Monday, November 2, 2015

Now that I'm back in Toronto...

Now that I'm back in Toronto, I have had a plane ride and a day at home to (start to) process the experience I have had over the last two weeks. I warn you that there are no photos in this blog.

Having experienced so much in a short time, it is difficult to summarize all of the things which have left an impression on me. For my last blog entry though, I thought to try and share some of those indelible items.

1. Role Models
There are so many reasons for me to feel lucky, blessed even, that I was granted the opportunity to have this experience. But the single most thing for which I am thankful was the opportunity to meet Ahmed Smiley Ismael. It is rare in the world we live in to meet individuals who truly stand out as role models. Given his modesty, he is not likely to welcome this blog entry. But I feel compelled to share with everyone that this particular individual is the epitome of a role model, both professionally and on a human level. The generosity, compassion and empathy displayed by Smiley is truly something to take note. Most of all, it is impossible not to be moved on the deepest level by the way Smiley carries himself in the world. He respects all people and with no airs treats everyone the same regardless of whether they are a government official, a senior corporate executive or an unemployed person. By way of anecdote, Smiley took me to see the Union Buildings and the very prominent statue of Nelson Mandela. At the statue, at least ten men were carrying cameras asking tourists for money to snap a photo and print it. Most people either dismissed those men or acted as if they were irritants trying to make a buck. Smiley paid them to take a photo of us and of me. Why? Because in his words, they are entrepreneurs trying to make an honest wage with what they have and not taking drugs or stealing. Few people have that reaction. But that's the person he is. His respect for all people and his ability to empathize with their particular circumstances is not something I have the opportunity to observe a lot of the time. To me, he is a giant and I feel blessed for having him as a role model. And I would feel remiss if I didn't point out that his wife Karumissha is equally amazing.

2. Sphere of Influence vs. Sphere of Concern
I look back on the my journey and even reading my own blog, I can clearly see that I was overwhelmed at the beginning of my trip by the disadvantage and suffering that I observed. As the days went on, I felt even more overwhelmed at the magnitude of the issues facing the "previously" disadvantaged individuals in South Africa who are still trying to overcome decades of denial of basic human rights and respect. But as Mark Lamberti said to me in MBA speak, you have to focus on the sphere of influence and not the sphere of concern. This is obvious but I know that I forget it all of the time, at work and personally. Maybe it's a result of being brought up as a child of war survivors who have been traumatized by their history or maybe it's the result of being a lawyer. In any case, Smiley and the CKC team are so successful because they have focused on the sphere of influence. I hope to always remember this in my life because it is the only way to move forward.

3. Creativity and Innovation
Smiley, Themba, Babalwa, Moses, Tumelo and all of the other CKC managers and staff have succeeded in reaching the audience they have by creativity and innovation. They don't operate from a box of providing IT skills. They are constantly listening to their communities and coming up with new ideas, whether it's providing driving lessons, sewing lessons, or cashier lessons. They don't seem to believe that anything is outside of the box and this allows them to literally change the world. It is another powerful lesson to learn - to not be constrained by the preconceptions or the mission but rather to listen and observe in order to find the path to the most impact.

4. Listening (or Customer Centricity)
On a related note, the key to Siyafunda's success has been listening to the stakeholders but particularly the community members. It is easy to determine what you do based on your pre-conceived notions of what needs to be done. But Siyafunda has been nimble and has adapted to provide what their customers need because they ask the questions and understand the particular challenges of that specific community.

5. Contribution
For many years now, I have spent most of my time working and prioritizing my professional duties. I have not had much time to contribute to my community beyond writing cheques of donation to the causes I deem important. There is no shortage in Canada of communities which need assistance just as much as the disadvantaged communities in South Africa. And yet I don't make the space to actually engage in helping beyond financial contribution. Financial contribution doesn't seem enough to me and I hope to find the space to do more. I hope to start with Siyafunda.

6. Ubuntu
I will always remember the generosity and care displayed by people to others which I observed in South Africa, whether it's the people at Siyafunda or the people who worked at the cerebral palsy center. The passion and drive to help their fellow beings improve their lives and for very little personal benefit is not something we get to see everyday.

7. Victimhood vs. Strength
No one has a better excuse to justify their situation than the people of South African communities from whom dignity, respect and self worth was stolen. They were treated like fourth class persons (not even citizens is the right word, given that was taken too), denied education, forced to re-settle from their homes and move to segregated neighborhoods and the list goes on. But one doesn't see victims. One sees endurance and strength. As someone pointed out to me, you don't see many starving people in South Africa notwithstanding that a significant portion of the population is unemployed. That is because of people's strength and the fact that they find a way even in the face of obstacles. I met many people with more self-respect than people I meet in North America. The hope for the future and perseverance is notable.

8. Perspective
I realize how much my own perceptions changed over my two weeks. In the beginning, I saw momentous problems and felt sad and overwhelmed. As time progressed, I saw how beautiful the country was and how incredible many of the people. It was a reminder that every moment depends on your perspective that day and sometimes we need to open our eyes a bit more and take in the entire picture.

On one last note, I want to sincerely thank Smiley, Karummisha, Siyafunda, Themba, Bestos, Babalwa, Moses, Machalette and all of the others who made my time in South Africa so special and rewarding. I also want to thank those at Western Union and the Western Union Foundation who supported my participation in the program and the Ashoka Foundation who made this possible.

Thanks for reading.

My last day in Johannesburg

I woke up with a certain sense of sadness today. I am not yet ready to leave and there are so many more people I want to meet. I sense also that I am just starting to get a feel for the people and the country. I am really taken with South Africa and its multiple complexities.

This morning Smiley and I went to the University of Johannesburg to attend a meeting with Adelaide Sheik (Head of Department for the Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Social Economy of UJ), Ntsiki Mkhize and Alistair (who work at the Center), and Julie Adair from Glasgow Caledonian University. Julie is the Director of Digital Collaboration and wanted to bring us into the loop on a project which is currently in proof of concept phase. It's an interesting project to create a digital platform for community service providers (of the change making sort) so that they can learn from each other and also with the objective of providing access to academic researchers so that they may assess/research trends and game changing approaches in the social service community.

Following the meeting, it was time to say goodbye to Smiley. It is a difficult thing to do. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know him. He has made quite an impression on me, professionally and personally.

Before I leave this evening, I decided to go to the Apartheid Museum which is close to the guest house. I have heard from multiple people that it is very impactful and well curated. It most certainly is. By the time I left the museum, I felt a mixture of wanting to go lie down in a dark corner for a while (to recover from the experience) and a sense of hope for the future. The museum is structured to give you the history of apartheid from the beginning of the influx of people to South Africa for the gold rush until today. The architecture is stark and powerful and on each admission ticket, a person receives a racial classification of white or non-white and asked to use the appropriate door to the museum. I'm glad I managed to get to here before I leave town as it leaves me with a message of hope and re-affirmation of the strength of the local community.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Day 11 - Day before leaving...

I had the pleasure of meeting with the SAP team which works closely with and supports Siyafunda in many ways. I met with Sunil Geness, Rashid and Eli (an intern from Dubai). The meeting was so enjoyable. Sunil is an energetic person who is immediately apparent as a strong leader and you can tell he is the type of executive who gets things done. It was great to hear his perspective on South Africa, the challenges in the country and the plans that Smiley and I have been working on. I hope to keep in touch with him as he is clearly active in social causes and animal conservation.

Given that today is my last full day in South Africa, Smiley and Kharummisha (Smiley's wife) took the Palm Ridge team and I out for dinner at a Thai restaurant at Mall of the South. It was a lovely meal and included a side trip for some bubble tea, first time eating by several of the team of sushi, a contest as to who could use chopsticks best and my introduction to WhatsApp.

And when I was dropped off, Smiley and Kharummisha left me with gifts and food for my trip home. Their generosity knows no bounds and I have been often awestruck by their kindness and how they treat everyone they come across.

Day 10 - Ubuntu

It is hard to believe that my time in South Africa is nearly over. I feel very lucky right now. Smiley has facilitated an experience for me which allows me to obtain a robust picture of the Siyafunda mission, drivers, operations and relationships. And yet, there are more people I would like to meet and more communities which I would like to visit and speak with. While the schedule has been jam-packed, I would love the opportunity to continue for another 2 weeks.

Today Smiley and I travelled to Pretoria, the administrative center for the federal government. We met with Brian, Mohamed and Duma of the Ministry responsible for economic development. Duma Nkosi is the prior mayor of Ekurleheni who is now a senior member of the Economic Development Department. I was slightly trepidatious about participating in a meeting with the government given that I am unfamiliar with the appropriate protocol to be employed particularly given the importance of this Ministry to Siyafunda. My hesitancy was quickly dispelled in the meeting as the department participants clearly share the goals of Siyafunda in addressing the issues of unemployment and education and were very direct and transparent in the meeting. I could see quickly how the EDD is truly a valued partner. It was also interesting to hear about the priorities of the EDD and the plans to address the issues. They are hoping that Siyafunda can help them realize these goals and we left with three potential areas of collaboration with the Ministry.

Brian, Mohamed and Smiley

Before we left Pretoria, Smiley took me to see the Union Buildings which are at the highest point in Pretoria and is the official seat of the South African government. There is a beautiful view of Pretoria from the site. There is also the most amazing sculpture of Nelson Mandela. It was a treat to be able to see it.

On the way back to Palm Ridge, we stopped in Alexandra (Alex) which is one of the poorest townships in South Africa and one in which many people still live in temporary housing. It was the site of an uprising in the 80's which was prompted by an attack on a funeral by security forces. 40 people were killed. We went to the Alexandra CKC to meet up with Thabani, Ruala and Ferruh from Intel. Ferruh is in Corporate Affairs at Intel based in Istanbul and wanted to visit a center in-person to speak to community members training on the Intel skills programs. The first woman he spoke to told him that she took the training and has already found herself a job as an assistant. Another clear indication that Siyafunda, the CKC's and the corporate partners are making a material difference in people's lives. Let's see if you can tell which young woman got a job.

Later in the day, Smiley had arranged for a meeting with Mark Lamberti who is very well known in South Africa and who graciously invited us to his home. Mark is currently the CEO of Imperial Holdings and was a founding partner of MassMart which was eventually acquired by Walmart. He has been the recipient of many awards in South Africa for excellence in business leadership and entrepreneurship. Mr. Lamberti is a legacy supporter of Siyafunda and established the relationship between MassMart and Siyafunda which continues today.

My impression is that he is a no-nonsense person. And while I certainly respect him for his accomplishments and his very impressive business skills, that is not what impressed me most. Mark is dedicated to South Africa, its people and to improving this country and addressing its challenges. I find out later that he was a supporter of the ANC prior to the end of apartheid and for clarity he is a man of European descent. He spoke about the initiatives his current company are engaged in to help the community including establishing libraries in schools (including employing librarians to work there) and setting up medical clinics in communities.

He also gave me a different perspective as a South African who (in his words) chooses to stay in face of the challenges. He gave a word to a phenomenon I had been observing in the last week: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is essentially the concept that a person is a person through other people. In other words, the phenomenon I have been observing of the great kindness and generosity displayed by South Africans towards their communities and other people is based on the fact that people define themselves by how they are with other people. It's a beautiful philosophy and one that is pervasive here.

Today, protests continued at Wits University. Although most students are interested in resuming classes and exams, there are some students who feel that the protests should continue until all issues are resolved. One of the main issues which remains a matter of contention is the university's outsourcing of certain services. Unfortunately, these protests also had an element of violence.

Day 9 - Wits University

Smiley and I were meant to go to Wits University to meet with Dr. Susan Steinman and Chimene Chetty who are each affiliated with Wits Business School. Wits University remains closed today given ongoing negotiations and so we travel to Chimene's house for our meeting. Both Chimene and Susan are also affiliated with Ashoka and Dr. Steinman is the individual that recommended Smiley to Ashoka as a fellow. It was clear that they both are well versed in the areas of social entrepreneurship and are social activists. They were excited to hear about Smiley's plans to "franchise" Siyafunda and offered valuable insight and their assistance in the issuance of my report.

Susan Steinman, Chimene Chetty and Smiley

It was also apparent that each of them are pioneers in bringing to fruition the idea that organizations whose primary mission is to contribute to the community and advance social causes should also have meaningful ways to generate profits so that such organizations can sustain themselves in the long term as opposed to solely relying on donations and third party funding. This is an idea which I first became familiar with at the Leadership Conference in Bucharest and it is certainly the best way to allow organizations to help more people and not fall over after a few years if charitable donations and funding dries up. This idea of "social entrepreneurship" is one which is unfamiliar to many people and is perhaps not completely understood. Some people mistakenly think that social purpose organizations should be charitable altogether while not considering that sustainability is crucial to the people who run and operate such organizations and also to the community so that it may receive ongoing services for the long term.

Chimene Chetty introduced me to a new phrase which I will be sure to adopt going forward: conscious capitalist. I think this term sums up the stance of many people who support societal improvement but realize that making money to advance causes AND to make a living for themselves are not mutually exclusive.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Chimene's three rescue dogs and I couldn't resist the temptation to get some dog time with them. She told me that the two dogs which look like hounds are actually a cross between a Yorkie and a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I'm not sure if she was pulling my leg.

It was also reinforced for me how much of a network Smiley has built for the purpose of enhancing what Siyafunda can do to help communities. In addition to corporates, government, other organizations, and the community, Smiley has also engaged with local thoughts leaders and academics to generate momentum for change making. It is a valuable lesson to learn as to what can be done when all stakeholders are engaged and together work for a common goal.

Smiley and I also had lunch with Limbani Phiri of the Ashoka Foundation office in Johannesburg. Limbani gave me a rundown of all of the amazing programs Ashoka runs in addition to the EIR program which I am currently participating in. One of the key programs is the Changemaker School Network which includes schools in any environment which teach children about the concept of changemaking, which are innovative and which demonstrate the ability to influence others to follow their lead. For example, one school which Limbani spoke about was one which does not have many funds to operate in their rural community. The children of the school have come together and on the weekends give lessons to the community so that they can generate funds to run their own school.

Limbani also explained the process which Smiley went through to be accepted as an Ashoka fellow. It became clear to me as to how Ashoka has garnered the reputation it has and how it has succeeded in progressing its impressive goals. The criteria to be met is exacting and to be a fellow one literally has had to have made a demonstrated impact in the area of changemaking, innovation and influence. Having gotten to know Smiley over the last week and a half, it is not a surprise to me that he was accepted as a fellow. (Smiley will not like my comments here as he is also one of the most modest individuals I have met).

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Day 8 - Visitor from Canada and Agility

You know those days which unfold in a way which you could not have contemplated? Today was one of those days.

Following the Kruger expedition, I was ready for my second (and last) week of on-site work at Siyafunda. The schedule for Monday was to have an internal meeting with Smiley and then external meetings in the afternoon. I was surprised to see Themba pick me up but apparently a last minute meeting was called with the Minister of Infrastructure Development for the Province of Guateng. When Themba and I arrived at Palm Ridge, we were asked to meet Smiley at the meeting which was taking place at the Palm Ridge Community Center. That was the first surprise.

I have learned to be agile while I'm here. Although my job requires a great deal of agility and last minute fire fighting, the flexibility required here is of a different sort when you combine it with the fact that I am meeting (on some days 100's of) new people every day, in an environment which is unfamiliar and I do not always speak the same language. It is not unusual here to think you are doing one thing and then end up doing something completely unexpected with no prep time. Agility is one of the key qualities that Smiley possesses and it seems that no matter what happens or how much is going on, he never seems to break a sweat and takes it all in stride.

The purpose of the meeting was for the Minister and her staff to meet with the youth in the community to unveil a new program called Tshepo 500,000. This program is an expansion of the prior program which was aimed at linking up 10,000 youth with sustainable employment opportunities. Given that 10,000 was deemed insufficient, the aim of Tshepo 500,000 is to reach more youth by recruitment means and by ensuring that there are avenues in the communities for youth to obtain the skills they require to obtain employment. Given the linkage between sustainable employment and skill development, organizations like Siyafunda which have been successful at providing skill development services were invited to the meeting.

Upon arrival, the community hall was already filled with at least a hundred people, likely more. I took my seat at the back as an observer until i was approached by a woman who explained that she founded an organization called SICE (Shared Identity Common Esteem). SICE targets (by word of mouth) youth in the community who are subject to hardships such as domestic abuse, substance abuse, poverty etc. and runs classes to build personal skills. The aim is to build the self-esteem of the youth so that they feel more empowered to change their circumstances and improve their lives. Before I knew it, I was taken by the arm to speak to the youth of SICE. They were an impressive group and you could tell that in addition to self respect, they had found a community and support with each other.

Agility moment #2 came when Smiley came to fetch me to attend the pre-meeting briefing between the Minister and the community leaders. I was feeling a bit trepidatious given I had no clue at that point what the meeting was about, the local protocols to be used with the Minister and the myriad of leaders in attendance and felt that perhaps I was intruding as the "visitor from Canada". But I can be agile too so off we went to the meeting. In the room with the Minister and her staff was about 6 to 8 religious leaders (pastors and traditional religious leaders), the organizer of SICE and several city councillors. The briefing was for the Minister to advise on the objective of the meeting and agenda and to agree on who would speak when.

The Minister was very gracious in welcoming the Canadian intruder and the meeting was fascinating. Bearing in mind that there are approximately 9 languages (excluding English and Afrikaan) spoken in South AFrica, people switch back and forth between languages constantly. This sometimes makes things hard to follow in group meetings. Sometimes I don't know based on people's tone and gesticulation whether they are angry or whether they are just passionate. There was an interesting moment in the meeting when the Minister asked why there was no food or tea being served. It seems that the caterer has received in past emails purporting to be from the government which were scam emails. When she received the last minute request to cater the Youth Engagement meeting, she assumed this too was a scam and thus there was no food available. Going back to agility however, Smiley had learned of this fiasco only a few hours earlier and he had arranged to fill the void on short notice by procuring last minute food for all of the people in attendance at the meeting. Siyafunda ended up providing lunch to all of the attendees because they believe that if you want to engage the youth at meetings, you should make sure they have something to eat.

It was time for the meeting to start and the officiator was one of the city councillors who also happens to be a key pastor in the community. It was truly an inspiring meeting and people in the West could learn a few things about livening up meetings. There was singing. There was dancing. There were prayers by each of the religious leaders so that no religion was seen to be considered more important than the others. There were speeches, mostly to motivate the youth by the councillors and pastors. The Minister welcomed the crowd and gave her thanks to the youth and the community leaders and....the visitor from Canada who was there to teach and to learn. At one point, the Minister asked all unemployed youth to stand up and I would say that almost the entire room stood.

After the QandA, the biggest surprise of all would come when the officiator asked the Visitor from Canada to say a few words at the meeting amongst the rest of the community leaders. Let's say i was largely unprepared for this honour but I do recognize that it was quite an honour and I did my best to give a few words of wisdom about education and making change in the community. Like I said, I did not expect my day to culminate in speaking at the Minister's meeting.

Despite all of the excitement, the day was not over and Smiley and I left to Johannesburg to meet with Adelaide Sheik who manages the Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Social Economy at the University of Johannesburg. Although the student strike is largely over, the universities remain closed since there are still ongoing negotiations over other student related issues which were not yet resolved. We therefore had to move the meeting to a restaurant. We spoke with Adelaide about the project we were working on and she was very helpful in giving her insight based on her expertise in the burgeoning area of social enterprise (more on that later in the week).

We also had a meeting at Intel later in the afternoon so that the Intel product personnel could demo the new online training program for disadvantaged women and girls. The program is multi faceted and teaches skills in computer awareness including social media (and security measures while using online tools), business skills, life skills etc. It is an amazing piece of work and the CKC managers and staff joined us at Intel so they could begin planning the implementation of the new course at the centers.

Given this was the last day i would spend with Babalwa and Moses who were travelling back to KZN the next day, Babalwa, Moses, Sarah, Mpho, Machalette and I went to dinner. Babalwa, who I have grown close with, wanted me to see where she grew up so we travelled to Thembisa (the second largest township in South Africa following Soweto) for dinner. Unfortunately, rush hour in Johannesburg is not a pretty sight and it was raining so it took us one and a half hours to get there. I didn't mind as this would be my first time out after dark!

Days 6 and 7 - And now for something completely different...

It is now the weekend and there is no work or meetings to attend. There is only choice. A trip to Kruger, a place I have also wanted to visit since I became addicted to safaris (the photography type, not the Walter Palmer type) several years ago after a trip to Zambia and Botswana. Notwithstanding that people do not usually go to Kruger for one day, I felt that one day was better than no days.

I arrived there on Saturday in time for the evening safari ride and the guide did the impossible. While it usually takes about 5 days minimum to see the big 5 (especially with the elusive leopard), we "crossed them off" on the first evening (in addition to giraffes and hippos).

As many know, while I love all animals, I have a special affinity for elephants. They are incredible animals given how smart they are, how creative they are and the way that they look after each other. I could watch them for hours. I always get a thrill when the teenage male elephants like to show off by fake charging the safari jeep and I wasn't disappointed on this trip.

It is the end of the dry season now and the rains are only starting to come. There is little water but that is no problem if you're a creative elephant and you find a human reservoir. It helps if you are a large beast and can reach over the top. You can even give the little baby elephants water by acting as a conduit.

On Sunday morning I had time for a morning ride before I had to make my way back to Johannesburg. The best part of the morning was sitting on the back deck with a coffee in the absolute peace and quiet with nature around while impalas and warthogs grazed right off the deck and two feet away.