When Queen Ndlovu decided to go global, she knew she couldn’t just stay where her businesses, studies, and family have always been—in South Africa. Starting a global business required that she transplant herself and start putting down roots around the world. For an ambitious and boundless visionary like her, the difficulty lay in choosing where to start the global push.
Queen consulted a professor whose advice was simple: “If you want to become a global entrepreneur, you have to go to China.” Later, when she received information about studying as an exchange student at Peking University HSBC Business School (PHBS), she saw an opportunity she couldn’t let pass. Queen thought if she went to “check out what’s happening” in Shenzhen, she could learn some of the secrets behind China’s economic miracle. Maybe there was something to learn from China that could provide South Africa with the same benefits.
Making Your Own Opportunity
From her entrepreneurship classes at Wits Business School, Queen was familiar with Shenzhen being a hub to many of the largest tech companies in China. She set very clear expectations for herself: earn good grades, learn Chinese business culture, build a network, identify a business opportunity, achieve Mandarin fluency, and launch a company—all in the span of one semester. Queen is a high-achiever who sets ever higher expectations for herself. To just about anyone these goals sound wildly unrealistic. However, Queen, a black woman who grew up in Apartheid-era South Africa, has spent her entire life rejecting limitations and surprising everyone but herself.
In an economic and political structure that was no longer regulating her as a second-class citizen, she was determined to get ahead. “I was one of the people that said I’m going to make use of these opportunities. Hence I’m in China,” she said.
One thing Queen quickly found she shared with China is a dedication to learning and a strong belief in the power of education. She was raised in the capital of South Africa, Pretoria, by her grandmother who was a Catholic school principal. In a society where those in power were steadily increasing their repressive policies towards black families, Queen was inspired by her grandmother and other influential family members because of their success despite the adversity. “I learned education is one of the enhancers and enablers to make one achieve irrespective of their circumstances,” she said.
“I learned education is one of the enhancers and enablers to make one achieve irrespective of their circumstances.”Queen Ndlovu
Acutely aware of its power to enable, Queen seeks out educational experiences which can provide real-world practical benefits and insights. There were classes at PHBS that suited her objectives. For example, the Cultural Studies class offered by Professor Huang Haifeng she says, “Invited a lot of guest speakers. They taught us how to behave as a businesswoman in China.” She picked up what to do in Chinese board meetings from her Board of Directors module. Most importantly, she learned how to partner with Chinese firms in her Cross Border class. She found what she was looking for, which was a learning environment where she naturally participates “with passion because of how applicable it is to me.”
The more she learned in class, the more driven she became to start her next business.
She was looking at starting a global business now after two decades of managing her own small businesses in South Africa. She opened her first business, Bassettsana Consulting in 1998, following the dismantling of apartheid, making her a member of the first generation of modern South Africa’s businesswomen. Because she entered the market so early, her business found plenty of support and clients. She continued to reinvest in herself and respond to market changes by opening other businesses in consulting, laundry services, and artisan training.
Queen considers herself a ‘serial-entrepreneur’, starting and operating businesses is part of her DNA. She seems to enjoy it. Her success allowed her to move her family into a much nicer, previously segregated neighborhood. But there are always going to be hard times.
According to Queen, the market became saturated in Johannesburg, and if she didn’t respond to the new market she would be left behind.
The world is now more open to working with South Africa, and Queen realized it was time to open herself up to the world. “When I start a business…I think about what’s going to happen in 10 years,” she said. Envisioning the globalized economy of the next decade, she started to think her old businesses were “too small.”
Getting Off the Ground
This self-confidence, persistence, and accumulation of experience served her well as an exchange student at PHBS. She had the initiative to take everything she was learning in the classroom and apply it to the real world; all she needed to do was wait for the right opportunity.
Admittedly, for someone always ready to take action, waiting was causing the most anxiety. She needed to be in the right place at the right time. The right place ended up being the Starbucks in the HSBC Building on campus. As she was checking business emails, Queen glanced up and noticed a drone flying overhead.
Qin Longjun, a Ph.D. candidate at PKU Shenzhen School of Environment and Energy, was operating the drone and instructing other students on its capabilities. Queen was intrigued and needed to find out more. “I approached them because I can’t lose this opportunity. It is what they told us in business school. How to spot opportunities and grab them quickly. This is the business I am here for in China,” she said.
“I approached them because I can’t lose this opportunity. It is what they told us in business school. How to spot opportunities and grab them quickly. This is the business I am here for in China”Queen Ndlovu
When Queen approached the group, Qin responded, “Now we are busy with an experiment, just give me 15 minutes.” He was working on an environmental project involving the use of a thermal camera to take images which could be used to measure the health and needs of plant life across the entire campus. She didn’t know it yet, but Qin was a rising specialist in the field of drone imaging for agricultural and environmental applications, and a fellow entrepreneur.
“We met and never looked back,” remarked Queen. The two wasted no time drawing up business plans. Queen said meeting Qin was the “best thing that has happened here with my business life in China…I met an awesome partner.” Queen was confident she could locate clients in South Africa with needs for drones in applications as wide-ranging as agriculture, land conservation, research, and public safety. While she would work on the commercialization, Qin would focus on the innovation. He had the skills to design the hardware and software to develop drones suited for the specific client’s needs. They found two more partners—Phumi Makatini from South Africa and another partner from China—to also dedicate themselves to the effort. In late 2018, Q&P Drone Tech LLC was officially established and authorized to trade in drones.
Queen feels that behind their instant connection was an affinity towards each other’s shared values. “We want to change lives. We want to create jobs. We want to fight poverty in our respective countries. And we love laughing. We just laugh all the time,” Queen said.
“We want to change lives. We want to create jobs. We want to fight poverty in our respective countries. And we love laughing. We just laugh all the time.”Queen Ndlovu
Qin grew up in Anhui Province, geographically relatively near Shanghai, but economically vastly different at the time. Like Queen, he was raised mostly by his grandmother. They both have seen dramatic improvements in their country’s during their lifetime due to changes in government policies and an opening up, and they care deeply about continuing that progress through their business.
Queen frequently referenced the South African ethical concept of ubuntu as grounding her work. Nelson Mandela described ubuntu in an interview in 2006, saying, “Ubuntu does not mean that people do not address themselves, [but]…to do so in order to enable your community.” Queen could have just as easily referenced the Confucian concept of ren. “The man of ren wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others,” is what Confucius is recorded as saying thousands of years before, and it still resonates today.
Within the first two years of Q&P Drone Tech, they plan to open a drone factory in South Africa to help create more skilled, desirable jobs. Queen mentioned she is committed to youth empowerment and a national executive board member of YMCA South Africa. She hopes to make her business activities an extension of those empowerment efforts.
The company is just getting off the ground, yet Queen’s exchange trip to China is already an incredible success story. She excelled in classes, gained valuable cultural insights, seized a business opportunity, and found a rewarding partner during her time studying here in China. Even more, following her exchange at PHBS, she was accepted in a 12-month global entrepreneurship program at Oxford University.
As always, it all happened after Queen decided to jump at the opportunity. When a guest speaker from Oxford spoke at PHBS, she approached him to ask about programs they offer for aspiring entrepreneurs. During a following interview, she says she “talked growth strategy” and her joint venture company impressed them. “Me telling them that I’m doing business with Chinese people, they liked it so much,” she said.
She is now splitting time between the UK, South Africa, and business trips to China. Back home, the first drones from Shenzhen will soon take flight, each one traveling through the skies on its own, almost allowing the pilot of the whole operation, with the vision that stretches far beyond everything else, to go unnoticed.
By Nathan Faber