10 Questions for SA’s Edtech Women Leaders

Hazyview Digital Learning Campus (HDLC) recently hosted all 80 Good Work Foundation (GWF) staff members under one roof for the first time, for a week of strategising, reflecting, evaluating and planning.

What fun that was as we all embarked on a journey of ‘learning about each other and most importantly, from each other’. Towards the end of the week, Ryan James, GWF’s Head of Development, had the opportunity to get an exclusive face to face interview with the group of women who lead GWF’s campuses.

Meet Lulani Vermeulen (Philippolis Campus Head), Linky Nkuna (Justicia Campus Head), Gay Sibuyi (Hazyview Campus Head), Maureen Groch (GWF Staff Development Head) and Kate Groch (GWF CEO).

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From left to right: Maureen Groch (GWF Staff Development Head), Linky Nkuna (Head of Justicia Campus), Gay Sibuyi (Head of Hazyview Campus), Kate Groch (GWF CEO) and Lulani Vermeulen (Head of Philippolis Campus).

Question 1: Kate, I am going to start with you. This year marks 10 years since Good Work Foundation was formally started.

What does it mean to you sitting in this company of women today?

Answer:  For me, it is the most amazing realisation to be coming from a place where we would deliver water in an old beat up VW to a place where we are working with a critical mass of people and have large-scale impact.

I have also found that the more women we put in leadership positions, the more refined our vision starts to look. The more skills we bring in, the more we find the reason why we do what we do, how we do it and how we can best impact the communities where we are based.

Having a diverse team in terms of both cultures and age has been an amazing experience, watching all their skills and unique attributes collaborate and explode into wonderful ideas for our education revolution. We are so fortunate to be learning from all these different age groups, from Gogo who is the granny with wisdom and the millennials who are young and full of ideas.

Question 2: Gogo (Maureen Groch), you are our grandmother, in the true sense of Ubuntu.

Why do you think that South African young people are lucky to have these three women leaders (referring to Gay, Linky and Lulani) guiding them forward and what opportunities to effect change do they have that you never had as a women?

Answer: I believe – and I learnt this from a young age – that everyone has a big contribution to make and the ability to be a leader. Working with Good Work Foundation, an organisation that values women and inspires them to be courageous and stand to serve their communities, has been one of the highlights for me as a working woman. I, as a Gogo, am very privileged to work with women who are willing to serve their communities. Young people are very lucky to have these women and they must use them to help build their lives. In short, the opportunity they have is the understanding of their own power and influence.

 

Question 3: Linky Nkuna, can you describe a little bit about your childhood and your background and who you are in your soul that made all of all this possible against all the odds?

Answer: I come from a family of strong women, and have a mother so strong she was one of the very first women to own property in my hometown of Justicia where it was seen as culturally taboo at the time. I remember the one time our neighbour said he didn’t want to be neighbours with a woman and that my mother should move and find another place. My mom replied saying “we can find out who the real man is easily, face me one-on-one in a fist fight and we will see who is the last man standing.”

Being strong, standing up for your beliefs and taking a challenge where necessary is the kind of mentality my mother was brought up with, and she used the same with us as we grew up. She has always believed in bringing up independent women. My mother never had any formal education, but she has never used that as an excuse to not want the best for her children.

Londolozi was my first experience of a different world to that which I had grown up in. Then came the Good Work Foundation which allows me to do what I love, helping my people as my job and my passion.

Question: Linky can you share with us what it meant for you to be in the crowd of young leaders at the YALI conference in Washington?

Answer: The whole trip to the USA still feels so surreal to me, I promise you if I hadn’t taken photos when I was there, I would swear that it was all just a dream. We had the opportunity to be addressed by Michelle Obama, a women I love and respect very much. She is a person who speaks from her heart. She too believes that obstacles should be the reason why women should be pushing as hard as they can for change. I also met amazing individuals from all over Africa with amazing stories and empowering achievements. All those experiences made me who I am today. I was in a circle of a million possibilities from people who came from all corners of Africa. One of the biggest highlights of my career I would say.

Question 4: Kate, one of your innate abilities over the course of your career has been to spot potential in young people. What was it that you saw in Linky that made you say “Yes I want to work with this woman?”

Answer: When I met Linky, I saw a young independent woman who had a past that she didn’t allow to determine her future. Linky also had and still has a passion to see her community uplifted through education. That is the kind of woman I wanted to start a revolution with. She also had the advantage of knowing her community well so that helped us in terms of direction of how we were to help the people of Justicia and their neighbouring communities.

Question 5: Lulani, you are the head of Philippolis Digital Learning Campus, a small and very remote town on the edge of the Karoo where unemployment can creep up to 80%.

What role do you think women like yourself and others in Philippolis can play in creating hope for our young people?

Answer: I think women need to stand up for themselves and I am very proud because the Philippolis team is made up of very strong women. They are starting to see their own value and working for their families. Women have the potential to develop and be better and Good Work Foundation has been helping them throughout their journeys.

I do believe that women should work hard and strive for their dreams because it is the most rewarding sensation ever. I have learnt a lot from the women I work with because the women in my community do whatever needs to be done no matter the odds.

Question 6: Staying with you Lulani, I want to just explore your past, especially in the context of a discussion on women people. As an enlightened woman from a new South African generation, how do you bridge the gap between that often isolated community of farmers who are symbolic (rightly or wrongly) of the past and the reality of a South Africa that needs everyone’s help, a South Africa that needs more people becoming conscious of a need for collaboration?

Answer: They are two different worlds that I have the opportunity to experience and play an important role in. I understand both worlds really well because that is where I grew up, so I end up operating like some sort of mediator between the two worlds where I help to resolve a lot of conflict, clarify matters so there is mutual benefit and understanding from both sides. To be honest I also never think all that much about it because like I said it is something that I grew up with and therefore see as natural and normal for me.

Question 7: Gay, you have often spoken about your parents as being a huge part of your success, so all of us with children want to know what is it that your parents got so right?

First of all, I just want to say that both my parents are my role models. My dad lost his job in 1984, at a mine where he was working. When he came home, he started his own business so he could provide for us and our mother. After a short while, he fell sick and could not continue with his business, so my mom had the next bright business idea. But she still had to raise all eight of her children and look after her sick husband. As a result, I had to grow up really quickly so I could share the load of responsibilities with my mother.

When my mom woke up at 2am to start preparing food to sell at a local school, I was getting ready to wake up an hour later; to start preparing bath water heated on a fire for my six siblings, getting their school clothes and books ready. To get back to your question; there is no recipe for getting it right in raising children, it is more about the culture you instill in them from the time they are young. My parents taught us, even though sometimes it was the hard way, that if we wanted to succeed we had to work hard, and we needed to remember that nobody functions as a unit, we are a collective of siblings who must bend over backwards to empower each other at all times. My mom is the most courageous person I have ever met.

I remember how hard it would be for us sometimes when we would go to school on empty stomachs and she would look at me as the eldest one straight in the eyes and say: “Do not worry, when you all come home, there will be warm dinner waiting for you.” Today I am a single mother of a 16-year-old boy whom I am raising with all the wisdom of my mom and dad. I am going beyond to offer my siblings and my child what I never had; opportunities to carve their tomorrow.

Question 9:Linky, just on that, Gay has delayed buying a car, building her own house or spoiling herself in any way so that she can pay for the education of her own siblings. As Gay’s colleague, what does that mean to you and what does it say about the uniqueness of women leadership?

Answer: It is amazing and very African. As Africans we believe that there is always a relative that needs your help somewhere and it is your moral duty to make sure that you discover who they are and do justice to them. Gay, like many of us, sounds like she grew up with a sense of community living which firmly believes that if you are the eldest sister or sibling, then you need to look after your younger siblings by all means. We are approaching Christmas now; all working eldest siblings are expected to buy clothes and food for their families, and they will do so with a smile because that’s what we grew up knowing and believing in.

I am so happy and inspired to know someone (Gay) who still remembers who they are than to be bombarded by western cultures that make you lose your sense of belonging as an African. I remember when I went to the Mandela Washington Fellowship in America the president of the Wheelock College in Boston asked me why am I helping and uplifting my community and I was so surprised to be asked such a question and so I replied by saying: “How can you not help someone else when you have the means to?”

Question 10: Kate, our colleague Accolade Ubisi, who is also an incredible example of a woman who defies any kind of glass ceiling, recently said that “The plan is not to be better than each other, but to be better with each other.”

The final question today, is how do we continue to build a culture around that value and how important is that value to the mission of GWF which is, at its core about education?

Answer: It is vital. The journey of GWF has been interesting every step of the way, the right people always seem to find their way into our family. We will only be great if we are together. We need to impact one another because together we add value in moving this movement of empowering communities.

GWF’s mission is a movement and I cannot create a movement on my own. I need and fortunately do have a group of young, willing and passionate people to help revolutionise education in rural areas.  These young people have not let their backgrounds stop them from realising their dreams. No one can say that ‘my life is difficult’, because there is an opportunity for every rural young person to change and turn their life around.

Do you have a question for Kate, Linky, Gay, Lulani or Gogo Maureen (Mo)? Pose your question in the comments section below and we will share your question and answer later this month.

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