Close your eyes for a second and imagine what it would be like to attend school each day in a prefabricated building with no electricity, in a single classroom with 100 or more children, or even under a tree. What would it be like to learn in this environment? There’s little or no classroom furniture, so you’d probably have to sit on the floor or in the dirt – balancing your learning material on your legs… This is where the brilliant Lapdesk concept comes into the picture! A portable school desk made from a proprietary blend of child-proof materials, Lapdesk fits neatly on a student’s lap – whether they are seated on a chair, on a bench or on the floor.

Through a Q&A session with Lapdesk’s developer and founder, Shane Immelman, we find out what sets the Lapdesk design apart from other similar concepts, and get some excellent entrepreneur advice.

Q: How did you get the Lapdesk Company off the ground?

A: I really wanted to do something to assist in the development of our country, so I started Lapdesk as a hobby in late 2002. After about eight months I decided to pursue this work full- time, as I was deeply affected by the extremely poor and difficult conditions under which kids were expected to conduct their schooling. I spent the next two and a half years developing and refining the business model – such as gaining the approval of the relevant authorities, manufacturing, operations, sales and pilot projects. Lapdesk went “commercial” in 2004 – with Anglo American as our first client.

Q: What set this design apart from other similar concepts?

A: Lapdesk’s high degree of functionality, a few very interesting engineering techniques and a unique blend of plastics (polymers) – which BASF created for use in the Lapdesk product.

Q: With your goal of eliminating the 4-million desk shortage in South Africa, as well as eliminating the 400-million desk shortage in Africa, how far have you come?

A: We are just over one million into the number. However, you must bear in mind that the first three years should be considered as a pilot study of how Lapdesk fits into a market, a country and a particular education environment. From this learning we have been able to rapidly expand our programme into 19 countries currently, and will be in 60 countries by the end of 2012.

Q: How do you incorporate all your business experience and knowledge into the Lapdesk Company?

A: Lapdesk requires not only my experience, but the combined experience of a team of dedicated, professionally qualified people to ensure that it succeeds in addressing its goals. The structure of our organisation ensures continuity and sustainability, and we are very focused on becoming a brand-led organisation as a personality driven one. We have the same internal processes, requirements and checks and balances as you would find in most companies, and are a group of extremely goal driven people.

Q: You have received many awards for you work in the Lapdesk Company. To what do you credit your success in this regard?

A: I’d love to say that it’s because we’re so brilliant…only kidding! Speaking honestly, I believe this is attributable to the fact that we are humble in our work but extremely determined with the results to match. We are also original thinkers, highly relevant, and recognised as innovative.

Q: What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs like yourself, especially in a similar market to this one?

A: Being an entrepreneur is tough, but so is working for a corporation. From my own experience I would say that you would need unwavering passion and commitment to succeed at whatever you decide to do, have a well constructed plan, get the best mentors that you can access for advice and critical input, and be prepared to work hard and make sacrifice (but not your values) to achieve what you set out to do. Additionally, if you are not prepared to take risk and possibly accept failure as part of the process of your growth and future success, then you should seriously re-consider your career choice.

Q: What do you hope children gain, apart from the physical desk?

A: The Lapdesk Company’s work is actually about hope and dignity, not just about the Lapdesk. We assist the poorest of the poor through our structured intervention programme – designed to show the kids we work with that there is a world apart from theirs that they can aspire to and attain if they are prepared to work hard at school and in life to improve themselves and their surrounding.

Q: What do you hope the communities will learn from this initiative?

A: That both they and their children are not forgotten, and that society is aware of their difficulties and does care about them.

Q: Has Lapdesk influenced your perspective on life?

A: Very much so. You can’t be exposed to the problems being faced by kids in schools and not be affected or concerned by the situation. My new motto is: “know that you can make a difference, and never quit once you have decided on a course of action!”

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