Gia Whitehead is the Sustainability Director/Founder of TSiBA Education (Tertiary School in Business Administration); Cape Town, South Africa
Gia’s conscious-contribution™ is in the field of education.
Words of Wisdom: “Women need to be brave and strong, and they can do anything. They do need to back that up with learning and knowledge. It is important that women educate themselves and be able to take things forward and take risks and start what ever they want. Don’t forget were you come from. Know who you are before you start to lead others. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Be seen as a woman.” – Gia Whitehead
Conscious Contribution™ – Investing in entrepreneurship, while creating social conscious citizens
What to learn:
1. How to build an institution/company that cultivates desired values
2. How the ‘pay it forward’ philosophy can be instilled into future generations.
3. How to structure a school to produce entrepreneurs and leaders
Expertise – How to fundraise for sustainability, collaborate, encourage corporate contribution and employee engagement
What to learn:
1. How to gain access to funding
2. How partnerships can lay the foundation for long-term collaboration
3. How corporate contribution can engage employees
4. Create non-donor financing
Philosophies – social entrepreneurship; education opportunities in rural Africa and how funding can limit growth
What to learn:
1. How to start a new job
2. How to build rural opportunities
3. Why providing funding can limit growth
Leadership Lessons – Most important leadership advise to achieve anything. Advise to African women & daughters
What to learn:
1. Most important piece of leadership advice to do anything.
2. Advise to your daughter and African women
Complete Interview with Gia Whitehead
Suzanne takes us to Cape Town, South Africa, introducing a social entrepreneur in the education field. Gia Whitehead was recognized in 2002 as one of South Africa’s 100 Brightest Young Minds, went on the found TSiBA Education in 2004, raise over 80milllion RAND (approx 7.6mil USD) for her vision, and in 2012 was awarded Top Woman Entrepreneur. WOW, you have to listen to her Conscious Contribution™, Expertise, Philosophies and Leadership Lessons in this 4 part series.
Gia Whitehead is the Sustainability Director/Founder of TSiBA Education (Tertiary School in Business Administration) – Bio
Gia Whitehead, is a founding director of TSiBA Education, which begun in 2004 and opened doors for its first students in Cape Town in 2005. She holds the role of Sustainability and is responsible for building strategic partnerships, fundraising through CSI and Enterprise Development and building TSiBA’s endowment through the TSiBA Fund. Along with fellow directors is responsible for innovation and replicating the TSiBA model; operations; marketing; entrepreneurship; curriculum design; website implementation and of course student development.
TSiBA is a non profit business school. TSiBA offers a unique Higher Certificate in Business Administration followed by a an enriched Bachelor in Business Administration focused in Entrepreneurial Leadership.
Gia has raised over R80 million for operating expenses since TSiBA’s inception in 2004, with over R9 million invested in reserves. This excludes over R3 million raised for the TSiBA Fund, which she set up to build TSiBA’s long-term sustainability. To date TSiBA has awarded over 1000 scholarships, with 86% per cent of graduates either employed, running businesses or continuing their studies (versus the national average of 32%) and over a dozen are completing international internships. Furthermore, in its short existence, TSiBA has already produced 4 Mandela Rhodes Scholars, placing it among the elite of South Africa’s universities.
Gia was recognized as one of South Africa’s 100 Brightest Young Minds in 2002. Gia was also awarded Top Women Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 (Topco Media).
Gia Whitehead is the Sustainability Director/Founder of TSiBA Education (Tertiary School in Business Administration)
Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version www.wisdtomexchangetv.com. We welcome comments on the Wisdom Exchange TV website.
Note: The transcript is generally laid out according to the video segments.
What was the catalyst for creating this TSiBA (Tertiary School in Business Administration) institution?
We wanted to create a sense of hope by providing access to tertiary education so we could ignite opportunity and growth for South Africa’s future leaders and entrepreneurs. It was a synchronicity of people coming together and wanting to make a difference. We had a vision to invest in people who could be job creators and not job seekers.
Where did you come from prior to starting TSiBA Education?
I was born in Johannesburg. I was involved in IT, but I wanted to look at entrepreneurship and I wanted to start something on my own. I was involved in a similar initiative in Johannesburg, focused on creating leaders. My dream was to create something similar in Cape Town.
I don’t have much of a history.
You may not have much of a history, but you do have the desire. You have been recognized for your achievements based on that desire and the performance to achieve your desired objectives.
I love the fact your vision is “Ignite Opportunity.” Your mission is to be an innovative learning community that graduates entrepreneurial leaders who ignite opportunity and social change. How do you instill that in your curriculum and execute it as an institution?
We are the only institution that has subjects that focus on entrepreneurship, leadership and personal self-development as credit bearing subjects. We built it in as a strong focus. It is not only about knowledge, but also skills and experiential learning. At the center is attitude and bringing in values throughout the curriculum that students report and reflect on, that is just as important as doing the academic subjects.
It is about creating a culture: about thinking creatively, being innovative and learning how to start businesses. It is about growing the students in a supportive model where they are encouraged to fly, strive and develop what they may have inside them, but may need the support to get there.
There is also a very strong focus on “Paying It Forward,” this is our philosophy that if it is free for you, you need to give it back to other people. This is creating a need for social responsibility as a core value. There is a big community feel on campus. This is home to them.
It is about creating a community that wants to Ignite Opportunity and social change, they may go to their house, but this is their home. The students, the mentors and everyone who lectures here calls this home.
I love the “Pay It Forward” concept. How do you ensure you students pay-it-forward?
There is not contractual agreement that students need to pay anything financially. As part of their leadership curriculum, they do have to be involved on campus and in their communities. They get what we call “leadership hours.” This is part of the program that hours are recognized. It is one way to demonstrate the expectation, but it does become part of the culture. You find students are hungry for the opportunity to learn and grow. They see the value of other people giving back, mentoring and showing them what is like to be supported. It is something that is instilled and ingrained with our students from day one.
Over time we have seen graduates pay for another student to attend school, so we can see that it is working. We have 62% of our students who “Pay It Forward,” whether by lecturing, or mentoring here on campus, or helping in high schools or communities. They have already graduated, so we can see it is happening outside of the campus.
That would probably make your graduates quite unique? What else makes your graduates unique?
As mentioned, having the leadership and entrepreneurship built into the curriculum and the attitude that is associated with it. At the end of the day, our students can see the bigger picture. They are system savvy, they can see how things integrate as a whole. They have a strong sense of who they are, where they come from and where they are going through career management that happens here, as well as through work experience as part of the curriculum. Many students work at companies while they are here. The students really engage and hit the ground running when they leave. In addition, they will have the social responsibility element too.
There is uniqueness, and we have employers saying that we want to employ a TSiBA graduate because of those qualities.
Where do you think some of the other universities fall short?
We work closely with many of the other universities. They admit that they are too coarse grained. They take hundreds of students and focus on the academic knowledge. We take smaller numbers and focus on one-to-one. We provide a lot psychological support and deal with a lot of social issues and trying to bridge gaps. We are taking in a target market of students that didn’t have support in their previous school. They are first generation university goers. They don’t have parents who walked that road before. We provide mentors to help the students to understand the path they are going in and to have someone in their corner.
Other universities are just too big to catch the students that need to be supported.
In my experience of trying to hire people on the African continent, some people show up with the expectation of being hired because they have a degree, yet have no experience. What do you do at your school to help bridge the experience gap?
In the classroom career management is a subject, this is where we first understand what the students are passionate about, how to build their CVs, how to communicate and be presentable. Then they go on internships work in a company every year. At first it is work shadowing, then finally they do an industry practical project where they spend six months in a company working on a research project. This is a way in which they can get to know the business and the company gets to know them.
A lot of our lecturers come from business. We are not just bringing in academics; we bring in people who have business expertise so the students can learn from them what is really happening in the real world.
We teach our students to have the mindset to think creatively and to be proactive. Those skills and values are brought into our teaching. We look at the skills and competencies that are needed in the business world and we look how we can build them into the curriculum.
We don’t just create knowledge because we think that is what is needed. We go into the business world and find out what is really needed.
A lot of your messages focus on relevancy and how to employable. This seems to be a gap in a lot of university in how to make someone marketable and applicable to an organization.
When your students work for an organization, do they get paid?
No, it is part of their requirements for their degree, so they don’t get paid. Some companies like to give some money to support their food and travel expenses. Some students like to get part-time jobs while they are in school, but we find it is difficult, because some of them are the breadwinners. Some of the students feel they can leave school because they are earning an income. Our goal is to get them to hold on and see the value of getting a degree.
Another big part of working in an organization is around leadership and self-development. Figuring out who you are, where you come from and how you deal with issues that are very personal. This also has a big impact on you in the workplace, because until you get out there and figure out who you are and how you deal with the stress, then you can’t grasp all the business terms concepts when you are in the real world.
Can you be more specific on what type of leadership skills you are training students.
We look at different leadership strategies, also we look at responsibility, integrity, taking initiative, communication skills, being system savvy. They do something we call “Portfolio of Learning”: How have these values influenced my life over the year and when I go out into a company? WE also focus on teamwork and communication; there are a number of things that are built into the curriculum.
Leadership is also demonstrated when you go out into the community. You need to ask yourself: “How do you teach and help others to learn?” Students also need to be involved in the classroom and assist other students.
We bring in role models, and Hero speakers. We bring leaders who come in to talk about their life, their learning’s and stories. Students can really see how others achieved their success.
What is your vision for the university? Do you want to replicate TSiBA?
Absolutely, one of my main roles is to see how we can take that the TSiBA model and see how we can create access to education for the rest of South Africa and elsewhere. Rather than create one big center here, we would rather create small centers of excellence that can create access in rural and other communities. Students can always move through to the degree programs. We already have replicated successful in Eden, we have a campus, where the focus is green business and entrepreneurship. This has been a wonderful way to see how the model works in a rural environment where the students live on campus, grow food and provide back to the community.
We are seeing more and more smaller communities that believe in what we are doing and want us to provide education in their communities. To be successful, we need people on the ground that will be the drivers. We can’t go into a community and say: “you need this.” It is about people coming forward to make it work. We have governments from other countries that have signed agreements with us to take that model to their countries. We are looking at opening one of those schools next year (2013).
I want to look at your role. One of the challenges of any organization is sustainability, regardless if it is for profit or non-for profit. What experiences provided you with the knowledge of attaining funding?
- It is creating a story that you are passionate about.
- Then you need project that is tangible that is doing some real grassroots empowerment. What better investments then education, where you are giving people the skills to go out and be self-sustaining?
- You need to know it is working and it is needed.
- Regarding funders, they not only need to believe in the project, but believe in the individual.
- They need to know you are able to do what is required. They need to have confidence in you.
What gives people the confidence in you?
Initially it is difficult, because you are in a start-up institution that no one knows about. Once you start demonstrating that you have results, that you are making a real difference in people’s lives and that you are dedicated and hard working and passionate, then the funding comes. We have a team that wakes-up at night and this is what they think about. It is not just a job.
We are fortunate to have individuals from credible institutions come aboard because they see the value in what we were doing. Once you have one partner on board who sees that creditability it helps with getting another partners.
What was the most useful experience that allowed you to raise R80 million for operating expenses since TSiBA’s inception in 2004, with over R9 million invested in reserves, what experience did you have to help you achieve raising those funds?
At the beginning it was about believing in the people doing it.
- We got people involved in developing the school.
- We got people in designing the curriculum.
- People who got involved at the beginning where the ones who started volunteering, lecturing and giving money.
- Over time it is about the students and the product. You can bring the funders and introduce them to the students. Not until you really experience the students can you see the values that we are trying to create. Such as being leaders, entrepreneurs, they can engage in conversation, they can be involved with people in starting their businesses.
At the end of the day, it is showing funders a tangle product, and they see a model that is working and can be replicated.
I wonder if some of the corporates are also saying “I want more of that produce (i.e. the students) and the only way I am going to get more of that product is by investing in the institution.
In South Africa there is something called “Black Economic Empowerment,” and there is a scorecard. Companies are required to spend a certain amount of money on Corporate Social investment and on Enterprise development. They are also required to spend in other areas such as management and employment equity. We are actually addressing a need for these companies, not just a tick box exercise. Our students can actually move into the business and they can add value and that is incredibly important.
We are offering a solution that is innovative, that companies can benefits from while meeting their obligations in all the required areas. They also can build moral in their organizations as their employees will come and lecture, which provides a ‘feel good’ element. They feel that they are contributing to South Africa and where it is going because they are part of a flagship project. They also can get their points. So we offer a complete solution.
You are filling a gap in the marketplace that has to be legally filled, but you are not resting on your laurels, you are also ensuring the product in quality.
What systems have you implemented to ensure you continue to get that funding?
We are realizing that times are tighter, and with a recession companies have less money to spend. These budgets are based on net profit after tax. So if there are not any profits there is no money to go around.
So we have had to be innovative, so we don’t see our main income coming from donors, although we are reliant on them. We are looking at how we can generate non-donor based income through generating activities. We have a number under way. We are also thinking about creatively how we can offer corporations our IP (Intellectual Property), using the knowledge that we have, skills we can offer to their employees, and other things on how we generate income rather then it being perceived as a ‘hand-out.’
We make sure we can set aside money so we can use that capital base to generate interest to fund the university. So we have had to think about things differently.
- Income generating activities
- Replicating the model
Replicating initially was more because we wanted to create access. Now it is also to build the brand, prove we are relevant and that we can be an income generator in the long-term.
We are looking at a number of different initiatives to grow our donor base.
I’m a huge fan of not rely on donors, as they can be fickle. Kudos to you all. Can you give us some idea of the projects that you are implement that you hope to generate income from?
It is a mixture of things:
- In our community in Eden we do:
- Trail runs
- Various other activities in community
- Chief Executive education
- We provide training in companies
- We package courses that will help employees’ fast track through an organization.
- How we invest money so we can leverage and start more initiatives.
- Community training.
- The main focus of that is to support entrepreneurs and teaching skills to other people. This is really growing. There is a huge need to for people to access these skills and help them grow their businesses, outside our student base.
- If we are teaching entrepreneurship, we need to model it. So it is about starting other entrepreneurial businesses that can eventually feed back into the space.
Have you ever lost financial resources from a particular funder?
No, we have had decrease by funders due to the financial situation.
On occasion, we have had funders who committed to funding for just a few years. They had a clear strategy of how long they were going to be able to support the initiative, such of three or four years. That is the nature of corporate. So we need to attract individual givers who are passionate about our initiative who want to leave a legacy. They will often contribute longer.
In 2002 you were referred to as one of South Africa’s 100 brightest young minds, why was that?
It was an initiative that was started about 12 to 15 years ago. Companies came together and chose 100 students from all the Universities across South Africa. They brought young people together where they could pose questions to us about the future of South Africa. The criteria for selections included academic performance, leadership skills, and how you grappled with questions. I was selected and attended a conference. It was kind of like corporates could use these young minds to thinking on projects they wanted to do 🙂
It was a wonderful opportunity to engage with other young minds. This has continued. There is a database of people who are still in contact and it is amazing to see where the young students have gone. So many have done amazing things.
Great initiative. A smart corporate initiative.
It is also a great way to employ people.
When you get the opportunity to have a meeting with a perspective funder, how do you actually approach the funding conversation?
It is a mix of things
There is a lot of cold calling.
- Going to the top, the CEO, Human Resources, the head of investment. Getting into their diary.
- It is also around using networks, and getting people that I know to recommend me for that conversation. Or using their name to get an appointed with a prospective funder.
- Once you are in the room, it is not difficult if you have a story to tell, it is believable and you have tangible results.
- What works best bringing people to the campus to meet the students. This is where you see the energy and the impact.
- There is a lot of tedious proposal writing. Building relationships, build long-term strategic-partnerships. Sometimes we can walk in and have an opportunity, but most of the time it takes years to build the opportunity.
- Through people lecturing, or volunteering, guest speaker, that relationship also grows. We like to get people involved.
- Sometimes you just can’t be afraid to be asking for money. Let them know what you want. Often people don’t want to hear your story for a half-hour. Sometimes it is just best to get to the point.
Your school has a high placement right for students, what advice can you provide to students to increase their opportunities and chances of gaining employment?
- Firstly have the academic knowledge
- Go into a business where you feel you can contribute
- Then it is around the attitude, learn to engage people and look them in the eye. Learn how to prove yourself.
- Go into an opportunity as if you are going to the job with the intention to learn, and that you will grow.
- You can’t walk into any company and know it all. You have to be willing to learn and start from the beginning.
- As long as you have the mindset of being proactive, and not walk into the company and expect people to tell you what to do and how to do it.
- You have to be willing to ask questions.
- You need to be willing to take on new things.
I want to highlight one of your comments, you mentioned: “that students should start from the beginning when starting with an organization, “ what do you mean by that?
Depending on the organization you go into there are a lot of corporates you are going into graduate positions or lower level positions. It takes time to climb up that corporate ladder. No matter how much you know coming out of university, even coming from TSiBA where you get experience, each organization is different. You are dealing with different cultures, new people and new structures. You have to start as if you know nothing and learn how those organizations are run. Some of our students have moved right into management roles because of their leadership skills, and they can fly.
It appears that your goal is to create social entrepreneurs, is that correct?
We have always wanted our students to be entrepreneurial, in reality most of our students end up going to corporate because they need the money and they have families to support. We encourage that because it is good for them to get experience. But ultimately we hope they will be entrepreneurial within the organization and we hope that they will go back and start a business in the future.
A lot of the students do want to start businesses back in their communities, because they want to start growing and developing where they come from. We have a particular program around social entrepreneurship, where we work with a university from Boston where their students come here and engage with projects with our students.
How important do you think social entrepreneurship will be for South Africa as a way forward for businesses?
I think it is incredibly important. More and more people will not only have to think about being profit driven for themselves, which is also important, but they will have to think about how to build communities. In South Africa too many people commute outside communities to find work. They don’t see were they are living as aspirational, which needs to change. There needs to be more development in rural areas, in the townships and communities that then can really build value and capacity in those areas.
There are too many areas that are isolated. The urban areas get more developed and the rural areas and township areas are left underdeveloped. This process becomes perpetuating. The more the students can go back to their communities, become role models and get things going on the ground the better.
Have you every conducted a project or an initiative that just didn’t work? Why and what would you do differently next time?
We have tried a lot of things. We have taken some risks and have learned along the way. A good example is the huge gap our students have from high school in terms of skills. We made a lot of assumptions of what they can understand, and some basic logic and family values. There was learning in that processes.
Another project we initiated is we started to give loans to entrepreneurs. We have an Ignition Center, where we support entrepreneurs in our community that are not students. One of the first things we started to do is give loans because we thought you needed the money to start growing these business for a start-up. We realized that wasn’t working so we stopped the loans all together and realizing the real value was around the mentorship and skills that they needed. Money was the last thing that was needed. Now we put a lot of focus into mentorship, just like we do in our curriculum to grow entrepreneurs.
This is a really important discovery. There are many organizations locally and internationally that focus on microfinance. If I understand, you are suggesting investment is only as good as the mentorship?
Absolutely. We decided that we will still give some financing, but not until you have been through a regress skills development processes.
The same philosophy applies with our students; we also started giving students loans. We can’t access the national student loan scheme. Our students need help with subsistence, to get here every day, to put food in their stomachs, a place to stay. We started issuing loans to students. Although it is critically important it is not our business. Students can’t afford to pay them back. It has been proven that this is not the obstacle to their success. Students that have nothing still make it through the program because of their perseverance and will.
I am very interested in your comments on a personal level as our Ignite Excellence Foundation supports tertiary education. Our philosophy has always been we will only pay for education not living expenses. Our philosophy is you have to have the ability to lead your life, or you will not be able to lead others.
Exactly. In our interviews we with the students we do ask them what support structures do they have. No matter how much we give, there has to be something on the ground to assist them. They need to have a contribution from the family or somewhere. If people have absolutely nothing they are not going to make it through.
What do you think is your most significant impact you have made so far?
Seeing myself as someone who is concerned about giving back. Creating diverse group of students who are going to become job creators. Creating an institution that had no precedence to rely on and is entrepreneurial. Having thousands of people having access to skills and a community of people that they can see this as their home where they can learn and develop.
If there were one thing you can attribute your success to, what would it be?
I think it is a lot about family values. I was privileged to be brought-up in a very supportive environment, where my family encouraged me to take risks and believed in being entrepreneurial. My family believed in me and that I could to do anything. It was that strong sense of family, love and security that enabled me to go out feeling like I could do anything.
Also being passionate about other people, and the project I am involved in.
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of your career?
Raising money is challenging. Also finding a work life balance. I think I have done well at this. You get so involved because it is ‘your thing.’ There are thousands people relying on you. It is about not thinking about it 24/7. You need to look after yourself. I had years where I totally neglected myself.
What is the most significant thing that happened to you, or for you that help achieve your career accomplishments?
I was ambitious and naive. Not knowing what I was getting into. Getting a piece of paper that proved that I was accredited – having a degree. Which meant to me that I had to teach people and to move forward. Not really one particular element, except making the decision and then it became a treadmill forward.
There is quite a shift from what you did to starting TSiBA and what you were doing before. What was the catalyst for that shift?
I heard someone speaking about being involved in skill development and giving back. Following that talk I was walking into center of Johannesburg, which at the time was incredibly unsafe.
There was a program that was uplift young students, which I was also inspired by. I realized that there was a whole other side to the privileged environment that I have been brought-up in. Being a white South African knowing if I was going to stay in this country, I would need to do something.
I had a number of scares in terms of my own life and safety while I was living in Johannesburg. I realized that I could not run away from this. I have an opportunity to do something.
Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of yourself discovered when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?
Starting a university, where there is no precedence to rely on. We are offering free education. We take risks every day, from getting a building, to creating a curriculum, to get students to register and lecturers to come on board. That continues to be me pushing my edge. Daily we are learning and trying new things. We have been running only eight years with students and we are still dealing with challenges that we have never dealt with before.
Is there anything you would do differently in pursuit of your success?
No. I don’t regret anything. I think it is always about learning and not giving up. We are still here committed and passionate.
If you were to define success, how would you define it?
Success is finding a balance. That I can create a sustainable life for my family, as well as a sustainable institution that can be around for years to come for the students. Creating relationships that are sustainable and strong.
How would you define leadership?
Having integrity, teach and leading others. It is about ongoing learning. But also making sure you have time to think. Be mindful and sit and listen and allow other people to grow.
What pieces of leadership advice would provide to others who are leading a team or project?
- People are different, it is important to understand others, their cultures, them as individuals, before you can take on anything.
- To be emotionally intelligent. To be willing to step-back and listen. There are times when you need to lead and take control and know when to act. There are other times when it is just best to allow other people to lead and you to listen.
- Finding a balance. Bring in your personal motivations that will help strive to do your best. There will be times where you will have to really focus on the work. Not to give up. Once you have a plan you must keep going until you reach that goal.
Q. What advice would you give to your 10yr. old daughter?
I would encourage her to be brave and strong. I would advise her to have integrity and know whom she is where she wants to go. I would tell her to treat things with love and care, and be open to different people and individuals. There are times in life that are challenging and take them as obstacles to learn and grow.
Q. What do you wish you were told at 12 years old?
You can’t to do everything on your own. You need support on the way. Don’t be so strong and determined and do it all by yourself.
What is next for you?
To have a child and learn from that experience. It will be a different pace.
Also take the organization to a level where can be sustainable.
Longer term, to create a model that can be successfully replicated in other places in the world.
If there is one thing that you haven’t done yet that you really want to do?
I have always been an artist. I would like to bring my artistic talents to add value to others. Also to build my family.
Words of Wisdom for African women
Women need to be brave and strong, and they can do anything. They do need to back that up with learning and knowledge. It is important that women educate themselves and be able to take things forward and take risks and start what ever they want. Don’t forget were you come from. Know who you are before you start to lead others. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Be seen as a woman.