We look forward to sharing the day with you and the women of the Frida Hartley Shelter!
Would you like to spend the day with Mbewu Movement and the women of Frida Hartley Shelter?
We’ve heard it all millennials– from being branded narcissistic and entitled to optimistic and innovative. Nonetheless, I was encouraged by Forbes Women Africa which recently featured a spread of diverse, African female millennial entrepreneurs. It was refreshing to see a positive narrative of young African women who are bringing fresh ideas to the continent and making their mark in the world.
Aisha Pandor was one of the poised young women on the cover of this issue. Aisha is co-Founder and CEO of SweepSouth, an online home cleaning service platform established in 2014 which connects clients with Cleaners in minutes. Interestingly, just before the release of the Forbes cover, I had been over-thinking how to approach Aisha for an interview for weeks! Earlier in the year, I heard her being interviewed on the 702 Money Show. During the interview, she mentioned that her and her husband / co-Founder (Alen Ribic) had just secured R10m funding from the Vumela Fund for their business. So after hearing Aisha speak on the show and then reading her interview in Forbes, I knew I had to muster up the courage to ask her for an interview, and she very graciously accepted. Having seen glimpses over the years of Aisha pushing her business, I was highly impressed by her story, her energy and how her hard work was really starting to pay off. What I admire the most about Aisha is that she’s a maverick. How many times have you heard that there are no black women in the science and technology sector or that the informal sector is excluded from technological innovation? Instead of accepting the status quo, Aisha victoriously hacks the system and makes her own rules in casual millennial swag. And as a mom, she consciously hopes her approach leaves an impression on her daughter. In fact, talking to Aisha reminds me of the famous “Think Different” campaign by Apple that goes: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Here’s to Aisha R. Pandor.
MR: Let’s first talk about your career pivots. So your academic background is in the Sciences and you have a PhD in Genetics. When you left university you decided to work in Management Consulting. After some time you then quit that to become an entrepreneur and started SweepSouth. What do you think has driven your career pivots and what do you think these decisions reveal about yourself?
AP: My team and I have recently been doing strength finding exercises so that we can understand each other better as a team, and what I’ve found out about myself is that I’m very input and execution orientated. I enjoy working with data, analysing information and drawing on that information to make decisions and execute. This is why I enjoyed being in the Sciences and research, because I was able to take in information on how biology, our bodies and genetics works [input], and then develop gene therapies for people who were sick with genetic diseases [execution]. Research and execution was also a key theme in my Management Consulting experience. Now, at SweepSouth, I find myself really enjoying gathering information on what a happy home means for both our clients and our Cleaners, and what’s driving the domestic cleaning sector [input]. And then I use that data to tailor our service to our customers and run an effective business [execution]. So I’d say the consistent theme in my career pivots has been using good data to create a meaningful impact.
MR: What is SweepSouth and what does it aims to achieve as a company?
AP: SweepSouth is an online home cleaning service platform that’s all about creating happy homes. We aim to manage activities that people either don’t have the time, or expertise, or desire to do themselves in their homes. So whether you’re a busy mom, or a young professional, or you’re looking to provide services like cleaning, we have a platform to make it easy for you to create a happy home. In the future we want to provide a total home services solution, including plumbing, grocery shopping, nanny services etc. So we want to understand all our clients’ home needs well and cater to those needs.
By the way, I love the idea of the “Sharing Economy” and creating a platform that allows users on either side of the platform to transact based on trust. Although that trust may be breached at times, that happens in life anyway. But, what the “Sharing Economy” ultimately allows is for someone to earn money providing a service by connecting them to someone else who is willing to pay someone an honest rate to receive a service.
MR: The “Sharing Economy” is an exciting concept, but SA is a generally conservative society with a high crime rate and trust barriers. Do you think the local market is ripe enough for the “Sharing Economy” to flourish?
AP: Yes, I think we’ll get there. We have a strong youth population, and even when we look at what millennials typically share on social media versus older generations, it’s very different. For older generations, the idea of posting a photo of themselves on the internet when they’ve just woken up in the morning or in the bathroom in front of the mirror wearing a bikini, is just bizarre [Laughs]. Yet young people do this all the time, despite the dangers of what could potentially happen to those photos. So there’s this level of trust that’s becoming more normal, and there’s certainly a part of society that’s embracing this new sharing world. For the majority of South Africans, I think the change to a sharing economy may be slower because we can be quite conservative. But, when people see the benefits of the services offered, they’ll come around. Johannesburg is actually one of Uber’s fastest growing markets internationally. Sure there may have been some initial distrust and there were incidents that Uber had to deal with, but people needed this convenience and got over it relatively quickly. We had similar initial trust issues with customers on SweepSouth- people had concerns about how they knew for sure someone would show up after they had given us their card details- and again customers got over that very quickly.
MR: Now that you’re in the tech-startup game, and having not been in technology previously, how did you equip yourself with relevant skills you needed for your business? Did you learn how to code?
AP: I did learn basic code, mainly so that I could understand what Alen was doing and so we could have intelligent conversations about what the platform needed to do. Other things I had to learn included financial modelling. Not financial modelling for a company that’s existed, but for a business that’s completely new where a lot of the modelling is predictive and based on a different set of assumptions. I spend a lot of time doing research online and because I have a strong research background I’m good at discerning information.
We’ve also been through a few rounds of funding and what’s been exciting about this is when we’ve received funding from overseas that’s been through completely new funding vehicles in the South African context. For example, when we received funding from an overseas venture firm called 500 Startups they use a funding vehicle called a KISS (Keep It Simple Security). KISS funding uses convertible notes, which are a form of short-term debt that convert into equity, typically in conjunction with a future financing round / when the startup gets larger (more here). And so we had to figure out how to fit this into South African Company Law, with the help of our lawyers who were also working on this type of deal for the first time. As CEO, I’m responsible for protecting the company and our assets in conversations and negotiations with investors. So I’ve had to learn these skills quite quickly.
MR: Please will you walk me through the process and time it took for you to identify this business opportunity, define the business model and then develop a technology solution?
AP: It took us 4 or 5 months to go from concept design to building the platform to launching it, which is a short amount of time to build a platform from scratch. But we were so focused and we knew exactly what we wanted it to look like. Also both of us quit our jobs to do this full time, so we had to work quickly before we ran out of money.
We launched a Minimal Viable Product (MVP), the basic concept which would allow a user to book a Cleaner end-to-end, and after that we continued building based on the feedback we received from friends and our clients. We would also conduct analysis on how users interacted on our site, i.e. what users were clicking on, what questions we were getting and whether that meant we needed to improve our UX or include questions in our FAQs. We also have a dual rating feedback system where clients rate Cleaners and Cleaners rate clients. We’ve been very attentive to our customers and pay a lot of attention to feedback.
Looking back, there was absolutely no way we could’ve created as good a product in such a short time span while still working in corporate jobs. But I wouldn’t advise this for everyone. In fact, my parents were against the idea of us quitting our jobs, selling our house and cashing in our pension, while we have a child. My mom said to me: ”You have to have at least 3 years’ worth of savings before starting a business”. I responded “Mom, who in this day and age has 3 years’ worth of savings?” [Laughs]. They were very nervous, but in the end they knew that we would give this idea all that we had, and even if the idea failed we were still educated and employable.
MR: What do you think ultimately made investors believe in your business and award you R10m funding?
AP: Firstly, I think the most important success factor is having a strong founder team. Clashes between founders are a very common reason why startups fail, but Alen and I know each other very well. We also both understand the spheres in which we operate in well. Alen is a brilliant technician and I’ve been great with knowing the market and managing the operational and the people side. I also think we both have the potential to grow this into something really big. A lot of startup founders have great ideas, but aren’t able to scale up their business.
Secondly, we gained a lot of traction over a short period of time. We’d only been around (launched) for a few months when we first engaged investors, but we were able to show that within that year as a small team of two, there wasn’t a single month that we had less growth than the month before, even though at times we had been out of the country.
Lastly, the idea itself is something we are passionate about and is relevant to South Africa because we’re creating work opportunities for people very quickly, which has resonated with the objectives of our investors. If you have a successful interview with SweepSouth, you get on-boarded very quickly on the system and in less than 24 hours you’re able to get bookings. So there’s a very quick turnaround for Cleaners to start working and earning money.
MR: You’ve given some insight on what it’s like working with your husband, Alen. Some people are quite cautious about starting a business with their spouse or partner. What has your overall experience been like pursuing entrepreneurship with your husband?
AP: We went into business together because we have complementary skills and because we were both over working for other people. Fortunately, I love working with my husband. I think the fact that we have complementary skills, we have a shared dream for our business and we were able to pool our resources together into this project were key success factors. If we were both developers or if we were each working on different business ventures, I don’t think things would’ve worked out the same. But, when you’re in a relationship with your business partner, there is the risk that working together will affect your personal relationship negatively and starting SweepSouth was a scary decision for us as a family. Our daughter was 3 years old when we launched the business so we had to be okay with the possibility of not being able to pay for her school fees sometimes and we saw how selling our house was quite distressing for her. For anyone considering pursuing an entrepreneurial venture with their partner, it’s a hard decision, there’s a lot at stake and it’s definitely not something to be taken lightly.
MR: What are the challenges that you are most proud to have overcome in your journey so far as an entrepreneur?
AP: Having a child who is so well grounded, is something I am very proud of. Our daughter is quite mature for a 6 year-old and understands that there’s something bigger that we’re trying to achieve. She was around during the days when we didn’t have an office and there were queues of people standing outside our home wanting to apply to SweepSouth. She understood that those people were looking for work and needed help accessing opportunities. I’m very proud that my daughter has seen me build something from scratch, first-hand and very early on in the journey. Hopefully one day we can look back with her and remember the day we sold our house and we were in tears driving away from it, but we did this because we knew we were moving on to something bigger.
I’m also really proud of building SweepSouth and the actual work we do every day with our amazing team. No matter what happens to SweepSouth, I’m proud to say that Alen and I did this. We went from just two women who were on the platform in the first month, to having hundreds. Now we’re able to pay out hundreds of thousands worth of salaries in per month, which means there are people and families who are actually benefiting from our platform, the work we do every day and having access to work opportunities. I think that’s the magic of entrepreneurship, it’s when you have an idea and by the sheer force of your will, you build it up to something that’s bigger than you and impacts a lot of people.
MR: On that inspiring note, what closing advice would you give an entrepreneur?
AP: Firstly, being very focused and precise with what you want to do is important, especially when you are doing well, because that’s when you can easily get distracted and veer off into a different direction altogether. Secondly, have a good business partner, because it’s an extremely hard journey. If you’re starting a business from scratch there will be really bad times and your self-worth will be challenged. I’ve found that having a support system outside of the business isn’t really enough to get you through the emotional journey. You need to have a business partner who understands the challenges and can keep you motivated. Thirdly, be passionate about something that’s beyond the money and the egotistical side of business. So make sure you have a vision and a mission that’s meaningful, because that’s what becomes the “why” which you have to fall back on when the “what” becomes really hard.
Roughly this time last year, Mbewu Movement founding members had dinner with Joyce Kim, co-Founder and Executive Director of Stellar, a fin-tech company based in Silicon Valley. A piece of wisdom that Joyce shared with us was to “discover the things that you do that make you proud as hell”. Having met both women, there are many things that I think Joyce and Aisha have in common, one of them being that they both leave you with the feeling that YOU can actually change the world. I’m sure many #youngpreneurs, side-husslers, working mothers and power couples are inspired by Aisha’s incredible story. Most importantly, always remember to think different.
Article by: Magcino Radebe | Mbewu Movement Founding Member
Magcino Radebe holds a Master of Philosophy in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (University of Cape Town). She is an Executive Assistant in Financial Services.
The glitz and the glamour of the music industry often fools the public into thinking that everything comes easy for young and talented artists. We hardly ever see the diligence, tenacity, resilience and sheer hustle that all comes with the territory when perfecting the studio recordings, expressing both power and vulnerability on stage, and creatively visualizing songs into music videos. In fact, artistic recognition does not come easy. As a friend and fan of jazz musician Thandi Ntuli, I have had the joy of watching her evolve musically- from performing during lunchtime recitals at the UCT’s Music College, to sharing the stage with Thandiswa Mazwai and, most recently, being recognized for her debut album “The Offering” with a number of coveted awards and nominations under her belt. But although I know her well, I wanted to interview Thandi because I believe she offers interesting philosophies on crafting, achieving and managing a successful career that young professionals across any industry or background could learn from.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE BETTER THAN YOU
MM: We’re friends and we’ve known each other personally for almost a decade. I would personally describe you as extrovert and outspoken yet humble, intuitive and curious. How do you continue to exude your authentic qualities in an industry which is perceived to be, on the one hand, all about the glitz and glam, and on the other, notoriously cut throat and scandalous?
TN: Firstly, I never buy into my own hype because it’s so easy to lose your perspective on what’s real and get caught up in some of the distractions in the music industry. Secondly, I’m fortunate that the jazz industry isn’t necessarily linked with as much glamour / controversy as some other music genres like house, hip hop and pop. But being recognized in the industry does come with a public life and I think you just have to remind yourself that at the end of the day you’ll go home to your family and still get sent to wash the dishes [laughs], regardless of who you are to the public.
MM: And what about having reached this level of success, fame and recognition at such a young age with your debut album “The Offering”? I think there’s something to be said about how young professionals cope with success and continue to accelerate their careers across various industries. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you manage the pressure of having built a strong name for yourself in the industry and still have the drive to achieve more?
TN: The main challenge for me is that I always think about what’s next, and that’s the kind of pressure that I put myself under. Doing well is an amazing feeling but you can also get comfortable and forget about the importance of having longevity- Michael Jackson didn’t record one album and then chill out. Also, a lot of my peers challenge themselves and have achieved a lot more than me, and this keeps me in check because I realise there are other things that I still need to strive for, like taking my music overseas and exposing my music to new markets, which broadens my perspective on what I could still do next. That’s why they say that when you want to get better at something you have to surround yourself with people who are better than you at it.
FIND AND ACKNOWLEDGE POSITIVE INFLUENCES THAT SHAPE YOUR CAREER
MM: So I was really impressed with your debut album “The Offering” and if I were to describe it in one word, I’d say it is elegant. One of the interesting things I noticed was that you have some songs on the album dedicated to your family, particularly your parents and your grandmother. Did you deliberately do this because “The Offering” was your first album, a special milestone in your career, and this was a way to honour the role your family played in helping you get to this point? Or do you foresee your family as being a constant source of inspiration in your music?
TN: I believe my family groomed me to be who I am before anyone else in the world did, so it was important for me to acknowledge them upon reaching this milestone. I may not have intentionally thought to dedicate the songs to my family while I was writing the songs but because of the creative space I was in while I was writing those songs, it made sense to dedicate my work to my family. More recently, I’ve actually been asking myself what my voice is on social issues because I’d like to incorporate this into my music going forward. So my sources of inspiration are growing and dedicating my music solely to my family might not be something I carry on forever. But, I think there will always be an element of wanting to dedicate some aspects of my creativity to my family.
MM: I know you recently traveled to Ethiopia on holiday and you’ve traveled to various parts of the continent both professionally and for leisure. During your travels do you pick up any musical influences or styles that inspired your music or are your travels purely pleasure?
TN: I don’t think it’s ever purely pleasure when you’re an artist, because every [travelling] experience affects you somehow, even when you’re not intentionally seeking inspiration. In terms of African influences in particular, I have a very strong connection to Malian music although I’ve actually never been to Mali. On my album I have a song titled “Sangare” which is dedicated to Oumou Sangare because when I heard her music for the first time I was like “Hallelujah!” [Laughs]
I also think we have yet to really fully explore how much African music could influence us as South African jazz artists; it’s still very much untapped. Similarly, there isn’t much of an exchange of South African jazz music influencing the rest of the continents artists, so it’s like we’re passing each other. The most I’ve personally seen is a significant following and respect for Jimmy Dludlu in Nigeria. I think our unfortunate difficulty is that we don’t have a common medium of distributing our music to other countries and this means we become disconnected with what’s happening in the jazz scene in the rest of the continent. I believe this fundamentally needs to change.
COLLABORATE WITH OTHERS TO ENRICH YOUR OWN WORK AND THEIRS
MM: Are there any collaborations in the pipeline for you, or perhaps on your wish list?
TN: Locally, I’d love to work with Keke from The Muffinz in the near future- he has a beautiful voice. And more generally, I’m quite open to enriching my sound, so working with international artists is definitely on my wish list too.
MM: And what about collaborations outside of the jazz world? I was fortunate enough to see you and DJ Kenzhero perform at The Orbit together, which was a really funky blend of jazz and hip hop. Can we expect to see you branching out of the jazz genre more?
TN: I don’t have anything planned as yet, although I am looking at continuing the project that DJ Kenzhero and I partnered on again this year. I would actually like to write songs for some of the great new voices we have in South Africa, like Ayanda Jiya, I’d love to write for her. I’ve also been working with a house producer called Sit LSG, co-producing his house album, which has been hard work and great learning curve.
SELF-CONFIDENCE UNLOCKS YOUR ABILITY TO LEAD YOUR INDUSTRY AND INFLUENCE THE WORLD
MM: You were also selected to play in Thandiswa Mazwai’s all-woman band and I’m curious about what this experience taught you about the music industry?
TN: I’ve never believed that women are less talented than men, but unfortunately there is this still a popular perception in the industry and so many women musicians carry that self-doubt in the back of our minds without even knowing it. So it was really empowering for me to play in an all women band, because it wasn’t just about us all being girls and looking great on stage, I was also playing with really high caliber musicians and we kicked ass. But I think there’s still more to be done to shift the negative perception about female talent because there are young up-and-coming female instrumentalists who need to be encouraged to pursue their dreams and make their mark in the industry.
MM: In your Kaya FM Jazzuary interview you pointed out that South African jazz music in particular has been very successful at putting South African music on the map internationally. Is it in your plans to develop an international presence?
TN: I don’t think I’ll ever feel I’ve succeeded until I’ve exported my music internationally. I also think what the likes of Mariam Makeba and Hugh Masekela did with sharing South African culture, music, society and politics with the world, was really special. That was during the golden time of South African music, and there was no shortage of huge international South African names. But what we need to do now is be more aggressive with distributing our own music. In Ethiopia, there wasn’t a single radio station that played anything other than Ethiopian music, which is commendable. Because, I think if there’s a dominant culture present in a society, it will always water down the weaker culture. And in our case our heritage is the weaker heritage so in the years to come our music will sound more and more like American music. Whereas in the golden years, we had our own sound and people recognized that we were special people with something special to offer the world. It’s no accident that Ladysmith Black Mambazo have had so much international success and that artists like Paul Simon were strongly influenced by South African sound and music.
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE YOUR GIFT AND THE IMPACT YOU HAVE WHEN YOU SHARE YOUR GIFT WITH OTHERS
MM: What has been some of the best career advice you’ve received?
TN: Jimmy Dludlu’s advice to me was “keep practicing and believe in your talent no matter what”. I’ll always remember this advice because in this industry you don’t know when you’ll have your big break or whether your talent will ever be recognized. But nonetheless, you have stay focused on your work.
Another pearl of wisdom I received was last year when I played at a SAMRO event, and met Mam’ Dorothy Masuka and Mam’ Abigail Kubeka. They told us that “we are in a very special industry and this job is so beautiful because you give people joy and healing and there will be many blessings for sharing your gift with people. You may never really know what impact you have on people’s lives by just doing what you do… Always keep a clean heart and have the right intentions with what you do.”
MM: That’s a very interesting perspective- that music gives joy and healing. When you think about it as general consumer of music, after a stressful week at work you might play your favourite album to calm you down or lift your spirit, you may have a special album you like to meditate to or an album that perfectly sets the mood for a dinner party. Have you ever experienced the impact that your music has had on someone’s life?
TN: A friend of mine sent me a long message which read that she had gone through depression, and through that difficult and dark time Lonely Heart was HER song and she would just listen to it all the time. She thanked me for the song and told me to keep doing what I do. I don’t expect that kind of reaction but when I get it, it’s incredibly rewarding and special.
Serendipitously, as I started my car to drive home from this interview a song titled “In-Between Spaces” from Thandi’s album immediately came on the radio. And as I drove home I reflected on the inspiring afternoon I spent with a trail blazing young South African. Her approach to achieving and managing career success as a young professional is clearly grounded on self-mastery and a deep passion for her craft. In fact, this interview with Thandi reminded me of Oprah Winfrey’s career-life philosophy “align your personality with your purpose, and nobody can touch you”.
Article by: Magcino Radebe | Mbewu Movement Founding Member
Magcino Radebe holds a Master of Philosophy in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (University of Cape Town). She is an Executive Assistant in Financial Services.