Congratulations to engineer, investment strategist, corporate executive, academic, author, and poet, Athol Williams, for making history by winning the annual Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award twice in a row. He won the award for his poem, Visit At Tea Time, which deals with rape and the social conditions that perpetuate it. It might seem strange that an engineer, investment strategist and corporate executive would win an award for poetry, but for a restless soul like Athol, a man who came from humble beginnings; this is just part of his journey to live a larger, fuller life.
Born in Lansdowne and raised in Mitchells Plain, Athol spent the first 24 years of his life under apartheid, a system that was designed to brainwash him into believing that he is “destined for mediocrity”. He says that he aimed to break out of that mental “prison of mediocrity that he was born into” by working hard, getting an education, and acknowledging that he is someone of far greater worth. His determination to break free led him to achieving almost super-human success in everything that he laid his hands on.
Athol has a BSc in Mechanical Engineering at Wits, an MBA in Strategy at MIT, an MSc in Finance at the London School of Business, a Master of Public Administration at Harvard University, and he is currently doing his masters in Political Theory at Oxford University. Whilst at Harvard, he was awarded the ‘Lucius N. Littauer Award for Academic Excellence and Significant Contribution to the Harvard Kennedy School Community’. He is also one of the few people to pursue master’s degrees at five of the world’s top universities. However, getting an education was not easy.
He considers his studies at MIT to be one of his major accomplishments because of the difficulties he faced. He went to the US in 1994 knowing no-one, without any money to pay for his studies and without a place to live. He squatted on campus and stressfully ignored the increasing debt, until he convinced the university to create a scholarship for him.
After graduating from university, Athol started out as a graduate engineer for Anglo American, and then rapidly moved on to become a Strategy consultant for the US based Bain & Company. He then went on take up positions for major organisations which included becoming an Executive of Rio Tinto in London, Group Strategy Executive for Old Mutual, Board Member for Wits University, Director for Old Mutual, Portfolio Executive for RMB Corvest, Chairman of Shalamuka Capital, A Partner for Bain and Company, and Director for Wits Enterprise. He co-founded Inkunzi Capital and he founded Taurus Associates, one of the most successful consulting firms in South Africa. He was also an Adjunct Professor for the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand and he was the chairman of The Family Life Centre.
In addition to his poetry award, he is also shortlisted for the SA literary award for poetry and has just released his autobiography, Pushing Boulders. Pushing Boulders, has been described as a “tribute to the resilience and determination of the human spirit” and his poems have been described as both tragic and uplifting. He is also the author of the Oaky children’s book series.
Athol also presented the literature radio show Words Alive on Mix 93.8 FM and he has executive produced two human-rights films, Anna & Modern Day Slavery and A Shot at the Big Time.
For Athol, who is already an accomplished businessman and entrepreneur, writing is not about the money. At the height of his successful international business career, at the age of 40, he decided that he was no longer interested in money, and sold his Lamborghini, Rolls Royce, Jaguar and other luxury cars. He wanted to pursue his passion for writing and dedicate his life to uplifting others through education.
He donates all the money that he earns from writing to charity, which includes the prize money from the Poetry awards, which he donated to a charity working with rape survivors. He also co-founded ‘Read To Rise’ with his wife, Taryn, which encourages young people to read and raises money to purchase books for schools where there are no resources.
The advice he gives to others is that in order to be great, you have to be willing to accept that you might fail. He admits to having failed many times, failures which includes rejection letters from publishers and failed companies. Today, he is an acclaimed author and the founding CEO of the longest running and one of the most successful South African strategy consulting firms, Taurus Associates. He says that failure is part of the process leading to success, and when you fail, you need to silence the negative voices, get back up and try again. If you play it safe, you are unlikely to fail but also unlikely to be great.
He also admits that every time he sets a goal for himself, he is filled with self-doubt and insecurity about whether he can achieve that goal. But once again, he silences those negative voices and aims for greatness.
Athol encourages all young people to realise their full potential and live a larger, fuller life and his greatest hope is that his achievements will help to inspire others to achieve greatness.