This month we interview Michelle Kleu, Managing Director at Innovation City Cape Town, a unique tech innovation and development hub on Longkloof Street that aims to provide a community, learning platform, and meeting arena for local change-makers to accelerate their growth and innovate with impact. They also recently hosted the Digital Divas event in Cape Town.
Describe yourself in 3 words:
Tell us a bit more about Innovation City and its mission.
Innovation City is a growing, digital-first ecosystem where startups, scale-ups, corporates and VCs have the opportunity to interact, collaborate and ultimately innovate. We are passionate that Cape Town should not just be the tech capital of Africa, but one of the tech go-to places in the world. My favourite description of our “what” is by our co-founder, Kieno Kammies: “Innovation City is like a Tinder for Business where possibility babies are made”.
You have a diverse background having worked in sports, management consulting, travel, food tech and start-up environments. How have these experiences helped you in your new role?
Our space necessitates that we draw from many industries to create something that makes sense for our members (from hospitality to community building, operations; events, marketing and finance). Having been involved in a bunch of unrelated sectors and in different roles has helped me get stuck into things that I might not be 100% certain of, but have the confidence that our team will be able to sort it out and produce something wonderful.
What are the main barriers to entry for start-ups in South Africa and how can Innovation City help?
It would depend on what product or service the startup is focusing on. I’m going to generalise and would say market size, access to funding and talent. Being part of our ecosystem enables connection to possibilities – we’ve had a few instances where startups have made connections with corporates and VCs in our community that have resulted in a positive impact on their business.
In recent years we have seen many investors pull out of South Africa due to the unique challenges our country faces. What role does Innovation City play in changing the negative perception of South Africa as an investment destination?
It’s not ideal and we are faced with unique challenges. Our co-founder, Stephan Ekbergh is Swedish but is probably more passionate about South Africa than even the most patriotic local. At Innovation City we have a number of expats that share this sentiment and have dug in their heels and are investing and helping startups. Innovation City makes a point of celebrating South African talent and their stories. South Africans like a good work-around – and will make a plan to succeed and thrive.
Tell us a bit more about Innovation City’s affiliation with Epicenter Stockholm.
Epicenter was Stephan’s inspiration for Innovation City. He is good friends with the co-founders of Epicenter and convinced them that the concept would work well in Cape Town. They were reluctant at first, which is understandable, however have been incredibly helpful and supportive during our first year and a half of operations. Our members have free access to Epicenter and Epicenter’s members have free access to Innovation City.
You recently hosted the ‘Digital Divas Summit’ in Cape Town. What were the highlights/key findings from the event?
Digital Divas was our first Summit. The drive to produce it was two-fold. Firstly we didn’t just want to do another boring summit and secondly, most tech events we’ve attended are heavily skewed towards men in terms of attendance, topics and panels (I may or may not be generalising). My highlights were that:
Your view on the future landscape for digital startups in South Africa?
I believe the future looks bright as we have a growing digital startup/scale-up community. Some of the most profound global tech and leadership talent have come from South Africa. There will be more of these incredible individuals to follow.
The thing I love most about what I do is…
The people, the energy, the diversity of businesses I get to be exposed to every day and the freedom to try new concepts without red tape.
When I’m not working, I’m…
At some sort of sporting event with my husband supporting our two boys.
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