Dr Taddy Blecher’s bold plan to transform Johannesburg’s CBD into education town

The Maharishi Invincibility Institute, a non-profit and self-development organisation, recently made headlines when Anglo American announced that it would donate its 45 Main Street building in downtown Johannesburg to the institute. The building is estimated to be worth R100 million. The donation will support youth development and Johannesburg’s urban renewal efforts. In an interview with BizNews, Dr. Taddy Blecher, CEO of the institute, shared his ambitious plans to turn the CBD into an Education Town. It would be a Herculean task. Derelict buildings vacated by big businesses are scattered throughout the city and have become symbols of Johannesburg’s decline—a city that was once the vibrant heart of South Africa’s economy. A recent fire in a hijacked building claimed the lives of 70 people. Dr. Blecher said he is not prepared to say it is too hard. He sees Washington’s urban renewal, where a successful education institution changed a whole precinct, as an example that he would like to follow. The former actuarial scientist also draws inspiration from the remarkable success stories of his students from underprivileged backgrounds, and he boldly challenged BizNews to return in five years to witness “the remarkable progress first-hand.” – Linda van Tilburg

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Excerpts from the interview

Accommodating an Extra 3,500 Students a Year, with Total Enrollment in Johannesburg Reaching 5,000

This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to us and it is incredibly exciting. This is a gift forever for the marginalised youth of Johannesburg. These are the young people and millions in our country who have dropped out of school or did finish school, but they don’t get a matric exemption, a degree pass, or a diploma pass. So, many young people are really stuck and they can’t access the modern economy.

What Anglo American has done is such a game changer in terms of a legacy that they’re leaving for Joburg. They are saying that they have moved to Rosebank and that Anglo has been going for 105 years now, but they wanted to do something that will forever make a difference in the city of Joburg. Anglo turned down several offers of R100 million rand plus for this building.

Now with our work, we have the opportunity to grow to three and a half thousand students per year and it will take us to over 5,000 students in the Johannesburg CBD. We are excited for 50 years, for 100 years, and for 200 years. What this means is that an education institution really can outlast businesses.

Renaming Part of the Johannesburg CBD as Education Town, Taking Inspiration from Washington’s Regeneration

It’s not an official thing, but we’re renaming this part of town, Education Town. In Johannesburg, we’ve got Bank City where FNB is, and you had all the banks, big banks traditionally there. We’ve got Jewel City where the jewellery manufacturing industry has traditionally been. But, no great city in the world has ever really developed without a strong educational underpinning, and this is how you develop your intelligentsia, your skills, and your entrepreneurs. If we want to develop these great tech entrepreneurs, engineers, people who are going to build new kinds of businesses, et cetera, and serve the ever more complex skills that are needed to compete in a globalising world, then education is absolutely critical, and there is no real educational underpinning in the Johannesburg CBD. Obviously, you’ve got WITS, which is such a great institution, and UJ, such a great institution in Braamfontein and Mill Park, but in the city itself we want to create this education city, and we hope to grow to tens of thousands of students.

Our target eventually would be about 40,000 students, but also to crowd in other educational institutions. There are so many examples, like in Washington, in a downtown area, which was derelict, where a very successful educational institution got going. Then the whole precinct changes because now you start to develop businesses, you have coffee shops, you have restaurants, hotels start to appear, you get bookshops. There’s a whole ecosystem that grows around that. So, I don’t know if we’re going to get big business back into the city, but what I do know is that if we develop the full potential of our young people, magic can happen. If we don’t develop the full potential of our young people, magic cannot happen. We cannot have millions of young people not using their potential, not having skills, not having knowledge. That’s what we serve to do.

Initiatives to Revive the CBD: Solar Street Lights, Cleaning Streets, a ‘Ninja’ Security Academy

I’ll tell you some of the initiatives we’re doing there, but we’ve got Anglo-American, we’ve got Standard Bank, we’ve got ABSA, we’ve got Wits University, we’ve got Nando’s, we’ve got ourselves. There’s this whole coalition of institutions that love the city that say, we’re not going to let the city go down and we’re going to completely change it.

Then on our side, we’re working with Anglo on putting in solar street lights in our area because when there’s load shedding, we have pitch darkness. We’ve already got students cleaning some of the streets around us. When we move into the Anglo building in January, we will start cleaning a huge area around us every day, having students involved in the cleanliness. We’re also starting a security academy. Normally security guards are trained for one week or two weeks. We’re going to start with 150, growing to 300 people within two to three years. These men and women will become ninjas. There’s going to be a three-year program. We will train them in just the highest forms of security, not one week or two weeks and then out on the streets. These guys will be trained in jiu jitsu every single day. They will be trained in cyber security, technology, drones, absolutely everything. We believe we can make the city safe again.

22,000 Young, Employed People, 19,000 Into Jobs Who Used to Be Considered Useless to Society

It is about creating those young people who are so transformed, so powerful, who take control of their own lives, stop blaming the government, stop blaming everybody else, and start to realise they can achieve anything they want if they prepare to put in the work. That might mean climbing Everest in terms of difficulty, and it kind of is, but we teach young people that you can achieve anything.

Since we first started, we first started in 2007, before that we had started CEDA, and across all of our programs now, we’ve educated over 22,000 young unemployed people, and we’ve put over 19,000 into jobs. Those individuals at the time we placed them, and that’s excluding the 5,000 entrepreneurs, their starting salaries combined, is R1.65 billion. We estimate conservatively they’ll earn over R41 billion in their working careers. Our graduates are seniors in all the banks, all the telcos, across the stock markets, everywhere. Right across the tech industry, you can go to any of the top tech companies, we’ve got these graduates out there.

Creating a Revolution in Human Asset Development, Developing 100,000 Young 

Many earn big salaries, yet they were unemployed and considered useless to society before. But that’s what human beings can do if you can develop their potential. That’s what the Maharishi Invincibility Institute is about. We want to change the game. We want to create a revolution in human asset development and ultimately develop 100,000 young leaders for the future of Johannesburg, of South Africa, and take our country forward. It’s all about leadership. Leaders change everything. So, we have to develop those ironclad values, those people who have ethics, morality, who’s got passion, who’s got love for themselves and other people, who’ve got respect for life and who keep learning, who can solve difficult problems, who are competent. They need to be the people that can take South Africa forward and that’s really why we exist.

Taking young people who are stuck, many suffering from depression and PTSD

We’ve developed a very innovative curriculum and we’ve won 34 awards now. We just heard last week about a 35th award that we won, 13 of them are global awards, so some of the top awards in the world for social entrepreneurship, innovation and education. 

A lot of that is around this methodology of how do you take a young person, because the people we are bringing in if they’ve got matric,70% of them don’t have a matric exemption, they don’t have a degree pass, they are stuck, they’re unemployed. Every year, we run a test of post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic depression. There’s something called the Beck Depression Inventory. And it’s very sad to see, on average, 40% of these young people coming in from our townships and communities are suffering from chronic depression on this global index. Over 30% have PTSD at the level as if they had fought in a war. 

There’s a lot of research on the relationship between PTSD and the inability to learn, for example, and success in education. So, we don’t ignore those problems. We know that those things are real. They’re real for young people. First and foremost, we have to help young people deal with depression, deal with anxiety, deal with the tremendous traumas that they’ve faced. At the same time, we’ve got to help them find a reason to want to be alive, to find a life purpose, a passion, something worth fighting for that they really, really care about for their own life and their family, etc. Then we’ve got to teach them a bunch of skills from ground zero. 

From actuary to social entrepreneur: A deep love of human potential

So, the passion comes from a deep, deep love for human beings and just a deep love for human potential. I think when I realised that my life purpose is to help other people develop their potential, it was a huge aha moment for me because I’ve never looked back since then. I’m a qualified actuary by background. I went through the Institute of Actuaries in London, Tel Aviv South African Society of Actuaries. I’ve got two honorary doctorates. So, I can do all the stats and the numbers, and I worked for one of the top global strategy firms in the world. But just the moment I realised that every young person could be so much more, could be so much more valuable to our economy, could be so much more valuable to their families, to their lives, to themselves, I just realised, this is the way I can make an impact in the world. 

23 different income streams, a moral code to help other students 

If the universe can create something like that, then we’ve got to be able to run and create an education institution that runs on no money from the government, no money from the students, can still be sustainable, can still achieve these 95% job placement rates, and can still scale. So, we’ve developed probably 100 innovations to do all of this. We’ve got 23 different income streams. We do something called ‘Learn and earn and pay it forward.’ So, all of our students get a job while they’re in school with us. They earn money and then they also pay part of what they earn to fund another student. When they graduate, provided they’re employed and successfully employed, they then support another student. It’s just a moral code. They don’t have to, but we’re bringing in about R15 million a year like that. Then we have our own businesses in the institution. So, it’s a very, very innovative model. We also have to be extremely low-cost in how we run it, but we’ve been able to scale now. We’re in eight locations in South Africa. We’re across four countries. We’re in 12 locations in total. We’re getting invited all the time to open up in other places because this works. We’re able to take unemployed people, educate them, train them, get them into the economy with critical and scarce skills

So, the key thing is to just know we’re going to do it, that no matter what, nothing must get in our way because this is so hard to do that you could just say, well, I’m not going to get up in the morning. It’s too hard. We’ve got 200 staff. We’ve got to pay 200 salaries. We are thinking 100 years ahead. We are thinking 200 years ahead.  

We’re building a perpetual bursary fund. We want to be that next Cambridge or Oxford, but for Joburg City, changing the city, but for those who are stuck, for a young woman sitting in Orange Farm with two little children who came out of abuse who iis never going to break out of poverty. Those are the people we want to help and to help them change their lives. 

She can put her little children in school. So, while she’s studying, while she’s working, her children are getting a world-leading education and everything is built in, physical health, food, everyone gets all their books, their materials. It’s such a holistic program. In this way, we’re able to get that young woman across the unemployment river, onto the other side, into the promised land.

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