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20 April 2023

Doing Good At Scale with Leana De Beer (Feenix)

Leana de Beer is the CEO of Feenix – a non-profit and a social enterprise focusing on education finance in South Africa.

As a response to #feesmustfall, Leana and her team founded a non-profit to address the lack of funding for education in South Africa. Over the last 6 years, Feenix has raised over R170 million for tertiary education students in South Africa. If that wasn’t impact enough, they also launched WaFunda, an EduTech platform training and supporting young South Africans.

Eitan and Leana sat down to discuss Leana’s journey, the state of education in South Africa and the solutions to fix it, and building a non-profit like a technology company.

Take a listen!

 

 

Eitan Stern (00:06):

Welcome to Legalese Big Fish Stories, the podcast where we showcase local South African entrepreneurs their stories and their big relevance to the world around them. As lawyers working with startups and established businesses in the tech and creative industries, we get front row seats to some incredible business adventure rides. The problem is that as lawyers, our work is confidential with big fish stories. We’re going inside the room with some proudly South African entrepreneurs to talk about their airy highs, lonely lows, and creamy middles of the road to success as a country, deep in economic development, there is massive potential for smart entrepreneurs to build something great. Join us as we meet some of these big fish and find out how they’re looking to make their ponds even bigger. I’m your host managing director of Legalese Eitan Stern. Okay. Good to have you here. So this is our first episode for the year. Very happy to be sitting with Leana de Beer. I’m not gonna introduce you, Leana. Do you wanna introduce yourself? Who are you and what do you do for a living?

Leana de Beer (01:02):

Thanks for having me. Eitan. The first one of the year. That’s very special. I’ll take it. I am, I would call myself a social entrepreneur and innovator. When I say that, people always kind of look at me strange. I think that’s basically, I call myself someone that wants to do work that is really focused on purpose and sustainability while trying to do a social good. So I always try and find work and do work that is creatively combining and solving for, I am the group CEO of, uh, the Fenix Group, which includes a nonprofit called Fenix and a social enterprise called WaFunda. And I’ve been involved there for the last six years. I also sit on a couple of boards and trusts. Yeah, I think that’s a, that’s a good, that’s a place for, to

Eitan Stern (01:53):

Kick off from. That’s a very good place for us to kick off. So we met, I mean, we’ve been doing work together for, for a couple of years, but that’s not actually where we did meet. I was thinking back to it when I was preparing for this. We met because we were donating to Fenix. That was when I first found out about the Fenix. Yeah. Um, Fenix still today is one of the best, just one of the, the Yeah. Best organizations that I know. Do you wanna tell us a little bit about what you do at Fenix? Yeah,

Leana de Beer (02:15):

Sure. Fenix started as a response to Fees Must Fall. Okay. So it was a reaction of that 2015, 2016 kind of movement that happened across the country and really took everyone by surprise.

Eitan Stern (02:31):

Um, do you wanna maybe explain a little bit more about Fees Must Fall? Cause it’s probably relevant in this, not

Leana de Beer (02:35):

All. Sure. Fees Must Fall from a kind of global perspective, was a movement that started on campus of students shutting down the system and protesting against the, the fast rise of education and the cost of tuition. And it kinda, um, started on one campus and spread very quickly across all 26 to the point that it became a national movement and many of the universities closed their doors. And there were a whole range of things that, that the students were protesting, um, which is another podcast. But the, the key and the most important maybe, is the, the fact that education cost is, yeah, far outreaching inflation cost. And young people aren’t able to keep up, especially around things like accommodation and transport costs and things like

Eitan Stern (03:23):

That. Okay. So you noticed the fees must fall, so your response to it is,

Leana de Beer (03:26):

Yeah. So it wasn’t mine. We, it was a group of people. I think what happened during that time and continues to happen now, is this expectation that the private sector needs to come in and start solving for public sector complexities and issues. And in 2016, 2017, uh, Standard Bank wanted to do something and get involved in a proactive way, because with these kind of movements, they’re very valid and form, but can often become quite destructive and they bleed out. And, uh, they were a lot of people willing to get involved and help, but not quite sure how to do that. So Fenix was a response to Bridge Communities, was ultimately there to say to people, if you are willing to help a student in need of financing, and they are students that we can vet, uh, support find, and we can connect these communities and try and bridge and bring money into the system. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So it was a very much a private sector response to allow individuals and companies to donate money to students at the public universities. We did that in partnership with Standard Bank. We formed it launched in 2017, and the format or the medium we use is crowd funding. Okay. So there’s an online platform. If you go there, you see the student, you can read the student’s stories. It’s really personal. It’s really about the human. And then donate to you who you feel you wanna donate to.

Eitan Stern (04:50):

So instead of saying, cool, you can donate to a student fund. You’re going to a particular student, you can see their story, you see how much their need, see what they’re trying to study Exactly.

Leana de Beer (04:59):

And donate. So it’s personalizing, humanizing,

Eitan Stern (05:01):

And the success. What, I mean, give us the rough ideas, not to, not to make you blush or not to make, uh, make too much of a big deal, but some, some rough ideas of how successful it’s been.

Leana de Beer (05:09):

So we launched in June, 2017, and we’ve been able to, with the support of many communities, um, raise about 170 million, helping about 3,500 give or take students. Okay. At all 26 universities.

Eitan Stern (05:23):

It’s incredible. Yeah. I mean, really just to pause on that for a second. It’s incredible work and it’s, it’s really interesting for me, which I think we’re gonna dig into more. I mean, there’s the use of technology there, there’s the use of the private body stepping in and doing, uh, uh, to fix the government problem. But we’ll dig into more that more in a second. I just want to kind of bring it back for a second. So, you know, so you’ve got Fenix, there’s WaFunda, which we haven’t spoken about. One doesn’t, when, when I think about starting a business, it started as simple as possible. You know, get some profit, get some, uh, revenue going build on top of that higher stuff like that doesn’t seem to be the way that your journey went. And it seems like you started off with quite a complex business. So I, I mean, I’m quite curious, like, how did that work? I mean, did you have a history of running businesses in the past? Like how were you able to, your first step is starting a business with a group of people, with a banking partner and launching a platform. How did that go about happening?

Leana de Beer (06:15):

I think it’s both of those things. It’s complex and sometimes you have to have a big vision and know what’s possible and then, and then take it down and strip it out and start very small mm-hmm. <affirmative> and just do building blocks, block for block. I am, uh, a gap filler. I’m very curious and excited about seeing new ways of doing things. I really get, I’m like aggressively have no sense of boundary when it comes to innovation ideas. I’m very creative as a person. I used to work many years ago in the fashion industry. I had a stent in television. I used to direct and produce in television shows. I’ve worked in the entertainment industry. So I’ve kind of seen myself as a creative first, which then beautifully organically developed into innovation. And in 2014, I did a post-grad in business and I had, I think a very traditional story inspiring teacher.

Leana de Beer (07:16):

And there was a, it was an innovation class, and we read a book by CK pri, which is the fortunate, the bottom of the pyramid. And it’s a book base on innovations in India. And I read it and it really inspired me. And from that point forward, I knew I wanted to go and combine my sense of creativity with doing good. I grew up in a house that’s very community driven. We always, as children were involved in, in volunteering and doing community work. And so that was part of my, my family of origin story, part of my dna. And somewhere as the universe, you know, as the river flows, it combined. And I finished my MBA in 2016 and knew I wanted to pivot from that point. Wasn’t sure how and where I did a couple of consulting gigs and then met a group of people that was already working on Fenix.

Leana de Beer (08:13):

Uh, they needed some help. I approached them very much, uh, willing to take on some of the orphan functions of the business. I saw the gap went in there and I told myself, I’m gonna do it for a couple of months and then find my own feed thing. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, the, the idea was never to stay on and fell in love with the team. The concept saw the, the potential opportunity and impact of this concept, and it really needed a, a focused head. And I, yeah. Um, went to the board of trustees and we convinced them to break this away from where it was sitting at that point in time. And we formed Fenix into the product that it is now.

Eitan Stern (08:49):

That’s incredible. So this idea of doing good, you’re saying like, yeah, you, I mean, you have an mba, most people who study an MBA are driven for, you know, running businesses, profit driven businesses, but you kind of speaking about, you finished your MBA and you knew that that was a step for you to start doing good in the world. So yeah. I mean, was this always something that was obvious for you, for you to be able to, whatever work you did to make sure that it added something to the world? Or was that a surprise for you?

Leana de Beer (09:16):

No, it’s always been quite obvious for me. I like, even, like I mentioned, even as a, as a child, my entire university career, even when I was working in the entertainment industry, yeah. I, I was doing things on the side. Okay. I was always volunteering, always donating blood. I try and started a couple of businesses before, which was kind of cross section between the environment and social impact. And I chose the U C T MBA because they had a social enterprise Okay. Lens. I was, I think one of six people in the class of about 80 that was really focused on this. We irritated everyone so much because we were always asking the questions, but I knew I wanted to go into something that combined sustainability and an impact, social impact. I knew that quite

Eitan Stern (10:06):

Clearly. And, and the education space, I mean, was that specifically an interest for you or was that kind of a surprise that you landed up running a an organization within education? It’s

Leana de Beer (10:14):

A good question. I almost kinda, um, was only able to see it after the fact. I really just care about opportunity. I’m passionate about a whole range of things, uh, one of which is education. But I, I care about opportunity and potential and equality. So for me, that is really, really important first and foremost. And education found me in that sense. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it was the right project at the right time in a environment that I was really, really passionate about. But the fact that it is post-secondary education in South Africa wasn’t something I knew from the get-go. Okay.

Eitan Stern (10:54):

Maybe let’s, let’s focus on education for a second. I mean, the, the work that you’re doing and the impact that you’re delivering is all based around education, tertiary education. What’s your view around the state of education in South Africa and what needs to happen in South Africa around education for us to improve our education system or further this country, I suppose why education? What is it that you’re passionate about net space

Leana de Beer (11:16):

Now? Well, I think first and foremost, we have a youth unemployment problem. Massive. Sure. Massively. So, about 65% of our young people in this country are unemployed. Okay. Or not in education. So we call this need not in, uh, training or education or employment. That’s

Eitan Stern (11:32):

65% that are unemployed, that are also uneducated or 65 that are percent that are unemployed.

Leana de Beer (11:38):

That figure is just for unemployed. Okay. So majority of those young people do have a metric. Okay. If you look at the, at the stats, if a hundred young people start school in South Africa, primary school, only about four will end up in post-secondary education. And then only about two of that four will be trained for the future of work. Okay. Which is so, so there’s a problem here, right. There’s a massive problem. A lot of people are from the school of thought that we need to start with ECDS in the primary school. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Cause that’s the foundation. I agree. Often that ecs early childhood development centers. Okay. So I’m definitely in agreement with that. But what we see in our daily lives are the incredible potential of young people. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we have so many stories. Like I get goosebumps just talking about it.

Leana de Beer (12:24):

We have so many stories of young people with that’s creative and resilient and passionate and community driven. And when they’re given the right opportunity, they just flourish. They do incredible things. So that excites me. But education in this country is on precipice. I mean, we’ve been here for a while. We’ve been threading this needle for a while. It’s a bubble that’s, that’s I think is about to burst. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> again. Um, we have a public sector which absorbs about a million young people every year. Um, the, the university space, of which about 600,000 is on government funding mm-hmm. <affirmative> government, um, sfi, the national scheme, which is an unsustainable process. And then we’ve got a growing private sector, education industry as well. So there’s a lot of innovative things happening. You know, I think our country’s one of paradox. We have these extreme social complex issues, but in the same breath, we have so much exciting innovations happening. Mm. And there are people doing really fantastic things in this, in this, um, environment, in the private sector and sometimes in the public sector. Uh, so I think we,

Eitan Stern (13:36):

So what are you saying is the problem then? So there’s, are you saying that the two aren’t meeting? That there’s this massive public,

Leana de Beer (13:42):

It it’s very detailed and there’s lots of little things that we can stand still on. Um, and I don’t know how to do that cons, you know, in a concise manner. Sure. In the public sector, we have young people are being trained for things that might not be a good fit in the future. Okay. We also have an expectation of free education. We also have young people coming into the system that they struggle. About 50% of young people drop out in their first year. Mm-hmm. So that is a really costly exercise. Someone’s paying for that. The is paying for that. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, then we, because of free education, don’t have as much funding available for infrastructure and research and postgraduate studies. So that’s something that’s happening as well on the side.

Eitan Stern (14:24):

So there’s sos a couple of big issues,

Leana de Beer (14:25):

Couple of big issues. And in the private sector, there’s not always a lot of financial support for young people. You have more, uh, future work aligned programs, but you don’t always have, it’s, it’s a for profit. Sure. So there is another incentive. It’s, it’s a financial incentives.

Eitan Stern (14:43):

So, and I, and I realize you, we, you can’t, well we can’t even distill the issues into a half an hour, 45 minute conversation. They might talk about the solutions, but maybe, I mean, some of these issues that you’ve spoken about, the issue of funding of education, the issue of not enough support for students that are getting funded. Like what do you think are some of the solutions for this? So what are some of the solutions that you’re working on with

Leana de Beer (15:04):

This? That’s a much more exciting question. Okay. Because I think that’s where we need to move as a country Sure. Is say, what can we do to solve some of the complex issues? Fenix was a response to that, right? Yeah. Fenix was a, is a beautiful example of what can be done when we say how can we be proactive and solutions driven. I think we need more public-private sector partnerships. I think we need a technology to automate and scale. I think we need to, to work closer together. Cuz you also now have this sense of competitiveness for the young up and coming companies that are doing interesting things in this space. As in many things into this country, there’s a lot of cross-sections. You can’t operate in silos on isolation. As a young organization. You have to work with the big FSPs and you have to work with government because there’s so much funding available in the, in the BE system that is earmarked for education. So some of the complexities there are competition, uh, lack of openness to innovation. There’s money that goes, you know, to waste or money that disappears. There is fraud and corruption across the board. So I think solutions are, we have to support SMEEs mm-hmm. <affirmative> that’s doing work in the education impact space. Okay. We need to be open to technology. We need to work together, collaborate, and then we need government to open their doors to us.

Eitan Stern (16:30):

We need to. And so that, and that’s some of the work that, I mean, that speaks to more of what you, what you’re doing at with WaFunda, right? Yes. You, you’ve offered some aspect of a tech platform for education. Do you wanna briefly tell us about that?

Leana de Beer (16:39):

Yeah. So WaFunda was birthed from Fenix, it is a for-profit social enterprise. And it’s owned by, by the Fenix Trust. So it, we kind of operate in this, this, um, there’s associated and work very well together. And WaFunda is, I started WaFunda because I needed to do, I needed to expand the work that we did on the, on the, on the Fenix side that wasn’t inhibited by the non-profit status. That’s as simply as I can put it. I also wanted to create some sustainable, all diversification of income, which you can’t do in the nonprofit. Sure. And we launch WaFunda just as COVID happened, which is perfect. And WaFunda has a range of products all in the tertiary education space as well. One of them, which is our anchor product, is innovative and equitable loans. So we are looking at alternative funding options, uh, that’s broader than the work that Fenix does.

Eitan Stern (17:32):

Amazing. I mean, a, a lot of what I’m, and maybe I’m reading between the lines a little bit too much, but a lot of what you’re talking about, what I’m hearing is the solution in education is an aspect of finance of money. That there’s some aspect that there is money in some places there’s not in others. And connecting people that need money for education or institutions or SMEs that need money and the people that have it. I mean, you mentioned the FSPs, you mentioned government, that there’s some sort of a misfiring there. So I mean, am I hearing that correctly that one of the solutions in education is a better financial management of the system as a whole?

Leana de Beer (18:07):

There is a lot of money being pushed into education. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I mean, government, it’s government’s biggest expenditure is education. Which is wild. That’s wild. It’s wild. Billions of rans every year. And the if is

Eitan Stern (18:21):

Esp, it’s wild. Especially if you set out of a hundred students too are getting prepped for, for the, for the future. Yeah. Like,

Leana de Beer (18:27):

Yeah, exactly. There there are many more stats that if you look at our math and science and literacy at young age, it’s like some of the worst in

Eitan Stern (18:34):

The world. So government is failing then quite miserably at, I mean, you’re nodding your head, but giving me eyes, they’re failing quite miserably. Spending the money correctly.

Leana de Beer (18:43):

Um, yeah. When you run a public, uh, benefit organization, you are always careful to step on toes, but sure, yes, I am of the opinion that government is failing.

Eitan Stern (18:52):

So they could, they could do better in the edit as well. What about private sector? I mean, as we, as a small company at legalese, we, we put money into education through Fenix, through a couple of other things. So we’re a tiny company. I’m sure there’s big companies that are putting lots of money into education. Oh yes. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> are they, are we failing as well?

Leana de Beer (19:09):

Sometimes feels like a ship that’s drowning and we all just have one bucket mm-hmm. <affirmative> and we are scooping the water out of this ship as fast as possible. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that’s very negative. But that is sometimes the, the, the sheer scale of the challenge. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I feel very strongly it in that if we can help one person, it is always worth the effort. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, every single young person that we educate and every single person we give opportunity for upward financial mobility is a opportunity worth giving. And we should continue to do that work every, every single day. There’s a lot of money in the system, a lot of corporates and organizations are giving money to education. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, if you your just the skills development budget of organizations, it’s massive. So there’s no, because country doesn’t have a lack of money mm-hmm.

Leana de Beer (20:00):

<affirmative>, it is how we spend the money. It is the frameworks within which we spend the money. And then it’s saying, how can we innovate and push the boundaries quick and faster to make sure that our young people are sure in alignment with where the world is going, like entrepreneurship. And, but I think when you hit tertiary education space, you already have this compound effect of the primary and secondary education challenges. Yeah. So by that time we’re talking about a quite a smaller group of young people that that is then potentially geared up for success.

Eitan Stern (20:35):

Okay. So you can’t look to fix tertiary education in South South Africa unless you’ve fixed basic education and, and everything. Well, early childhood development, basic education, et cetera.

Leana de Beer (20:46):

All of all of the

Eitan Stern (20:47):

Above. It’s a complex problem. Yes. Uh, then for, I want to leave finance for for a second. I wanna turn you towards the, the other aspect of what you do, which is the tech aspect. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So you’ve mentioned a couple of times now one of the solutions and one of the things that needs to happen is the use of technology in the space. Where do you see that? Where do you see technology fitting into education?

Leana de Beer (21:06):

Yeah. I think that is what Fenix and WaFunda does well, when we built Fenix, I said to my team, we are a nonprofit and we will manage this organization as a nonprofit. We’ll take from the nonprofit space that works well, governance, compliance, transparency, accountability. But we are going to do this and see ourselves as a tech startup. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So that’s always been our approach. Why? Because tech startups are exciting. People wanna work for them. You balance between efficiency and innovation and you balance between growth and, and sustainability. And I think in the Fenix and WaFunda space, what we do really, really well, and I think uniquely so is we are able to sit at the table with the established non-profits. But in the same brief, we are able to sit at the table with the tech startups, which isn’t happening enough. I often meet incredibly smart, resourceful experience, older people in the non-profit space and they, they, the entire process is manual.

Leana de Beer (22:11):

Um, it’s been like that for years. There’s a lot of institutional knowledge, but they do not have the culture mm-hmm. <affirmative> in order to take on and, and scale and pivot or be creative or innovate. You know, we saw this with Covid, how, how difficult was for some organizations to make those changes. And then again, if you are in the tech industry or you are in the social entrepreneurship innovation industry, you have a lot of smart technology, but you don’t have the, the experience of running a non-profit. You don’t have the experience of monitoring an evaluation. You don’t have the experience of, of those governance frameworks and structures that is able to serve you and allow you to tap into quite a diverse set of funding in the sense of impact funding, catalytic funding, ground funding. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And I think what we’ve done as Fenix, WaFunda, we’ve played in that beautiful

Eitan Stern (23:03):

Merge between

Leana de Beer (23:04):

The two merchant intersection. I hire young, I hire potential, I hire people that are often come from a business background or, uh, that has a, as a kind of private sector skill, but are inclined for social work. And then we bring them in into that framework and then we just tap into all of those, those skills and passion. Hmm. So we’ve used technology cuz cuz tech, I wanna be careful to say that innovation is equal to tech. Okay. Right. I think technology is a beautiful tool to help us do a lot of things well, but in this country you also have, uh, informal, underserved people outside of the system, data issues, infrastructure issues. So if we want to be digitally savvy, we have to be digitally inclusive and we are not there yet. Mm. A hundred percent. And the work we do in the social space, often with people that don’t have access to devices and data and things that you and I don’t think about in our daily lives. Sure. So how do you roll out technology that’s sophisticated when your, your population or the people you work with are still getting there?

Eitan Stern (24:19):

Yeah. I mean, how do you do that? I mean, I suppose I’m, as you’re saying it, I’m seeing the real need for private and public sector divide. I mean, you would need the telcos, vodacoms and the MTns of the world to be on board if you want to, if you, if you want to impact a country that has devices, well you know that the telcos are companies that, that are all over the country. Yes. It sounds like you would need them involved in the solution.

Leana de Beer (24:42):

And, um, some companies, I mean DG Murray Trust, they use Covid, um, and the emergency state of the country to kind of move the hand of the telecommunications, uh, companies to create zero rated platforms and websites. Sure, yeah. Which was wonderful. But neither of our organizations qualified, you know. Okay. Um, which, because Fenix wasn’t, edu wasn’t delivering educational content. Okay. It didn’t fit the ball, which is that thing I spoke about earlier. When we are the structure and the framework is inhibiting our ability to deliver impact and in WaFunda we as social enterprise, but we for profit. So we don’t qualify for any of that.

Eitan Stern (25:20):

So, I mean, that’s interesting for me cuz that’s really the, and that’s the flip side of the dock side of the combination between tech and nonprofits is that tech, uh, nonprofits have governance and procedures, tech moves fast and is innovative and somewhere in, you know, trying in the middle <laugh> somewhere in the middle gets stuck, stuck you guys that, that want to move fast. But, you know, well get stuck into the, the red tape of, uh, maybe the de I don’t know anything about that. The DG Murray’s trust solution there, but something in there, you guys got stuck in the red tape of it.

Leana de Beer (25:50):

Yeah. I mean that happens all the time. Okay. But I do think it still provides, uh, exciting opportunities mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So there’s really, I mean, I can give you a list as long as my arm of people doing very forward thinking work in this space. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but what I wanted to just come back to your original question is we see technology to help, to help us mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So if we can’t deliver as, for example, a zero rated platform, which means young people can access it without paying data mm-hmm. <affirmative>, can we scale by using technology to do our jobs better and easier as the team, and then when we have to do manual interventions, then we can focus on that because everything else is taken care with

Eitan Stern (26:35):

Biotech tech. Okay. So, so it’s not just you guys having technology solutions for education, something like get smarter or, or, or, or something like that. You’re saying that on the business side, on the internal side, you, you guys were running a, a nonprofit in an innovative way Yes. Using technology. And actually, I mean, it’s similar to what the, what I think about Legalese, right? Yeah. Like innovating the way that a legal worker Exactly. Works instead of needing to turn your lawyer into a robot.

Leana de Beer (26:58):

Exactly.

Eitan Stern (27:00):

It makes, makes a lot of sense. I mean, what is, I, I want to ask you what’s next, but I, I would, everything in this, this conversation has made me realize that the issues in education, we not going to be able to summarize into one conversation, but Yeah. I mean, what, what happens next with South African education? I mean, do you see that are organizations like yourself and the tech platforms something like Get Smarter or the new high school program that’s been being launched by the founders. So these is the next wave of education, a tech driven wave that’s, and you can see where the funding’s there or, or is, uh, government in the way and sudden and, and you know, the education system is still stagnant. Like what do you think is happens in the next 10 years in South African education?

Leana de Beer (27:45):

I think it’s, Ooh, looking into that glass, I don’t know if I have the answers to be honest. I will probably see a growth, a spike in the private sector education environment mm-hmm. <affirmative> and maybe a stagnation in the public sector. We might start seeing that, that which

Eitan Stern (28:05):

Is exactly what we don’t want. Right. That’s furthering your inequality gap even further.

Leana de Beer (28:10):

I I think there’s space for both. Okay. Um, because you do want, as an example, universities in the public sector are slow to adopt new technologies and models mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So you might have a private school that delivers incredible drone pilots or, or, or aviation teaching or, uh, someone that is doing agri college innovation. Mm. Um, there’s, there’s things that can happen in the private sector that’s really specialized and, and focus on niche industries and environments that it’s institutions that are able to get there quicker and roll out quicker, um, which will take a very long time in the public sector space. So I think there’s a space for it. The other thing I’m starting to see as well is many organizations, big companies, JC listed companies are starting to change their hiring policies mm-hmm. <affirmative> and are not looking at qualification, but rather aptitude and for sure.

Leana de Beer (29:06):

So that’s starting to change as well. Um, I was in a meeting with a big organization and they’re looking for a tech talent and they were like, we so desperate that we’ll, we’ll take anyone that is capable and has the potential and has the, the aptitude. We don’t care where they studied, we don’t care if it was accredited. We don’t care what the piece of paper says. If they can do the competency test and they go through it and get a good score, we’ll hire them. And that means that’s that misalignment between skills and who we are training and how we are training. Training and the public sector. Unfortunately, because it is government affiliated and, and it’s, it’s, we’re talking about institutions that’s been in existence for hundreds of years in some cases. Sure. Yeah. And it’s a slow ship. It moves slower for reasons Right. To ensure that certain things are in place. So I don’t wanna say we only need the one or the other. I think our solutions in this country is, is working together and Lao who is good with one thing to be good at acting really, really well, let’s tap into, you know, where you need the private sector, pull them in and where you need the public sector.

Eitan Stern (30:15):

Allow them to be, I mean, it mind there another client of ours, they’ve opened a, a coding school here in South Africa. I think their courses are six or eight week course or something. They can take someone with no high school education or someone like me, an old guy who’s, you know, didn’t grow up, uh, learning to program and teach them basic coding skills Yeah. Enough to be able to get a job as a junior developer in six to eight weeks. I mean, you’re right. It’s like how are we still thinking about funding educa tertiary education as funding Uct vets, et cetera, when in order to get that number of two people ready for the future to 10 or 15 Yes. They don’t need to go through a four year bachelor’s degree. They need to get

Leana de Beer (30:56):

Not all cases, but we still need quality research. We still need postgraduate studies. We still need, you know, um, there are some STEM fields like medicine Yeah. That you, you of course we don’t wanna undercut the public sector. Of course. There, that’s therefore reason. And so we need to be careful to, to say that the one should replace the other. For sure. I, I don’t think that’s what I’m saying. I’m, I’m, we need to find a way. I think it’s function over form. We need to be very focused on good quality output. Yeah. Skills that work young people that are good humans, um, that thrive and not just survive through the system that’s not just pushed through the system regardless of whether they’re in a public or private sector.

Eitan Stern (31:40):

A hundred percent. I mean it’s the, it’s really the, the, the thing which is really coming out for me in this entire conversation is everything that you’re saying is, is you can’t fix one thing without the other. This is a system that needs fixing. It’s not a, a one point solution. And, and you’re right. As I, as you repeat it back to me, if you say, cool, we’re turning our folks via education system into, into quick coding schools, what happens to the doctors, lawyers, engineers, they, they, you’re not educating them mean you’re not building that side of the population. Which is also very, very important. Especially as a lot of our, the best of those fields are, are are moving to other countries. So yeah. It’s a system issue that needs to be fixed. I think in kind of coming around to the closing, and I don’t know if you’re gonna be willing to gimme an answer this, but I’m gonna try ask it anyway, <laugh>. If, if, I mean, it sounds like you would be a fantastic minister of education and let’s say you got put into the roles and understanding the systemic issues within education. You had your magic wand and you could create your five or six point plan in order to take South African education system to, you know, move it from two students being ready for the future to 10, 15, a hundred would be amazing. What would you do? How would you wave that magic wand?

Leana de Beer (32:46):

Oh my God, I think, what a big question. One or two points. <laugh>, if I, I I wouldn’t mind that job to be honest. Okay. I offer for you with idea of public sector work, I think I would go mad with the the restrictions. Yes. Because I do move fast and, and love that I’m in an, an environment as a startup that we can make decisions on the fly mm-hmm. <affirmative> and be really adaptable and resilient and Yeah. We test and we make mistakes and we innovate. And that’s the complexity right. Of innovation is government isn’t set up for innovation. I did my MBA thesis on public sector innovation. Okay. And it’s counterintuitive the way that government is designed, the term base set up of politics doesn’t allow for the DNA or the space to innovate and make mistakes. Because if you make mistakes that you hit mm-hmm.

Leana de Beer (33:43):

<affirmative>, so you are not inclined to try new things. So how do we innovate in this space? But I would love to be able to provide, and this is where technology can make a massive difference, is just start with nva mm-hmm. <affirmative>, the national finance scheme and just clean up some of the technology disbursement issues there. It’s archaic. So that’s, that’s the first thing. The second thing is I would force public sector institutions to integrate with the solutions that exist as an example, we, just to give you an idea, every time we disperse to university on behalf of a student, large sums of money. Yeah. There’s no system that I can log into to check if that student is there. I need to phone an administrative person and then get them to tell me, yes, this student is, they say there are and they currently have 32,000 run outstanding on their account and then only I can make a payment to that Sure. Bank account. I can’t integrate with their system because they don’t want that. So everyone works in silos. The systems aren’t integrated, there’s no automation. Everyone’s very scared of that idea. Yeah. So how do I deliver on my mandate to disperse large amounts of money to, if you

Eitan Stern (35:01):

Integrate

Leana de Beer (35:02):

Straight into the system, I can’t integrate into the system. You

Eitan Stern (35:04):

Can more easily find out if your Amazon Prime account is, uh, connected to your bank accounts, then you can, whether your financial systems are connected to your education systems.

Leana de Beer (35:14):

So, so that creates such a bottleneck and Sure. We have to put people behind phones to phone and, and I mean we once, I won’t name them name and shame them. We once, uh, phoned the university and ask for fee statements and we got delivered three or four big boxes mm-hmm. <affirmative> of printed out fee statements at our office last year, 2022. Great. And great. So what do we do with that? And that’s how one needs to input that information. You gotta go the box, do

Eitan Stern (35:41):

The computer, press control next to the box and see what happens.

Leana de Beer (35:44):

So those are the things that I think inhibits everyone. Um, and then the other, the other question we need to ask is, cuz we’ve been talking about the system and the infrastructure, but what about the humans? Sure. Individuals that come through the process. I dunno how this is possible, but we still have students that are sleeping in bathrooms and under tables and are getting mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, a good meal at the church over the weekend mm-hmm. <affirmative> because they fall somewhere through a crack for sure. And they don’t have the paperwork and they’re not absorbed. How do we expect that human being to get a degree mm-hmm. <affirmative> and then flourish and compete in this open free market that you and I sit in. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> young people are not emotionally supported. Our mental health, uh, we, we taste for a handful of things. One of the things, our mental health support or the need to mental health and we’ve seen that skyrocket over the last two years. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> financial literacy, young people have no idea how to work with money. We’ve a launch a financial literacy solution to teach young people.

Eitan Stern (36:43):

Yeah. That’s, that’s one of your projects

Leana de Beer (36:44):

To it’s fund. Yes, exactly. And we can’t get anyone to fund it. We can’t get anyone to pay for that. While everyone is saying how big our debt issues in this country and how it’s not taught in schools and there’s no curriculum around it, but we are sitting on this wonderful product that helps young people at the live phase learn the basics of financial education.

Eitan Stern (37:04):

But no one’s

Leana de Beer (37:05):

Prioritized. But no one’s prioritized. Everyone wants it, but no one’s prioritizing it.

Eitan Stern (37:09):

I remember when I was at UCT, uh, the very good fortune to go to uc Law School and one of the things that we picked up on when I was on the student council my final year was that there was an unbelievable amount of students. I forget the, the six know ago or a decade ago, there was a lot of students that were, cuz UCT has the issue that you’re describing. People enter first year, don’t finish the degrees. Yeah. There was an unbelievable amount of students that were dropping out for because they couldn’t afford basic toiletries. They were embarrassed to come to class. Yeah. Or someone’s a relative would in, in another province and they weren’t able to travel back to the funeral. Six months later they’ve dropped outta university. So the, what we set up was based on a model they had at the med school.

Eitan Stern (37:46):

It’s called the Student Crisis fund. Yeah. So it was small amounts of money, no accountability around it meant you didn’t need to prove that you had spent it. They, we are talking about a thousand ran. Yeah. A couple of hundred grand. And so it was a very simple application process. You didn’t need to supply documents, you didn’t need to report on what you spent it for. The idea was to help people outta this basic crisis. Yeah. And for us, what we saw back then on the data of it, that small amounts of money in the right place made the right difference.

Leana de Beer (38:12):

Oh, absolutely. What’s wonderful about that, it is really grassroots and community driven. The sad thing about that is if those people you moved out and the person that was championing that program moves out, these things often fall apart. Right? Yeah. It’s not driven by anyone specifically. So, but there’s a lot of things like that that exist. Um, Eitan it’s not, it’s not not uncommon.

Eitan Stern (38:35):

That was the exact issue. I mean, you, you foresaw exactly what happened to the, to the, to

Leana de Beer (38:39):

The fund. Yeah. We see this all the time. But, but even more than that is, you see young people being pressurized by their family to earn. Yes. So the dropout because mm-hmm. <affirmative>, they, they, they can find a call center, drop somewhere and, and earn immediately versus waiting through four years. Mental health, like I mentioned, is a big crisis gambling. We seeing now young people are so desperate to make a quick buck that they gamble money they have away and Sure. And then the other big issue in the public sector space is historical debt. Sure. We sit with, with billions of rants of students. The, the minister of high education mentioned the number recently, I can’t remember. I’m gonna, yeah. I’m not gonna say it correctly, but it’s more than a billion in the public. I think 1.6 billion of historical debt. Yeah. And

Eitan Stern (39:24):

Which is what the current protests are, are,

Leana de Beer (39:26):

Are about. And then those students can’t qualify and move into the system that the, the world of work because they don’t have the paperwork. But yeah. No one’s funding them because it’s not an immediate need. For sure. And that’s a flaw in the design. And you can’t use skills development funding from the be sector to fund historical debt because it’s not approved under be

Eitan Stern (39:45):

So Leana, you did say to me that you were uncomfortable about the impression into your four point plan, but I mean, that’s a pretty solid four point plan. Increase technology, integrate the systems, look at the humans, and address historical debt. I mean, those all sound like big issues within, uh, within the education system. Just the last question to wrap us up. What’s the future for WaFunda and Fenix? What do you guys have planned over the, over the next period?

Leana de Beer (40:09):

So I’ve stepped away from the day-to-day of Fenix. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I’ve handed the executive function over to, uh, incredibly smart, passionate woman by the name of Kara Jean Peterson. So I’m just featuring as a strategic support head, um, for her. But Fenix is trying to organically grow with the market needs. So focusing a bit more on bursaries and skills development on top of the crowd funding, which is the original model and chasing that 200 million mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, uh, amount. We, we wanna raise, you know, upwards to 250 million in the next couple of years. And then on the fin side, that’s where most of my focus is at the moment. We passed the, the newborn baby phase. We now in the screaming toddler phase <laugh> Sure. I’m saying that probably incorrectly. I’m not a mother, but we are very excited about our learn product, which is a, a ethical, innovative, uh, new way of funding education. Uh, that’s future of work focused. So I’m busy with the pilot project there and, uh, we have a couple of other things, um, on the run as well. But I really want work fund to scale into a more impactful organization.

Eitan Stern (41:20):

Amazing. It kind of reminds me, I mean, I, I had the fortune of seeing Wasi Amani speak last week and he, he spoke about this need of government needing to act more like a startup act quick, get rid lot of, lot of the, the, the, the blocks and focus, focus on where the, the issues really are. And a lot of it seems like a very similar message that you’re giving as well.

Leana de Beer (41:39):

Yeah. I I, I think my message is, I won’t be overly prescriptive to individuals, but so many people are doing a lot of good work for sure in this country. Yeah. Individuals. It’s not an easy place to operate in. There are thousands of stressors and we should never, ever overestimate the small act of kindness, the small act of decency being a good teacher, being a good parent. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> being a good, uh, human. Those things make a massive difference in the biggest scheme of our overall nation. And then there are people in service jobs and people doing really, really good work. But I am so often completely impressed and taken aback with the quality humans in this country. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and the work that people do and the passion people have, and the humanness of the South African spirit, while we consistently face surmountable pressures mm-hmm.

Leana de Beer (42:36):

<affirmative>, which, which is shouldn’t be normal, shouldn’t be normal, shouldn’t be normal. Um, so I think my message is just wherever you are, doesn’t matter if you work for big corporate, if you’re starting out, if you’re a student, if you’re retired, like just focus on improving your direct environment and being good to the humans around you. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, be kind, be decent. Like I said, I think that is what moves the needle forward. The system will take care of itself. Like let’s start with who we are and how we show up. And if we do that consistently, I think that we can, we can make a bigger change.

Eitan Stern (43:08):

I love it. I can’t think of a better place to end this conversation. Leana, thanks so much for joining

Leana de Beer (43:13):

Us. Thanks aan. <laugh>.

Eitan Stern (43:16):

This podcast is recorded by Simon Atwell. The intro music is by PHFAT. I’m your host Eitan Stern. For more information about legalese, catch us on legalese.co.za or on the socials.