‘Women entrepreneurs must have grit and ability to push themselves through’
Aisha Pandor is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of SweepSouth, an online platform for booking, paying for and managing home cleaning services.
Pandor holds a PhD in Human Genetics from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is an Associate in Management from the UCT Graduate School of Business. She previously worked as a management consultant, gaining experience in the telecommunications and mining sectors.
Through her website, Pandor is helping domestic workers and other home service providers with customers who need these services. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her drive for ending unemployment by venturing into an entrepreneurial space dominated by men.
You have a background in Human Genetics. Why SweepSouth? What was the drive for you?
THE drive with SweepSouth was that we were struggling to find help at home. Our regular nanny and help at home were going on holiday. And she said she would be a way to visit her family for four to six weeks and asked us to find a temporary stand-in replacement. We struggled so much to find the right person at the right time that was available. So, it’s not that this person doesn’t exist, but we can’t get connected to the right person in a way that makes sense. It took us almost six weeks to find someone to step in, and that’s just far too long. So, I would say that experience alongside recognising that we have a high unemployment rate in South Africa.
So, the idea of SweepSouth came about through our own experience – just recognising that it can be really difficult to get connected to the right person. Often you have to rely on some sort of network, but in those networks, the person might not be available; they might not work where you stay. They might work for a friend or family member, but might not be the right person for your particular household context. And so we wanted to try and address that with SweepSouth.
A big part of our mission is helping to address unemployment, underemployment and professionalisation in the domestic work industry. Very important to us as part of our platform is providing access to fair, equitable work under decent conditions for the service providers who work through the platform. I have a doctorate degree in Human Genetics based on gene therapy but left research to get into the business space where I thought that I could potentially have a broader scale of impact on the people around me, the people of South Africa, and on some of the big challenges like unemployment that affects South Africa and other markets on the continent.
What do you consider a challenge right now running this kind of business in Africa?
I think the technology ecosystem in general on the continent is going through a period of growth and you can see it by the level of startups that are cropping up to help support entrepreneurs and other ecosystem players. You have all of these hubs, accelerators and incubators, but it’s still relatively in the early stage. So, I think the one challenge is that our growth is really going to be closely linked to the growth of the broader tech ecosystem. And if the broader tech ecosystem doesn’t work, then tech companies that depend on that ecosystem will have challenges.
I think the other thing, which is common with a lot of entrepreneurs who build businesses on this continent, is that as you build, you start to uncover more and more challenges that you now have to try and address. So, for example, as opposed to if we were building this in markets that were farther along in terms of smartphone and internet penetration when you are building a business like this on the African continent, you have to think about things like Do the service providers who are going to find work opportunities through the platform have access to cost-efficient smartphones? Is there a stable internet connection? There are also issues around payments and access to payment infrastructure across borders.
For those who are willing to do the work or don’t have what it takes in terms of criteria, are you looking at putting them right for the job?
As part of our vetting, we look at the level of experience and the feedback from former employers. We also engage with whoever is going to be coming onto the platform in order to look out for these things. We also look out for professionalism, being someone who can work through a platform and get connected to customers or to households. Major parts of our onboarding process are backed by a lot of data from hundreds of thousands of customers who have worked through the platform and understands what makes a customer happy from a service point of view; what raises red flags, the learning that can impart onto service providers who join the platform around professionalism, how to greet someone, how to engage with someone if you are messaging, how to engage in a way that shows professionalism. Prior to our onboarding process, when we are vetting, we look at background experience, ability to do the work and feedback from previous employers.
What are the biggest opportunities you see as a female entrepreneur operating across the African market?
The first thing is that we are completely under-represented. The first opportunities for entrepreneurs and also for the markets we operate in are those investors who want to invest in technology businesses recognising that there aren’t enough of us. And so we need to have more of us starting businesses that can scale across the continent. The other thing is that the many industries we are close to are under-explored. So, challenges and opportunities around female health, sanitary products, households are things that often we have a unique insight into, but I think it’s very important to emphasise that it’s not a woman’s health, household and fashion that women entrepreneurs should be restricted to. I think it’s important for us to have access to every industry that you find males in. And then I think some of the other opportunities are that there’s increasing recognition of the under-representation, increasing data about not just how under-represented we are as women, but particularly as black women running to scalable technology businesses. This is an opportunity because there’s a gender lens, investors, gender-specific accelerators and incubators, and early-stage investors who seize the opportunities to look at the specific support networks and ecosystems that have been set up to help women and to leverage those opportunities.
What leadership qualities do you feel are required in your pursuit of excellence?
Definitely a lot of self-awareness and introspection. I think that the leadership journey changes as each stage of your company changes. So, you have to apply different leadership skills as the person who is just starting up a business from the person who has 10 employees, a hundred and a thousand. And so a lot of self-awareness and self-introspection and the ability to continuously learn with the growth mindset, to look at all of the varying challenges that you face as opportunities for growth and to further improve yourself rather than roadblocks that you feel you might not get over. I think whether you are introverted or extroverted, it’s important to be able to listen and to really try and understand people, what they are saying and what motivates them.
Lastly, it is important to have grit, as it’s incredibly difficult running a business. Most entrepreneurs say, ‘if I knew what I was getting into, I would never have started in the first place. But I think having that grit and ability to push yourself through some of the most difficult times that you will ever face in your life and just continuing to put one foot into the other makes the difference. This also is building up a sense of confidence, which is something that from my own personal experience and also in speaking to other women entrepreneurs, we need to work on. I think again that the environments we find ourselves in can really make you doubt yourself. And so just having that sense of confidence, knowing internally that you are capable, is important.
What are your thoughts on other budding young females who intend to go through the entrepreneurial path?
One of them is to try and really nurture networks and support systems. It can be very difficult when you are in a space where most people don’t like you and you can feel like you don’t belong. So, trying to really nurture from very early on these networks of people who are supportive is really important.
Linked to that is having good partners who could be your co-founders, your employees or your investors. Surround yourself with people who complement what you can do and they balance out with skills and viewpoints that you might be lacking. Also, associate with people that you trust and who are up for the longer journey. My other advise would be don’t think you have to do this alone. Reach out to ecosystems that are set up to support, not just women, but also women entrepreneurs.