What can entrepreneurs learn from Mandela's 'Long Walk To Freedom'


Nelson Mandela has left a lasting legacy of peace, harmony and equality in South Africa, and indeed, left an indelible mark on world history. In an amazing example of life coming full circle, the movie ‘Long Walk To Freedom’ based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name was released around the same time as he passed away. The movie chronicles the life of Mandela, warts and all, from the time he was a naïve young lawyer focused on his own success to his evolution into the legend he eventually became. The book does not shy away from his foibles – be it him walking out on his first wife when the marriage failed or his guilt at not having saved a young drunk from police atrocities in apartheid era South Africa.

As I watched the movie a few days ago, I realized that this legend’s journey had something in it for everyone, but more so for entrepreneurs who are trying to create something out of nothing, who are trying to create a change in society, much like Mandela did. Here are five things that I think can be invaluable lessons for entrepreneurs:

1.      Celebrate the small victories

Mandela was convicted of inciting people to strike against apartheid and sentenced to life imprisonment. One of the first things that happened after he was taken to the Robben Island prison was handing out of the prison uniforms. The Blacks were handed shorts while the others were handed trousers. Mandela and his band of comrades protested against this small injustice over the next few years. This period was marked by violence by Afrikaner guards, intense physical labor, almost inhuman conditions in the 8x7 feet cell. But they never gave up their demands for the same prison uniforms as the Afrikaners. So finally when the full-length trousers were given a few years later, the band of prisoners erupted in joy, clapping and thumping the prison walls, to celebrate their small but undeniable victory.

As an entrepreneur, daily life can be pretty exhausting, with small setbacks seemingly amplified by our minds. It is pretty important to celebrate the small milestones – a big client sign up, certain number of users reached, or even a colleague’s birthday. This can boost the morale and set you up for the next few days.

2.      Learn to let go

During the course of his 28 years in his prison, Mandela watched helplessly as life passes him by outside the barbed wires. His mother, who he looked up to, passed away. His first-born son, who he was very attached to was killed in a road accident and despite his requests to attend the funeral, was not allowed to do so. Imagine this – two of your most loved ones in the world pass away, you know of it, but you can’t as much as lift a finger to either save them or be on their bedside in those last few moments. In a heart-breaking scene in the movie, he receives the letter informing him of his son’s death as he is toiling in the scorching sun in the prison courtyard. He breaks down, weeps out of helplessness, and then carries on living. One day at a time.

There are things you can control, and then there are things that are out of your control. You can’t change the mind of a customer who canceled the contract at the invoicing stage; you can’t change the mind of an employee who decides to quit your startup and take up a cushy job at a corporate; let it go. Look at the things you can control – they need your attention desperately.

3.      The organization is bigger than an individual

As Mandela and his comrades entered middle age in the prison, South Africa was burning. Anti-apartheid protests and violence was spreading. Not just violence by the Blacks against the ruling Afrikaner, but also violence within various communities of Blacks. When a fresh group of young prisoners was brought into the Robben Island prison and they saw Mandela tending to his beloved tomato garden, one of the revolutionaries erupted in anger – “You are tending to your tomatoes while the rest of South Africa is burning”. Mandela’s response was simple – “Alone, you can accomplish very little. But together, the African National Congress (ANC) can bring about change”. He was not swept up in emotion, but retained his strong belief that sustainable change can be brought about only by the ANC.

4.      Having a vision is not enough – sell it!

During the last few years of his prison life, the Afrikaners realized that they could not ‘rule’ over the Blacks anymore. So they started involving Mandela in talks with various ministries on the way ahead. His wife Winnie Mandela thought he was ‘selling out’ to the Afrikaner by talking to them; his own comrades who had been loyal to him for decades, thought that they might assassinate him or corrupt him; practically no one supports him. But his vision was clear – that to bring about lasting peace, the one unshakeable tenet would be that all people be treated equally; that the Blacks seeking revenge against the Afrikaner for centuries of atrocities would not be the solution. So he went ahead, while selling his vision to his colleagues and the Afrikaner ministers alike. This was his greatest achievement, perhaps even surpassing his nearly three decades spent in prison in protest against racism.

As entrepreneurs we need to sell ourselves every day, at every occasion provided. That is probably the single biggest sales opportunity that is underused by many of us.

5.      Let your experiences make you better, not bitter

Nelson’s wife Winnie was his partner in every sense of the word. While he was in prison, she experienced untold miseries. Being constantly picked up from her home by the cops for ‘interrogation’, beaten up, kept away from her young daughters, and once even kept in captivity without trial for 16 months – she had an equally tough life outside. As the years went by, lives took different trajectories. Winnie became bitter, angry and hostile against the Afrikaners, inciting the party members to extreme violence, putting the social fabric at risk. Nelson sought lasting solutions, not just revenge. They finally parted ways, with Nelson taking control of the ANC and saying that he still loved the Winnie he fell in love with, not the person she had become.

The fact remains that a huge majority of startups fail. If your startup fails, it might seem like there isn’t even a trace of the dream for which you gave away years of your life to. But that is not the case. The startup makes you grow as a human, gain invaluable wisdom and life lessons. Who would want to trade that away for anything? Get better, not bitter – no matter the outcome of your startup.

What has inspired you? Look forward to hearing from you.


Updates from around the world