Grooming the next generation of African STEM leaders through collaborations with private and public sectors.
In this interview, I speak with Mmabatho Mokiti of DreamGirls Academy.
It’s not every day that a young African girl from a marginalised community in South Africa, creates multiple companies aimed at elevating the African continent but also creates solutions for marginalised communities in the USA- now that’s phenomenal! Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?
As a young woman growing up in Soweto, I always knew that I was going to do great things with my life, even at 5, I would tell my family that one day I would travel the world, but little did I know that I would get to do that while changing lives and doing impactful work. I was raised by a single mom and lots of phenomenal aunts and uncles after the passing of my father and my mom always told me to do everything with excellence and never settle for any less and that’s what I’ve always known to do, so when I went into entrepreneurship 14 years ago, I knew that I had to do it well and see it through. My journey in entrepreneurship has been nothing short of amazing with some great highs and some life learning lows.
I started my first business; Mathemaniacs; in university as I saw a gap in the market in the maths and science tutoring space and so I employed other students who then also went out to tutor on the companies behalf and I got to keep half of their earnings, as they were trading under my business. I soon realised that we were servicing children who came from affluent families, who could afford to pay private schooling and a tutor and that was definitely not where the need was, nor my heart. I was slowly drawn to bringing STEM education to disadvantaged children and communities, as I wanted to be able to groom the next generation of African STEM leaders; especially those who are black; as I was tired of being the “only” black or female mathematician in the room. I knew that my calling was to make this field accessible to all, especially those who knew nothing about this fantastic field. In 2014 I got an amazing opportunity to be part of the Mandela Washington Felllowship Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and I made the brave and intentional move to close business for a year and go and work on the business and not in it, as I had been doing for several years. I had a plan where I wanted to get corporate South Africa and global in fact to really start investing in sustainable and impactful corporate social investment (CSI) . I put together a proposal and was awarded a grant by the USADF (US Africa Development Fund) and piloted the project in a rural school in KwaZulu Natal; South Africa where we gave the school their first science lab. I took the learnings from that project and reworked the model and sold it 10 times over to various large corporations in telecommunications, mining and development. This to me was my definition of changing lives in an impactful way through learner and teacher development.
While I was in the US I got an opportunity to work for the Governor of Michigan at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and I was lucky to work on a project where we got corporate USA to reinvest in Michigan and employ rehabilitated young people who were struggling to get reintroduced into society. My time there really taught me a lot on how to build a better nation by collaborating with private and public sector and I was determined to bring that to South Africa. It’s a project that taught me so much and I am always happy to see its growth from afar.
Tell us how a mathematician turns into an impact entrepreneur? Where did your passion for education and youth development come from?
I am a third generation entrepreneur; my grandfather and father were entrepreneurs and so I spent a lot of time around my grandfather growing up and I believe that’s where my entrepreneurial spirit was ignited. I’ve always loved numbers, I grew up collecting numbers as a hobby, whilst my peers collected other things; like stamps and coins etc; my thing was numbers. I’d write them down in a little book I owned and then add them and do whatever mathematical calculations I knew at that time. So when I was finished school I was determined to combine my love for numbers with business and that’s how I started Mathemaniacs; it was and still is my passion project. My passion for education has always been there, I grew up in a family that valued education and I had seen what education had done for my family. My grandfathers had 8 children and he made the wise decision to invest in all of their education and just from that his children invested in their children’s education. He broke the cycle of poverty in his family by educating his children and today I am able to thrive as a young South African because of that investment. My mom on the other hand came from a very poor family and never got a chance to finish school and she promised herself that when she had children, she would give them the best education money could buy and she instilled the value of education in me. Education is truly one of the greatest ways to break the cycle of poverty in a poor family. With regards to youth development, I’ve always known that Africa’s greatest asset lies in our way and I needed to contribute to growing and cultivating the next generation of African leaders and my contribution would be through education because it has always been my weapon of choice to fight poverty.
I started Mathemaniacs at a time when social/impact entrepreneurship was still very new in South Africa. I would have people ask me “is this a for profit or non-profit?” And I was very adamant is to state that it was a for profit that made money out of doing good for others. I wanted to change the narrative around businesses doing impactful work whilst generating a profit.
You have a new baby that has just landed with the aim of getting more women participating in the fourth industrial revolution- please share your vision for it.
Technology is taking over our lives and with the 4IR being the new “buzz word” I knew that as a woman in STEM I wanted women to not only participate in it, but make their mark and benefit from the economic benefits of the 4IR. The Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) which supports the White House-led Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) initiative, which is designed to empower at least 50 million women worldwide by 2025 to fulfil their economic potential, and in doing so, create conditions for increased stability, security, and prosperity for all. Launched earlier this year by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), AWE seeks to support women entrepreneurs by equipping them with practical skills needed to create investable and sustainable businesses. The DreamGirls Academy is very excited to be the implementing partner in South Africa and for us this project embodies everything that we as an organization stands for. Our main mission as DreamGirls is to be empower girls and women to be their best and become economic contributors and with 60% of Africa’s population being under the age of 25 and over 50% of them being female, it only makes sense to invest in women, but specifically to giving women the essential skills they need to start and grow businesses in the 4IR. The youth population is expected to increase by a further 42% by 2030, which means that we need to ensure that more women are empowered as the numbers increase to ensure that women become economic contributors. AWE is an “MBA-like” program developed by Arizona State University in the US and we have taken the course work and chosen to focus on businesses that we can give a tech upgrade in order to ensure that they can not only grow in the 4IR, but thrive. We need more women in the forefront of tech solutions and innovations. Our bigger vision is create a trade expo and platform for African female businesses in STEM, where they can trade amongst themselves and joint ventures in order to go for big deals.
How does it intend to solve some of our current challenges on the continent and how will it achieve this in a different way?
Our continent is pregnant with possibilities and innovation, but we also face challenges where women are not pursuing entrepreneurship and if they do, they tend to go for service driven businesses and not tech driven businesses. Women are taking less risky business routes, according to the OECD Report on Female Entrepreneurship; women are under- represented among the population of entrepreneurs. They tend to operate smaller and less dynamic businesses than men and are more likely to operate in non-capital intensive sectors including personal services, which often have lower potential for generating a high and sustainable income. Our mission; along with the US Embassy in South Africa is to encourage and support women in disrupting the STEM industry. Our program is unique in the sense that it’s bringing an MBA program to the people in the townships and small cities in South Africa. We recognise that there’s a growing township economy in South Africa and our we want to assist female entrepreneurs to take that township economy and put it on a global scale. We also recognise that women play multiple roles; as mothers, partners, care-givers and we wanted to ensure that they are able to still pursue an education in business and grow their businesses while being able to attend to those roles; hence our vision to bring it to them. So many business solutions exist, but very few of them are designed with a woman in mind and how she is constantly juggling a lot of balls.
In 2016, you were recognized by Forbes Women Africa as one of the Millennials to look out for in business in Africa. In 2018, you were recognized as one the 50 Inspiring Women in STEM by the Embassy of the Netherlands.- what can we look forward to in the next five years from you?
My next five years are going to be about amplifying the work I do to outside the South African boarders and taking the monitoring and evaluation tools I have designed for starting and building sustainable and impactful businesses to other African entrepreneurs, with a large focus on STEM entrepreneurs. African entrepreneurs are doing phenomenal work, but many of them are not measuring their impact from the beginning or even planning for how they are going to measure their impact. A lot of entrepreneurs are losing out on large funding opportunities because they did not have the right and necessary monitoring and evaluation tools. The only way we can show the world the great work we are doing is if we measure; and measure correctly at that; our outcomes, which will ultimately lead to income. So in summary, I want to expand the work I do around assisting Africa’s entrepreneurs to align their work to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Africa needs to start influencing policies- monitoring and evaluation is a huge part of that.
What advice would you give to young girls looking to chart their own path in the digital economy?
Let’s demystify the myth that STEM is for boys, it was never created that way, society has just created those ideas. Girls and women have been making strides in the STEM industry since the beginning of time, but it was never recorded or spoken about, but it is our duty to speak about the work we do and let it be known that women are cementing their way in the STEM industry. I would encourage young girls to also change the stereotype and the narrative that they have on what success is, success is brains, grit and drive, it comes with hard work and behind every digital success story there’s a woman, her voice may not have been heard, but our duty as women in STEM is to ensure that we become that voice and pave the way for the our future STEM leaders. You can be beautiful and smart, you don’t need to choose one, you can use technology to turn any passion into a digital solution and young girls need to educate themselves on this.
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