A conversation with Xoliswa Kakana – Founder, Group CEO and Executive Chair; ICT-Works
LM: Thank you sisi, I truly appreciate this opportunity to have a conversation about your personal and professional journey. I am sure my readers will benefit from your rich experience and unique insights.
XK: I am grateful to you for the opportunity, and seeing value for readers in conversing with me.
LM: Tell us a bit about your early years, where you grew up, and who were your biggest influences?
XK: I was born in Mvenyane, Cedarville to two teachers who were deeply passionate about education. Another influencer was my grandmother, uMaDlamini, who had never set her foot in school. She had singlehandedly taken all six of her children through school and their lives improved significantly compared to other families in Baziya. I spent all my school holidays at her homestead, an entrepreneur with over a thousand sheep, over a hundred cattle and goats. Her household was a home of abundance. My paternal grandfather was the founding principal of Marhelane Junior Secondary school, in Ludeke, Bizana. He also educated all his children, including allowing OR and other Bizana children to live at their home. As I grew up, the differences in lifestyle and access to resources between educated and uneducated families were glaring. I had a very live exposure to the meaning of education.
LM: What were the early signs that you would be more attracted to the world of engineering and technology?
XK: I remember that in standard 2 I was selling pop-corn at school, with the money that I made, my first purchase was a slide projector. My next purchase was a camera. Things that were electronic fascinated me, they were magic that I wished to understand better. At High School, where my love for maths showed up, I was known as the fixer. Family members and school-mates brought all their broken devices to me, because most of the time I was breaking things apart, then rebuilding them, always curious what was inside. This fascination with this magic left me dreaming of how peopleGood day ma’am,
LM: Thank you Sisi, I truly appreciate this opportunity to have a conversation about your personal and professional journey. I am sure my readers will benefit from your rich experience and unique insights.
XK: I am grateful to you for the opportunity, and seeing value for readers in conversing with me.
LM: Tell us a bit about your early years, where you grew up, and who were your biggest influences ?
XK: I was born in Mvenyane, Cedarville to two teachers who were deeply passionate about educvalue forgrandmother, who had never set her foot in school. She had singlehandedly taken all six of her children through school and their lives improved significantly compared to other familes in Baziya. My paternal grandfather founded Marhelane Junior Secondary school, and also educated all his children. As I grew up, the differences in lifestyle and access to resources between educated and uneducated families were glaring.
LM: What were the early signs that you would be more attracted to the world of engineering and technology?
XK: I remember that in std 2 I was selling pop-corn at school, and with the money that I made, my first purchase was a slide projector. My next purchase was a camera. Things that were electronic fascinated me, they were magic that I wished to understand better. At High School, where my love for maths showed up, I was known as the fixer. Family members brought all their broken devices to me, because most of the time I was breaking things apart, then rebuilding them, always curious what was inside.
LM: Where did you study for high school, and what are your best memories of your schooling ? Which teachers still have a special place in your heart?
XK: My parents sent their daughters to Inanda Seminary, a girls school in Durban. My mother had been impressed by all the Inanda girls she had encountered as a trainee nurse at McCords Hospital in Durban. She had then made a promise to herself that if she got girl children, she would send them there. It was a big blessing to attend that school, where we were forced to speak English from Monday 08:00 am till Friday 13:00, and if you broke the language rule, you would be punished.
The school made every effort to instil a sense of dignity and pride in us as black women. It also instilled a sense of community engagement, and leadership. We always had inspirational leaders visiting our school, and being invited to come and address us. That is where I first met Rev Jesse Jackson, amongst others.
I was taught by the most phenomenal Maths teachers, beginning with Mr Louis Sithole of uMlazi, who invented a “Magic Drum” that gave us a profound understanding of the rules of Addition, Multiplication and n’th Power (Subtraction, division, n’th Root). Once you have understood those basics, there can be no going wrong in Math. In the higher grades we had another very passionate teacher, who explained mathematical concepts with living examples that we could relate to in our day-to-day lives. Miss Carol Garn further spurred me to follow my dreams. For her, a triangle was a peanut butter sandwich cut diagonally.
LM: There is a wonderful story about what inspired you to take up and study Engineering as a subject, can you share that story with us?
XK: So at our school library I came across a story about a Russian woman, Valentina Tereshkova who was the first woman Cosmonaunt, on mission Vostok 6 which took off on 16 June 1963. Naturally, another huge influence on me was Mae Carol Jemison, the first African American to become an electrical engineer. She made a lasting impression as well which later sealed it for me that this was the career path I wanted to follow. Despite then, not fully understanding what a people in these professions would do on daily basis, my imagination had been set alight by these two women.LM: What was your first job and which other companies did you work for?
XK: My first job was with Hewlett Packard South Africa. I applied for a job there because I had been exposed to HP Test and Measurement Equipment and calculators as a student. At HP, I grew from Engineering Assistant to Systems Engineer and later Project Manager. I followed that up with a commercial job, at Iridium Africa LLC as I had enroled for an MBA and wanted to get commercial exposure. This job was a gift in that it also exposed me to the policy and regulatory world.
LM: You are a very strong proponent of lifelong learning and have continued to study beyond your junior degree from the University of Transkei. What other qualifications did you obtain here and abroad, and how did you manage to work and study whilst raising children?
XK: Lincoln, learning opens up worlds beyond imagination, and I can attest to that. On completing my BSc. Degree, I entered Wits University for an Electrical Engineering Degree. My first frustrating taste of failure was when I failed my third year and the University said I must work for a year before re-registering. I saw the danger of never going back behind the desk, so I luckily got a scholarship to study at FH Giessen-Friedberg, in Germany where I completed with a “Diplom Ingeneur Electronik” Masters in Electronic Engineering. I then got my MBA, Masters in Technology Management, and Masters in Public Administration. This was from Henley, MIT( Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Harvard University.
LM: Nearly 20 years ago, you made a decision to start a company on your own, with only your Mum’s pension and some savings. What possessed you to start a company in 1999 in the tech world?
XK: ICT-Works has evolved over the years into a robust Technology Solutions Provider. ICT-Works is wholly owned and run by black women professionals, an employer of just under 200 people. We are an Oracle Platinum level, and Level 1 BBBEE company that delivers innovative solutions in both the Public and Private Sectors, that involve the full scope of technology-related offers and business services.
Our core capabilities (offerings) are in :
Intelligent Transport Solutions,
Cloud services (Advisory, Architectural and Migration),
and Advisory Services (Change Management, Project Management and Architecture).
We have grown a lot over the years, but still remain a very family-centric organisation with very firm values based on a deep African identity, a strong focus on our customer’s problems, integrity, impact, and Ubuntu. The first 20 years have been tough at times, great at times and a precursor to an even better next 20 years to come!
LM: What was your vision for that company?
XK: I envisioned ICT-Works being the heartbeat of the African tech revolution. Looking at the sector, I saw a need for a truly African Company whose focus and core reason for existence, would be anchored on solving of African Problems through leveraging the advancement of technology. Young women who are following us, our children, the next generations have to find true inspiration in finding successes that are driven by people like them. You don’t know how far reaching such examples in our societies would go.
My vision for the company was to create and offer Information Communication Technology products and solutions that create sustainable business ecosystems, that elevate businesses into their digital future and that enhance the lives of the common public by bettering service delivery. I am also very passionate about Innovation and I wanted to create a company where we create solutions to everyday African life and business challenges and are able to offer our clients and their end-users management systems that are tailored to the South African business landscape, while at the same time being of an international quality standard.
LM: What was life like for you in those early years as an entrepreneur?
XK: Entrepreneurship is never an easy road!!!! It is incredibly rewarding, but there is nothing easy about it. Some days were more taxing than others, yho, running out of cash, dodging the master of the court, spending the night at some customer environments just in order to try and get paid, paying salaries through housing loans, all crazy. Would I do it again? Yes!! Perhaps a bit more wiser this time around.
In the early stages of the game you and your small team (if you are lucky enough to have a team) are effectively everything to your business, you are solutions architect, sales person, reception and admin clerk – the whole bang shoot and everyday is littered with make-it or break-it decisions.
You have three best friends in those early days which have to follow you throughout your career: a. Intuition – to lead you through all the decisions you need to make and action you need to take. b. Business openness – to ensure that you stay on top of all activities within the company. c. Resolve: It is easy enough to start something, to see it through to it now being 20 years old, as ICT-Works is now on the verge of turning, takes resolve. You have to stay believing in the dream and the vision.
LM: What are the three critical and maybe difficult lessons you learnt as an entrepreneur in a start up organisation?
XK: There are so many learnt lessons, but the top three fundamental ones that come to mind right now are:
- That cash is the oxygen of any business. It’s clear and straightforward that before you start any business, you should have a strategy for managing your cashflow, otherwise forget it. And that a contractual commitment to pay does not necessarily mean that for certain organisations. This for me was baptism by fire.
- That the only constant is change, and therefore adaptability is absolutely crucial to survival. The environment, and therefore, customer wants and needs are in constant change, especially in our industry, it is key that we stay on the pulse of the direction that customer wants, and technology are taking, and help to shape the future for business. Adaptive leadership is most critically important. Integrity and common vision, in all dealings should be the mantra of a start-up business. As a business expands to more than just the entrepreneur, the values of integrity and shared vision, should be the first thing to test for. Knowing that no matter how difficult things may be in the market place, the vision of where the business is to go, and the integrity of the organisation you are building will not be compromised, should be at the center of inviting any person to join the organisation.
- Borders exist only in the mind. We were fortunate enough to work with Kenyan government early on in the company’s existence. We have since worked with other African countries, and continue to pursue these opportunities. We are in almost daily conversation with international partners to ensure that we are able to offer our clients solutions that are based in first-world excellence with an African excellence added to them to ensure that they are suited to their specific needs. These lofty ambitions are not always easy to get in place, and a lot of negotiation and pre-work goes into them, but creating a company that sees borders more of an opportunity than a challenge has rich rewards, both for the company and for the client.
LM: One of the most critical decision for an entrepreneur is on hiring the right people to complement their own skills, you recruited Sindile Ncala and Margaret Sibiya to be your partners- what was your thinking behind this decision, how has the relationship evolved through the years, and what lessons does this have for other partnerships of your kind?
XK: I must confess that I attribute a lot to luck, how I landed up with the partners I have. Earlier I had lost one great partner, Nandi Sihlali, whose life circumstances made it difficult to continue the hand to mouth existence that we were finding ourselves in as ICT-Works. I therefore waited until
ICT-Works was beginning to grow gradually, beyond my span of skills and leadership. I therefore began to look for people who’s values coincided with mine, who could further the vision that I had for ICT-Works; People with whose areas of strength were complimentary to mine, people who were better than me in many aspects. We needed to compliment one another. I had encountered them earlier in the ICT Sector, Sindile through working together on a bid for a network license, and Maggy through introduction by Sindi.
Both ladies come from a very strong IT background, independent thinkers and therefore bring many different perspectives to any decisions that we make. What has been most fulfilling is our common understanding that the vision of ICT-Works transcends any individual. We are amazingly able to differ very strongly, have the space to engage honestly, and finally know that any decision that gets made, has evolved from true and honest engagement. Not to say we did not make any partnership mistake.
They have been an invaluable part of growing the organisation and I could not have asked for better women to help me realise this dream that is still growing, to this day.
LM: How did clients see ICT-Works at the beginning, how did you deal with those challenges?
XK: In a typically white-male dominated industry, it was very difficult initially to sell credibility because we were so new. Our skills and expertise, garnered through years of experience prior to opening the company gets you in the door eventually, but a tremendously large amount of presentations, attempting to get into the offices that you need to get to just to be able to do these and having to position yourself as a compelling service provider is job that you face not just at the beginning but through every stage of existence. Selling yourself and your company’s skills is an uphill battle, but we were very fortunate in later days that we were able to get the recognition that we needed in terms of media coverage as well as relevant and salient industry awards, so that did help us to get our feet in the door. Being a black-women owned company could only get us so far, but delivery is key to ensure that our clients and prospective clients were convinced.
We have had to ensure that every project we touch gets delivered successfully at whatever cost. To this day we have not ever failed to deliver any project. We walk with our customers all the way. Breaking into the private sector has been particularly slower and more difficult. We are constantly reorganising ourselves in order to entrench ourselves.
LM: You have been at the forefront of the transformation of the ICT sector, what has been achieved so far, and what more needs to be done ?
XK: Certain strides have been made in transforming the complexion of the sector, albeit the very slow pace. My biggest pain is the narrative that we have successful kept alive, that black people can only show success in Transformation through only appointing black people as CEO’s of White companies, or BEE transactions that purchase 25% of the traditionally white companies.
A very glaring sad narrative is that black people and particularly women, are not able to create new businesses in the sector. As I look back to the past 20 odd years in the sector, I think about many Tech Entrepreneurs who started companies as early as the 90’s, whose faces I either no longer see in the sector or have had to go back to full time employment because the sector is struggling to transform. All the successful companies started off as small companies, and got exposed to opportunities to prove themselves.
OEM’s do not seem to measure the progress they have made in ensuring progress of their channel partners. The seeming success criteria is how much political connection you have, for the OEM’s to work transparently with you. Even when a success is made, the underlying interpretation is either that the female organisation slept it’s way to work, or bribed its way to contracts. This is very sad.
Also, young women, in my view, are still not given a sufficient amount of attention in terms of ensuring that they are sufficiently enabled to pursue the careers that are available out there for them to pursue. The glass ceiling is not a perception but a reality, even in this day and age. I started an NPO called the Women in ICT Forum, for exactly that reason and the whole objective of this was to ensure that we continue to drive the effort to right this societal wrong and go the extra mile to open up this dynamic, exciting field to all women from all walks of life. Our success has been very limited. A forum now exists under SACF. Our company, ICT-Works is a consistent host to students (those busy with their studies and those who have completed) to provide both industry knowledge as well as on-the-job skills; we are also advocates of the tenets of Skills Development and Socio-Economic Development and keep these as part of our core values in terms of the empowerment of women of all races. I am very proud of the role that I have played, not only in the industry as a woman, but also as a black woman, but we have a way to go yet as a broader society, and I will continue to be a proponent of that change and enablement for all those who wish to succeed, regardless of their gender or race.
LM: what have been some ICT-Works it’s major achievements?
XK: ICT-Works has managed, I humbly but thankfully say, to be recognised by the Standard Bank Top Women Awards as a Top Gender Empowered Company Award as well as the Skills Development Award; we have received the Technology Award from the DTi; as well as the Alternate Integrator Award from the Dube iConnect Awards two years in a row; we have achieved certified status in the PCI-DSS Version 3.2 Global Payment Standard; maintained our Oracle Platinum Partner status as well as our Level 1 BBBEE Status, something of which we are exceedingly proud.
The most momentous award we have received thus far is the Global MasterCard Transport Ticketing Award for Best Card Ticketing Scheme in collaboration with Absa and our technology partner Vix in which we beat contenders from Turkey and the United States of America with our Multiple Application Smartcard System which was a world first. We are proud of these accolades, but what makes us prouder is the small things we achieve everyday, like the job creation that we always strive towards and our CSI activities, which also mean so much to us. Giving back is by far the most important thing for ICT-Works, as we grow, so should the shadow of benefit we create around our organisation.
LM: What are the next milestones for ICT-Works for the next 5 years?
XK: Besides a focussed entry into the private sector, a very keen focus for us at the moment is our concentration on the rich rewards and benefits that Industry 4.0 holds for our clients, and we would like to ensure that they are able to access these so we are working very hard at unlocking digitalisation in an uncomplicated, sustainable way with offers that suit our clients businesses and their future objectives. Another key focus area for us is ensuring that we are in a position to provide the benefit of all the relevant technologies on the rest of the continent. What is key for us is not just to walk into the rest of Africa as if we are the authorities but also to learn from our continental partners and clients to enable us to bring their insights back into South Africa and back to our global partners to ensure that Africa is represented as an origin of skills and knowledge in the rest of the world, as opposed to being mere adopters of technology and technological breakthroughs. We feel that Africa as a whole still has a huge amount of potential to add value to the worldwide dialogue on technological progress, and we would like to be at the heart of this discourse.
LM: Do you think corporates are ready to compete in the digital world, if not what are the major changes that they need to make to be digitally fit?
XK: I think Africa, and in this sense more South Africa are still in the phase of being adopters of technology, they want to see that things are tried and tested and that they are able to reap the relevant benefits prior to implementing these changes themselves. We still have a long way to go before South African companies, in general, create patented digital products and solutions that create a major leap in the management of business and organisational structures. That said, the appetite for these changes is definitely realised. In terms of the changes needed, business needs to come to grips with the initial outlay required to adjust the “business as usual” processes in all its forms: training, software etc, as well as the major impact that this will have on the manner in which business is able to operate and deliver results. Another major impact of digital transformation is connectivity and the requirements to ensure that this is in place to ensure that digitalisation delivers its full potential. A key obstacle is also a move away from a physical transaction device, such as a receipt, which is currently all done in paper which is able to done electronically but requires all parties to have access to it, via something as simple as an email address. We are certainly getting there, but it will take some time yet in our society for us to become digitalised.
LM: Do you think the new technologies will close or widen the digital divide?
XK: This, like many other things in life, is fully dependant on how we manage it, and how we roll it out.
Firstly cost of technology is a natural access inhibitor. We however are increasingly seeing that as technology, storage and processing power improve through innovation, costs are reducing exponentially fast. We see many examples of in the G20 world. An example, in my recent search for alternative solutions to cancer, I came across a US technology that I was told will cost me R1 million rand to acquire. That definitely is not accessible to several strata of our society. Another living example is healthcare technologies that are available to a certain few in our country, in a sector that is skewed by the structure of medical aids. The emerging economies have to put extra effort in making sure that the divide narrows and eventually closes through various deliberate mechanisms, including regulation. We just have to take the required leadership to make this real.
Secondly, there is no 4IR without ubiquitous connectivity. South Africa has expansive rural areas which we have failed to ensure connectivity to, despite the humongous growth that our Telecommunications sector, and particularly mobile has experienced. Our country, and particularly the regulators are talking of a WOAN (Wireless Open Access Network) as solution to this, however, concerning are the weaknesses of the policies around this. One big reassurance is that the legislators can finally see that without a robust legislative environment, operators will continue to chase the same ring of high value customers.
In simpler terms, ensuring that technology is accessible to maximum numbers of society, is how to ensure that we narrow the divide. Not exposing people to it creates the opposite effect. How we choose to approach access to technology, its language, benefits and the inner workings of technology can either help us to be creators of it ourselves or find us with an ever-widening divide. It is based in the same concept as literacy, if people are literate they have access to a whole world of knowledge and material, but sans the literacy, the door to these things are closed to them. There is nothing more heart breaking – and I know that we have all seen it once or twice – than finding an old gogo standing in front of an ATM with a card in her hand not knowing what to do next, this is a perfect example of a digital divide. It is up to us to ensure that accessibility of technology remains a top of mind objective, only then can we start to see that divide start to close.
LM: Many organisations have experienced the great pain of multiyear technology or systems transformation – what can you advice organisation to do to get the full benefits of systems or organizational transformation that have a huge IT component?
XK: An organizational transformation project is only as successful as its adoption and optimal use. An age old problem has been how organizations have continued to see Change Management as an IT “soft skill”. They therefore do not budget and give enough time to it. Transformation on it’s own can never be achieved without Change Management at the core, let alone when it is anchored on Technolgy.
All such projects should be underpinned by comprehensive transformation plans which is underpinned by an understanding of why processes are being changed, how this is going to affect the organization and the people, how the changes will improve work and/or the output it is designed to yield and of course intensive systems training.
One project that has been a major success, implemented on a public transport network, was a major success because we managed to convince our client to ensure that the projects success depended majorly on change management. Imagine public transport users suddenly adopting a cashless transport access, that is driven by complex business rules for fare collection? This was a major success despite the varying literacy levels of the users.
LM: There are always dynamic tensions between business and IT in many organisations, how can this relationship be better for organisations?
XK: For a long time IT/Technology was seen as an end in itself, and IT projects were conceived out of IT, with salient messaging that IT knows and understands the needs of business. Traditional IT management tools operate in functional silos that confine data collection and operational metrics to focused areas of functionality. They typically relate more to technology than to business objectives. Increasingly, organisations now understand that IT operates in the service of increasing business success, efficiency, transparency, accountability and convenience.
Whilst healthy tensions are necessary to keep business objectives in check, these tensions can be managed by firstly ensuring that IT is part of the C-suite, part of the business objectives setting, and has therefore a first-hand understanding of these objectives. This ensures a common understanding of what is important for the business as a whole. IT should then, in close collaboration with the business, develop an IT services plan that is completely aligned with the business objectives, resulting in agreed SLA’s that clearly outline the services desired by business.
IT should then put processes in place that will give direction in prioritising projects, tasks, and support to business, amongst which you would typically have revenue growth, costs lowering, improving productivity, improving customer satisfaction and perhaps differentiation. Mutually beneficial agreements should then be made between IT and business on how to measure these, thus justifying the expenses of IT.
A CAO (Chief Analytics Officers) meeting that I attended was highlighting the dilemma of the inability to clearly articulate the outcomes of analytics projects as these are exploratory and the value comes from the insights that data gives.
LM: How can Africa benefit from technology, are our leaders taking advantage of technology to deal with Africa’s challenges?
XK: I have recently seen a myriad of workshops and commissions being set up. We have participated in this activity as much as we could. I however, in my personal capacity, do not feel that our leaders are embracing technological advancements at the rate that we ought to. I feel that we are not yet elevating African thought and development of original intellectual property sufficiently. I feel that there are quite a few things happening on the continent which are potentially exportable and that the world can buy and learn from us that we are not making enough noise about and not sufficiently maximising. We are known as adopters, we are staying in that space when in fact we have a set of original challenges all of our own for which we could be developing more original solutions. That is the thinking that ICT-Works embraces and we would like to see a lot more of that happening in the future. Africa has so much yet to benefit from technology, in terms of every small thing from fiscal accountability, housing and human settlements management, election management, justice, right through to social programmes and youth empowerment, job creation and entrepreneurship, I really would like to see a more avid enthusiasm to getting programmes implemented that would yield all the results that technology has to offer.
LM: The advent of robotics, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and other new technologies place jobs at risk, are employers, the education systems, and workers ready for the impact of these technologies on the world of work?
XK: There have been a myriad studies on the subject of how Industry 4.0 will impact jobs and employability in the near future. Some studies indicate that only 20% of the most menial jobs will be affected, some studies indicate an even lower percentage point. The most important thing that they all do show however is that firstly the skill sets of job seekers will need to change in line with the digital world we are swiftly becoming, and this should be driving us to reflect on and act urgently on how we educate and equip our learners to be an active part of this environment. Another key element – linking up to the first – is that different jobs will be created in lieu of the kind of jobs that would exist today. There is not a prevailing opinion that robots will ever completely take over the role of human beings and that our value will always be there in terms of ensuring that services are delivered effectively, what is crucial for us to be aware of is to ensure that we prepare our young people to work and be employable in the context of a digitalised working environment that incorporates various forms of digital intervention at various stages of business process.
As much as I have seen many organisation begin conversations about this, I am not yet convinced that employers (including ourselves) have figured out clearly what needs to happen. There are pockets of initiatives on the go, but very little concrete action.
LM: Should think that the innovations that come with technology have an ethical dimension to them, or should we allow for innovation and technological advances regardless of any unintended consequences?
XK: Technological advancements must always be centred around the preservation of intrinsic human values and rights. The basis of innovation and technology is not to do so for innovation’s sake, but to better the lives and experiences of the human race. Technology must never get to a place where it rules us, but always be a benefit to the human race – all of the human race. Unintended consequences must always be carefully considered, deliberated upon from every conceivable angle and the risk to human wholeness and safety should always be averted in favour of the preservation thereof. What should lie at the heart of all advancement should be exactly that, advancement, betterment, ease, convenience and knowledge – things that enrich the human experience and enhance our lives and operations. My deep concern is the rate at which our country, our legislators and regulators are readying themselves for 4iR era. Because we are consumers of these technoloigies, the inherent biases and ethical violations are getting coded into these softwares and machines through business rules that are informed by how the world has been operating. Imagine banks importin g software that does credit ratings, coded by someone who has embedded gender or racial bias? Customs using biased software to randomly search people at borders? Humans designing their babies because of the advancement of genetic sequencing? The risks are endless.
LM: What advice would you give to budding women entrepreneurs in the IT sector in South Africa?
XK: As a woman entrepreneur in this very patriarchal society of today, that is attempting to transform, the challenges of entrepreneurship are a multiple of what they are for other entrepreneurs. I personally recognise Cashflow, Market access and Access to great skills as the corner stone challenges of entrepreneurship. For women entrepreneurship, access to capital, access to opportunities and competition for talent is multiples of times more difficult because of the underlying biases, despite the prevailing belief that BEE legislation is tilting the plane field towards women owned businesses.
Vision, Determination, Passion, you need bucket loads of this, and that can definitely be worked on. Clarity of vision is critically important. Spend the time to clarify that vision for yourself, then there is nothing that stands to your benefit quite like resolve and passion.
You also need to surround yourself with other people who share this vision. This has helped ICT-Works survive many hardships, as we took turns steering the wheel. Entrepreneurship is terribly lonely, and as a woman entrepreneur, it’s even lonelier. It has taken me a long time to finally recognise the critical importance of networks. These networks need to be diverse and include those men who recognise the need for our society to transform.
Equally important, is to not neglect your private life. I am an active member of my society, my church, and my community. Those relationships I carry with me through everything I do, and I make sure to make time for those important people in my life, there is a deeper joy and blessing sitting in those fellowships. I try to acknowledge that I am those things first and an entrepreneur after.
LM: What was the most difficult time in your personal and professional journey- how did you tackle such difficult times and what did you learn from the experience?
XK: I have to go back to this story because I think this was my wake-up call in my life. I was 21, armed with a BSC in Maths and Applied Maths, the “brilliant Xoliswa” a third year Engineering student at Wits University, I failed my final exams, and I was told to go and work for a year before re-applying. This was devastating, not only to my ego, but I felt that I had also failed my parents, who had worked so hard to create a better life for me. It felt like the end of the road for me. As I relate the story, I still feel emotions swelling up.
The year before I had done practicals/vacation work at one of SA’s Engineering companies, where I had to leave home at 04:00 Am to be on time 2 taxis and a train later, and only got home at 8 pm in the evening. Itwas in the thick of apartheid. As the only black woman in that soldiering warehouse, I had to use a bicycle to go to the nearest bathroom. I therefore decided to avoid working and went to the University of Natal to apply to continue my studies, In the queue right in front of everyone the registrar looked at my results and exclaimed “This student has failed dismally at Wits University, and now comes here? Why don’t you try teaching?”
There and then, I decided that I would pursue my education with everything in my power. Bro Eric Molobi assisted me to get a scholarship to Germany, and I threw everything in, and completed my studies. The lesson there for me was that failures will be an inevitable occurance in our lives, what matters is what you then do with it.
One of my most difficult professional experiences is unfolding right now, leading our organisation through a restructuring process, with job losses implications. There is nothing as heart-wrenching as looking colleagues in the eye and telling them that ICT-Works is no longer able to employ them, to pay their salaries. Because of the size of ICT-Works, we are in each other’s family lives. We therefore will know that someone is putting their child/children through school, university, paying medical costs for a family member or recently bought a house etc.
I have not been able to get over this one, except to find some level of comfort in knowing the soul of the organisation, and knowing that the company would resort to that action as a last resort. Through having to make these tough choices, I continue to learn many lessons about acceptance and surrender. Because I am a doer, it feels like God is bringing me several learning opportunities on powerlessness over certain things and surrender. Even parenting has brought me a lot of these tough lessons recently.
LM: Tell us a bit about your children, what values would you like to instil in them?
XK: I have two biological children, although I have been blessed to live with and bring up six. These young people are a blessing to my life. We have walked very long beautiful, exciting and many times difficult paths together. I have learn such a lot from them, and I continue to. I continue to try my level best to instil in them the sense that love is at the center of everything, and therefore everything we do should be driven by love. They see the passion with which I do things, and know that it’s source is love. I try to emphasize to them, whenever they are faced with options/dillemas, to ask themselves what a love response would look like in the situation, and follow that. This is underpinned by my strong belief in the one-ness of humanity. This value is at the center of everything else that I try to instil in them.
LM: As we look into the future, what can South African leaders, across all spheres do to use technology and its benefits to tackle under-development and poverty in South Africa?
XK: There is a saying by Nelson Mandela which one of my most favourite. It simply says that “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” I fully subscribe to that notion. We need to make technology available to our children from an early age. We need to make sure that they are conversant in it, not intimated by it and that they are so comfortable with it that they are willing to shift the boundaries in such a way that they re-imagine it into what they would like it to do. That is the most important way that we will give them the gift of technology as almost a toy to play with that will then become a seed of innovation and a creator of wealth. Even for those who choose not to create using technology, to enable them to have the capability to interact with and use it to their benefit will ensure that they are not locked out of the digital economy and that they have value to add. Given the right resources, we might be amazed by the solutions to everyday challenges that come out of the empowerment of our young people to think beyond the ordinary.
A living example for me today is Estonia, which very quickly made Technology the platform to access ALL government services, made coding a compulsory subject in schools from the very first grade, and of course ensured ubiquitous connectivity for the entire country.
LM: Thank you so much My Leader, you have given us so much to reflect on, I know that you will inspire others as you were inspired in your early life?
XK: Thank you very much for the opportunity to be part of this conversation and I really do hope that I am able to inspire someone! I look forward to hearing and reading more stories about our youth doing great things. I feel that this is the time for Africa to really take its rightful place in the world of innovation and technology, and if I have anything to do with it, we certainly will.
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