Trail-blazing business executive and Manzini boy Mlungisi Mil-G Ndwandwe sat down with The Bridge to talk about his life as a Salesian boy to the board rooms of New York and walking the corridors of Havard University.

The Bridge (TB). Hi Mr Ndwandwe always nice to catch up with you. I must admit we struggle to relate with you now because we only know you as a Salesian boy from Manzini but we forced to admit that you are on a higher pedestal now and must therefore accord you a fitting respect. But questions still linger, how did you transition from being a Salesian traversing the streets of Manzini to Multi-million boardrooms of the  USA?

Mlungisi Ndwandwe (MN): A couple of important moments happen along that journey - not all glamorous, but as a whole, give a clearer picture of that time period. But first, let’s highlight the Salesian experience because I think a lot of the preparation happens in those formative years. At Salesian, we were blessed with teachers dedicated to moulding us into proper citizens - and they employed all the tools they could bear to come out as decent people. Notwithstanding, I remember our infamous headteacher once said, at Salesian, you will find all the tools to build your life or to destroy it - he was referring to the peer influence that could mislead one to reckless living.

Just to give you some colour, before I got to grade seven, I already knew a student who had committed murder. Before I was done with high school, another classmate was convicted for fatally assaulting another student with a broomstick in the class adjacent to mine. I’m telling you this dark side of the place so you appreciate the magic of it in context. Right amid all the high-octane mischief, Salesian was a place that produced some of the best minds in the country - towering giants of industry, incredible intellectuals, and just all-around amazing people.

At some point, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God,” imprinted on our blue shirts, either drew you towards goodness or drove you to madness. By the time I finished primary school, I had already internalized this dangerous notion that I was somewhat clever. Here is the remarkable thing that happened in grade seven, which, in retrospect, was an important realization. I was fourth in the country.

That was not the amazing part. When the list was published in the papers, I focused with great interest on a name that has since been vividly emblazoned in my mind - the number one student, Nosipho Dhladhla. Decades later, I met Nosipho in New York, and I’ve embarrassed her by telling this story in her presence multiple times. When we got to secondary school, a handful of us skipped Form 3 and went straight to Form 4.

So, we didn’t get to write the Form 3 exams. Here’s the exciting development that happened then - I read the list of top students - and Nozipho was number one in the country again. I remember thinking, who is this girl? Fast-forward to my very last day at Salesian. I had just written my Add-Maths final and found myself chatting with Mr. Ryan (the same principal I alluded to earlier). He congratulated me for completing my studies and gave me some life advice.

He started by saying, I will go far. And then he said he wants me to know this - that there are many people I will meet in life who will be much smarter than I was - he wanted me to remember that I will go far, not because I’m smart - he said there was something else about me. He never told me what that something else was. At the time, I was still scratching my head, wondering why this man was telling me that I would meet people way smarter than me. Since then, I have met the people Mr. Ryan was talking about, one of them, Nosipho Dhladhla.

I am grateful for that seemingly odd piece of advice because I can imagine how frustrated I would be if I had not been adequately prepared for that eventuality. What you learn about great ideas, and by extension, great minds, is that if we both have great ideas and exchange them, we each end up with two great ideas. Few exchanges work that way. Here’s why I tell you all this: for the first twenty years of my life, I was convinced that intelligence was an attribute one is either born liberally endowed with or doomed not ever to taste. In the second twenty years of my life, I have grown to internalize a different notion - what they call a growth mindset - which views intelligence as a thing learned.

I am glad that I can share this with young people - the fact that when you fail and learn, your intelligence grows. That measure of success are measures of preparedness, not an intrinsic immutable truth about who we are. If I had it my way, Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset,” would be required reading in Form 1. You asked about transitioning from a Salesian boy to living in the USA. It is almost like I have lived multiple lives. There is no easy way to connect the two except to say that the values that I grew up with, from my mother’s endless well of faith - to my teachers’ insistence on excellence to my father’s strict demand for respect and reverence of others - yes, I struggled with the social adjustment - but I had some high-grade ammunition in my value system.

Here’s how I knew this was true before I even landed: I left home with E2 in my pocket (a quarter and a dime). This family was sitting next to me - but the mother was in front of us. I noticed it was uncomfortable for her to keep turning her head to say something to her husband and children, so I offered my seat. She was so appreciative; she gave me $20. From E2 to $20 before I landed, I knew I would be alright just being myself - and that I would make a boatload of money in the process.

A younger Mlungisi with a friend.

TB: For a long time when a person mentioned Mil-G the first thing that comes to mind is "oh Mil-G the producer".Those who casually follow news associate you more with music than business and academia. I heard someone describe you in an interesting way. He said "Mil-G the reluctant intellectual more in love with his music than intellectualism"- I found this description interesting because it reminded me of "Gwayimane" and your association with uplifting Swazi music. So given where you are now and what you do one cannot help ask; is true that your first love is music? Do you still produce music?

MN: Here’s the interesting thing about music: when I was in first grade, the venerable Ms. Shongwe handpicked a dozen of us to sing a song for the speech and prize-giving day. When I got to grade four, Mr. Fakudze and Mr. Cindzi asked me to join the Sibhaca team. By the time I got to grade five, Mr. Dlamini had roped me into singing soprano, and we’d compete and win against other schools. On Sundays, at Sweedish Free church, I’d loiter around after service, hoping for a chance to play the keyboard - even if it was the two or three chords I knew. One of the church malumes (Malume Cel’colo) had a keyboard at his house - and he lived a street away from us, so - he’d let me practice with his small Casio keyboard. So, when Fr. Mikel Garmendia announced to his Religious Studies class that he’d offer free music lessons, I didn’t need much convincing.

Forty or so of us crammed into the small music room the first day - but as soon as folks realized that he wanted to teach us Western music history - and how to read scores, the class quickly dwindled to just a handful. Fr. Mikel brought a desktop computer to the music room in a couple of months. He downloaded some articles from the internet – and much like the music, taught us the history of computing, its architecture, and how to operate it. Not too long thereafter, he let me borrow this book on coding in QBasic. I read that thing from cover-to-cover and built some pretty impressive code with it. With a friend at the time, we went on to build a voice-controlled security system ten and won at the national science fair - over a decade before Siri.

Looking back, I think bit about music and computing with Fr. Mikel had everything to do with how I ended up in the US. Once I obsessed about Mozart and Beethoven, Alan Turing and Bill Gates, it’s almost like the world just became bigger all of a sudden - and I would stop at nothing before I found a way to be a part of it. With all the curveballs that life threw at me along the way, I was clear which direction was North - and, you had no way of stopping me.

So, music was not a first love - it became more than that - it was my gateway to the world - and, in my darkest night of the soul, it was my outlet for emotions I otherwise wouldn’t know what to do with. Most importantly, I have built and enjoyed great relationships through music. Think about how quickly the cool kids from Mbabane embraced me as soon as I arrived. In another world, KrTC and I would not have a common language - but the more time we spent together, the more I understood Hip Hop - and from that we built a lifelong brotherhood.

The answer to the second part of your question is yes. It’s not like two decades ago when I literally spent 24 hours in the studio, but I still generate material. If I ever release any of it, it won’t be to hassle for fame or fortune - it will be because I believe it will move us to a different plane. Here’s the other thing that might not be immediately obvious about making music and high finance: Once you’ve tasted the energy that comes from creating beautiful music, you employ that same level of Excellency in everything that you do. I could be looking at numbers on a spreadsheet, creating a model.

To me, that’s no different from dropping a beat. I know it might sound strange or seem counter-intuitive – but I look at zeros and commas the same way I look at snares and hit-hats. There is beauty in everything.

TB: I recently saw you in blue graduation gowns and was like "Not another degree Mlungisi. Leave some for us".  Please tell us more about your recent graduation.

MN: Back in the day, it started out as a dream - and my prayer is that somewhere in this beautiful kingdom, there is one child who will read this and say to themselves, well, if that guy could do it, so can I. I remember one day, I was at Umnguni Sishayi’s memorial service which was at the Bosco Skills Center - which is adjacent to Salesian High. I remember sitting there in the crowd, and watching as he walked in. It would be the only time I would ever see Nattie Kirsh with my own eye - and little me had a lifelong assignment - it was simply to figure out whatever he had figured out.

So, I’d say if that one young Swazi is reading this, I’d tell them: make no small plans. If you forget everything in this piece, remember this: dream as big as you can - they don’t charge extra for big dreams. The dream was not really to get an Executive MBA at Columbia Business School. In my mind, this is just the beginning. I’ll tell you more about it later, but my next challenge is I want to create 100, 000 jobs ekhaya. I know it sounds preposterous - but that’s exactly what it sounded like when I told everybody and their grandmother that I would not go to university unless it was in the United States.

Let’s go back to the end of the Salesian experience. I did well in Form 5, and after that Add-Maths exam I went home and called every computer company in the country. That was a Friday afternoon project. The following Monday, I was reporting for duty at Horizon Computers in Mbabane. Sixteen years old, fresh out of Msali - I had made the first move - which was go get a job in Mbabane. Mr. Chibwe turned out to be crooked and fired me after three months. Then I spent the remainder of the year shadowing my brother who was a telecommunications radio engineer.

We would travel to every corner of the country, as MTN was expanding its network. He was part of the small team that made sure the infrastructure worked as it should. In one of those trips, I met this very well-connected young man. I don’t remember his name - but I remember hearing this: that he had a Form 5 aggregate of 44 (which in my mind sounded like he practically flunked out).

Here’s where it gets interesting - in the same sentence, I also heard that he was going to the US on a Tibiyo scholarship. In that moment, I was consumed with a righteous indignation. I decided from that day, and I would tell everyone that cared to listen, that I would not set foot at UNISWA - that if I was going to university, it would be in the United States. It took me another five years before I enrolled for my undergraduate degree in the US. I somehow got myself into Waterford - then, spent two and half years after Waterford making music, before I took the flight.

There is a lot of detail that I will skip over, but after my undergraduate degree, it took me another twelve years before I enrolled for my Executive MBA. I’m sharing all of this to make this point: the first important insight was - make no small plans. The second is, play the long game. In a world of social media likes, I get how we can be all seduced into thinking about what can be achieved right now. What I’ve found is that the important milestones in life take a dogged refusal to quit. It takes the discipline to put one foot in front of the other even when the rest of the way is unclear.

As excited as I am that I’ve been able to get this far, I’ll tell you this - I’m only getting started. Given the growing pressures, sheer scale, and complexity of today's business challenges, the collective impact of the next generation of business leaders' decisions will reverberate over time. This is especially true of the choices of those positioned at the epicenter of our global catallaxy.

This influence and impact transcend commerce. They touch everything, including the sustainability of our ecological systems, the vitality of our cultural institutions, the stability of our socio-political systems, and the viability of the prosperous and peaceful coexistence of the world's civilizations. My ambition is to embrace these challenges, and I am convinced that this education has been the most proper preparation.

TB: Tell us about leadership, especially of such a global organization, and what lessons you have learnt.

MN: The thing about leadership is that it’s a very human exercise. I now great leaders who never went to college. Some of them never even held leadership positions. My mother fits both categories. And yet, if you’d met her, a lot of this drive would suddenly make sense to you. I don’t know how she did it, but somehow, she galvanized us into action - into reaching beyond where the mind’s eye can reach. She instilled in us endless faith. I tell people that if I called my mother today and told her that I’m the president of the United States, she’d say without even thinking twice, “God loves you, mntfwanami - He has even bigger plans for your life.” To me, that’s leadership - activating the inner-will do be. Leading large institutions involves a great deal of personal leadership, interpersonal leadership, and strategic leadership. The first is an inward journey, the second touches those around you - and the third involves aligning the hard and soft architecture of an organization to achieve strategic objectives. So, what I’ve learned about leadership - is that it is not something you learn by reading books - you have to be in the arena. In the same manner a jazz musician can in the moment create something beautiful, the same confluence of deep technical aptitude mixed with generosity of spirit applies in leadership. To move a people, you have to invest a lot in knowing yourself and knowing enough about the human condition to galvanize them towards a common purpose. It’s easier said than done - but a marvelous thing when done right.

TB: When I saw your resume on LinkedIn I said to myself this one is a gonner, he will never come back to eSwatini. A part of me was like but why cant these brains come back and contribute to this country´s growth given all the knowledge and experience you have amassed. I was jealous whythere is deliberate effort to poach you back to the country and give responsibility to contribute and make this country better. But it all boils down to whether you would agree to come back to eSwatini?

MN: Yes, in fact I come back home about four times a year now. I suspect your question is about coming back to live ekhaya permanently. I’ve been thinking about that for almost twenty years now - and, I have a bit of a nuanced answer. Firstly, there is no place like home and my heart is shaped like the borders of our lovely kingdom. I have big dreams for my people - and, I am constantly thinking of ways to add value. As I mentioned earlier, I am spending a lot of energy scheming to create a hundred thousand jobs. So, I’m actively building a coalition, and learning all I can about how business is done ekhaya - and will soon raise a fund to make this audacious goal happen. So, the question then becomes - where should I be in order to make that happen? Should I be out here raising capital - or should I be home rolling up my sleeves and building the ecosystem. Having been in the wild wrestling with sharks for so long, I have somehow tricked myself into thinking that in the near-term I need to do both. It will crystalize in the next short while. Here’s what’s important to understand about the effort to create a hundred thousand jobs.

I will do that by finding a hundred entrepreneurs who can build businesses that will scale to employ a thousand people each. So, my task really is to find and empower this championship cohort of a hundred exceptional young businesspeople. Find them I will; watch this space. I won’t do it alone – this is an ecosystem play. So, I am in the early stages of connecting with all the stakeholders to have them understand and embrace this vision – and align our actions towards this common purpose. Yes, it’s a mammoth task – but don’t forget, this dog has heavyweight championship fight in him. And I’ve never really been accused of making small plans.

Mlungisi Mil-G Ndwandwe at a recent graduation ceremony.

TB: What message do you have for young children who look up to you?

MN: First, and foremost, education is a superpower. Learn and never stop learning. Have fun with it. In the end, no one can take away what you have learned. So, learn from your grandparents, learn from your uncles and aunts, learn from your parents, learn from folks from church, learn from your teachers. By learning, I don’t mean cramming stuff just to pass exams, I mean read those books until they read you. Learn as if your life depends on it - because, in the end it does.

Be curious about how the world works - and don’t aim to half-learn anything. Dig deeper, and don’t take things at face-value - form your own opinions and own them. You have a lot of distractions - and there is plenty of garbage being thrown at you. The worst thing you can do, is sleep-walk through this important part of your life. Nobody wins the Olympic by mistake. So, ask yourself, who are you in your greatest aspiration? And what world do you want to bequeath to those who come after you?

Spend enough time interrogating your assumptions and meditating on those two questions, and the world is yours. Equally important, the second thing you need is a framework on how to make decisions. In a world with extremely high information velocity, you need to find for yourself a way to separate what’s important and what’s not - that is, to the difference between signal and noise. Seek truth - not opinions, but truth. Insist on it. This will take you a lifetime, but in the end, you will have a fruitful and productive life, if you have a way to discover for yourself the immutable truths of the universe - and align yourself with them.

A farmer knows that the rain falls down - and arranges everything they do around that knowledge. In any given day, you have the exact same number of hours as Warren Buffet. Ask, yourself - what does he have figured out? What you find over the course of your life, is that there is a handful of things that you have to get right - and that will make all the difference. Just to get you started, one of those things is compounding - find out how it works and put it to work - and you are already doing better than at least half of your peers.

Thirdly, now I bring this up because my worst fear is that as a people we are slowly descending into deeply entrenched polarization. My pleasure with young people is to resist the temptation to hate those with whom they disagree. Some people will not agree with a lot of the views that I share here with you - and that is as it should be. It is a sign of weakness to vilify those who don’t see the world the way that you do. Trust me, I have fallen prey to this as well - and I can tell you for free, it is an unfortunate waste of time. When you seriously disagree, debate rigorously, but don’t succumb to hatred.

Treat everybody with deep respect, and don’t be fooled into thinking that ideas are good just because they are yours. Remember Hanlon’s razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Lastly, have fun with this pilgrimage towards self-discovery. Be kind to yourself. Learn to be present right now - to live life fully right this moment. Enjoy the unstructured time with your family and friends. Do the things that nourish your spirit - whether it’s practicing an art form or playing a sport - or, seeking new experiences or seeing new landscapes. Live now. Don’t forget, this is your song - dance to it however you like.

TB: Thank you so much Mnguni. Rise high and shine for all of us.

MN: Thank you to you for allowing us to share our story.