the next generation of world-changing small businesses from South Africa.
After starting her career in the data network stem of Telkom, helping to shape the country’s communications market,
she was part of the team that launched Vodacom—now one of the most successful arms of Vodafone’s international network. To add to an already impressive CV, Pienaar also had a notable stint at Cell C as CIO. Despite many challenges, she helped launch the first Wi-Fi Calling service in Africa, and initiated innovative partnerships with the likes of Facebook.
At the end of last year, Blue Label Telecoms and Blue Pencil Management launched a boutique business accelerator programme, Blue Label Ventures, and it was no surprise when Pienaar was called upon to join as founding director. She works closely with co-founder and long- term business partner Tallies Taljaard, who has been commercialising, coaching and mentoring scale-up technology businesses for more than a decade.
Given Pienaar’s in-depth knowledge of the telecoms and technology ecosystem, she is an “invaluable” talent to have on board, says Taljaard, in identifying early- growth companies in which to invest. Though Pienaar adds, “My tech background is not the most important factor in deciding where to invest, but it does help us in evaluating the product and market when we make technology investments. It’s important to have a diverse investment team with business, financial and technology expertise when assessing tech investments.”
The investment process is extensive and involves assessing market value, guaranteeing market demand, and exhaustively understanding the technology platform — with one eye always on international and scalable growth. “We get involved in the global strategy with the management teams of the companies in which we invest,” says Pienaar. “It’s important to bring a ‘think big’ approach to accelerating scale-up businesses—and having enterprise experience and exposure doesn’t hurt.”
The accelerator aims to invest in up to 10 companies over the next three years,in diverse markets ranging from enterprise security and business process automation, to machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Pienaar is well aware of industry barriers that stif le innovation and creativity, bemoaning the “not- invented-here syndrome” in particular for holding back South African tech development. It refers to the problematic resistance of open innovation by large and small organisations seeking to sustain a competitive edge. Those afflicted suffer by looking the other way when ideas or technology, intrinsically valuable to their own endeavours, emerge. “We also need to get corporates closer to the incubation phase of tech. Their input, validation and feedback is critical to enable startups to execute on the com- mercialisation of their business,” she adds.
A self-proclaimed “life- long learner”, Pienaar diligently keeps up to date with the insights of thought leaders in the world of business, technology and a number of other diverse sectors—educating herself and her peers by bringing innovative and opposing perspectives to the table.
“I’m a personal coach to early-stage entrepreneurs and am passionate about the personal development of people. To create successful companies, we need motivated, creative and innovated leaders.”
Driving communication between colleagues throughout all stages of development, she adds, is indispensable to the creative and productive enterprise.“According to a Stanford Research Institute study done in the 2000s, 80% of the way we learn is through collaboration and discussions with peers in our networks. [Harvard Business School professor] Clay Christensen says two of the skills in the DNA of an innovator are questioning and collaboration.”
While the entrepreneurial community here has creativity in abundance, they “lack the financial and other key support structures to grow and scale”. “We need to look at separate support structures to grow and scale lifestyle-type entrepreneurs — who will create the majority of jobs in the country—and technology entrepreneurs, who are looking at scaling globally.”
With Maria Pienaar in the driving seat, Blue Label Ventures is sure to deliver on its promise of providing a much-needed platform for developing innovative, fast- growing tech businesses into globally competitive companies.