The power of small enterprises to improve the lives of families and communities was demonstrated when 27 small business owners from low-income areas of the greater Cape Town region graduated from the sponsored Small Business Academy (SBA) programme of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) on Monday 3 December.At the ceremony the top three small businesses were awarded. Proving that age is no barrier to starting up a business, Jacqueline Julie of Mitchell’s Plain celebrated her 50th birthday along with winning the Absa Best Business Plan award for her Xcelent Crunchies & Homebakes which has turned a part-time home-baking setup into a growing formal business that supports her family of eight.Lisa Ndyalivani and Port Elizabeth-born Vincent Zokufa were the other two winners.SBA head Dr Marietjie Theron-Wepener said the winners had in common a drive to succeed and had demonstrated the ability to innovate and adapt their businesses to changing circumstances – “an essential trait of entrepreneurs,” she said.“What is especially exciting is to see that they, and other participants on the programme, are not just thinking about how to grow their own businesses but also how to share what they have learnt and create opportunities for others to get into business too. This is how small business becomes the economic engine that it should be.” Julie supplemented the family income for more than 20 years selling home-baked crunchies and said turning it into a fully-fledged business “took a mind-shift, a realisation that I could build something lasting”.Having made the shift, she said enrolling in the SBA was the logical next step: “Being exposed to the learning and business environment after being a stay-at-home mom for 20 years has made all the difference, especially the mentoring aspect. I know that I can still learn at 50 – it has been life changing.”Although still in the start-up stage, she said the business grew “immensely” in the time she was participating in the SBA, with turnover leaping from R1000 last November to the current R13 000 a month.Julie sells her pre-packed crunchies, brownies and biscuits to retailers in her local area and through agents who earn commission, and her vision is to develop a replicable model to enable other women to set up home-based businesses.“Everyone has something they can do, like I bake, but have no idea of what it takes to run a sustainable business. Now that I have learned that, I want to teach other women how – get the finance, operations, marketing all in place, along with a plan for them to follow,” she said.“We are very proud of how far the three winners and all the participants on the programme have come in just nine months through increasing their knowledge and gaining practical business skills,” Theron-Wepener said.“It’s widely accepted that small businesses are the engines of economic growth and employment, and offer a logical route out of poverty, but many don’t make it past their first year because they lack business skills and the know-how to access finance and markets.” Now in its sixth year, the SBA addresses that gap, in partnership with corporate sponsors who also share their inside business knowledge and experience with participants, creating networking opportunities and better understanding of the linkages between small and large businesses.Each participant is mentored by a USB MBA alumnus, and many cite this as the most valuable part of the learning experience.