#4 Sello Rathete - Champion Of Change

Sello Rathete is an alcohol brewing technician turned lecturer turned doctor turned IT company founder. Sello is a champion of change who's adapted to different situations like a chameleon changing colors.

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Episode #3 

Navroz Mahudawala - It's Not Glamorous

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Episode #5

Hasib Shaikh - A Million Millionaires

Transcript

Sello: When I grew up, I wanted to be a medical doctor, but things did not go the way I wanted or I thought I would be. We grew up under different conditions. For that time was under apartheid government. You could not have gone to the institution that you aspire to go to, and then you end up doing what's available to you. And most of the black children of our age or youth end up doing things that they were never, ever thought of laying their hands on. But God is always gracious. There are some who succeeded. 

 

Aamer: That was Sello Rathete the founder and executive chairman of LHC Pharmaceuticals, a reputable company in South Africa. But not a lot of people know that. He actually started the company at the age of 46. And to give you context, he's 58 now. What was he doing before that? Let's find out. This is his story.

 

Hello there and welcome. I'm Aamer Khan, and this is the Zed Medium podcast, a podcast that talks to people and about them too. We narrate people's journeys in the simplest way we can. If you haven't checked out episode three, we talk about Navroz Mahudawala, an investment banker who debunks the secrets of investment banking. It's quite interesting. 

 

Okay, so let's begin. They say that the environment which you grow up in plays a very important role in how you will become as a person, as an adult. Normally, that means your home, your immediate environment, how you've been raised, how you've been treated. But in this case, Sello had other difficulties which were way beyond his control at the time. 

 

Sello: As a South African youth, during our time, apartheid government was really not giving us human rights to be free to do what we want to do. We never had those type of rights that could be exercised by any youth. We never attended movies. We were restricted to go to beaches. We were restricted to find ourselves in situation where white people are. It was very tough. We used to read a book called survival of the Fittest. I was telling about that you just have to survive, and you prevented by the apartheid government and your parents were struggling to survive. 

 

I was raised by my uncle and my grandmother because my mother had to go and work and come after 30 days after being paid. So it was a very tough time. And it always suddenly when somebody asked me about how do you relate where you are to youthful years? Yes, because the youthful years that I went through cannot be compared to the youthful years that my kids are going through. 

 

And I can't blame them because that one was an engineered youthfulness to suppress ability to think. I believe that if I grew up in an environment that was just that was giving me freedom, maybe I would have done something bigger than what I'm doing. 

 

Aamer: Now, as we all know, apartheid was a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. To have your childhood stolen away from you is one of the worst things that could happen. It was a difficult time for Sello and his family opportunities were limited and were grabbed as soon as they came up. Which is why Sello did his Bachelor of Science in Physiology and microbiology. And that in itself was an achievement of its own. 

 

Well, life didn't necessarily get simple after that. He might be the executive chairman of LHC Pharma today, but his first job was working for South African breweries as a brewing technician. He started his career brewing alcohol, and that, he mentions, was considered a prestigious job at the time. He didn't stay long there. And here's why. 

 

Sello: My uncle was a truck driver. He wasn't educated. And I'll tell you this story because it always gave me a different perspective on how to look and how to understand people. Because my uncle being a truck driver, driving many kilometers, not sleeping home and all those things. But you always tell me that you have to survive in life. You always told me that we have got the potential that if he went to school he would build one of the biggest organizations in the world. And he always tells us that we must build one big rocket organization, the big role. So I did not understand what it meant, what it meant until he died. And I always had this thing in my mind with my cousins and other people to say there is one person who always wanted to tell me that I must do something, will do something big. This man, he was so small in the bigger picture of things. When you grow up, you say that man was just a truck driver. 

 

But what he told me in my life has changed my life. And every time I've been thinking to say, may God help me. Let me see what my uncle told me. 

 

Aamer: The vision of his uncle, a truck driver, was passed on to him and it made a world of a difference for Sello. Of course, it wouldn't make sense for him at the time, but Sello decided to stick with his gut and follow his true path. He went back to university to do an MSC in physiology, after which he was employed by the University of Limpopo as a lecturer. Can you guess his age at the time? 26 years old. By the age of 26 he had written several papers in physiology and published them, becoming a master of the subject. 

 

sello had the same challenges, the same hardships, the same struggles and the same opportunities as people around him at the time. The only difference was he refused to give up on what he was supposed to become, which is truly very difficult to realize. And to keep going with. At the time, Sello was a graduate that made sure his degree paid off. And normally two degrees are more than enough for an individual Sello decided at the age of 33, it was time not for a doctorate, but to become a doctor. 

 

30 years old, he quit his job at the university and started his journey into medicine. Here's what Sello has to say about that 

 

Sello: I believe that I'm a champion of change. I can switch tomorrow. And once I believe that this thing does not take me where I want to go, it may take me where I want to go. I may arrive late, but the end result of arriving days can be bigger than the one that I'm doing now. So I don't mind. I evaluate the situation and I make my decision based on the environment that I find myself in. 

 

Aamer: But where did Dr. Sello rather want to go in our journey so far? Selo completed his BSc, went through a stint of brewing alcohol, went back to university, did his MSE, became a lecturer, quit that, became a doctor. It's getting more and more difficult to keep up. We've lost count of his age at this point, but he went on to work with government hospitals for the benefit of the poor before starting his own private practice. 

 

But it was in these government hospitals that he began meeting patients who suffered and it was not always from diseases. If there is one thing that Sello fears, it is

Sello: I fear poverty more than a disease. We are more prone to the disease and want to solve the problem of diseases, because diseases kills the rich. We are not doing these things. It's because disease does not have color, disease does not have shame, disease affects everybody, epidemic kills everybody. And be as it may, when you look at a disease as it is, it's such a thing that is attended to with aggression, with power, with both political power and monetary power, you can stop it. 

 

But poverty, because it kills the poor, it does not kill the rich. We don't have solution to it. If you look now, if I had to give you a simple example, when you look about the wells, the wells property ratio and the ratio that the wells spent in 24 months, the amount of money that they spent in combating pandemic and the money that they spend on poverty is a fraction of it. So it means that before the pandemic, the world has so much money that they could have eradicated so much. So I grew up under such circumstances and I know what it means. And I've seen when poverty kills. 

 

I've been in a hospital, I know what malnutrition does, I know what is it that it needs. So the biggest thing that I see is poverty. 

 

Aamer: Why is it that we fail to act until something extreme happens? I mean, there are times when extreme situations arise out of a sudden. Case in point, the pandemic. But generally we can see the problem happening right in front of us as we notice it turning into an extreme situation. OK, back to the story. You might really want to think that Sello transitioned easily from medicine to pharma. But there was one slight detour before he actually ended up where he is today. Before starting his company, LHC Pharmaceuticals, he founded a company called LHC Alt Services in the 2000s. What did LHC Alt Services do? 

 

Sello: When I quit practicing my medicine, I went to do something totally different. My wife was fighting me, my mom, everybody could not believe that I'm still being, I just woke up one day, I'm not moving this. And I started an It company. I knew nothing about it. And at that time South Africa was just out of apartheid. Mandela was not long. 

 

We had a new government after 1994, that was 2000, and I started this. And at that time there were a lot of opportunities that are on the way. And then I just started the nightly company, employed few people and went to IBM and said I need to be a business partner, because the rural province where I was staying, computers were just introduced to the government. 

 

And during that time people used to make mistakes by just switching on and off the plug of a computer and says maintenance. And no one knew what was happening. And we had a lot of people, people who are not really convinced with the new. And I saw an opportunity there. We grouped each other with friends and we started the company and IBM accepted that. 

 

Aamer: Two things here. Number one, an amazing eye for a problem that needed solving. I mean, it's better to have actual maintenance than switching something on and off. And I'll have to say that's something we even do today. 

 

Switch things on and switch things off to see whether there was any change in the product. Number two, do you remember the environment which you grew up in, shapes who you become? That line. Sello had become someone who could grab opportunities and didn't hesitate in doing so because the opportunities in his childhood was careful. 

 

He went up to IBM at a time when IBM was a big multinational and Sello well Sello had no experience in the industry whatsoever. He just went up there and said make me a partner. And his wish was granted, like he had rubbed a lamp and a genie had appeared. Do you know why other people didn't become IBM's partner? Because they never really asked. Now, as long as we are on the subject, grabbing opportunities is good is a great thing, as long as it's evaluated before. 

 

There are times when Sello made mistakes, one of them being so drastic, it still haunts him today. 

 

Sello: It's one of the biggest failure that I have. It's investing in a scam business. The wrong business, invested a lot of money and then only to find that the business has got its own problems and all those things. And my failure to that is not only about the money. The failure is my weakness. To take too long to get out of it, to believe that it even puts me into more trouble than I thought I could have been. It almost destroyed me. 

 

It's still ringing in my head, even up to date. So it's one of the lessons. But when I started to get out of it, I believed that it is not only about money, it's the ability to be able to accept that things do go wrong in life. And when they go wrong, no matter how convinced you are, you believe this will work. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. You've got to accept. It took longer than it was supposed to and the longer it took, it cost me money more than I should. If I made it quicker, I would have gone out. 

 

But because I'm so convinced that this is something that will happen, I stayed long. I stayed longer than I could have imagined. I stayed longer than I believed that this is the right thing to do. And that was my weakness. The biggest weakness that I have, which is also my strength, is patience. When patience is just strength, it becomes a problem. When a businessman and you do wrong decision and you think that you're patient will wait until the money comes and it never comes. 

 

Tomorrow never comes. So patience should also be guided very carefully. Any young person whose patience must never allow patience to be its own weakness because you can be patient for something that is not going to happen. 

 

Aamer: Who would have known patience acting as a strength and a weakness at the same time. But in the weighing scale of life, grabbing opportunities helped Sello more than it created problems for him. For example, Sello's company. LHC Alt Services went on to become one of the best companies in that sector at the time. And it had reached this feat within only three years of its inception. 

 

During one of these IT visits, he came across hospitals at the time wanting to integrate a software that linked its database with all nearby hospitals to make the overall system more efficient. That's when he stumbled upon another opportunity. 

 

Sello: Because of what the government continued to demand. It ended up shaping what I wanted to do right now. Because every time when they were linking the hospitals, then the hospital had to communicate to each other. They had to be demographic, they had to be the network in terms of health records, pharmaceutical records. 

 

Then I saw just that there should be something that is very niche here, something that I could look into. We had a company called LHC Health Services, which was IBM business partner, which was doing this. And then I moved and I started a company called LHC Pharmaceuticals. 

 

Aamer: And that's where he is now. LHC Pharmaceuticals was established in 2010 and is running strong in the production of generic drugs, which basically means drugs containing the same chemical composition as a drug that was originally protected by chemical patterns. 

 

As we're nearing the end of the episode, I'd like to deviate a bit here. All the ups and downs in Sello's journey, all the changes, didn't have the same effect on him as a person, as his next experience. And the reason? It was more personal than professional. And this I feel everyone should have the joy and sorrow of listening to. 

 

Sello: I'm very sure of those moments. But there's one moment that changed my life. It's when I see that marriage. The day my daughter got married, on a wedding day, it tends to make me to feel myself as a person, my emotions, my thinking. 

 

And it directed me to look at the world different. I don't say this many times and people won't understand. I hope you'll understand what impact it has in me when my daughter, my first daughter, I've got a daughter and two sons. When my daughter got married, it changed my life. It changed the way I was living, it changed the way I lived with my wife. It changed the way I saw life as a family. Life is more important than anything else. And to me, that is the biggest gift that God gave me. Otherwise there are many other things that came. I saw that when my uncle died. I saw when my granny dies. It can never equate to the day my daughter got married, it was like a tragedy. 

 

Aamer: For a man that had been through apartheid, through poverty and malnutrition, for a man that had seen deaths of loved ones, of people that raised him, for a strong man like that, to see his daughter say goodbye to him was the most tragic experience that changed his life. He was definitely filled with a lot of joy, I'm sure. But there was something, some feeling that came up within him when he saw his daughter in her wedding dress. 

 

The sinking feeling of excitement whenever he stepped into the house. Gone. The confidante he had gone. The joy of his life at the time, not there at home anymore, waiting for him to come back from work. That is a void that he still can't fill. That's the kind of relationship he had with his daughter. That was pretty heavy to here. But let's end on a more happy note, shall we? Let's talk about the relationship he shares with his golf ball. 

 

Sello: Golf is something that keeps me away. Because when you're in a golf course, you leave that ball, it goes where you want or you don't need it. And you get angry at yourself. And by the time that you get angry at yourself, you forget about any other things. You worry about the ball, that is the spot that can take you out of your thing. Immediately you start thinking about the outside. You'll miss the ball and then you become embarrassed for missing the ball. Immediately you take your focus into the ball. Then you are unwinding. 

 

So golf it's, exercise, working, you win the ball, you miss it, you get into this. It's four and a half hours of worried complaints fighting with this ball. And when you get out there then you deal with your own issues where the ball is no more there. So that's what I do most of the time when I'm not I'm not doing anything. 

 

Aamer: So what's next for Sello? He aims to establish a research and development facility for pharmaceutical products in Africa and we wish him all the best for that. If you liked that episode and want to receive the latest updates go on to Instagram and LinkedIn and follow us. Zed Medium and yes, please share this with others because next up we have a finance professional that works in the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. 

 

And here is a snippet from that conversation. 

 

Everything frightens me bro. Everything frightens me. Everything frightens me. But every moment the fear comes, you have to make your decision that whether you want to move forward or you want to let fear stop you with anything and everything. Whether it is a business decision, whether it is a family decision, whether it is anything there's fear always there, at least in my life. I don't know about others but at the same time there's always a courage that we bring out. I bring up to take the decision and move forward and trust card with the right outcomes. 

 

Aamer:: Stay tuned and goodbye for now.