Aisha Pandor is the #LadyBoss behind SweepSouth – it is a cleaning services company that not only offers a new way of hiring and paying domestic workers but also provides much needed jobs and protection.
It was during a moment of frustration that led to inspiration for what would become SweepSouth. Aisha and her family were on holiday in Cape Town during the 2013 festive season and desperately needed an extra hand in helping around the house. Like many people would do, Aisha went through the process of searching through classifieds, asking friends and people for any referrals that could help. She went as far as going to different agencies, but was not satisfied with the options that were presented to her, as many of the people were paid low and were not motivated to work. It was through this exhaustive process that Aisha and her husband were hit with inspiration – an idea that perhaps there could be platform they could develop that uses technology to make the process easier, both from a consumers’ point of view and for the domestic cleaners who are willing to work.
The jump from idea generation to start-up is a massive and daunting leap. What has made the start-up phase of SweepSouth easier for Aisha is having a good partner, her husband, Alen Ribic, whom co-founded the venture. Alen brings a strong set of complementary skills to the venture – where Aisha is more business and management orientated, Alen has been the site’s developer, from the first line of code. The business model is as simple and elegant as Uber, as it operates predominantly from an app, which connects a domestic cleaner to a household in need of cleaning services.
SweepSouth has received a lot of well-deserved attention from the media and general society since its inception in 2014 and has grown considerably. Riding along the wave of SweepSouth’s success, I had the pleasure of connecting with Aisha Pandor to learn more about her journey and what has brought her to where she is now.
Describe yourself in one word.
Is there anything about your upbringing that has made you entrepreneurial?
Yes, I was brought up in an environment that encouraged questioning the status quo, and not just accepting things as they were. My parents were apartheid activists and brought us up as children to be strong, to question, and to believe in ourselves. Having a mixed background, I also felt “different” for much of my childhood, but this helped later in life when it came to not being afraid to “go against the grain”.
Tell us about the Aisha in high school, where did she see herself in the future?
I was smart in high school, but not the hardest working. I also went through a bit of a rebellious phase where I talked back a lot and found myself in detention almost weekly! I thought I would become a lawyer as so many of my uncles and aunts were lawyers, and the activitists I admired were mostly lawyers too. I love science though, and eventually ended up pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree. I found I loved research, and ended up completing PhD in Human Genetics at varsity before becoming frustrated with not being able to make enough impact, and deciding to embark on a business career.
Have you had business ventures prior or outside of SweepSouth?
No, I worked as a management consultant and did a bit of consulting work for a gene therapy NGO prior to starting SweepSouth.
Going back to the time you started, what was the urgency that propelled you to start and commit to SweepSouth?
SweepSouth came about when myself and my co-founder and husband Alen Ribic were looking for someone to assist with domestic work over the 2013 December holidays. We went through a really cumbersome process of using classifieds and then asking friends for referrals over social media. When querying domestic services agencies, we met with domestic workers who talked about feeling unmotivated, being badly paid, and being treated like second-class citizens. We realized that this was a system that was really outdated and in need of modernizing and a new way of thinking, and saw the opportunity to use technology to usher in a new way of doing things.
We spent the next few months recruiting a few SweepStars (cleaners who work through the platform), and building the SweepSouth platform, and then launched it in June 2014.
Tell us about the business model of SweepSouth.
SweepSouth charges a fee for providing a platform which connects home services providers with homeowners who need their services. This helps people who are unemployed and underemployed to find work in a way that makes sense as part of the sharing economy.
What is Sweep South’s value proposition? I.e. what value does it claim to bring to the market?
SweepSouth is a fast, convenient, hassle-free way to connect SweepStars with homeowners in a reliable way. Both sides are vetted, and the booking process takes under 3 minutes to complete. We bring technology into the transaction and clients pay online securely using credit or cheque cards to confirm appointments. After cleaning appointments, both clients and cleaners rate each other, and this information is used to link clients with cleaners for future bookings.
SweepSouth isn’t about just being a platform though, it’s a new way of thinking, a fresh mindset that elevates domestic work and the people who do that work, to the level of a professional service that should be valued.
What is the most devastating challenge you have experienced in business and how did you overcome it?
We recently had an extremely tough December period during 2016, where many of our SweepStars went away to spend time with family, our office team was tired and many needed to take leave after a very tough year of continuous and rapid growth, and at the same time we had customers who were desperate to use the platform. This resulted in people being disappointed, and the small team that was working over that period was exhausted and stressed. We came out at the other end assessing what had went wrong, how to plan better, and publicly acknowledging that we’d let people down while directly apologizing to customers who we’d let down.
What advice would you give to your younger self who was starting out? (Drawing from lessons learned along the way.)
Not to stress too much about the outcome and to realize that this is all a journey that should be appreciated along the way, not just for the outcome. I’d advise myself not to undervalue the experience and skills I bring to the table.
Who do you look up to?
I look up to my parents, who gave us a wonderful upbringing with a strong moral compass, against really difficult circumstances. They shielded us from so much but taught us to be strong and supported us even when we didn’t follow the path they wanted. My husband and co-founder is someone with a lot of life experience and great intuition, who always seems to be right when he has a hunch about something. I also look up to strong businesswomen and career women both locally and internationally, with Oprah Winfrey, Martine Rothblatt, Kanyi Dhlomo and Phuti Mahanyele all being people I admire for different reasons.
What mindset or set of beliefs got you to where you are today? (This does not include skills and knowledge, but rather emotional attributes that are necessary for success in life.)
That you should take action and be the change you want to see in the world. That you should generally be realistic but optimistic about life, that life is finite and short, and should be enjoyed, and that you should treat others the way you’d like to be treated.
We know that businesses thrive in a political-economic environment that is conducive to empowering them. What do you think government can do to make it easier to start and run a business in South Africa?
There are things the government can do like making it easy and more accessible to register a business with CIPC and open a business banking account, and government agencies that are there to support new businesses with resources and mentorship, need to be better run. The best thing government can do however, is to help our economy grow and attract investment into business. A growing economy is the best backdrop for a young business to grow and be part of helping to grow that economy further in turn.
Young South Africans should be taught to be people who provide jobs as well as take up employment, and our curriculum should involve courses on financial literacy and how to nurture ideas and build businesses.
Tell us your position on the topic of “women in the tech space” – do you have any general comments on the need to empower more women to pursue careers in the tech space?
There aren’t enough women in the tech space, and even fewer black women in tech. We tend to solve problems we personally experience and understand, and so the result of this is tech which doesn’t solve issues experienced by women and by black women in particular. So a large part of our society is excluded from tech being a solution for their problems. Women need to be empowered with initiatives that support and uplift them, and we need more role models to pave the way for other young women to see that this is a path that is possible. We also need to demystify tech as it is an avenue, or platform that helps with solving problems, not some inaccessible rocket science.
What other industries do you find interesting and you think need disruption? (they don’t necessarily need to be industries you are or considering venturing into, but you find interesting as an observer.)
Public health in Africa needs to be disrupted; there are many simple ways to use technology to improve the experience that Africans, especially women, have with public health systems. Biotechnology, and the use of genomics in treating both common and rare genetic diseases, also has a lot of promise and potential and is an extremely exciting field. In Africa, we’re rich in genotypic and phenotypic diversity, so we could be forerunners in genetics R&D and therapy, but we are really under resourced with both funds and skills.
What are you most grateful for?
I’m most grateful for my upbringing and having such wonderful role models in both my parents. They also gave me 3 best friends in my siblings. I’m grateful for my husband (and co-founder) and kids and how having a family has opened up my heart and put things into perspective. I’m also grateful to be living in such a beautiful country with so much diversity and opportunity.
Papama Nyati (@youngrockefella), 2017.