BY Fast Company 3 MINUTE READ

In addition to the diversity of speakers, Levi’s Pioneer Nation offered a carefully curated line-up of workshops tailored to build young businesses.

The 850 young entrepreneurs (and soon-to-be entrepreneurs) knew something was very different when they walked into the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg last September.

It started with 10-metre high portraits of several of the 40 young entrepreneur speakers gracing the main room. In fact, everywhere one looked there were portraits of South Africa’s amazing young entrepreneurs running businesses today. This definitely wasn’t the science museum they remembered from school trips!

Unlike the recent explosion of events that feature similar line-ups of expert speakers, Levi’s Pioneer Nation offered a fresh slate of backstories and business lessons from a diverse variety of today’s young entrepreneurs. Building on the brand’s own entrepreneurial backstory—the inventor of jeans who saw the gap no one else noticed in the California gold rush of the mid 1800s—Levi’s served as the ideal catalyst for the event. Thanks to Levi Strauss’s entrepreneurial nose, today’s entrepreneurs in every industry “Live in Levi’s”.

Pioneer Nation 2015 started with an unexpected headliner: musical artist, producer and entrepreneur, Riky Rick. He related the long journey behind his “overnight success”, and was candid about the role of preparation, patience and perseverance in his life. And in a surprise twist, he built a new business in five minutes—live and on stage.

It started when a young audience member used the Q&A period to pitch a Riky Rick merchandise business idea. While pointing out that the guy could not produce a business plan immediately, nor did he seem to have the requisite expertise to deliver on this idea (reinforcing Riky’s message of always being prepared), the rapper called on those in the audience who could fill the expertise gaps to meet with him and the guy backstage. Riky’s closing remark was: “Let’s get this party started!”, which summarised the theme of the day.

Inspired by the impact of TED talks, Pioneer Nation’s young presenters shared their very personal startup and stay-up business journeys. From farmers building their own brands to online fashion retailers, from app designers to inner-city tour guides, from inventors to educators . . . each one of the 2015 Pioneer speakers inspired audiences with insights and truths about what it takes to persevere and succeed in running one’s own show.

Audience members barely got a rest as they scurried between the three stages all-day long, trying to get the most from the 40-deep line-up of speakers. And for those who wanted some face time, Pioneer Nation offered “Sofa Sessions” in a purpose-built room in the venue, where speakers held ‘office hours’ to answer specific questions and give personal mentorship advice. The magic of Pioneer Nation is that audiences and speakers are more or less the same age, so this is peer-to-peer stuff—the ideal recipe for learning and networking.

In addition to the diversity of speakers, Levi’s Pioneer Nation offered a carefully curated line-up of workshops tailored to build young businesses. Sessions hosted by Facebook, Fast Company SA Magazine, the Red Bull Amaphiko Social Entrepreneurs Academy, storyteller Nthato Molefe and Afri-entrepreneur Shaka Sisulu were packed out with eager minds. The session with angel investors and venture capitalists painted a clear picture of the financing landscape for those proven businesses looking to scale up.

Somehow the event also managed to squeeze in the finals of the THUD/Pioneer Nation University Business Pitch Battles. One lucky lady walked away with R10 000 in startup funding and a new “wardrobe for the entrepreneur”, courtesy of Levi’s.

The closing speaker, Soweto Gold’s Ndumiso Mdlala, shared why he decided to jump ship as SAB’s top brewer, to risk it as the founder and owner of the country’s only black-owned beer company. But ever true to the beer-guy spirit, he invited everyone in the crowd to share one of his finest, and network to a beautiful JHB sunset as Pioneer Nation 2015 wound to a close.

We’re assured 2016’s event will be bigger and better; big news is that it will now be a two-day event on October 14 and 15, again hosted by the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre. Most of the 2016 Pioneer speakers will be new to the stage, made possible because of the exploding growth of young people starting and building businesses even in tough economic conditions. And there’ll be some new surprises on offer as well.

Don’t miss out! To book one of the 1 500 limited-edition tickets, preregister on