How much of our success is down to luck?

Published by Brendon Raw on

“Luck is based on intention rather than skill”

At an exclusive crowdfunding event last week, a potential investor asked us why he should invest in our company and not a competitor. I could have given many technically plausible reasons. But before I knew it, I blurted out  – because we’re lucky.


Gary Player, South Africa’s greatest golfer is famous for saying “The Harder you work, the luckier you get”. I’m not sure this covers it and it made me ponder the question, what freakish event changed my life more than any other? In my case it was surprisingly easy to answer after it was bought into sharp relief the day Nelson Mandela died. I was looking through BBC footage with my then eight-year-old son, who remains intensely proud of his South African roots. We were watching the following clip after Mandela died – where it commented on his love of all things British.

At 02:15 on that Nelson Mandela and his love for the UK clip, there is an image of a petrified young woman screaming while she was dragged and beaten by the police in riot gear. The young woman is my sister.

This truly shocked me as that clip had defined many years of our family’s life – and yet I had never seen it before. It was some 30 years since my parents stopped me from seeing that footage as a precocious but sensitive twelve-year-old. It was taken at 1PM on Tuesday, 13 August 1985 in Stanley Road, Rondebosch, Cape Town at the foot of the University of Cape Town Campus.

My sister was on a “Free Mandela march” when she was attacked. She was later thrown into Polsmoor prison – ironically the same prison in which Mandela was held between 1983 and 1987. She was so badly scarred – both emotionally and physically that she has never fully recovered from the trauma.

Out of principle, my father sued the police for brutality – a gamble of unimaginable courage as the family faced destitution – at best – if we had lost. Our family phone was bugged. White Toyota Corollas filled with khaki-clad state security police camped outside our house. My sister was offered a generous bribe if we dropped the case. Long standing “Liberal” friends disowned our family for being traitors who threatening their comfortable Apartheid-supported existence. My father “happened” to lose his job at the life assurance company for which he had spent his life working as a uniquely mathematically gifted 57-year-old actuary at the same time the court case became public. He never got another job.

The fact that our lawyers had this random piece of footage changed everything: The six policemen who lied in sworn testimony claiming that nobody had beaten my sister up went from red to white in the seconds the BBC video was shown. The State immediately settled and we were told but did not believe that a lot of police would go to jail for perjury.

The Apartheid government quickly retaliated by enacting legislation stopping the thousands of other police violence victims from suing. This pernicious act was used as yet another piece of evidence of the Apartheid Police State when the US Senate passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, forcing a reluctant Ronald Reagan to sign it – forced by the sheer weight of public opinion. The drying up of international bank credit was the final economic nail in Apartheid South Africa’s fiscal coffin, forcing the National Party to unban the ANC, negotiate a peaceful settlement and hand over a bankrupt country to their successors.

Although I was not to know it at the time, this horrendous incident changed my life in the luckiest way possible: My father dreamed of sending me to his old school, Bishops, which some have described as the Eton of South Africa. My parents could not afford the fees, so the only way I could get in was to win a scholarship.

The exams had not gone well – I failed the Afrikaans exam, Latin went worse where I got a heroic 4% – and there was a hall full of budding competitors fighting for just six scholarship spots. Maths always went well, so I needed something special for the highly subjective “General” paper to have any chance. My fury focused with razor-like intensity on why Mandela needed to be released and why Apartheid needed to go as my sister lay injured in jail.

I spewed out vitriol with such vehemence that it would have made Lenin blush. Little did I know that the conservative Afrikaans teacher, not renowned for his progressive political thinking and who normally marked these papers had suddenly been taken ill. How lucky was I that he was replaced by an aging British hippy who had recently cut his hair to get the job? The aging hippie thought the paper was “refreshing” and suggested that the school quietly forget about the Afrikaans and the Latin results – and offer me the last of the six scholarships.

There is little on earth that can beat the combination of a world-leading education, and the knowledge of how lucky one was to get it. I could never do justice to the all the ways in which a great education inspires one, so I will share just one moment: the school was a church school – its official name was the Diocesan College and the visiting bishop was none other than the Archbishop of Cape Town – Desmond Tutu.

Tutu was not a popular figure to many White South Africans as he had received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for persuading the Western World to adopt sanctions against the Apartheid government. Standing outside the chapel one morning, I remember fretting about the correct manner in which to address a personal hero of mine in the days before the we could google the answer on a smartphone. I thought wrongly – as it turned out – it was “Your Eminence”. Archbishop Tutu responded with that infectious laugh – “Just call me Arch” – he said.

The education, the experiences and the school friendships gave us both something more valuable than money – they gave us the self-belief to follow our dreams rather than convention. In my case, instead of using my chartered accounting degree to hold down a respectable job, I was given the confidence to dedicate my life to an improbable vision – that by the time I die all 600 million Africans who currently lack it will have clean affordable energy in their own homes.

And whoever said that that the real value of an outstanding education starts the day you leave the school gates never spoke a truer word. When I needed the seed capital twelve years ago to start this business, 32 Old Diocesans gave me the $100,000 required– in just four days. I was not to know $6 million dollars and twelve years later that it was the start of a Crowdfunding movement that will change the way social entrepreneurship is funded.

The fact that we own an oil concession the size of Wales with a railway line next to it was not down to skill but to luck. And that luck resulted purely from our intention to help that community. The fact that a tribal leader chose to us as a bunch of solar consultants to share impossibly valuable secrets about oil seeping out the ground over a one-million-acre area was down to luck. And that luck resulted purely from our intention to help that community. And that fact that my unemployed father spent many of my teenage years developing my heuristic ability giving me a sixth sense for numbers – was luck of the genetic draw combined with the freakish set of circumstances. My father’s intentions were obvious – I had learning difficulties when I was younger and he had the patience to turn those into strengths.

It is said that luck is the skill you can’t explain. I actually think luck can be explained: The better our intentions, the more people who hear about those intentions will use their relationships to create opportunities for us. The more grateful we are for those opportunities, the harder we work. The harder we work, the more likely we are to turn our original good intentions into success. And if we lack capacity, good intentions will enable us to attract the people with the right skills.

Categories: Opinion


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