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Setbacks led former Bok Captain to embrace disruption


Grove’s Innovator’s Club has become a popular hub for people with a passion for technology, innovation and social change to connect. The purpose of these exclusive meet-up’s is to disrupt the status quo by cultivating a positive community of meaningful thinkers. The meetings introduce out-of-the-box thinkers to share inspirational messages with fellow thought leaders.

Rugby legend Jean de Villiers was the Guest Innovator at Grove’s most recent Innovators Club held in Cape Town at Citadel Claremont.

The former Springbok captain, now head of philanthropy at Citadel, took his audience on a tour of his remarkable career that started when he was five years old. From those first games that left him “with a couple of blue eyes and a couple of scars”, young Jean soon realised he’d committed himself to a tough game. But he could never have predicted what a decisive part injuries would play in his career and the valuable lessons he would learn from it.

Looking back on his career Jean said he came to understand the link between disruption and innovation.

“Innovation is the ability to change, to constantly strive to be better. It is your attitude in challenging situations that will determine if you will be successful or not,” Jean said.

Success came early for young Jean as he began playing for Western Province at age 13 and set foot on his beloved Newlands rugby field for the first time. From the SA Schools team he rose to SA 7’s team and at 21 he was invited to the Springbok team. He would go on to play 109 matches for his country – one of only five people to reach that milestone. Jean is the second most capped player in South African rugby; he was Player of the Year twice and along the way, he won a World Cup Rugby Trophy for his country.

But behind the brilliant career fans saw on TV, Jean encountered many obstacles. Every major achievement of his career was preceded by an injury that set back the clock many months and delayed the rewards of his hard work and dedication. “These setbacks you can’t plan for, but they are part and parcel of the dream,” Jean told guests. During crucial times of his career he endured seven knee operations, a shoulder reconstruction, he broke his jaw twice – not to mention fingers, toes and various other small bones that were also shattered many times.

Jean’s biggest challenge came a year before the World Cup of 2015 when he injured his knee quite badly. “I knew that to come back from that, to just be able to walk again, run again or play rugby again would be a massive challenge. But along with that, I realised what the Springbok team means to people and how big a responsibility I have to use this amazing platform to speak to a vast and very diverse crowd in South Africa. If I could get through this, perhaps I could inspire just one person.” He took on the challenge and came to appreciate the value of disruptions.

“We all need to have a dream, but the dream and the journey will not go the way you planned it, there will be adversity along the way. But failure is only failure when you give up. If you keep moving forward, learning from it and grow through it, that is success.

“Adversity for me was such a crucial thing in my career. I have learnt so much through those hard times. And I think it’s so important to learn from the defeats, the failures and mistakes.”

The constant strive for improvement and change is a responsibility shared by all South Africans, Jean told the Innovators Club. “It’s not only the responsibility of government to improve our lives. Every South African should share that responsibility. We need to make creative investments in our future and like any investment, you won’t see the results tomorrow. It will take time.”

As head of Philanthropy at Citadel, he’s fortunate to have the opportunity to implement the lessons he’s learnt in his career, Jean said. “We look at charitable giving in SA and by making it a thoughtful process we ensure that we also invest in people for the future, making sure we create opportunities so that unemployment in SA does not increase.”

Jean ended his talk with a powerful message: “As South Africans, we have shown the world if we stand together we can move mountains. So let us move this mountain!”

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