The Women Behind the Mask – The humanity of technology

01 Oct 2020

Patrick Lawlor

Writer, Investec Corporates & Institutions

Previous times of rapid technological change were largely driven by men. Will the next wave of change be the one where women really make their mark?

The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly highlighted the ways in which technology can enable business activity when traditional ways of doing things are not possible. However it has also shone a spotlight on the importance of the human interface, not just in making technologies work for businesses, but also for remaining relevant for their customers and the broader community.
 
These and other topics were discussed in the latest edition of Women Behind the Mask, with a panel made up of some of South Africa’s leading young tech entrepreneurs:
 
Aisha Pandor
  • Current CEO and Co-founder of SweepSouth
  • Previously a Management Consultant at Accenture
  • PhD Human Genetics
Lethabo Motsoaledi
  • Co-founder & CTO of Voyc
  • Fellow of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation and the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation
  • BSc Engineering, Geomatics
Alexandra Fraser
  • Current Director & Founder at Fraser Consulting, Co-Founder Dazzle Angels, Founding member ABAN
  • Co-founder of the African Angel Academy
  • Previously the Chairperson of The Silicon Cape Initiative 
  • MSc in International Business and BSc Molecular & Cellular Biology
Moderated by Devina Maharaj - Program Head: Investec Business Online and Open API

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Listen to the full discussion.

While the tech sector was not subject to the same harsh shutdowns as other industries, it had its own share of challenges, from affecting growth plans to having to help clients who had felt the brunt of the lockdowns.
 
Pandor says that for SweepSouth, this came in the form of needing to help the many users of its platform who suddenly found their revenue drying up.
 
READ MORE: Aisha Pandor on economically empowering South Africans through job creation and financial inclusivity.
 
Motsoaledi explains that Voyc (pronounced “voice”) had just set up operations in the Netherlands earlier this year and the team was planning to fly to South Africa regularly to see clients, on a six-week cycle. These plans fell away because of the lockdowns.
 
“However, it turned out that Covid-19 worked in our favour two ways,” she explains. “One, even though we couldn't physically come back to South Africa, we found that we could sell online. Second, even though call centre agents had gone to work, remote managers and executives had no idea what was happening in their contact centre, so more than ever, they needed software to pick up and monitor what was going on.”
 
Motsoaledi says this actually reduced the sales cycle, because people could meet more often and decision makers were often all in one room on a conference call.
 
Fraser says some businesses have thrived in this environment. “If you are a digitally-enabled business, it gives you a head start because you are used to collaborating and working online; you understand the power of different technology platforms that you can use in order to collaborate and manage projects efficiently,” she points out.
 
“But at the same time it's exacerbated the difficulty that many entrepreneurs and business owners face if they are not running a digitally-enabled business and don't necessarily have the means or the cash flow to quickly adopt pieces of technology,” she adds.
 
This can be a problem for small businesses in particular. “For many of the entrepreneurs that we work with, they had no safety net to fall back on: they couldn't access UIF, they couldn't access any grants and don’t necessarily have access to Wi-Fi and fibre.
 
"I think what very few people realise is that for every entrepreneur who's on pay-as-you-go data, it costs her an absolute minimum of a R100 to join a Zoom call for an hour.”
 
She adds: “So we instituted a data bursary policy on all our programmes and there were no questions asked. If you needed data we would send you data.” 
 
READ MORE: Rising to the telco challenge in times of pandemic
Lerato Mashinini – Head of Investor Relations at Eskom

Where tech has become a challenge is in getting people who have the right skill set but also the right culture, the right views about sustainability, social impact and upliftment.

Aisha Pandor, CEO and Co-founder of SweepSouth

Diversity and inclusion

Fraser adds that this raises the important issue of diversity and inclusion. “If you serious about it, then something that you have to consider is how you make access to information and access to broadband a serious issue. It’s a discriminatory factor for people participating in the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution or even just in the new world of business post Covid-19.”
 
Motsoaledi says inclusion and diversity are key to its values. She says that when she and her cofounder started the business, the one value that they insisted on upholding, by virtue of being South African, was diversity.
 
“The moment we made that decision, it made our rate of growth in terms of team and headcount much slower. A position we could typically fill in a month or so, took us around three to four months to fill. For a start-up that's trying to scale that was a painful decision, but it meant a lot to us,” she says.
 
Fraser agrees. “It's not just about doing the right thing, it's about building a much stronger better team because you learn so much from one another; you learn different perspectives, you do better work and have much better impact,” she says.
 
Fraser explains how her business promotes the philosophy across borders.  “In our Angel Investment Academy, we trained 47 new angels across five different countries (South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Mauritius) during lockdown and 46% of those angels were women,” she explains.
 
“We have a lot of angel investment groups, and they are actively looking for African tech-enabled businesses and other start-ups to invest in. So despite the upheaval that Covid has brought, people still believe in the power of start-ups.”
 
READ MORE: What is impact investing?
 
Lerato Mashinini – Head of Investor Relations at Eskom

The moment we made that decision [to put diversity above all else], it made our rate of growth in terms of team and headcount much slower... For a start-up that's trying to scale that was a painful decision, but it meant a lot to us.

Lethabo Motsoaledi, Co-founder & CTO of Voyc

Pandor explains how tech plays a crucial role in scaling up and meeting the challenges of a people-oriented business like SweepSouth, which has thousands of people going out to work on any given day, but which is powered by a team of 60 people, more than half of whom are not directly involved in the day-to-day operations.
 
“You get to a point where you need technology to be able to scale further.  Doing it manually just isn't going to work. So our business is heavily tech enabled,” she says.  
 
“Where tech has become a challenge is in getting people who have the right skill set but also the right culture, the right views about sustainability, social impact and upliftment as the rest of the team does and that our company is built on.”
 
Beyond technology, she argues that the perhaps the biggest challenge has been to build a business focused on consumers in South Africa in the midst of a slow or negative growth economy.
 
“A lot of the growth is going to come from new customers where they can take advantage of technology in the ways that Alex talked about – better, cheaper access to the internet, access to credit cards so they can make online payments, people who have jobs and have enough disposable income to start spending that on new products and services,” she adds.
Lerato Mashinini – Head of Investor Relations at Eskom

 If you are a digitally-enabled business, it gives you a head start because you are used to collaborating and working online; you understand the power of different technology platforms that you can use in order to collaborate and manage projects efficiently.

Alexandra Fraser, Director & Founder at Fraser Consulting, Co-Founder Dazzle Angels, Founding member ABAN

So what does the future hold for tech and for women in particular? 
 
Pandor says that as a business founder, she’s an eternal optimist. “But living in South Africa I'm also realistic about the challenges that we face in the country. But where I do have an incredible amount of hope and faith is in our amazing people. I think we've faced far bigger challenges than the pandemic and gotten through them. If you look at the impact of the pandemic and how that for example compares to a world war, this is not the worst that the world has faced.  We have technology as a really amazing tool to leverage the opportunities that come out of this, but to also try and make sure that our exit from the worst effects of this is as quick as possible.”
 
Motsoaledi says Covid-19 has reiterated and enhanced Voyc’s mission. “We believe in the fair treatment of customers. So we were at the coalface of what every company was facing during the lockdown, with customers calling with different issues. It was us basically alerting companies of where there was unfair treatment of customers,” she notes.
 
Concludes Fraser: “I think a lot of people are fantasising about going back to normal. I think the reality is there is no normal anymore and we trying to navigate and build this new normal. How do you adapt and how do you build a new way of working, culture and values, and make sure that you embed those while still being inclusive?
 
"Technology is a fantastic enabler, but it does need some serious human thinking about how you integrate it and make it work for you and align with your purpose and your core goals.”

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