S’onqoba Maseko – COO Sifiso Learning Group

S’onqoba Maseko is a new force in the innovation and education space

Most people don’t expect to be hit by a life-changing epiphany at the age of 12. But then, S’onqoba Maseko isn’t most people.

A powerful new force in the innovation and learning sector, S’onqoba was then just a Grade 7 kid with a powerful realisation: Education was her ticket to bigger and brighter things.

‘I guess you could say this was driven by the reality of my background. My mom was putting my brother and me through school on the money she made as an Avon salesperson. I don’t know how she did it. Something just hit me then and I decided to work my backside off.’


AT THE HEART OF IT

It’s safe to say that from that moment on S’onqoba became an achiever. Her excellence at school saw her nab a coveted bursary from the South African Actuaries Development Programme and her ambition carried her through some staggering advances in her career and global networking within the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers.

S’onqoba’s role as COO at Sifiso Learning Group, a private education group with an eye on changing how schooling is delivered, gave her passion for order and deep-structure thinking – a character trait she believes was honed by her background in actuarial science – the space to test itself.

‘I POSITION MYSELF TO ADD VALUE, THAT THERE’S IMPACT TO THE SYSTEM … AND WHEN IT STARTS WORKING, THAT’S WHEN I GET OUT THE WAY’

‘At the heart of it, I’m passionate about systemic change and getting all stakeholders involved working together towards this, whatever the context. At the moment, this context is education, which requires buy-in across public sector, private sector and civil society stakeholders. And that’s exciting.’

There’s a sense about S’onqoba that her path is very much her own, no matter who she’s working for or where; a free agent who chooses organisations that align with her strengths and then working her way through them. ‘I position myself in such a way that I add value, that there’s impact, that the system is working better off with me than it was before – and when it starts working that’s when I get out the way.’


SYSTEMIC CHANGE

‘Impact’ is a word S’onqoba comes back to often. It’s what motivates her understanding of and appreciation for systemic change, the value of which was first apparent to her in her student days with Advocates for Change, an NPO she founded with her peers.

Based in Alexandra and Soweto, Advocates for Change attempted to activate for education reform using major teaching interventions in academic and non-academic topics in Saturday classes. Although they made significant strides in the individual schools they were involved with, S’onqoba says it was ultimately disillusioning.

‘The reality is that it’s very difficult to make a difference with only one day of intervention with a child who, for the other six days of the week, is exposed to a dysfunctional education system and potentially a dysfunctional home environment.’

If they turned around one Alexandra school there were still 2 000 other schools in the country that needed fixing. The answer, S’onqoba realised, was to look rather at systemic change within the whole education system.

‘I keep getting asked how we can scale education using technology and my first answer is to put the technology aside and ask yourself whether you should be scaling what we call education. The problem in education within South Africa is no secret. So, before we do anything, we need to re-examine education to redefine what a school is and what we’re teaching.’

S’onqoba believes even small tweaks and changes to the system could make a massive positive impact. ‘And this excites me. The potential impact of getting it right or even partially right – which is difficult to say if you’re a perfectionist – is amazing.’

With Sifiso, S’onqoba is seeing this put to the test. Using the existing curriculum and its goal posts, Sifiso is remapping the system to create integrated learning experiences.

‘It’s not about siloing information into a Math problem or an English project, for example. It’s about combining all the disciplines and replicating real life in the classroom and giving the kids the tools, information and skills they need to tackle problems in an experiential process.’

These are ideas that fall outside the norm of what kids are presented with today and they’re ideas inspired by the spirit of innovation.


A QUICK LEARNING

‘Over the years, what I’ve decided and defined innovation to be, are those moments when people unleash solutions or new ways of doing things that result in improvements, be they incremental improvements or completely disruptive improvements.’

It’s at the core of what Sifiso is doing: constant, consistent innovation in education. Not just the school setting, but the entire value chain.

‘So, we dabble in schools, in college and universities, in technologies, in property – in how we design learning spaces – and we even dabble in content. I’m very lucky to be in the setting where every day our existence is based on the premise of innovating education.’

S’onqoba’s first crash course in innovation and adaptability was undoubtedly her meteoric rise through the ranks at FNB.

‘I don’t think that any typical person’s first six years of working in a financial services company looks anything like what my career in banking looks like.’

‘I ALMOST WORKED MYSELF TO DEATH … BUT I DEFINITELY LEARNT A HELL OF A LOT’

S’onqoba entered the system as part of the graduate programme. Within six months she was promoted to a senior professional in her team and by the end of the four-year mark she’d worked in credit teams, brand teams, innovation teams, and strategy and management teams, finally stepping into the First Rand Bank CEOs office as executive assistant.

‘Which put me in the position of working at the level of the group exco, the group board and interacting with the founders. People my age – I was 26 then – generally don’t have that kind of exposure.’

Six months into the two-year period of working at FirstRand, S’onqoba was approached by the new CEO of FNB and asked to run the Innovation programme.

‘Which then meant basically holding down two jobs for a good 18 months. That was one of the periods where I almost worked myself to death, but I definitely learnt a hell of a lot.’

A few years down the line, and innovative thinking permeates her problem-solving on every level. She now also has a broader view of the problems and pitfalls that surround the concept. ‘We talk about innovating, but we hardly ever talk about innovation practices or how you empower people to innovate or how you set up the structures for innovation.’

It’s part of the reason she now forms part of the Founding Friends of the Creative Leadership Collective Africa. ‘We have to spend the time figuring out how to make it the norm that innovations are turned out. “Producing innovations” can’t continue to be a case of waiting to get lucky. If we can get the practice right, the innovations will churn out.’

INNOVATION IN AFRICA

One of the best ways to get a bird’s-eye view on a picture, is to step away from it. For S’onqoba, her time as part of the prestigious World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers gave her this opportunity.

‘The continent is sorely lagging behind the innovation conversation and back home South Africans often see themselves as completely outside of Africa. South Africa has a severe trust deficit between the different stakeholders. We don’t think of each other as being part of ecosystem; we don’t think systemically. Instead we think in siloed solutions.’

S’onqoba believes that the local tendency to want to own everything and reinvent the wheel with each new product is slowing rapid response to a change-hungry, tech-savvy world, pointing to the success of companies such as Uber and Airbnb, that have built their platforms largely using and adapting open source material.

‘THERE IS A LOT OF INNOVATION TO BE UNLEASHED’

‘But South Africans want to protect their own turf and their own territory which prevents a lot of collaboration that would unleash amazing innovation in the country.’

And there is a lot of innovation to be unleashed not just in the country, but on the continent, says S’onqoba.

‘We have lots of challenges that we need to solve. This could be seen as a bad thing but, in my mind, it’s also a great opportunity to innovate. Consider for a moment Africa’s challenges around connectivity. If we could build tech solutions that are durable and sustainable – and don’t rely on the current connectivity infrastructures – it would completely blow up and disrupt the tech world globally.’

S’onqoba believes the continent’s youth demographic also makes it a hot bed of energy and interest.

‘I attended the WEF on Africa last year and walked away pretty disillusioned to realise that no one has the answers, not even our presidents. All they know is that the answers lie somewhere in the youth, SMMEs and enterprise development. I realised then that young people are a hell of a lot closer to what the solution is than our leaders are.’

According to the UN, 226 million youth aged between 15 and 24 live in Africa, accounting for 19% of the global youth population. S’onqoba believes that it’s this youth demographic that needs to be tapped for its energy and potential.

And the leadership that’s required to maximise this potential, she believes, is one that is equally forward thinking.

‘We live in a shared economy and people are far more complex in a future-world work perspective. We need to look at hiring people on an on-demand basis, based on what you need and what they’re actually interested in doing instead of wanting to own people.’


A DEVELOPMENTAL LEADER

S’onqoba’s collaborative approach to innovation is also evident in her developmental leadership style, which she says is a stark ‘Millennial’ move away from wanting to manage, own and know everything.

In light of this, S’onqoba says she spends a lot of time getting to know the individuals on her team finding out their backgrounds, their career goals and what their concerns and fears are.

‘One of my biggest epiphanies – and it’s one that I keep having – is the constant realisation of the power of the individual. I look at the roles I’ve been in and the differences I’ve been able to make; I look at other people who impact my life or who impact industry and see the difference that they make. You simply can’t treat people as cogs in the wheel.’

With this in mind, S’onqoba believes it’s important to support each individual in her team in the way that they need to be supported.

‘I think we sometimes cookie-cut development to people as a group rather than as individuals. So I have a lot of conversations with each person about where they’re at, I observe their work and identify their development areas. We have the conversations about where they want to get to and how I can support them in this.’

In this way, S’onqoba builds both her team’s capacity and the support structure for her role as COO.

‘It allows me to liberate them and trust them to do what they need to do, to innovate their own roles. But keeping an open mind and having brilliant relationships with your team, including people in other business units, is also paramount because there’s no way you can run ops without having great relationships with the people you work with.’

For the foreseeable future, S’onqoba says you’ll find her working towards impactful change in the education value chain in her role at Sifiso.

As for the long term: ‘If I had to make a bet on where you’d find me in the next couple of years it would potentially be in healthcare or SMME development, areas where minor improvements in the system can result in major impact for the people on the ground.’

Find S’onqoba on LinkedIn


Interested in Joining? Are you a CEO and/or an executive innovation capability builder interested in joining the CLC? Contact Paul Steenkamp and he’ll guide you through our application process.