Bejay Mulenga got his start in entrepreneurship at just 14 years of age when he took over his school’s Tuck Shop to gain practical experience in business. Since then he has become a serial entrepreneur, creating a series of successful businesses under his brand Supa Network all before his 25th birthday. Bejay channels his passion for entrepreneurship into serving his community with both for profit and non-profit ventures. Bejay’s dedication to bettering himself and his community makes him a great role model and mentor for his Gen Z following. Listen to hear his inspiring story and unique insight on building businesses at such a young age.
Bejay Mulenga: [00:00:00] I need to make every day count, make every year count, make every month count. So I tried to actively live my life and run businesses that have a bigger purpose than making cash. But I don’t feel fulfilled if I’ve went 30 days and I haven’t done something greater than me…
Sam: [00:00:19] Throughout time, brands have grappled with the question of how to relate to young people. The key advice is oriented around phrases like “be genuine” and “embrace social good”, framing the generation as consumers who are disdainful of the insincere promises and hollow marketing often associated with large corporate brands. It seems like connecting to young people has never been a problem for Bejay Mulenga, partly because he is young. He’s built an immensely successful set of businesses under his brand Supa Network by the age of 25. But also because he’s got a real commitment to empowering aspiring entrepreneurs. And this lies at the heart of all of his ventures. Bejay, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show with us today.
Bejay Mulenga: [00:01:30] Thank you for having me. I’m cooking forward to having a conversation. And, yeah, I’m excited to be another year older. I just turned 25 last week. So, yeah, still getting used to being called 25.
Sam: [00:01:41] Hot off the presses. 25 is a good age. So, Bejay, it started when you were 14 and frustrated with the lack of practical activities in your classes at school. And you harnessed your school tuck shop, also known as snack shop in America, and created a student run Supa Tuck, which eventually scaled and franchised to reach over 5,000 people over three years. And since then, you founded Supa Academy, Supa Talent, Supa Insight, among other things, all of which help brands and young people connect to each other in meaningful ways. So tell us, what was the motivation that started you down this entrepreneurial path at really such an early age?
Bejay Mulenga: [00:02:34] I think seeing culture and the Internet being a big thing in my life…I grew up in an environment where we always had a computer at home. So there’s pictures my mum showed me of me, age five, playing around with dial up Internet on AOL and Tiscali. So I’ve always spent time online since I was a kid and I fortunately had spent and found an interesting blog site called MyComeUp when I was 12 years old. And every day after school, sometimes even during school, I would go to this blog site and watch documentaries, interviews from entrepreneurs all over the world. I was really fascinated with Russell Simmons, who created Deaf Jam and P. Diddy and Richard Branson here in the U.K. They all started businesses quite young. Teenage years and early 20s, and showed me that it was possible to create what you had in your mind. I spent a lot of time planning and coming up with ideas. I wanted to do a talent show, I wanted to do a clothing line…I was always kind of thinking of what the possible was and what I didn’t really understand what impossible meant because I just knew, even though in my neighborhood there was no one running businesses that I knew from family or my parents didn’t run businesses because I was so much content that I just felt like if I had an idea, it’s worth giving it a try. And in hindsight, having such strong documentation of business excellence available to you on a regular basis is something that can really sharpen your mind and give you, you know the old cliche, you know, law of attraction…it gives you an opportunity to kind of see what was possible in the world. And that was the inspiration behind when I was at school, London business and the curriculum – we have a system called GCSE here in the UK where 14 to 16 before you go to college and then before you go to uni you have to do GCSEs. And it’s your first time that you go from general studies to picking three or four subjects you really enjoy. One of my chosen subjects was business naturally, and I just found it to be very theoretical rather than anything practical. And I’m a very visual learner, I’ve learned over time and I found myself very frustrated in the classroom that we just kept reading case studies. And I felt like I’d been doing case studies for two years and I was ready to experiment, I was ready to play around with things. I was already playing around with things in the community. By almost 14, I’d done three talent shows and we sold tickets, we sold merch. Nothing big, but, you know, two hundred every event. And when it came to school, I felt like business studies was going to be a platform for me to go out and learn and play around with different business ideas. So when I realized it wasn’t the case, I challenged the headmaster and the other school teachers to enable me and other business students to have our own little microbusiness in the school. For me retail felt like the most comfortable thing for us to do as we could do it in the playground. It could be very easy to buy stock. People often sold and bought stuff in school anyways, but normally it’s more of a black market so if you got caught, it got confiscated. So I just went back to school and told him, look, it’ll be good to make a proposition that actually enables business students, not just in my year, but other year groups, to have a shop while studying business. And that year we did it after asking him three times. I got really inspired by what I learnt and how I felt from that experience so I wanted to see every student at schools across the country go through that experience and I went on a very interesting journey of trying to understand how to sell programs into school. And that’s the backstory of why I was frustrated and what I did about it.
Sam: [00:06:22] I love that you, you know, sort of totally empowered yourself and set off on this journey and then having seen it be so powerful for you, you know, figured out how to bring it to more and more people your age. Amazing. So over the last several weeks, you were involved with A Plate for London, which raised several tens of thousands of pounds in donations and fed over 10,000 people. And you described your experience in saying “being able to use my skills and extra time to provide service was rewarding and being a changemaker in my own community was a powerful reminder of my purpose.” In a recent newsletter, you also talked about how losing a quarter of a million pounds helped you find purpose again with the nonprofit A Plate for London. Tell us a little bit more about that. You know, the loss, the getting involved in service…How are you thinking about that?
Bejay Mulenga: [00:07:21] Absolutely. So, yes, over the last two and a half years, I’ve designed and run programs all over the UK. Last year trained 5,000 young people on digital skills here in the U.K. We also got a business accelerator in 2018 for a workspace provider. I’ve been very actively involved in creating premium experiences with people face to face that, when lockdown and Covid took over the world, and, you know, businesses had to halt. People in the live events industry and the learning and development industry and in hospitality were definitely, some of the most highly affected businesses. And so I sat down with a few friends and partners who I’ve worked with and said, well, how can we be of value? Fortunately, you know, my business wasn’t going to go bust. We had leeway to survive after the lockdown, but I had a very clear calendar. And the first thing that I did was rest and chill out. And then I started talking to people who were from neighborhoods I grew up in originally and the neighborhoods I grew up in, You know, I grew up on free school meals – I don’t know, you might call it food stamps over in the States. And we just saw that, you know what? Like the government support system wasn’t going to help everyone straight away and people needed help right now, right here. I think the basics of life, you know, one thing is water, one thing is shelter. And the other thing is food. And the one thing that I did know…My father’s a chef and he still was a chef and been a chef all my life, I just have loads of relationships with people in hospitality, as does my business partner, Dam, in that business. And we were like, how do we add value to London as it is right now? So we can help the world, we can do stuff on a digital level, but there’s real people who are going to go hungry during lockdown. That’s insight we had from sort of having family members who used to work on that side of the coin and we said, how do we get some food to people? So: that fighting purpose speech you mention and what I wrote in that article was quite interesting, you know, at a time you should be maybe scared of what you’re going to do with your business and whether you’re going to have to, know know, let go of people or change office and This was really an incredible time of of ‘actually the world needs me to be a different player right now’. It needs me to give and serve and play a position where, you know, you provide the utmost value to people. And that’s what we did. A Plate for London. We’ve now fed 18,000 people. Should be 20,000 by the end of this month. It’s been a journey, a journey and a half. From finding places to pack food, places to source food, getting donations from lovely individuals across the country. And that really gave us the confidence to come out and want to do more. We…off the back of doing that and halfway through the process, we decided we’re going to do a virtual food festival to help raise more capital and ultimately feed more humans here in London. We managed to, over eight weeks, come up with a virtual festival to incorporate food, music and wellbeing. We hired 20 different people to work with us and we were featured in press across the end of June and early July, and we did over 40 live streams. And that weekend we were able to raise enough funds from the sales of food that we did so now we can feed another thousand people. So it’s quite interesting to kind of be building a social enterprise that is feeding Londoners and hopefully wider people in England but also putting money back in the hospitality industry and helping food providers make some income in these hard times.
Sam: [00:10:57] It’s amazing. I love what you described in terms of your process. You know, every business is going through a hard time. But you could sort of sit there and dwell on that and feel powerless. Or you could feel powerful and make a difference in the realm. That was, you know, very much then available and there was such an acute need. So a lot’s been said, Bejay, about young people and Gen Z in the last several months, companies have expressed both admiration as well as sympathy for young people, given their commitment to social justice, as well as the unfortunate uncertainties that they face now in this sort of post-Covid world. You’re such a role model as a result of the model that you’ve created for yourself, where some of your ventures are for profit and others are nonprofit. Tell us about your thinking behind that structure, how it works for you and for the organizations themselves.
Bejay Mulenga: [00:12:02] Yes. So I think we can always wait to be much older to get back in the world. But the position I find myself in, fortunately and also unfortunately, is one where I happen to have known a lot of people have passed away, some from knife crime, some people from mental health, I’ve got a family member and a couple of friends from school who unfortunately committed suicide. And when life hits you in that way, you don’t know how long you’re going to be here. And I’ve always had a sense from the early days that I don’t know how long I will be on Earth. I hope I’m here for 50 years, I hope I’m here for a hundred years. So I need to make every day count, make every year count, make every month count. And some big goals sometimes never happen. So I try to actively live my life and run businesses that have a bigger purpose than making cash. Of course, I’ve been involved in endeavors that are straight cash plays, but I don’t feel fulfilled if I’m going 30 days and I haven’t done something greater than me. So I try to edge it in my daily, if not weekly schedule to do stuff that has a wider legacy. And yes, because of that mindset, I often find myself in businesses and in initiatives that have social entrepreneurship woven within it. And for me, I find that to be…I find that to be a very exciting process, not just for me, but also for many other entrepreneurs that I’ve managed to make friends with over time. And then in terms of the particular organizations. Yes, Supa Network is very much a commercial organization and we live to make really awesome programs, whether it be in corporate offices or for the individual. We see ourselves as a digital skills training platform for the entrepreneur and the creative. That we’re able to vibe with and will make programs for, you know, your workplace and then A Plate for London is straight nonprofit. We’re applying to have a charity license later this year. Obviously, the legal professions haven’t been open as much as they have in the past so we’re just kind of on a waitlist to get that sorted out. And then Great Feast is our social enterprise in which for every meal that’s ordered on our platform, another meal is donated to a Londoner in need and that’s sort of been at the edge of our business plan for the time that we do it, we won’t change away from that. So yeah, it feels really rewarding to kind of have multiple enterprises that have got really massive plus benefactors. And in a time like now where we’ve all been forced to sit back at home and reimagine what what looks like, I think that it’s really reinforced why I do what I do if I ever was lost…it’s at the heart of everything I do now. Which now…yeah, I would argue has always been. It’s just non-negotiable, 100 percent now.
Sam: [00:15:03] Do you ever feel torn among the different organizations, how do you allocate your time?
Bejay Mulenga: [00:15:12] Yeah. I think the allocation of time comes with knowing what season things are in, so obviously whilst we were designing and running the virtual festival, I had to put a lot more hours during my working week towards it than I normally would. And when we were sorting A Plate for London originally there was a big burst, where it was just full time for a couple of weeks, and it’s now gotten to good, manageable place where I have a weekly meeting about it and there’s a team that run it off. And now we’re getting back into a phase again where the two organizations, Great Feast and Supa, kind of a 50/50 split. And then there’ll be some two, three weeks where one has to be 60, 40 or 70, 30 and vice versa. I think the one thing I will always give credit to is the team. I mean, I can’t do anything I do without really awesome individuals who do the things in the shadow that make me look good. And I do things in the shadow that make them feel good. So I think it’s very, very important to highlight the fact that I’m not the Lone Ranger. I started as a Lone Ranger but over the years, I’ve managed to build teams and build a network of contractors who can come in and help me with the jobs. So for example, anything you see from us, the newsletter-wise or posts…I might have signed off on it but I don’t do stuff like that. So yeah, it’s all about finding balance in what your team needs and the business needs and figuring out whether you’re the best person to do it or whether you can afford to bring another individual in to help you achieve that goal.
Sam: [00:16:56] Yeah, really well said. I think we are our teams in the end because otherwise you’re just pulled in two different directions and couldn’t make it work. When you have a new idea, you know, A Feast for London is a really good example, perhaps. How do you go about the process of kind of identifying the right partners and really making sure that the effort is well set up to succeed so that everyone’s clear on what they’re doing and that it actually gets done?
Bejay Mulenga: [00:17:22] Absolutely. I think it’s about testing fast and testing early. So finding moments to test the hypothesis rather than having a really, really big bang. In all my businesses, I try to, you know, how can we do this and test the things people want to know – like if it’s going to work, if it’s safe, if it’s error-free…It’s very important to have a culture of testing and learning failings really fast, tetting back up and improving. I think if you’re on a journey and you don’t exude perfection, but you exude being on a journey. I find that I can be something that’s quite helpful in building a community of people who are really engaged and really love what you do. And that’s been something I’ve not always done my whole life. I’ve tried to practice as I’ve learned about that. So something. Yeah. Me, my teams or people work with or try to have an approach of shipping first, shipping early and kind of taking the data we learn and deploying that data to improve the service or product or whatever it is that we’re doing in the relevant business.
Sam: [00:18:23] I mean, that is the sort of model pioneered, you know, in the Valley that I think has become so mainstream, right, And it’s such a necessity. Do you spend a lot of your time mentoring young people and entrepreneurs? I mean, that’s such a key part of what you do.
Bejay Mulenga: [00:18:42] Yeah. So I think my mentorship comes in three forms. The first one is I often make time weekly to sit down with a friend of mine who’s a writer and a friend of mine, who’s a designer. And I come to them with ideas and we literally spend an evening a week coming up with Instagram post ideas little article ideas that basically make my content. If anyone searches most of my social media, in particular Instagram and Twitter, I’m often given no free advice around how to build teams, how to do advertising and how to find suppliers…just given away free game that I learned over the years. So I give away a lot of gems and a lot of stories. Today I posted, for example, a story about five years ago opening my first pop-up shop in Shoreditch in East London, what I learnt from it. And I asked an open question to people around. What shop would they open now after lockdown? The engagement was really quick – got a hundred likes in ten minutes. People started putting comments in, 50 comments with people saying what shops they would like to create and create a conversation. So I find, you know, being a positive source of information as one form of mentorship for the mass community of people who follow me and know who I am. And then the second stage, I often work with non-profits or accelerator programs and offer my time as a mentor or a coach for businesses, especially cause I’m young as well, I can kind of give a relatable story on the challenges I’m facing. Also give context as to what I’ve learnt over 10 years cause, yeah, started at 14, now I’m 25, I’m getting to eleven years of doing this. There’s been a lot of stuff I’ve learned not to do and things I’ve learned to do so. Yeah, I’m currently coaching on one program right now, I coach every Thursday, coaching 30 entrepreneurs. I’m about to start another coaching program for another one of that show so I’m going to coach 16 people with that program. So that’s something that every quarter I’m normally coaching on a program, right now, I’m lucky I get to do it on Zoom so it doesn’t take away too much from my business, but it’s still an important part of my working month. And then the third type of coaching I do is more private coaching where someone comes in with a specific and you have four or five sessions and get them from A to B. Currently because of the three businesses, I’ve not been actively doing that but I am going to be reopening it again later this summer as I just find that stuff really fun. Opening my black book, and helping someone go from A to B… it’s always a pleasure, especially when they want to do it. And I have to always give respect to the fact that I didn’t do anything I’ve done alone. There’s been a lot of successful forefathers and foremothers who’ve you’ve opened doors for me that you don’t need to, there’s nothing really in it for them. There’s people who gave me my first ever panel talks. People introduced me to contacts in their black book. There’s so many people that I just find it to be so important to give back, you know?
Sam: [00:21:45] Absolutely. I mean, it’s the best thing any of us can do. And I think, you know, far too many people don’t feel like they have anything to give back or to contribute. And that’s generally not the case. Do you spend time thinking about scale in the various nonprofit and for profit businesses? How do you think about that? You know, how have you scaled those organizations and their impact over time?
Bejay Mulenga: [00:22:18] So the thought around scale is obviously contextual, depending on the business you are in. And it has a lot of different ramifications for different people. I think something that I feel was quite important, not just for me, but for a lot of other people is how do you…it’s two-fold, one is how do you still maintain the mission that you started on? And not navigate too far away from the impact that you really want to have in the world. And then the other thing on the flip side is, as you scale, How do you make your business or your opportunity way more efficient? So I think it’s kind of a juggling act. And the businesses that seem to have the most impact always have their kind of brand values, guiding principles at the heart of it. And over time, I’ve done over six businesses now some of them failed…And I’ve learned a lot than my successes and some have done really well. And the thing I always think of when I think of my career and I think of leaders I know who are in far bigger relations than I am is what I just mentioned, is what are those guiding principles that business just cannot get away from. And then what are the elements that the business can implement to really make it more efficient? So I try to find and make that an important fact of money that should be.
Sam: [00:23:43] Have you ever had moments of real darkness and weakness when you know something you’ve tried sort of isn’t working? How do you arrest those? How do you stop those for yourself?
Bejay Mulenga: [00:23:57] Absolutely. So moments of darkness have come, and I’ve literally found it’s really difficult to get myself out of bed. For example, in the morning and burnout was a real thing for me a couple years ago. I thought I was invincible when I could lose power through everything. And I think for me, as I find the term ‘work life balance’ to be an interesting time. It’s hard to practice when you’re chasing big dreams and people have well documented, you know, the ups and flows of all of that, and sometimes people talk about a glass ceiling. So I think for me, whenever I’ve had a hard time in business which, you know, can happen can happen on a seasonal level,when you’re testing and trying big ideas, I always try to go back to journalling – I find that to be a really powerful way to get my thoughts on paper and to not make things too personal with other people, but to really understand what you’ve learned and how you could improve. And also what are you learning that you can implement a change right now. And then the other aspect is I try to find some space and time to sit with my feelings and to really figure out what I want. Is this a mission I want to continue? Is this a mission I want to really see out? And how well do I want my relationship with this issue to be…because I think half of the battle is in your mind and it’s in your constant narrative you’re playing to yourself and I think it’s very, very important to try to find more ways to check in with oneself. And when you do that, you can then make plans around how you choose to react and also find space for you to do things you love. There’s a saying that, an African kind of quote, that goes around in songs at the moment…But ‘I didn’t come here to kill myself’. So when you’re out here working (I think it’s a Burna Boy quote) when you’re out here working and hustling and trying to make something of yourself, you can’t be out here just doing the most and doing everything that where you’re not even healthy, you’re not even happy. So when you trick yourself, you can’t implement fun again in your life. So you oftentimes you find me watching comedy, listening to music, regardless of how busy or manic this business is. That’s a very much a weekly practice in my household.
Sam: [00:26:04] Finding the moments to rest and recharge. As you look back, are there one or two assumptions that you made when you got started? Even sort of starting at 14 that you’ve revised as the years have gone by or assumptions that you’ve pivoted away from?
Bejay Mulenga: [00:26:25] Absolutely. I think one assumption was like, you know, you gotta hustle hard and work super hard to get what you want. Like you just need to give up sleep and just do whatever is needed to get to the bag. That’s not – not a metric I support. And over time, I’ve learned, you know, the power of sleep and the power of good nutrition and the power of regular exercise. And what it does for the mind, what it does for the body, what it does for your day-to-day work…it’s so powerful. The next thing I’ve gotten really in tune with is the power of having friends on the journey with you who are also doing other things. And a lot of times we romanticize the experts and people who have been negative for us. But sometimes the best people that you can learn with and get those market advantages are people who are doing things similar or dissimilar to you, but are of relevant similar experience. So it’s way more sometimes powerful, in my opinion, to spend time with other entrepreneurs who are three or four years on the journey. If you’re three or four years down the journey or ten years down the journey…whatever that business circle is for the business you’re in, if it’s first two years because you’ll be accessing the same program, same funding opportunities, same party, same investors. And sometimes we want to glorify and look at the people who’ve, you know, sold and been there 20 years, but they’re not always the best people to support. They’re inspirational, no doubt…But that was a misconception I had for a while. I didn’t really grasp that. And I’m so happy I have because now I lean on that and I don’t just go looking or talking to people for stuff they can give me, but try to give them opportunities. If I hear of a funding opportunity, I put it in a newsletter. Before I look it up, I’ll send it to my entrepreneurial friends, I’ll go ‘have a look at this, I know this, it could be good for a business’. So you start building an ecosystem of love, an ecosystem of trust, an ecosystem of self reflection and people being real with you about what they like about your product and what they don’t like about your product or service, you know?
Sam: [00:28:21] Yeah, totally, makes sense. Do you think about competition? Do you feel like you have competition? How do you differentiate yourself?
Bejay Mulenga: [00:28:32] I think the best way to differentiate yourself and how I differentiate myself is to find what are my lived experiences and what are all my things that only I can talk about, what the people around me can talk about, what we can leave in the world. I’ll react to opportunities that exist, so at the moment, I know that the people people are going to be applying for work and the way people are going to find work is going to be very, very different based on the fact of how we’ve been living for the last couple months. So I’m finding really interesting opportunities in the education space around reimagining how people find work and how people upskill themselves. It wouldn’t make sense for me to just go into a car dealership business. I have no interest in it. I like cars, but me, just making a left zigzag jump to something without research or looking or even seeing what my market advantage is – it isn’t something I do. So when it comes to differentiating myself, the fact that I focus and all of my initiatives are – I’ve personally known that myself and in things that I’ve collaborated with…we can do something that is different and does bring a source or an energy to the industry. That’s something that is basically part of my ecosystem, my DNA or how I do business. And then regarding competition, I think there’s always competition in any business you’re in. There’s definitely different ways to look at it. On one level, do you have people who are pitching for the same piece of work or scaling for a similar audience? Absolutely. In all my businesses, there are people doing that. However, the difference is: I am also a black young entrepreneur and with more time, for me, what was coming together is building economic power, especially among young entrepreneurs, if it’s possible. Especially among underrepresented communities and even more so, especially around black founders, both female, male and non binary, allowing them to know that you can really do something in business if you have the right community and you have the right stuff that you want to leave your mark on. So I see those people as like the stuff we’re building is bigger than us. It’s like we’re building stuff for our kids. But a lot of us are first time entrepreneurs. So it’s inspiring. I can only be inspired when I look around the room and see people who have similar businesses, but everyone is doing it in a different way, you know.
Sam: [00:30:51] Yeah, I know. In authentic ways. Last question, Bejay. What’s a lesson that you’ve learned that you think other entrepreneurs should know?
Bejay Mulenga: [00:31:02] I think the lesson I’ve learned that an entrepreneur should know is: Find a way to test early, test fast and find a hundred people who love you, if you are a product business. If you’re a service business, you need to have a similar feed as well. But sometimes we get so married on this, a notion of having million pounds in revenue and thousands of customers when you could really just focus in on ‘let’s just get a hundred people that love us’. It makes you become more lean. It makes you focus on the small things and getting it right, making experience really right and becoming creme de la creme and really making something that’s special. Even if it’s not got all the glitz and glamour, but special and it makes people feel really important. I have learnt over this journey because there’s loads of times, like many times, many entrepreneurs – I’m sure you can relate – we spend so much time business planning, perfecting, overthinking when sometimes it’s like ‘let’s highlight some clients and customers that we might have and let’s go talk to them’, you know?
Sam: [00:32:03] Absolutely. I think staying focused on who your sort of core customer is and as you said, it doesn’t have to be this mass population, but really staying true to that. And then the growth comes organically. I think if you do that. Here’s something else you should know. Forty one percent of generation Z say they say they want to become entrepreneurs and 45 percent want to work in something they consider world changing with a growing number of role models who found success early. It seems that despite all the unique challenges coming their way, some young people truly believe the world is still their oyster. Thanks to Forbes and entrepreneur.com for the data cited in this episode, Bejay, we love how versatile and inspiring your story is. We can’t wait to see what you do next. Thanks so much for being here with us today.
Bejay Mulenga: [00:32:57] This was so fun. Thank you for having me.
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