Confession time: even the most assiduous public relations professionals (including myself) have a weakness for those shiny “professional/business/leader of the year” lists and awards. You know the ones — they litter your LinkedIn feed, boasting the latest prodigies and game-changers.

These accolades are a PR dream, offering a neat little package to highlight a person or business, boost brand reputation, and seize media attention. Frankly, it’s often easier to craft a nomination than to meticulously write a captivating media release and pitch it to journalists. It’s especially tempting when a client is willing to shell out some cash for a shot at the limelight.

Of late, we’ve seen an uptick in “businessperson/lawyer/innovator/dressmaker of the year” awards with a price tag for entry. As this trend picks up steam, the integrity of these awards starts to waver. I’m not saying all lists and awards are a sham. There are credible ones, and even the less-than-credible can be useful for business growth and marketing. But a healthy dose of scepticism never hurt anyone.

As a (barely-) under-30 professional, my LinkedIn feed is swamped each year with fanfare about the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. I’ve always considered this list a cut above the rest, especially since it doesn’t charge for entry.

The 30 Under 30 list has morphed into Forbes’ golden goose. Companies and even governments pour millions into sponsoring 30 Under 30 events worldwide, attracting hordes of fresh-faced (and camera-ready) influencers, entrepreneurs, and tech prodigies.

The American lists spotlight 600 business and industry movers and shakers, with 30 selected across twenty industries each. Asia and Europe feature ten categories each, totalling 300 individuals per region, while Africa presents a single list of 30 without distinct categories. The nomination process is open, allowing anyone to nominate themselves or others.

With Africa’s list condensed into a single line-up for an entire continent, you’d expect a dazzling showcase of the region’s brightest minds. While there are certainly remarkable individuals on the list, each year I can’t help but notice the glaring absence of some exceptional young South African entrepreneurs. Are they opting out? Is there something we’re missing?

Instead of unravelling that mystery — risking offense to some 30 Under 30ers I know personally and admire greatly — I’ve decided to resolve my discomfort about the list by spotlighting some unsung heroes. These young entrepreneurs haven’t made it onto Forbes’ glossy pages but deserve a standing ovation for their talent, innovation, and tenacity.

Nikhal Narismulu is a 26-year-old entrepreneur based in Sandton. He is the CEO of Arc Technology, a company specializing in protecting workers in hazardous environments by manufacturing, sourcing, and supplying safety equipment and workwear. In addition, he founded KEHNIK, a corporate solutions company offering services like packaging, branding, and corporate supplies.

Instead of rushing into a corporation like most of his fellow economics and finance graduates, Nikhal decided to roll up his sleeves and navigate the business world as an entrepreneur. But he says his education has been a key driver of his success: “By leveraging my analytical skills, recognizing market gaps, and embracing failure, I’ve started to disrupt what are typically very traditional industries. There is lots of reward in taking risks, and I hope other young South Africans with a business education will help build our economy with new companies, instead of thinking their career paths are limited to more traditional journeys like becoming a CA(SA) or CFA”.

Staying with the theme of young entrepreneurial disruption of the finance industry, 26-year-old Capetonian, Michael de la Hunt, is the founder of Ion Capital, a specialized high-performance fund manager seeking to redefine the future of asset management in SA. With his business partner Simryn Andhee, who is perhaps one of South Africa’s most successful female Quantitative Investment Analysts at the age of 25, they are able to cater to exclusive investors seeking a unique approach to wealth preservation and generation. Michael and Simryn’s disruptive bond trading strategy focuses on looking for non-traditional investments, finding opportunities where people don’t usually look.

With their team of special situation experts, Ion Capital travels to the most challenging regions worldwide to secure rare investment opportunities, including Abkhazia in the Caucasus, South Ossetia, and Kazakhstan. “I think Generation Z has a lot to offer,” Michael says. “Our inherent understanding of the digital landscape, learned resilience in the face of economic adversity (having grown up through several recessions), and adaptability in a rapidly changing global environment positions our generation well as businesspeople.”

Sabica Pardesi from Johannesburg, together with business partner Thulani Masebenza, set out to solve a key problem for the US$28 billion African freelancing economy. Those in the gig economy are often paid late, which affects their livelihoods, credit scores and the stability of their business operations. Their brainchild, Moya Money, helps freelancers and their contracting businesses by automating invoices, contracts, and payments, improving operational efficiency, and ensuring timely payments. Over 7 000 freelancers have signed up in a few months.

Sabica speaks excitedly about how one of her clients, Assitej South Africa, is using the platform to bring about social change: “Assitej gives underprivileged kids access to performing arts education and entertainment. We have automated their invoicing so that their freelancers (especially those from rural backgrounds) can make quick, easy, and professional invoices and submit them on time to be paid. Many of them describe a level of financial predictability they have never known before.”

South Africa is crying out for bright ideas and renewed economic vibrancy. It’s crucial to recognize the incredible talent and innovation of young entrepreneurs, regardless of whether they’ve made it onto prestigious lists or not.

I hope I’ll be reading more about young people like Sabica, Thulani, Nikhal, Simryn and Michael, not because they’ve been nominated for a glitzy award, but because journalists have gone out to discover their stories, learn about their businesses, and report on them with pride.

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