Take it from someone who knows: The best ROI is when you invest in people

Are you aiming to make your company the best company for the people you’re serving? 

This was the question RLabs founder Marlon Parker left with CLC Innovation Safari delegates after taking them on a journey through the history and purpose of the organisation.

RLabs, or Reconstructed Living Labs, is an award-winning South African non-profit on a mission to foster and spread hope by reconstructing communities through innovation, technology and training.

Based in Bridgetown, Athlone, RLabs has worked with the likes of the UN, USAID, World Bank, BBC, Naspers and Accenture, and the RLabs model has been so successful that it’s been replicated in 23 countries and has incubated more than 100 social enterprises.

To date, more than 9.5 million people world-wide have accessed support services through the organisation.

It’s just the start for Marlon. He’s hoping to reach two billion people in his lifetime and, given his trajectory, it’s not impossible.

A social entrepreneur who uses information communications technology to empower communities, a World Economic Forum young leader and an Ashoka fellow, Marlon was once a struggling kid from the Cape Flats looking to do right by his family.

But when he started studying and building a successful career in academic IT, he became painfully aware of the people in his community who were still without hope.

‘And as much as I was doing well, I couldn’t just stand back and allow the people in my community to continue without the opportunities I was enjoying,’ says Marlon. ‘Building a career is about yourself, but a legacy is about who you can take with you and what change you bring about in the place that you come from.’

In 2007, Marlon started a side project to empower former convicts, gang members and drug users to share their stories of hope online.

The side project quickly grew into what RLabs is today: A leading and life-changing IT and innovation hub that enables community members, and in particular the youth, to become pioneers and changemakers.

The organisation is divided into three main programmes that interlink: The RLabs Academy, which is the training and leadership development hub, RLabs Accelerator, which looks to migrate people into the economy with their ideas, and the Innovation Lab, which offers support and incubation programmes.

A born innovator and leader, Marlon is motivated by hope and driven by the value of opportunity to foster real change. With the experience of building RLabs with no resources, support or funding, Marlon has valuable insights to offer corporate intrapraneurs.

‘Innovate out of necessity, for what those in your community need, and curiosity for where it might take you and your people. Innovate with unlikely people. But always put people at the centre of your innovation. What we’ve learnt is that the greatest return on investment is when you invest in people.’

‘Making hope contagious’ is their motto and their mission, but it’s also a lesson in understanding group dynamics. Whether you want to reconstruct a community or a company, says Marlon, you only have to start with one person.

‘If you can change one person’s life and encourage them to do the same for others, that’s where you make something contagious.’

Top take-away: ‘If you want to connect with a community, find the influencers, the people of authority, and align with them. These are the people who can mobilise crowds and then, based on whatever services you are offering or delivering, look for the people who are actively currently improving your service delivery for their own benefit or those doing something similar [in the community].’

We’d like to extend our thanks to Marlon and his team at RLabs for taking the time to host one of the events on the CLC’s Lean Innovation Safari.

The Safari was held 22–24 April 2018 and provided delegates the opportunity to explore the innovation ecosystem in Cape Town.

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