Young, Gifted & Killing It: Nkululeko “Legend” Manqele
by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) Pietermaritzburg-born Nkululeko “Legend” Manqele shares his entrepreneurial journey with us, from senior sales rep for a clothing store to founder and CEO of The BarLeader Group, with recent accolades including being one of GQ’s Most Influential Men of 2018 and an eThekwini Wenze Kahle Award.
Veli Ngubane: Tell us more about yourself: where did you grow up and what did you want to be when you were growing up?
Legend Manqele: I was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg, reared by the matriarchs of our family, being my grandmother and my mother. A boy cultivated into manhood at the hands of women always makes for life experiences filled with good intentions, inevitable mistakes and the will to persevere. It’s only befitting that, growing up, I always knew that I wanted to be a storyteller — there was so much that this type of family setup allowed me to explore within myself. Listening to my grandmother telling us kids ancient folktales, I would get lost in my imagination and vividly see the characters and sometimes create my own ending to the story.
VN: How has your upbringing and culture influenced your creative journey and perspective?
LM: At 29, just three months shy of the milestone year of 30 [at the time of the interview], I find myself identifying as a man proud that the bloodline of Shaka kaSenzangakhona runs through my veins during a time where I can thrive in any environment. That wasn’t a possibility for my grandmother or my mother, even. I’m proudly African with a global appeal and appreciation. As a citizen of the world, I feel just as comfortable with the New York City skyline behind me as I am in the heart of KZN [KwaZulu-Natal], where nature forms the best view before me. That’s a privilege I’ve earned which I don’t take for granted. Its emerged from me being the middle child between two brothers; the middle-child syndrome has its perks, surprisingly. Most of the time I was left alone to my own devices; as a teenager I quickly developed the ability to become deep in my thoughts for hours which continuously clarified my perspective about my life and the world in which I live. I believe this greatly influenced my creative approach to television.
This allowed me to become independent early on in my life. The community played a huge part in our lives as our home was always filled with family and friends, with family time often being centred around the television set. Far from causing disconnection, the TV set was a huge influence in connecting not only mine but many black families across South Africa, who appreciated seeing themselves being reflected in such a celebratory way. I was always excited after watching my favourite shows as my friends and I could replay some of our favourite scenes — unbeknown to me, this laid the seeds for what would lead me into my destiny.
VN: Please explain what you actually do and how an average day looks for you?
LM: I am the founder and CEO of The BarLeader Group. The group comprises The BarLeader, a premium production company, and thebar, an online publication platform, and various other businesses I am involved with in my capacity as a venture capitalist.
I am eternally grateful that no two days are ever alike, apart from the key things that begin and end my day. I start my day early, at around 4.30am, where I kick off my day with a solid run in the presence of a huge energy-driver of mine — nature. Running is a must for me to kickstart my day, as it often allows for a great environment for reflection and meditation. A great run reminds me of the importance of setting the right foundation for any day or year or even business, as it always reminds me of the truth that the will to win means nothing without the will to prepare. I often incorporate my meditation during my run. When I get back home, my workday [consists] of me straddling between boardrooms, film and television sets and team meetings. I manage to get lunch in between meetings and pitches, and often conduct many meetings in the car as telecons en route to another engagement — it’s the nature of the business and I’m here for it, so I just manage it on a day-to-day basis. This also includes speaking engagement requests for corporate and industry platforms, which I rarely turn down, because teaching is part of the process — I wouldn’t be where I am today, had it not been for the many industry practitioners who taught me.
My day usually ends up with me winding down by dedicating all my attention to prayers that will impact those people and things that matter to me the most — friends, family, colleagues, business associates, the businesses and myself. I never place my head on the pillow without placing my hands in prayer.
VN: Tell us about your journey: how did you get into production and content creation?
LM: The passion for content creation has always been a memorable part of my life. What complemented my TV and family moments was my involvement in the arts and drama classes during primary school. However, this involvement really took shape during the latter period of my formative years as a student at New Forest High School. I was very active in pioneering many of the drama productions we had at school. Later on in my life, as my path become clearer, I abandoned the ‘security’ of permanent employment, as a senior sales rep for a clothing store, in pursuit of my passion. This resulted in me applying for a junior position at a production company, where I spent many of my days learning about the industry while on the job — an opportunity which I will forever be grateful for.
This opportunity came after months of me walking 15km to and from the Urban Brew Studios in Randburg from my apartment which I shared with industry colleagues in Hillbrow. The hunger in me was real and I’ll forever be grateful to myself for feeding it at best, from nothing. It was the foundation which taught me to keep my eyes focused on the promise for my life and not the process I found myself in, which ultimately was cocooning me to make the reality of my life now, manifest. From those humble beginnings at Urban Brew Studios, the rest is history.
VN: Tell us more about BarLeader: where is it now and what are the plans for the company in future?
LM: The company was born really from me having this urge to produce the type of content I believed that this continent had the capability of producing. As is the case with many entrepreneurial journeys, I had started to feel jaded at the production company I was working at. [While] eternally grateful for the opportunities it afforded me and all those I had worked for previously, I knew I had to journey into the next phase.
The BarLeader is a truly urban African multimedia film and television business, which I founded in 2014 after I realised that I was the solution towards creating the type of content I wanted to see. It is the spirit of authentic creativity that makes BarLeader the production house of choice for brands [which] are committed to growing the African media landscape through telling our stories with dignity and pride. As such, our goal is to educate and collaborate with worlds different from ours through a consistent commitment of delivering premium productions.
We’re at the stage now where we have defined production-focus areas. The BarLeader focuses on film and TV production and thebar focuses on online content production. Within BarLeader, we focus on reality TV, docu-series, finite frama series, music productions and live productions. Within thebar, we focus on online content which will expand into experiential platforms from this year onwards.
VN: Transformation in the industry is still slow; what do you think needs to be done to fast-track transformation in your industry?
LM: Well, I quite like the thinking of spiritualist Richard Rohr, who says, “Transformation is often more about learning than unlearning.” That’s my take on it — for me to experience the benefits of it, I have to facilitate the unlearning of those who have enjoyed the monopoly in order to allow for a more-inclusive industry that allows for previously marginalised groups to not just have access to opportunities but also to take advantage of each and every opportunity by adding long-term value. This process of facilitating unlearning is three-fold.
Firstly, it involves me creating a production company that facilitates employment; I keep a full-time employed staff complement, which has its challenges sometimes but ensures a consistent premium production handwriting in all that we do. The unlearning here is that black-led and -staffed production companies cannot deliver on the best content consistently. This leads to the learning that, actually, we can.
Secondly, I’m committed to dispelling the myth that, in this industry, women are valuable in front of the camera only and cannot have an impact behind it. In my company, women hold executive and senior positions in operations, senior management and production. I even go as far as encouraging the women whom I work on productions with to own a stake in the productions they star in by encouraging them to set up their own production companies. Further to this, I am in the process of setting up an educational institution which will become the launchpad for many young industry practitioners who have the talent and do not need to be delayed by structural challenges. This learning institution is in the process of being accredited as an educational institution.
Lastly, there is still a need for bigger production budgets and better financial models that generate more revenue for the practitioners which make the content a reality. Our industry contributes well over R5bn to the GDP of the country — that’s a significant amount and the purpose of the online platform, thebar, is to ensure that we bring this to light and actively grow that number.
VN: You have produced popular shows such as Being Bonang. What’s next? What projects are you working on?
LM: It is an exciting time at BarLeader as we know, without a matter of a doubt, that 2019 is already and will continue to be a fantastic year. We have managed to retain our two flagship reality TV shows and as such are full-steam ahead into production for Being Bonang Season 3 and Living the Dream with Somizi Season 4. We have new exciting shows which are a first for South African television, which we know will capture, the hearts and minds of our audiences — one falls under our reality TV division while the other falls under our newly formed docu-series division.
When it comes to live television, we [were] busy with production elements for the 13th Annual South African Film & Television Awards [SAFTAs] and the venture capitalist in me has us preparing for the fruits of our labour, geared towards expanding and positioning the business where it should be. thebar is only seven issues [at the time of the interview] in but is already shaping up nicely and we’re excited to take it to the next level of experiential content.
VN: Where and when do you have your best ideas?
LM: Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience”. I draw inspiration from nature. Whether I am taking a walk or jogging, nature fuels me so much that my creative juices get these sparks of inspirational light. Emerson’s perspective has also taught me to be present in each moment and patiently wait for my heart to realise these sparks of inspiration and for my mind to turn them into ideas that work.
VN: What advice can you give to young creatives wanting to get into the business?
LM: The industry today is not what it was when I started in it 11 years ago. Then, I had to physically be in the presence of industry structures — production houses, people, sets etc. Today all it takes is a smartphone, great wifi and some inspiration for young creatives to produce, launch, share and promote their own content. Nollywood films made off of smartphones rake in millions. The advice is really to showcase your talent and the industry will be here to receive it — we’re all on our phones, anyway, so you’re more likely to get a response from work submitted via a tweet than a physical CV. Social media is your biggest opportunity as a launchpad, so use it.
Also, remain hungry, remain interested and connected. We need young creatives to drive the newness of the industry and not wait to just replicate what happens abroad. Through digital, we have all become globally accessible so abroad is as much “here” as “here” is “here”. You never know who is looking for an idea you may have and would want to collaborate with you.
VN: Tell us something about yourself not generally known.
LM: I’m a really great cook and have a collection of cookbooks, which is growing. Anything from uphuthu to a pasta dish you’d have to get a Jamie Oliver to put together, I can do. I enjoy a home-cooked meal done really well and often hook one up for myself or friends who come over to hang-out. I enjoy a really great dinner where the conversation complements the menu — I have a tight selection of restaurants where I’m a regular at because of the great food and service. I need a wholesome experience so I’m willing to seek it at eateries which I love or create one myself.
VN: What are the three things you wish you knew that you know now that you would have loved to know on your business journey?
LM: Firstly, that business has a tricky scale one always needs to balance — It doesn’t always make room for the ‘nicest’ part of you, yet in essence, no one likes to do business with people they don’t like. It’s tough to balance but worth it in the end.
The second one [leads] from this. If your reputation/name is a house, then relationships are the foundation on which the house stands on and consistent excellent delivery are the materials that make that house what it is. Relationship-nurturing is probably what I do with the majority of my time, which is why my management team [is] key for ensuring that the company runs. Lastly, I heard something great once which I really love, which is that you have to have your heart in your business and your business in your heart. As strange as it sounds, business is a heart game and I’m a guy with a big heart so it works for me, but I have to constantly manage to protect it. You have to love what your business is about, what it does for others and what it does for you — if you don’t see the value in it, you will never be driven enough to see it succeed. The educational CSI wing which I’m setting up [is a] response to these aspects of business learning and so many others.
VN: Please would you supply two or three pieces of work you have been involved in?
LM: Most-recent work:
- Winnie Mandela funeral 2018 (production elements: BarLeader)
- Akhumzi Jezile funeral 2018 (programme design: TriLab; production elements: BarLeader)
- SAFTAs 2019 (red-carpet production: BarLeader; main broadcast awards and technical awards: TheBar)
- Living the dream with Somizi
- Being Bonang
- VUZU: Rich Kids
Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) entered the world of advertising with a passion after completing his BSocSci (law, politics and economics) at UCT and a post-graduate marketing diploma at Red & Yellow, where he’s currently advisory board chairman. He also sits on the IAB’s Transformation & Education Council, is a DMA board member and Loeries, APEX, Pendoring, Bookmarks and AdFocus. He is the group MD of AVATAR, one of the largest black-owned and managed integrated agency offering in South Africa. In his monthly column “Young, Gifted & Killing It”, he profiles award-winning, kick-ass black creative talent in South Africa.
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