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Aisha Pandor: Making an impact

Aisha Pandor: Making an impact

BY SHARON SOROUR-MORRIS
12 December 2019

Aisha Pandor packs a mean punch. And it comes as no surprise that the woman at the helm of South Africa’s fastest growing tech start-up – which is also Africa’s first online platform to connect clients with domestic cleaners – is a hard-working, unassuming high achiever. Here she tells us what drives her.

Just like its co-founder and CEO, SweepSouth is a trailblazer that has not only garnered awards and attention but millions of rands in funding since Aisha and her husband, Alen Ribic, a software developer, started the company in Johannesburg five years ago.

Venture-backed, the award-winning app won the SiMODiSA Start-up SA pitching prize, later becoming the first South African start-up to be accepted into the prestigious 500 Start-ups accelerator, based in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley.

With initial funding coming from Smollan, Vumela, CRE VC (previously Africa Angels Network), and musician and venture capitalist Black Coffee, this June, Naspers invested R30-million into the company when SweepSouth secured the first deal from Naspers Foundry, the global giant’s new R1.4 billion start-up fund.

More good news followed in October, when the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation pumped a further R15-million into the start-up, bringing the total investment raised to over R75-million.


Aisha Pandor and her husband and SweepSouth co-founder, Alen Ribic.

SEEKING SOLUTIONS FROM SCIENCE

Thirty-something Aisha herself has many firsts under her belt. A former scientist with a doctorate in Human Genetics, when she was capped by the University of Cape Town in 2012, she also received a postgraduate business diploma, becoming the first UCT student to graduate on the same day with qualifications from two different faculties.

The super-smart tech entrepreneur, who was 23 at the time, says that after she completed her PhD research and lab work, she registered for a business course as “business would be a way to try and solve some of South Africa’s pressing issues including unemployment and education”.

While she had always been drawn to science, it was while she was doing postgraduate research that she realised it would take too long to make an impact. “As a child, it was instilled in me that we had to do something that was impactful, we had to create a legacy. I thought my research in gene therapy for hereditary blindness would make a difference. But while discussing it with my professor, I realised it would take decades for my work to be applied, and it seemed far too long.”

Aisha, one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans, won the 2011 South African Women in Science Award for her research, but she decided to change tack, going into management consulting where she worked in the telecommunications and mining industries, advising clients on HR management, digital strategy and supply chain management. Of course, she rose to the top, being ranked among the top three in her peer group.

But two years down the line, she was feeling ready to go it alone. “I’d done very well in my business course and, using my training as a scientist where you learn to think logically and sequentially, I was able to learn very quickly and come up with solutions to clients' problems, but after a while, I didn’t want to be an employee any longer."


Aisha Pandor with members of her SweepSouth team.

MAKING A SWEEPING CHANGE

Her decision coincided with her husband, Alen, also looking for a different career path. “We resigned from our respective jobs within a month or two of each other!” she laughs. “We didn’t know what we wanted to do, and we had a three-year-old at the time. It was while we were trying to figure out what to do next that we also needed to find someone to help us at home over the December holidays. The process of trying to find a short-term replacement for our domestic helper was so frustrating and inefficient ... and the idea of SweepSouth was born.”

Aisha and Alen realised if they could help people to find work quickly, and match them up with homeowners looking for assistance, it would be a win-win situation. “We wanted to reinvent the cleaning industry using technology, as well as empower women,” Aisha says.

Today, SweepSouth’s cutting-edge tech application has garnered attention around the world. With a database of 150 000 people, mainly women, and 15 000 jobs having been created, SweepSouth not only matches demand for trusted cleaning services by connecting clients with pre-vetted cleaners in seven cities across four provinces, but it also has its cleaners’ interests at heart.

Known as SweepStars, the cleaners have flexible hours and are paid rates much higher than the average national minimum wage. “We also work with partners to provide them with life insurance, give them opportunities to upskill, help them open bank accounts and give them access to tech,” Aisha says.

Aisha’s belief and need to do something that makes an impact is something she inherited from her parents. She is modest about their political pedigree, and the fact that her mother is Dr. Naledi Pandor, now Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, and her grandfather was activist and politician Joe Matthews (the son of the late Z.K. Matthews). “I feel very privileged to have had parents (my father is Sharif Pandor) who were such wonderful role models, but their success came from working hard, and the fact that their work was aligned to their sense of purpose.

“I did not have a wealthy upbringing: in fact, it was working class. My three siblings and I had a very ordinary childhood with a strong values-based upbringing (we were brought up Muslim). Our earliest years were spent in Botswana where my parents were in exile and both working as teachers while being politically active. After moving to South Africa in the early 1990s, we then went to school in Cape Town, and were among the first black children to attend a former Model C-type primary school, Golden Grove in Rondebosch, which was difficult and confusing to say the least.”

WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Today, as a working mother of three young children (aged 10, 3 and eight months at the time of the interview), you can be sure she is imparting the same values in her young brood as she juggles work and home, and the challenges of being in business with her husband. How does she make it work?

“My husband and I respect each other’s skills, and they are also complementary,” she says. “I trust him 100 percent – he can see a trend before it becomes a trend – and I have enormous respect for his tech ability.”

Aisha, who cites Oprah, Meghan Markle, Melinda Gates and Naspers CEO Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa as her role models, says the couple “draw a line at the end of the working day” so that they can spend quality family time with their two girls and son before getting back to work once the children are asleep. “They also love spending time together as a couple, and share pride in what we have built.”

IMAGES: Sweepsouth

Tags: Aisha Pandor SweepSouth tech start-up Naledi Pandor Alen Ribic domestic workers