28 February, 2024

Lift As We Rise | Notes on Next Generation Success

Rohan Laas (left) and Helgaard Janse Van Rensburg (right) are former F1 in Schools World Finals competitors and now lead volunteers at Future Ones NPC. These two high performers are committed to sharing their knowledge and experience to enable next generation success through excellence in applied STEM.

A decade and half later, they share their story with shining eyes and wide smiles, recalling their "make a plan" journey to the 2009 World Finals in London.

How they got going.

Helgaard led the team and Rohan looked after the finance, marketing and graphics. This is almost similar to what we do in in our current jobs. Helgaard is the co-Founder and R&D Director at EX Management Systems while Rohan wears a finance hat at a leading beverage company in South Africa.

F1 in Schools was introduced to us at another local school over a weekend in the Free State. With very little information or knowledge, we submitted a car concept design and team structure. From there we were selected to continue to the next stage and progressed from there. All we did was to stay focused, while we had fun figuring it all out.

Highlights from their journey.

Our initial thought was, "what is this?". The whole thing was a foreign concept - we knew a bit about Formula One but knew nothing about the F1 in Schools programme. We know that we had no experienced but that did not stop us.

Our team, Double S Racing, collaborated with a team from Germany. We had to set up, self-manage and self-organise the teams with limited process guidelines. It was our teacher who figured things out and shared her own learnings with us, making sure that we were always aligned as a team. This support was motivating.

We faced numerous technological challenges, such as learning how to use CAD design software, CNC machines, wind tunnels and how to prepare digital presentations.  

What amazed us as being part of the World Finals event, was seeing how advanced other countries were, especially the investments companies made in their local schools. For example, our collaboration team from Germany had access to one of the biggest motor manufacturers in the world who assisted with our car's paint work. This would have been very difficult to accomplish as a standalone team in South Africa. Also the workmanship and quality of presentations of the other international teams were phenomenal.

The other two South African teams were from Pietermaritzburg and Stellenbosch. They competed independently and not through collaboration.

Some challenges and how they tackled them.

There were challenges and we had to cross them through trial and error because there is no blueprint.

We had some initial designs flaws and re-designed our car multiple times until the design was machinable. From the technical to the thinking - we had to learn to present our design, ideas and concepts to the sponsors and judges. We learnt about fundraising, speaking to sponsors and managing finances. Time management was a big factor to manage school, sports and personal/social activities. We enjoyed the challenges simply because we worked well in our team. The team leader played an important role - this was Helgaard's job.

The ROI delivered to the school and to sponsors.

We were the only school in our town, Sasolburg, that participated and this attracted great publicity, especially after we advanced to the international (World Finals) competition. With the support of the University of the Free State, we were able to get some international and local exposure.

Key learnings that they continue to apply today.

We experienced the high competence of participants from other countries. Today that insight into world class excellence motivates us to showcase South Africa's capability which stacks up with international standards if we put in consistent effort daily and keep performing at those high levels.

What participation can offer to young STEM talent in SA.

Firstly, it forces you to think outside the box and to come up with a plan otherwise you will fail. As the saying goes, "If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail".

Secondly, international exposure opens your eyes to endless possibilities of what South Africa can achieve, and also learn, in terms of technological advancements. This type of exposures shows that us South Africans who don't have the means and privilege can still compete at the same level with the best of the best.

Our lead volunteers' “Impossible” goal for F1 in Schools ZA.

Our impossible goal is to involve the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) and to mentor upcoming prospective engineers.

Then have as many schools as possible participating, unlike the few schools during our time, with bigger sponsors so that we can have a proper national competition which includes many more pupils and teams across South Africa.

This opportunity can awaken an unknown interest you never knew you had and maybe produce the next Enzo Ferrari producing the first South African design and completely fabricated car right here in Mzanzi!

What an SA team will need to do to reach and win at the F1 in Schools World Finals.

The reality is that you have to push yourself to your limits and only seek the best, there is absolutely no space for being mediocre. Obstacles will always be there but those should not deter you.

Funding will probably be the biggest obstacle but keep at it. Approach international brands where possible, offer them a value proposition. In our experience and unfortunately, local and smaller businesses did not see the value initially so we had to approach international brands. Aligning our values / visions to sponsors made it an easier sell.

Research on what other businesses do and identify what success looks like. Research marketing, branding, technology, performance and measure your team against the best examples out there. Look at printed or digital magazines for presentations, the paintwork must be of a quality that would go on a road car and branding and sponsorships must be approached professionally. Public speaking is an important skill when dealing with sponsors. Look for ways to improve and apply those learnings because that is what gets teams to the World Finals.

Get comfortable with technology and learn how to use the right software so that it sets your designs and presentations apart from others. Know the technologies that affect car performance, for example the effect of paint, wheel friction and other design aspects.

The competition rules are strict. Learn them, live them and love them. This will aid you in applying the rules to your designs and also in identifying the restrictions posed on the teams / vehicles.

How you work as a team is important - identify the team's weaknesses and strengths and use them for your team's success. Relationships in the team must be managed. Good relationships with suppliers and external experts or mentors will help to maximise what the team can deliver within the budget and using the skills available. Involve local business who support the team in achieving the goal.

Lastly, have a business or entrepreneurial mindset. Set a team mission and have a plan - it will guide you on decision making and allow for easier buy in.

Even if you don't win at the World Finals, if you apply these suggestions, you will be very employable and highly experienced by the time you enter the job market.  

Advice to young South Africans who want to achieve extraordinary success.

  1. Decide to be extraordinary first. Once this has been decided no amount of work or effort should discourage you from achieving the intended outcome.
  2. You have to believe that there is value in what you do and it's not in vain, even if you don't see any results now and will only see it in years to come.
  3. Treat each failure as a lesson to learn from. Make sure you learn the lesson and don't repeat it - at least not more than twice.
  4. Have fun in what you do this as will make it easier when you have to put in the long hours and face difficulties.
  5. No one has ever achieved success on their own. Learn from others, be humble, share your ideas. have a learning mindset - be a sponge and absorb everything you can. Don't be put-off by critique.
  6. Experience is required and this is only achieved by doing the work - put in the effort.
  7. You are a South African - be proud of it and show the world that you are capable of being the best!
Article written by FTP Media - Purpose driven Passion

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