Young and ambitions Sandiso Sibisi was recently appointed as Accenture’s Open Innovation Lead for Africa. Taking innovation to the next level, she has launched two different platforms which she designed to address female unemployment and access to higher education – one of which she presented at the World Bank Youth Summit. She’s been named one of Mzanzi’s 100 Aspiring and Inspiring Leaders, she was a Mandela Washington Fellow in 2016 and she’s even addressed the topic of educating young women at the United Nations. Sandiso Sibisi is clearly soaring to unimaginable heights. Ayiba’s Sanet Oberholzer caught up with the young innovator to touch ground.
You have recently been appointed as an “intrapreneur” at Accenture. What does this term refer to and what is it that you do for the company?
An “intrapreneur” is basically someone that’s an entrepreneur within an existing business; so building a new business model or business division and running it as its own business but it’s actually within a broader umbrella of a business. In terms of what I do – I am leading the open innovation for the Africa region which is really about linking up start-ups and our corporate clients. Accenture is primarily a consulting company focussing a lot on IT consultancy to date. My division is looking at getting innovative solutions for our clients at good speed. It’s become a very big organisation and we’re not as agile as we used to be and so we’re looking to start-ups to bump up or to accelerate our innovative capability as such. That involves working with them to understand their innovative solutions and then taking these solutions to markets and hopefully our clients will buy the solutions and we can do a larger scale implementation program with the start-up.
How open is the South African business environment to young females, especially young black females? Do you see opportunities opening up and businesses diversifying?
Yes and no. I see pockets of success but I see it’s still very little. I know of a couple of other young females that are doing something around tech but it’s still too few – the fact that I can name them is probably not a good indication. And it’s also no because I feel like we’ve had so much development as a country but we’re just not shifting the needle in terms of gender equality in positions of seniority – especially amongst young people. I think that is a detriment to businesses today because businesses are moving so fast given what’s available. People are able to build platforms and disrupt markets. I think they should really lean on the understanding of the young people going forward because I think we probably have a better understanding and are more agile in the market right now as opposed to the current leadership that we have.
Speaking about diversifying and opening up platforms, what do you think is the biggest reason behind South Africa’s unemployment figure – especially in terms of youth unemployment – and how do you think this needs to be addressed?
The current education system in the country doesn’t speak to what the business demand is in terms of skill sets and that’s because it hasn’t responded to what’s happening in the market right now. The curriculum you learned in high school is probably the curriculum they’re teaching right now whereas the market demands something more, or something different. That’s the first thing. I think the second thing is the fact that access to higher education is still a big problem in the country. In rural areas and townships only 16% of people have access to higher education which is very, very low. That means there is a good 85% of people in the townships that don’t have access to higher education so if majority of our people are living in our locations – as you and I both know – they will forever have this unemployment issue because access to good quality education is just not possible.
So how do we address this? We know that infrastructure is very expensive and limited in schools. The problem is so deep that we need to look for a very radical solution and obviously being in tech I look to technology. But technology also poses problems. If you want to access online learning you need a device that can accommodate that. That means you need to have a smart phone, an I-pad or a laptop and people living in these areas just don’t have that access. Once you’ve given a person a device, how do they engage? Telecommunications infrastructure is still a problem and even if you do solve this problem, you have another problem beneath that: data charges. In South Africa we have some of the highest data charges in the world. So there is a layer of problems that are actually hindering us from fixing education using technology. If it’s not tech then it needs to be something else and I’m not sure what that something else is but whatever it is, it needs to be really radical for us to get over that hurdle.
You have been looking at unemployment and trying to address this problem. One of the ventures you founded was Born to Succeed. What inspired you to start this program and how has it grown?
It was a response to youth unemployment and really it was that there was no NGO in the market serving the unemployed, especially those living in these rural and township areas, and that’s why I started Born to Succeed. Then I moved on to really trying to unpack what challenges they were having and I realised that higher education was one of those challenges and that’s how I ended up building my other venture called Khwela. So it was very much a discovery – I built the foundation to address youth unemployment, I was successful in that but I wasn’t moving the needle far enough and therefore I built Khwela to respond to the lack of access to higher education.
You launched this EdTech mobile platform Khwela at the World Bank Youth Summit last year November in Washington, D.C. What is the primary objective behind this innovation and how has it been received?
It was very much producing a pilot to understand if we were to offer higher education on a mobile device, could people actually access it? I think a lot of the input I have today, I speak of because I actually went to pilot the tool; I built a platform. It was very well received in the market but although it was well received it requires a lot more development to try to respond to the infrastructure delivery that we have in the country.
You have many accolades to your name. What has been a personal highlight for you?
I think I would say the Mandela Washington fellowship because what that fellowship did for me – it basically made me think globally more than anything else. It exposed me to how Americans do things, how they stock products, how they run businesses – all of those things. That allowed me to really come back into the country after those six weeks in the U.S. and to just think differently about how I approached my business, how I approached my career at Accenture, etc. So I think that the learning time I spent in the U.S. is very pivotal to how my career has turned out.
What quality fuels that fire that has seen you succeed in the numerous ways you have succeeded and will continue to succeed?
I think by and large I am very much inspired by my family – being my mom and dad. They are hard workers and they demonstrated just how hard work pays off. So I’ve always known that and I’ve believed in that and I’ve executed it in that manner. I always look to them as an example and I see how far they’ve gone and I want to make them happy because they’ve obviously sacrificed a lot for me and my response is to make them proud.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your journey thus far?
I’d say it’s timing: just allow God’s timing. I think I still struggle with that because being a young person you want things yesterday and we just don’t realise how important timing is. It’s so important because it actually paces you for success. If I were to give the younger me advice it would be to just trust in God’s timing because it’s so perfect. I applied for the Mandela Washington Fellowship twice. In 2013 I wanted it and I didn’t get it but when I got it in 2016 the timing was so perfect because it was at a point in my career whereby I was moving on to the next big thing. So all the work I had done before going to the Mandela Washington Fellowship prepared me for what I’m doing right now.