The world is changing fast and to keep up you need local knowledge with global context.
Curiosity is the cornerstone of change. It stirs in us a restless desire to learn more about the world and our place in it, and the more we learn, the more we are drawn towards the light of new opportunities, new ways of seeing and being.
For proof of the proposition, look no further than Aisha Pandor. As a child, growing up in a family of teachers, lawyers, and exiled political activists in Botswana, she was a relentless questioner – “I would ask my parents questions about how the world worked, how humans work, how animals work, how things work,” she recalls – and this sense of wide-eyed wonder led her naturally into the sciences, earning her a doctorate in Human Genetics from UCT.
But it’s a testament to her love of change that on the very day Aisha earned her Phd, she also earned a diploma in Business Management. And then, once again, her curiosity got the better of her.
One day, during the December holidays, she was trying to find a stand-in domestic worker to help out around the house, when the seed of an idea took root. Could there be a better way, wondered Aisha, to organise domestic work and meet the mutual needs of employers and labour in this vital and often under-appreciated sector of the economy?
The result, produced in tandem with her husband, Alen Ribic, a software developer, was SweepSouth, an award-winning app-based service that has revolutionised the industry and provided employment for thousands of domestic workers.
Aisha sat down with Ruda to tell her fascinating and inspiring story of science, business, curiosity, and entrepreneurial endeavour.
Hello, and a very warm welcome to another session of the Change Exchange. My guest today is a tech entrepreneur, I think I should say, with a PhD in human genetics and sommer by the way, a diploma in business management, ne? All happened at the same, on the same day?
Yes, the graduation for both.
Aisha Pandor. The first person in UCT’s history who got capped from two different faculties on the same day. It was quite a thing. Welcome. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.
Thank you very much, me too.
Aisha, I’m going to start at the beginning. Of course, the other point that viewers might be interested in is your family, the daughter of now our Minister of Basic Education, Naledi Pandor, [Correction – she is the Minister of Higher Education] and a teacher father, who’s involved in farming, she tells me. So you, you lived in Botswana for the first few years of your life and then you came to South Africa just when you were starting school, and that was ’89.
That’s right, yeah.
Why the move and how do you think it affected you and your family?
So, we’d been living … My parents were both very politically active. In fact, my, my, uh, grandparents and great grandparents were very politically involved as well. And so we were living in Botswana, effectively in exile. Both my parents are South African, but my mother had been born in Durban, but had been in exile for most of her life, either in the UK or in Botswana because of her father and grandfather’s political activities. So yeah, they were both treason trialists, I think also the, the only grandfather and father who were both tried as part of the treason trial, and ended up having to leave the country. And so …
That was, was just for, to tell people out there, that was ZK Matthews, and Joe Matthews, your father.
That’s right. Yeah. Yeah, and we lived in Botswana when we were much younger. My kind of, you know, my recall of my childhood is just having parents who were teachers. Looking back at it now as an adult, there were definitely things that were a little bit suspicious. I think, not kind of, you know, not, not normal teacher behaviour activities, but you know, at the time I just had two parents who were teachers and must’ve been connected to of course what was happening in South Africa around the late 1980s, early 1990s and had obviously negotiated their kind of safe entry into the country in 1989. And I think when I speak to my parents about it now, they say it was always their intention to return back to the country. They just needed to know when it was safe to do so.
So where did you start school?
So, I started school in Cape Town. I moved just with my mother – my father wasn’t able to come back to the country yet, so we spent the first year without him. And he, himself, my older brother stayed in Botswana and we moved back with my mom and my youngest sister who was a year and a half at the time. And I started school at a school called Golden Grove. I think we were the first crop of black students to start at the school, which is also obviously very, very, you know, now very a great historical time, but at the time very, very difficult and very confusing.
Tell me more about that. It is the X among the Os, the one who is different.
That’s right. And, and different, not just from other children but from teachers as well.
For them it was also the first experience. All white teachers.
Absolutely, all white teachers and I think, you know, so I, I come from a family of teachers, a lot of teachers. My parents are well-educated and I think, also, I remember my teachers feeling quite confused and challenged by this child who spoke beautiful English, seemed to be intelligent, you know, it was kind of like against all of their frames of reference for what a black South African child is. So that was interesting and it was, I think feeling very lonely at times. But also understanding, and my parents spoke to us about this a lot as children understanding that, you know, we with the first amongst a crop and we had to be brave and we had to, you know, be leaders for other children and we had to conduct ourselves in a certain way and so there was a lot of weight in a sense as well, this, you know, you couldn’t, it’s not just about letting yourself down and your parents done. It’s also about letting down, you know, young black South African children which can feel like a heavy weight on, on young kids.
And why are the choice to start with genetics? What took you there?
So, I’ve, I mean I’ve always been very curious by nature, always, always curious and always asked a lot of questions. I, I like knowing about random things like, so you know, I would ask my parents questions about how the world worked out, how humans work, how animals work, how things work. And, and I, I suppose I was very drawn to science and I enjoyed it at school, but I wasn’t particularly good at it. And so until I finished school, I thought that I would go into law. By both my grandfather and my great grandfather were lawyers. And so we had a legal background and so I thought that I would become a lawyer, like many people in my family. But I really, really loved science and so decided to study science, and at university…
Physics and chemistry?
Physics and chemistry, which again, I wasn’t particularly good at, but you know, I understood was the backbone of the other stuff that I’m interested in, in knowing. And I finished my graduate degree, and started doing kind of research proper as a postgraduate and absolutely loved it. And genetics, I think I loved in particular because it answers those questions, you know, who are we, why are we the way are, what makes us different from other animals, or you know, other plants or other living things. And I found it absolutely fascinating. And as a child I also, you know, we had this strong kind of responsibility to, to do something that was impactful. You know, my parents said to us, don’t, firstly you have to get a degree, whatever it is, you have to get a degree, but also you can’t just sit around doing nothing. You’ve got to, you’ve got to work on something that is impactful and that makes change and you’ve got to create a legacy for yourself. And I thought as a geneticist it would be fantastic to go into a field where we were able to understand humans, understand human problems, human diseases. And my specialty in particular was in gene therapy for hereditary blindness. So families who suffer from a hereditary form of blindness, how can we investigate what causes the blindness and then also try and develop different therapies.
And then suddenly the business management, while you were writing up the PhD?
Which seems bizarre. But I mean, I was doing research and, and had come up with some promising results through my research and then sat down with my professor and we talked about what would come after the research and you know, how long it would potentially take for us to be able to turn this into work that impacts people positively in that we can trial on families. And he said to me, you know, the reality is firstly in South Africa, you’re not going to be able to go through that whole kind of bench to bedside, so you’re not going to be able to start trialling it and start testing it and then test it on …
Because why? Because there’s no funding available, or what?
There’s no funding. It’s not a national, you know, heredity blindness isn’t a national priority in terms of public health under the issues that get attention and funding in the country, which I understood, I completely… I think it makes sense. And then the other thing was, he said to me, that it’s going to take 20 years which, which is with any sort of research, it takes 20 years on average for that research to be turned into … From early stage research to be turned into something that is applicable to people and can help people in a clinical setting. And I just, at the time I was in my early twenties, and I thought …
Yeah, at 23 that feels like …
At 23 it’s your whole lifetime or an entire, another lifetime to be able to see my work realised, and I thought that’s far too long. And so, I ended up leaving and I thought about again, about impact and question that he brought up about, you know, public health and the issues that affect South Africans got me thinking. And I thought what are the … And I remember googling, actually, what are the, what are the issues that South Africa has? And that search again, just being a naturally curious person took me away from healthcare and to South Africa’s most pressing issues: Unemployment, education. And I thought that business would be a way to try and solve some of those things. And that’s where business came about. But ja, I suppose I just developed a business that could, that could either provide education to people who needed it or to businesses to employ people. And so that seemed to be the answer, but it was also, I think a, a welcome change from the stuff that I’d been studying for the last 10 years.
Business is getting a very bad rap at the moment. And the general perception I think is the opposite of what you’re saying. It is seen as a problem not as a possible solution.
Well, I don’t, I mean, I don’t think it’s business. I think it’s business people who, who run businesses based on greed. I think, you know, there are many, many young South Africans – and I’ve experienced this over the last four years running my business – there are many young South Africans who are not … Corruption and making a lot of money is the furthest thing from their mind. They’re thinking about how we solve problems. And I think in one sense businesses are getting a bad rap, and I think it’s a crop of bad, big, bad businesses that have done bad things and haven’t been run ethically. But I think on the other hand, business is getting a lot of good attention as well. Especially young businesses and new businesses and SMEs as a way to address economic growth and unemployment.
Aisha Pandor and her team at SweepSouth are using tech to uplift and empower women in the most vulnerable industry in South Africa. https://t.co/1ZlcGPxBmg
— Paul Steenkamp (@paulskamp) September 25, 2018
And I suppose it’s, you know, business is not business is business. I mean it’s, it’s so wide that it’s really nonsensical to talk about it as one thing.
Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. I mean there’s so many different industries and I think they’re a crop of a few and they tend to be very big businesses that are very established and you know, are probably very far away from the initial reasoning for setting up that business. But I think I’m, I’m really encouraged by a lot of young people and the things that they’re doing business-wise in the country.
So, you started then as a consultant at the ripe old age of what, 24 or something? But very soon after that made another dramatic change and uh, and the decision to set up your own company with SweepSouth.
Ja, I think I wasn’t quite ready. You know, I studied a little bit of business. I’d studied the business course and done very well. I think I’d done better studying business than I had ever done throughout my scientific and academic career in science and I did really well, but didn’t quite feel ready to start my own thing. I didn’t feel like I was well equipped enough after one year.
But it was already in the back of your mind. That was what you wanted to do.
Absolutely, in the back of my mind. And so, I thought I’d work as a management consultant, where you go and you work with big businesses and try and solve challenges that they have. And you have fantastic exposure to, you know, anything down from kind of office workers, ordinary office workers all the way up to C-suite and they tell you about the problems that they have and you have to do… It’s your job to try and solve those things. And …
So, if your mindset is right, if you have the correct mindset, it’s almost a continuation of your education.
Rather than you and you become just a catalyst for them.
Yeah. Yeah. And I think I’ve thought of … I always think of my career in the sense that as a student I was learning how to learn, and then really learned how to absorb and process information and that happened to be in the science setting. And there are some skills that are science specific, but I actually as a student, you learn, how to learn and how to sift through information and how to think logically and sequentially. And then as a, as a management consultant, I started to be able to use that ability to learn very quickly, because you get put into a client’s environment and you know, you have a project that’s anything from two weeks to months and you’ve got to come up with a solution because your company is being paid an incredible amount of money for you to be sitting there. And so I learned how to use that information quickly to make decisions and how to use that to advise and to try and fix. And I saw that – exactly as you say – it’s a continuum. Because then as a business owner, I’ve been able to use those skills. Firstly, how to think about how to not run a business, but also some of that experience in terms of what works and what doesn’t work. You kind of, you get a view to, you know, to 10, 20, 50 years ahead.
And it must have, it must also build your confidence because you see other people who are out there and who are business people but who are not getting it right, and you must think, well maybe I might be able to do that.
Ja, and you know, there’s a little bit of arrogance or something, I think that always goes along with you, then you and you sit there across from a COO, a CEO of a big multinational company and you think, how can he be making these mistakes that are so obvious? But of course there’s so much history and so much that’s gone into where those businesses are, so they’re now as a business owner, even with a four-year-old business, you understand how you can make those mistakes and how you can get to a point where you know, you’re running things and someone else is going, how could you do that? That doesn’t make sense.
Tell me about the birth of SweepSouth or the first idea, the becoming off the idea?
So, I took … About two years into management consulting I realised that I wasn’t going to be an employee for much longer. And so resigned from my job, made the very, I suppose, irresponsible decision to have… My husband resigned as well, so he was also working in the corporate environment.
His background is?
His background is in software. He’s in software development guys. He’s a software developer. He’s always been very entrepreneurial, and I think I could probably credit him with a lot of that thinking as a student. So, we met while I was a student, thinking around wanting to run something of my own. And so we quit our jobs at roughly the same time, I think within a month or two of each other.
Not knowing where you’re going?
I didn’t have any idea what it was, what we’re going to do. Freaked out our parents immensely. We had a child at the time, uh, who … One child at the time, who was, he was three and then just sat at home and thought about what it is if we wanted to do and kind of researched ideas and we did a little bit of consulting but also cashed in our pensions and any savings we had until then sat thinking about what it is we wanted to do and couldn’t agree on, on something. And then we were looking for someone to help us at home over the December holidays. And …
A cleaner, you mean?
So, a helper, a domestic worker to, uh, to step in for, for the lady who usually helps us, but was going away on holiday. And, uh, through the process of trying to find a short-term replacement, we just realised how inefficient that whole process is. We spoke to a lot of people who were advertising their services on, you know, newspapers, online classifieds, but they either weren’t available in the right area or by the time we’d spoken to them were, you know, had already found work or had also gone away for the December holidays. And so we realised that was really an inefficient process, the way that we were doing it. We also started to look a bit deeper into the domestic work industry in South Africa and what that industry looks like and whether it’s changed over time and we realised that it actually hadn’t changed much. Especially kind of post democracy and post democratic South Africa. And also looked at the numbers and realised that South Africa has over a million registered domestic workers for a population of, you know, at the time, just over 50 million people.
What do you mean by registered?
It’s from census information. People who identify themselves as …
And UIF, of course.
Ja, that’s right. As domestic workers. And so we have a very, very high relative proportion of domestic workers. It’s two percent of our total population, about eight percent of black women in the country of working age are domestic workers.
That’s almost one in 10.
Yeah, and we just thought about the impact that you could potentially have on the industry and on the country because the numbers are so big. If you could help people to find a way to work more quickly and help homeowners who are looking for people to, to help them at home to find the services of the correct person. And so that, you know, that kind of personal problem evolved into, into a business opportunity as opposed to …
Aisha Pandor, co-founder of online home cleaning service SweepSouth, has been named one of the top 50 most inspiring women in tech. Prior to the SweepSouth venture, Pandor spent her formal education in a lab, where she completed a PhD pic.twitter.com/YfSLr3P0qL
— Afrika Tikkun (@AfrikaTikkun) August 28, 2018
And how did you come to the point where you said, let’s put this on the phone?
So that was always going to be part of it. I think with Alen, my husband, being a software developer, there was always going to be technology involved in whatever it is that we were going to do. He’s like a fantastic kind of futuristic thinker. And he’d already started playing around with apps before we even had app stores to download apps from. And so in fact, he had previous businesses where his problem was there’s no app store for this APP, so how am I going to get it out to people? So it was really thinking about, you know, the phone and how the phone is used, as opposed to a vehicle to deliver your business to lots of people.
Was Uber in South Africa already?
By the time we had launched SweepSouth, Uber had been in the country for a few months, at least by the time we thought about the solution.
And did you recognise that as a possible template?
I think the technology, absolutely. We liked the way that Uber was connecting two sides of the marketplace together. But we didn’t know enough about the business and obviously a lot has unfolded since, in terms of, you know, how it’s been run, but we certainly liked just the technology and the idea that, you know, there’s an app that’s a platform app that works with two sides of the marketplace.
So just explain what SweepSouth really is and how it works.
So, what that idea evolved into is an app, and again, like Uber, but it’s, you know, a website and app who connects domestic workers who are looking for work and who’ve joined our platform and who have been vetted with homeowners who are looking for their services. So, the experience is that you’re … I’m looking for someone on a particular day to help me either ad hoc, so just on that day, on demand, or more regularly, so, you know, up to five times a week and I go through the app and, you know, give my requirements and I’m presented with a few different people who are available in my area based on my requirements. There’s a lot of maths that goes behind the matching, a lot of kind of algorithmic work, based on different attributes and profiles and whatever else. And then we instantly present you with the person who the app has selected and uh, and then you’re done and you give your payment information and you’re billed after cleaning has taken place. And that whole process takes about three minutes compared to our search, which took weeks. And it’s as easy as that and we’ve seen people, you know, the retirees who’ve made a booking literally in one or two minutes, which is very encouraging,
I’ll come back to the, to the, to now and how you’re experiencing it, but I’m, I’m interested, you know, you, you summarise it now in quite a cerebral way. But sitting at your kitchen table, can you remember how this took shape in your mind, and the conversation?
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean we were, so we were on holiday, it was December and we were sitting around and thinking, you know, going through this process and then thought, and I think it was the number of, of domestic workers with both the number of domestic workers but also the, the experience of people who we spoke to. So we’d, you know, we’d phone someone up and they’d say, I’m not available. And then we’d say, well, when are you available. What do you … And as we went, I suppose we were talking about our experience and as we went through speaking to different people, we’d start to ask them questions that had less and less to do with us looking for someone and more and more to do with trying to understand the experience of domestic workers in the country. And I think it was when we found out the number that there are a million people who work in this industry and also as we started to have those phone calls where people, you know, we asked what is your experience, like as a domestic worker, a lot of people had worked for agencies previously. What is that experience like.
And what was the answer?
It’s really bad. Just terrible, terrible.
In what way?
Terrible rates of payment, people talked about being searched before and after going to clients through agencies because it was just presumed that they were going to steal. About abuses, whether it was racism or sexual harassment either from the agency or from people whose homes they were working in. Payment was always, always a big, a big issue, and kind of the power balance that comes with payment. So, people would say to us, you know, the agency transports us around so that we have to get to bookings. But then they won’t pay us, but we can’t not go to work because we haven’t been paid because they’ll come and fetch us. And just, yeah, stories like that. So we sat and after, you know, the umpteenth call, that kind of took that route, we said, said let’s try and build something like this. And I said to Alen, I remember saying to him, and this was once we made the Uber connection … Like Uber exists, why can’t you just build a Uber in a week or two, just look at what Uber does and build that in a week or two and let’s start there. And he said …
It’s not gonna be exactly like Uber. Secondly, Uber wasn’t built in two weeks and I can’t build it in two weeks. So, I actually took a course in, a basic course, a very basic course in software development. An online course to try and understand what it meant so that I didn’t make comments like that and show more appreciation for the skill set. And then we, and then we put together like a very, very basic plan about what the business would look like and what a very basic version of it would look like. And our thinking was just let’s build a website where people can go onto it, there’s the very basic scheduling system in place that, you know, so you have an immediate match, but that’s all and would people be interested in using it. And so, we spent about five months building that website.
How did you live?
We lived, I mean, it was all done at home. We had a pension and savings that we lived on and worked together all day, which was also an experience and took a lot of adjusting to. We have very different personalities, so we had to get used to kind of how we gave feedback to each other. And then, yeah, you sat around the kitchen table at home working on this, and after five months we had built it. And then we started trying to get customers. And social media was an amazing way to just get people, initially, who were our friends and kind of friendly potential customers to give feedback on it. And that’s how it started. Kind of friends and neighbours and telling people about the service.
And where are you now? How many women do you have on your books or on your whatever?
In three cities?
In four cities. Almost 80,000 applicants. And that’s also important for us, because not everyone who applies will make it onto the platform and …
How does the vetting process work?
So, we do checks in terms of backgrounds. So, you have to be experienced because of that one million number, we want to deal with that one million. So you have to have had experience in a domestic work previously. So, we’ll look at your previous experience, follow up with references, we’ll do background checks, criminal checks as well, criminal record checks. And then we consistently kind of vet through ratings and ratings work from both sides. So, it’s not just… And sweep stars is what we call domestic workers on our platform. We didn’t like using the word maid, or char, or domestic, so we just invented our own language to refer to it and SweepStars will rate customers, as well as customers rating SweepStars. And so that’s how it works. And so, we have this pool of almost 7,500 people who are working on the platform but then also around 80 000 who have applied and we’re looking at ways to try and also add some of the value that the 7,500 have to the 80,000 who aren’t working with us. But, you know, should also be able to benefit from the work that we’re doing.
What are you thinking?
So, for example, the first thing was just around what people are paid. And you know, going back to those conversations in the early days with domestic workers who, who we were interviewing. And so, there aren’t really good studies that look at what an average domestic worker in South Africa is paid, but also what that looks like against expenses. So, you know, what is the kind of … at scale, so it’s not just interviewing one person, but at scale, what are the expenses that the average domestic worker in South Africa incurs, what does that mean against minimum wage? What does that mean in the context of a decent wage? What does that mean against averages? Because averages aren’t going to be the same as a minimum wage or what people should be getting paid. And so, the first thing was actually just collecting that information both from people who interview with us and people who work on our platform and then trying to make that information as public as possible so people are aware. And then the other thing is, as we’ve scaled and reached volumes with domestic workers who joined our platform and had become SweepStars, we’ve also started to look at what are the value ads over and above and again, based on the data that we’ve collected, what are the value ads over and above the wages that we can provide to people. So we can pay, you know, double minimum wage, which we, which we do, but there’s also the reality of what South Africans can pay and you know, a single mom who’s living in a working class suburb who needs someone to help at home, because she doesn’t have the agency to be able to say I’m finishing work at, you know, three or four in the afternoon so that my domestic worker can, you know, can get home in time to look after her kids, but at the same time, can’t necessarily pay over time. You know, that’s the South African story. It’s not the person who’s living in Camps Bay and just is greedy and doesn’t want to pay more. So, the reality is that there is a cap to what the average South African can pay. And so, our question was, what are the things that domestic workers are spending on that we can then subsidise with partners through the platform. And so we’ve started with providing free life and disability cover to domestic workers who’ve joined our platform. And so, all SweepStars have free life and disability cover. But again, the question is: how do you make that available either for free or at very, very good rates to the rest, you know, to the 80 000 who haven’t made it to the platform. And then we, you know, we, we, that’s the first thing and then we kind of, we’ll look at different kinds of buckets of value adds so it can … we talk to people around getting discounts for basic shopping goods. For sweep stars and for people who have applied. Can we … Another thing that we’re looking at is educational courses. This phone is a fantastic tool because once you’ve learned how to use the SweepSouth app and how your phone is something that can become about access to work opportunities, it should also become about access to knowledge and so it can provide free educational courses through partners so that you know, you don’t have a million women who are sitting and their destiny is to be a domestic worker. Can you try and upskill people in a way that that makes sense but also isn’t interfering with what they need to do to earn for their families. So, you don’t have to go and attend courses and, you know, use transport and take time away from work.
Aisha, the other thing I read that I found really interesting is that you have relocated to Cape Town because you think that this is a better environment, a better ecosystem for this business. Tell me about that?
Yeah, so with it being a technology business in particular, and this is four years ago, there’s been a lot of progress over the last four years in the rest of the country, but at the time in 2014 when we launched the business, you would speak to people in Jo’burg, which is where we were based and you’d go to a tech start-up groups and meetups and you’d find very few people who understood the notion of what a technology start up is. And again, you know, this is… Contextually, Uber’s just launched in the country. It’s not kind of widely known what Uber is or that it exists or what the story is. And so people didn’t really understand what a technology start-up is, particularly outside of Cape Town. And then in Cape Town you had this hub that it was being created and there were a few technology entrepreneurs who had lived in the city and had set up a, an ecosystem organisation, so it’s called Silicon Cape. It was set up by a few kind of early stage tech entrepreneurs in 2008 or 2009. And they specifically set this up, I think not even knowing what they were trying to do, but just knowing that they were trying to develop an ecosystem for entrepreneurs to be able to connect.
But this goes against the general perception. I mean, everyone thinks of Joburg as the fast paced a happening city while Cape Town is so laid back while you’re saying not in the technology field.
Yeah, I mean it’s funny. It seems to be this particular instance where it’s challenging all of those notions. So I certainly think that Joburg is a lot more fast paced and working in corporate Joburg, that’s 100 percent the case. And in terms of actually even just the pulse and the energy within the city, there’s … Definitely Jo’burg’s got something there. And what we’ve seen is that Joburg is catching up remarkably quickly to Cape Town but there are a lot of factors I think in Cape Town that are similar to a place like Silicon Valley, for example, that make it a really good breeding ground for technology businesses. So, you’ve got universities that are focused on a kind of sciences and computer sciences. So, you have graduates that come out of those universities and have the skills to set up technology businesses. It’s a great laid-back place to live, which sounds contrary to what it is that these businesses do in kind of the energy that they need to execute at. But, you know, if you look at somewhere like Silicon Valley and if anyone ever goes there, it’s actually very relaxed and you know, you have people in hoodies and shorts and flip flops running multi-billion dollar businesses like that just wouldn’t fly in, in Jo’burg. So I think …
It’s not the Sandton look.
So, I think, you know, those, I think those elements about Cape Town actually, are what make it a really a really good place for a tech ecosystem. But you know, as I’ve said, it’s been interesting going back to Jo’burg over the years and just seeing that you have these young Jo’burgers who are, you know, have this hassle mentality and just want to do things and do them quickly and I think a lot of them will come and study in Cape Town and will go back to Jo’burg and execute and I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised by what comes out of Jo’burg in the next few years.
Let’s talk a little bit more personally. So where did you and Alen meet? You said as students?
So, I was a student. He had finished studying by that time. He’s a few years older than I am. And we met through friends. We were going out in the evening and had, you know, a group of guys who we knew who joined us. And I started talking to this guy and there were two things that struck me about him. The one was that, you know, he’s blonde and blue eyed and goes to gym. And so, you know, I didn’t really think much when I met him when we started talking and started talking about science and physics and he could hold the conversation really well, which …
He was not just a pretty face.
So, he was not just a pretty face. And, actually, a few things kind of surprised me with what he’d said or, you know, told me about things that I didn’t quite know about. So, it was very interesting and we, I mean, we had a really good conversation. And in the other thing was that he said to me, so he asked me where my name came from and I said to him that my father has a Muslim background and my father’s family is Muslim and, you know, talked about kind of having very different backgrounds on my father and mother’s side and what that felt like. And he said, oh, my dad is Muslim. And I said, there is absolutely no way that this guy with blonde hair and blue eyes is a, has a, has a Muslim dad. So, I mean, he told me about his background, which is that his father is Bosnian, a Bosnian Muslim and his mother is Serbian Christian and, uh, that they had left the country after, they’ve left the region after the Balkan War broke out or just as it was breaking out and we found a lot of similarities in terms of having a mixed background that can sometimes feel confusing.. confusing and conflicting…
And the trauma of, you know, being in exile and having to be away from your country and your country of birth, the country that you identify with. And so we really identified with each other there as well. Interestingly enough, our parents also culturally and ideologically are very similar. Although they were brought up, you know, on completely different ends of the world.
And he was 13 when he came to South Africa with no English?
Absolutely no English. He watched a couple of action movies and like picked up a few phrases, like a lot of, I suppose, 13-year-old boys do, who aren’t English first language, but he didn’t know how to speak English. His parents did not know how to speak English and they moved here and he was plopped into South African school and had to pick up English and everything else very quickly. He did say that the maths was the math that they learned in communist Europe at the time was, was way ahead. So that was one advantage, he said, was that he found maths and science and all of that very easy.
And how have you managed the working together and being together?
It’s been interesting. I think like a lot of people are very weary of, of working with their partners and I think rightly so – I can go and right or it can go very, very wrong. But I think we work together for the right reasons. We both had things … We both are working on something that we’re very passionate about, you know, we both are really passionate about the idea of using our skill sets to do something that’s impactful and we aren’t interested in kind of building a small business that is a lifestyle business that sustains us. We both want to really, really …
Make a difference.
Make a difference and be remembered for… And have a legacy, I suppose. And so I think that, you know, that becomes the most important thing and then you can get over everything else around it being difficult to work with your partner. And we’ve, I think also thankfully got very different personalities which are complimentary and don’t, you know, sometimes we clash, but it’s more the case that, that we challenge each other in a good way. And then we also have very different skill sets.
So, you really complement each other.
Absolutely. But I’m also, you know, I’m not going to challenge him on the technology that he’s building. He’s not going to challenge me ultimately on the way that I’m running the business as the CEO. And so, I think there’s a lot of respect there and in fact, what we’ve struggled with more than anything else is actually just trying to remember Aisha and Alen, the couple versus Aisha and Alen the business partners. Because a problem like the size of the problem that we’re working on is, is all consuming. And it becomes, and we also both have personalities where you know, you get obsessed with what it is that you’re working on. And so, it’s such an all-consuming challenge that you think about it all day.
And it’s hard to talk about something else over supper.
It’s incredibly hard to talk about something else. I think having children helps a lot because you know, they’re as important and more important than you know, than what it is that you’re building.
Have you put in place practical kind of rules?
We tried to. But I mean it doesn’t really work. And I think children, children have helped a lot with that. So, you know, we come home, I mean our rhythm is that we wake up in the morning and the laptop opens up and then there’s some time for getting the kids ready and you can’t have a laptop open when you’re getting kids ready for school. So, you get the kids ready for school and you know, drop them off at school, have your work day, try and work out somewhere in between and you know, do something active. And then we get home and the temptation is to open up your laptop again immediately, but our eldest daughter is now nine and is absolutely not going to have that. So, you know, she’ll, she’ll tell us …
So, it’s not the parents restricting the children’s screen time! It’s the other way around?
Exactly. Exactly. And she’ll tell us in no uncertain terms, like you said that you’re not going to open up the laptop and you’re not allowed to. So, so we get home quite late in the evening from work, but then we’ll have some time with the kids. And then when they’re in bed again we’ll open up the laptop.
So, have they changed you, do you think? Having children?
Very much so. Very much so. I think, as, I mean as a couple, we… So, I had children quite young. I was still a student, in fact, when, when I had my, my eldest daughter, I was just about to start my PhD. And, and so I think I had to mature very quickly. I was quite a mature young adult. I think I certainly had a lot of fun and I met Alan out at night, which tells you a lot about my kind of night time habits, but at the same time because of my parents’ influence, I, you know, I, I always had the sense…
You were a serious person.
I was a serious person. And also, I mean my parents, as soon as my parents started becoming politically involved, my mom in particular, that meant that she worked very long hours, which also meant that, you know, I had two younger siblings that I had to help take care of. And so, you know, that meant doing the grocery shopping as soon as I had my driver’s licence. My grandparents had also moved to Cape Town at the time and weren’t well when I was at university. And so it was, you know, looking after my grandparents, making sure that we took supper to them every night or every second night. So, I really was quite a responsible young adult. But I think having children is, it’s obviously completely different. And so I think it grounded both of us quite well. Aand then also in terms of legacy and the creation of legacy, I think particularly having daughters, I, I had to think a lot about the way that think about women, about women in business, about women starting professional careers and I had to think about what my upbringing was in that sense and whether they were things that didn’t hold true for the way I wanted to bring up my children. Luckily my father is an amazing man. I think about, you know, being married during the seventies and eighties and having a wife whose career takes precedence over yours. And my dad did a lot of the caring for us when we were at school. That kind of direct, you know, making our lunch and dropping us at school. And at no point, I think, felt threatened as a man because of it. And he would say to us, to his daughters in particular, I have two, two brothers and one sister. So the two girls, two boys, and we say to us as girls, you, you must do anything that your brother can do as well. And when we got our first computer, he said, this is, you know, your brother’s, the eldest, and this is his computer, but you must know how to use it. You must know how to do anything. I don’t want you to have to ask your brother if something goes wrong with the computer. And so I think having, having a dad like that was, is his amazing.
It’s a gift.
It’s an absolute gift. And I think particularly his view on, on, on daughters and women and what we can achieve, I think I definitely want to take across to my daughters.
Ja, ja. Tell me something about your home, what made you choose it? What is important?
So, home for us is very much about the people who are in it. You know, our home, we ended up selling our own home to fund our business ultimately. And so, home for us, can’t be a notion of the actual physical structure because that’s changed so much. And I think also, yeah, I mean, that process just makes you question kind of your connection to material things and, and how little you actually need to survive but, and to be happy.
And what is important.
And what’s important. And so home for me is, it’s about our children, of course, it’s about extended family. We’ve, and my parents, have been very patient but either myself and Alen and a baby or all four of us have at various times throughout our lives, all moved in with my parents. And so home is also about extended family and about support. And it’s a place, it’s a refuge I think in a lot of ways. I think, you know, running a business can be incredibly tough and there’s a brave face that you’ve got to put on both to the outside world, but also to your employees. We have almost 40 employees who depend on us for, you know, for everything and for direction. And so I think home is also, it’s a refuge. It’s a place to sometimes forget the difficulties of the day to day running a business, but it’s also a place where you can kind of run to mom and dad and to feel taken care of and also gave perspective, you know? I sometimes go to my mom and you know, I have a business problem and she says, well, you know, I’ll tell you about my day. And often, it’s worse than mine.
Five years? Or don’t you plan that in that way?
I think you have to because you have to have something that you’re looking forward to achieving, but you’ve got to also be open to, to the notion that that might change over time. And that’s, that’s absolutely fine. And in fact, that’s exciting. But five years, you know, we’re a multinational company that is impacting domestic workers positively all around the world. We’re a household brand and a household name. And we’ve built an empire that we are proud of. And that has a legacy and that is going to last outside of Alen and myself. And it seems like a very short amount of time. But you know, our business will be 10 years old by that time and I think, you know, should be really well established.
Which in the tech world is ancient.
It is ages and ages, yeah. You certainly get a different perspective of time in this industry, and ja, you know, I want my daughters to be, you know, they’ll be happily adjusted teenagers at the time. And I’ll hopefully be spending a bit more time at home and with family. But yeah, I think that’s a hopeless, probably not going to happen, knowing myself, that’s probably not gonna happen.
Good luck! May you sweep south, sweep north and east and west! All of the very, very best.
Thank you. Thanks.
Thanks for spending time with us.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Until a next time, goodbye.
Cyril Ramaphosa: The Audio Biography
Listen to the story of Cyril Ramaphosa's rise to presidential power, narrated by our very own Alec Hogg.