Rapelang Rabana–the dynamic, internationally renowned entrepreneur and CEO of Rekindle Learning–has just been nominated to the Forum of Young Global Leaders. Leadership editor Simon Lewis found out why she’s so highly rated on the international stage.
Congratulations on joining the WEF’s Young Global Leaders forum. It’s a huge honour for you and a chance to give something back.Why are you excited about the opportunity?
What I’ve come to appreciate about such opportunities is that there are billions of people in the world and to sit down with a group of like-minded people who have been so expertly filtered — and who are brilliant in everything they do — gives me the chance to jump into a one-hour conversation that just hits right on target in terms of what I’m thinking, where I’m needing input, where I’m wanting support. These are people who think as big as you want to think. What’s beautiful is that you’re working with such high-level people and yet everyone’s guard is down and you are able to engage very intimately, very honestly. It’s a heck of an experience — and they are really extraordinary people.
So that lifts your game and also allows you to bring out your best?
Yes, that’s what’s most important for me, but I also love the fact that the agenda is open as it’s ultimately a self-managed community. We’re now trying to pinpoint what we want to contribute to this agenda in the next year and what we as young leaders of the world can do and how we can use our individual brands, networks and voices to lobby and push for change.
Education is crucial for South Africa’s development, but where does one start looking for answers?
There are so many problems, and South Africa is spending huge chunks of money on education but we’re not seeing the results we need. There are numerous factors, but I certainly feel there’s a much stronger role to be played with more effective use of technology.
Unfortunately, we are in this first generation of e-learning, which is really not learning e-learning per se, it’s more about digitising and access, so we’re simply making it more accessible. Most of the emphasis and the money is being spent on getting tablets into classrooms and building Internet capacity but that alone doesn’t address the question of making learning more efficient or applying cognitive science and learning methodologies to achieve better learning outcomes.
Rekindle Learning’s applications and products tackle that head-on using proven methodologies, and one of our most recent products is the English Word Power solution. It’s being used by four South African universities and between 6 000 to 8 000 students go through the course every year. When learners get to university and they can speak English it doesn’t mean they are able to write at the level required or even to learn in English. These are the huge challenges for universities as so many kids have been pushed through high school and get into university with sometimes only Grade 8 level English proficiency.
That’s a major handicap for our learners.
It’s such a killer as the language barrier is really, really huge and so many students are falling along the wayside academically because of that language barrier. They simply don’t have the language capacity and, unfortunately, in South Africa there is a belief that English proficiency is equivalent to intelligence or cognitive ability so, whenever someone speaks English badly people presume that person either can’t be intelligent or cognitively capable. That really doesn’t help disadvantaged students today, so we have to get our heads around that. I’m hoping to significantly expand it to reach 25 000 students over the next three years, but not just in South Africa as, ultimately, this is a challenge across many African countries.
What are the challenges individuals face when it comes to learning?
I’ve found that you have to be incredibly focused and narrow because people only learn and do what they’re incentivised to do. I’ve found that, as much as we might all believe that learning is a beautiful thing, people don’t learn because it’s good for them — they learn because they’re incentivised to learn. Unfortunately, tying incentives up with a broader understanding of yourself, your growth and your career projections doesn’t tie up as yet, but I haven’t given up.
What are the broader challenges in terms of our education systems?
The problem is that our curriculums remain content heavy, as opposed to developing mindsets. I’ve been doing a very interesting course over the last year to understand how a human being sort of develops on a neurological level to get to a point where they become independent, self-directed and have an internal locus of control where they believe they can affect the life changes they want. It’s been a really, really interesting process and it’s illuminated to me all the points of stimulus that you need along the way and the ecosystems in which you find your stimulus, your schools, your parenting systems, your community systems. Sadly, South Africa is so fragmented and our societal fabric has been damaged so badly that many young people are not getting those points of stimulus along the way, so they’re not developing into these self-directed adults. Everyone thinks “but it’s been 22 years since apartheid”, but you haven’t seen the eco systems that people are growing up in. It’s showing me so very clearly that fixing mindsets and behavioural challenges is a huge, huge task and our education system is not helping either in that regard. We’re getting people through content and that’s not sufficient — we haven’t developed the ability to respond to challenges, and that’s a mindset thing.
But that has a major impact when people move from school or studies to the working world.
Correct, and I’m hoping I can figure out how we can create that support in a corporate environment so that companies can better assess the ability of people coming in. This shouldn’t be based on a CV but rather on their responsiveness, and that way you’ll be able to better develop people as you can better gauge what they need in order to be able to be stimulated to perform at the level you require.
Developing software must be a huge challenge but, no doubt, being able to adapt to change is key to your success?
Yes, it’s critical that you use approaches that allow you to keep that ability to adapt and my developers use more agile development methodologies. We work in short sprints of a week or two at most, and when we finish a feature or a function we round-table it to ensure it’s still on track and meets any changing needs. You’ve got to keep that communication open because the last thing you want is to sink three months of work into something only to discover that it’s gone off course or that it’s not meeting the needs of our test groups. It’s pretty rapid and you’ve got to be very agile, otherwise what you deliver even within a three-week process might no longer be relevant. Being in software all my life I’ve also just come to accept that software is never done — you’re never finished.
It must be a real challenge for the team, having to be so agile?
A developer’s real motivation is wanting to create something that people will use so, really, there’s no point hanging onto what you initially thought was an ideal outcome if no-one is going to use it. I think that motivation keeps you in check because no-one wants to do stupid or useless work.
The world of robotics is exploding, so could teachers be out of a job once software such as yours really takes off?
I definitely don’t advocate a world without schools or teachers, as I think critical skills still have to be learned at school, including teamwork, language skills, engagement and people development. However, we shouldn’t be using humans for things that a computer can do better, and vice versa, as we need to use all our resources as effectively as possible. With the kind of micro-learning approaches and reinforcement learning we provide, the teacher gets a wealth of data about what each student is struggling with, as opposed to starting from A to Z and teaching to the middle of the class because you actually don’t know the extremities and who knows what. It’s now possible for teachers to know on an individual basis as well as a group basis where the largest areas of difficulties are, as opposed to just doing a generic kind of run through.
Teachers must now do higher cognitive level learning and higher touch learning. The maths teacher shouldn’t need to practice the rules with their students, as that reinforcement can happen on micro-learning tools. The teacher must tackle higher problem solving with their students, which they currently can’t get to because they’re stuck on lower-level, lower-order learning skills.
Where do you want to push the learning envelope long-term?
Right now, all the work we’re doing is still functional training and content based learning, but I want to get to mindset shifting that’s done on the digital interface. That is the frontier that hasn’t really been grasped yet, and that’s what would dramatically change the trajectory of development on this continent. How to escalate mindset shifts via technology is my long-term ambition and I am trying to find methodologies that are simple enough — but powerful enough — to be built into a technology tool.
As one of the world’s top young leaders, you must have other big fish to fry?
Oh, for sure. Look, the two things that can change the direction of an economy are education as well as access to financial services. That taps into the other side of what I want to do, which is why I’m interested in building my expertise around the private equity and fundraising spaces. In order to adequately support the next generation of entrepreneurs, we need a totally different funding landscape and I hope, when I’ve learnt enough about doing my own business, that I can sit on the other side and be a much more effective investor that can scale lots more businesses at the same time. To do that, I look at how Silicon Valley and Israel environments developed and a lot of those venture capital funds that are doing very well are led by second and third generation entrepreneurs, not by bankers, chartered accountants or MBA grads. I feel like I need to be part of that sort of solution to figuring out that challenge which is why I want to grow my skills in this area. Entrepreneurs need to stop complaining about the lack of funding and become part of that solution and to understand the world from the other side, so that we can begin to bridge that gap.
What are the keys to effective skills development?
Research suggests that over 80%  of South Africans are sitting on an external locus of control and are in a dependant state, and this speaks a lot to the environment we’re in. Apartheid did a heck of a lot to destroy the social fabric for most of the population, but I know I’m very lucky because I had incredible role models. My whole life I was told that I could excel at something, that if you work hard you can create value and you can become successful. I’ve seen it and it’s been demonstrated to me time and time again, so it was very easy for me to grow up believing that I could succeed. However, if you grew up in an environment where anything good was broken down by people, then it’s a very tough thing to believe if you haven’t experienced it. If you don’t believe that value is created then you end up believing that it’s given or something to be taken, but that’s because you haven’t seen the cycle of value creation. So how do you fix that, when there’s no generation around to fix it for you?
I don’t know where we begin to tackle that but, for me, that’s the real gap and what I see as most devastating about our legacy in this country. If you believe you’re competent then you can go and learn a new skill, so I’m only able to take up a director’s position in the financial advisory business because I believe I can figure it out.
How do you compare apples with your digital training?
The best way to measure effectiveness is in a sales environment where you can evaluate the outputs and performance, whether it’s sale conversion, sales or revenue outcomes. That’s ideal, but I’ve been disappointed to see how most companies are not tracking performance. They send people to workshops but they aren’t tracking their performance. They spend R200 000 on training a year yet they aren’t checking whether it had an impact on their sales output, so when I come into the company and say I’m going to make it better, we’ve got no baseline to measure against. How is it more efficient? Those are the metrics that are really meaningful, but they require the company to be ready to measure, which isn’t always the case.
The other metrics on an operational cost side so, for instance, in a compliance environment the reduction penalties, and in time used to complete a particular transaction is a valuable measurable. Within each company they have drivers and if they are being run efficiently people know what they are, but I find that’s not always the case and, in reality, they don’t even know their own internal metrics of effectiveness.
What is your great skill that you bring to your companies?
I think I am the vision creator, the product designer, the business designer and I can do various aspects in the business very well. Operational systems and processes are things I can do most naturally and most comfortably – and then I plug the holes with people who are more competent and actually like it.
What is your secret to always bringing your A-Game to your work?
The first thing I did when my business started taking off, before I even hired anyone, was to put an accountant on a retainer at R2 500 a month. I don’t want to raise invoices - if I need an invoice I send an email to my accountant.
I’ve got all the online systems to do this myself and it’s easy to do, but I’ve learnt that there’s a huge cost when it comes to context switches. I don’t have the mental space or energy to do that many context switches in a day, and it’s not worth your time. As a leader and, especially, as a small business owner, you’ve got to reduce your context switches as soon as possible.
We also use Trello for task management because it allows us to detail all the necessary instructions around a task. Trello makes a huge difference, but you’ve got to just force yourself into a habit of using it properly. The next time you are about to create an email, first ask yourself if it needs an email or if it is a task… because most of the time, we’re all still using too much email! I prefer to create a task on Trello and send my colleague a link to that task. Don’t give me a briefing on an email — I don’t want internal mail and the only time I will tolerate email is from external people. You’ve got to force this, however, and you’ve got to want to do it. If there’s no internal champion in your company forcing it then you won’t take off.
What advice would you like to share with other young leaders and business owners?
When you hire staff, make an effort to do more practical assessments, don’t hire just on a CV or interviews. Get the candidates to do actual tasks. A key lesson I learned is that when someone is not working out in your company, you should fire as fast as humanly possible. Don’t drag your feet about it and don’t delay — you’re eating into the morale of those staff members who are doing good work. The cost of having bad apples clinging onto branches is too severe. The other thing is to always run as lean as you possibly can and for as long as you can, as you will need much more runway than you ever, ever anticipated.