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In conversation with Tashmia Ismail-Saville, CEO of YES.

Her childhood, her early days as a dentist and some of her later work around innovation.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Tashmia Ismail-Saville is the CEO of the Youth Employment Service, which is a joint initiative between business and government that aims to address South Africa’s youth unemployment challenge by creating one million work experiences in the country. Tashmia qualified as a dentist at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1997, then built and managed her own successful practice with a strong focus on primary paediatric and family healthcare. This is our Wednesday conversation about her childhood, her early days as a dentist and some of the work she has done later on around innovation..

TASHMIA ISMAIL:  Absolutely. I describe it as more than that. It’s a second life, a second opportunity.

You know the phenomenon of Tiger Mom. So Tiger Mom victim. I suppose in those days parents didn’t understand the full range of careers that were then available for women, and I remember my mom making a comment, a very un-PC comment, that dentistry was such a lovely choice for a girl.

If  I look at my performance at school, I was sort of an all-rounder, and so there wasn’t anything that said you must go in this direction, you must go in that direction. Then I got accepted for dentistry. Wits took something like 45 students. It was quite an honour. My mom was thrilled and so I went into it.

I have to say that studying for medicine is very exciting, learning about the human body and physiology and anatomy – the studying is wonderful. But once I found myself in practice it was an entirely different game. You have impact, and I think that medical practitioners and dental practitioners, whatever you are in, are very necessary for society and they play a hugely important role. But it didn’t quite fit the sort of impact I wanted, or where I saw myself making a difference. I’d always been very motivated or disappointed with the world in terms of how it treated people. It bothered me a lot. Inequality up until now bothers me. I wanted to be in a career that had impact on changing the way systems worked, and an MBA seemed like the perfect tool to be able to make that shift, to think differently about the world and how economics played out and how the societal rules played out. It would give me the language to be able to do that.

That motivated my applying for a scholarship at the Gordon Institute, the business school. I won a scholarship, which was the universe saying “you are going in the right direction”.

I did the MBA, and the business school actually asked me to stay. They asked me to stay and work with Professor Helena Barnard on the European Union project, which looked at global innovation networks. My love affair with innovation really grew out of this project. It was 12 countries. We looked at multiple sectors. We were looking at how ideas, innovation, spread globally through these networks and how from this very narrow medical lens you are just seeing the world through an entirely different view.

And you start to see how important corporate innovation is in terms of taking the planet forward, all the incredible things that we invent that can give people a better quality of life, that can serve people in ways they haven’t been served before. So innovation became an area I started to specialise in, and a very particular area of innovation called inclusive innovation. It’s not just how you invent new products and services, but how you invent them in a way that adds value to company, value to community, value at multiple levels.

There is a Mexican company called Cemex, a multinational, which tried to sell cement to lower-income groups because they started to look at the cyclical nature of the construction industry. They said hold on, if we go lower down, to lower socioeconomic groups, they don’t seem to be as affected by these construction cycles that we have to live with. So they tried to sell many bags of cement. It was an absolute disaster because in that society “big” was macho and “big” was telling the world “I’ve made it”. And here they were trying to sell little puny bags of cement because they thought it was like the Hindustan Unilever sachet model – you just package it smaller and sell it cheaper.

This was a big learning curve for the company and they did a very dramatic Latin thing, which was to sign a “declaration of ignorance”. They actually signed a document called a Declaration of Ignorance, which was that, “We don’t now how the rules here operate; we are going to learn from scratch”.

Then they went into markets, they became empathetic to their customer, they really showed what we call “design thinking”. That’s the name for it. We build a journey map – what is my customer’s life like? It’s actually not the cement buying that’s the issue, it’s everything that surrounds building a home, the emotional and financial stress, the long-term nature of it, like I’m not just saving up for a washing machine that I’ll pay off in six months, I’m saving for a long time. How do I keep my family together, how do I build the house in modules so it matches my income? They figured those pieces of the recipe out and, guess what, the cement was sold when they added value to the community around helping them with building a home. What are all the pieces?

That story was published in I think Time Magazine. I said this is the way, because I’d done development studies – I did some courses through Unisa. And if you look at the development literature, there is billions and billions in aid money and you don’t really see the impact of that, whereas this business-led innovation model had massive impact. There were thousands and thousands of homes built through this project, which is called Patrimony Ahoy. That story was the beginning of the building of a big literature base today which some people call the base of a pyramid, whereas I prefer the phrases “inclusive business” and “inclusive markets” and how you can redesign capitalism for inclusive markets.

So I spent most of my time at the business school in the innovation faculty in building a research and knowledge reservoir around how inclusive business models work. I did a book with my dean called New Markets, New Mindsets, and a lot of inclusive business consulting. There is only so much you can do within the confines of a business school and they encouraged us to do consulting work.

Then my company Boundless World was born from that inclusive business work. That was the shift out of the business school.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Listening to you and hearing how passionate you were about innovation and telling that story, do parts of you, when you look back at the early days of your career, surprise you like this went better than expected. Do aspects of your achievements put a smile on your face when you think back at the hard work that you’ve put in?

TASHMIA ISMAIL-SAVILLE:  I get asked that question a lot. We have MBA students that I lecture, and everybody is trying to find their way. My strategy has always been not to overthink.

If you love something, if you really feel the need to contribute in an area, things find you.

This is what we also tell companies when we are trying to innovate a value proposition or a new product or service, and the finance people are saying give me the business model, tell me what the RoI [return on investment] is going to be; give me the break-even projection. And we say no, no, it’s value first and your money will follow. I think it’s been like that in terms of my career and the choices that I’ve made. I’ve always felt I’ve made the right decision when I follow where I really think I can have an impact in what I believe in. So it’s a very values-led life.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Taking you back a little, you were talking about what your mom thought of dentistry. What was teenage Tashmia like? Was she curious, did she always know dentistry was what she was going to? Was it perhaps even law that fascinated you? What was growing up in that period like?

TASHMIA ISMAIL-SAVILLE:  I went a convent, an all-girls school that was very small. I was very fortunate to have gone to the convent, and I had a spectacular English teacher who adored me. I will say openly I was her favourite. But she saw my love of reading and writing. So teenage me was a reader. I remember we had those old wooden school desks, with the wooden lids that you lift. I would always have a book hidden just under that lid. I remember I actually read my way through matric. Prelims came and, oh boy, I’d got a very big pile of books to show.

So I was a reader and I was always a dreamer. Every vision of myself was either a lawyer in the development world, human-rights lawyer or some kind of person fighting for the rights of people, or I saw myself as a UN aid worker. Those were my glamourous sort of fantasy jobs – that I would be working in the development space in whatever sort of role. I was always in that space.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  A few weeks ago we had the CEO of Nedbank also do a conversation like this one and he talked about his years at an all-boys school. I loved being able to pick his brain about some of the life lessons that one picks up being in an single-sex school that you take with you for the rest of your life, whether you went to, say, St Johns, and you understand brotherhood and you understand being able to help each other and be there for each other even five, ten years down the line. When you no longer see each other you can still recognise a St Johns boy. What are some of the life principles that resonate that you still take with you right up to now?

TASHMIA ISMAIL-SAVILLE:  It is such a fascinating question, because I had this conversation with Professor Sutherland. She picked out a whole series of people we both knew that had come through a convent education, and had chosen service as part of their career. So this is such an easy one for me to answer because I’ve done a lot of thinking about it. When I say “convent” it’s not the sort of prescriptiveness of the religious education, but there was something that came though in terms of a life well lived is a life of service. It’s amazing how subconsciously they must have programmed that into us, because so many people who have had that background go into that type of work.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  I follow you on Twitter and I’m sure you look at some of the things that are happening in the world around us and locally. When you look at and hear the news, how do you make sure that you stay positive and excited about the future of South Africa when there is so much happening in the background?

TASHMIA ISMAIL-SAVILLE:  Unfortunately, the line of work that I’ve chosen exposes me, so I go into township communities a lot. Maybe not in the past few months, but to talk about the Youth Employment Service, or YES, soon. But my work has been on how you shift behaviour, how you get businesses that operate in subsistence markets to scale, to grow, to change the way they do things.

It’s easier for me to remain positive because I have some sense of control that I’m contributing to a change.

I think when it’s hard is if you go to your office every day and your work isn’t really connected to societal change in a big way, and you read things – but there is this frustration of feeling powerless. So my buoyancy or my optimism is fed because I can see that you can shift people’s lives through our business literacy and entrepreneurship programme, which Unilever is sponsoring in the community. We have seen just in the first two weeks of rollout – the programme had barely started and two of our learners started entrepreneurial business, one of them selling hot dogs and the other having a gym. It was a mobile hot-dog business and a gym. So that kind of leads to excitement because my team send me WhataApps and pictures – look what this guy’s done, look at what this woman’s done.

In our previous programme we also had peer-learning sessions. We train people in these models but we also get them to group together once a week and they share a lot of their experiences. What we don’t realise is how low trust levels are in these communities. This really stunts growth. So we can create the structures and mechanism to allow people to build trust, to share with each other. People feel very isolated, especially breadwinners. They’ve got a network of 10, 12 people that they are supporting. It’s huge pressure and we allow them to get together and share how we can improve things. It’s amazing what a sparkling, catalytic effect it has. I’ve seen teams starting artchar-manufacturing businesses, buying businesses, starting stokvels – but stokvels that invest in the businesses. And so that kind of very quick and dramatic shifts you see in people’s lives with small interventions can’t help but make you feel that, if we just turn the corner, if we just create more of those structures, success is just on the horizon. We have huge potential.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Let’s talk about Youth Employment Service. What sparked that idea and were you a little nervous at first when you came to rolling it out. I can imagine you put it down on paper, thinking this is what I want to do. How did that journey go?

TASHMIA ISMAIL-SAVILLE:  I think we must look at where the Youth Employment Service, YES, came from. This was part of the CEO Initiative. So it was born from those talks between business and government – how do we create some kind of compact that shifts the needle? And one of the big projects that came out of the CEO-led initiative was making an impact on youth unemployment and building the Youth Employment Service as the vehicle to realise the creation of a million jobs. Youth unemployment is sitting at close to six million in South Africa. We are a population of 55 million and our youth unemployment is at six million. This is probably one of the most dramatic national crises that we face.

So the Youth Employment Service is a very scary job because we live in an economy that largely has jobless growth; we live in an economy that is highly consolidated and so we don’t have this broad spectrum of business across the country that is there to create jobs. And so a big part of what the Youth Employment Service has to do is apply innovation and creativity to say, how do we build, how do we imagine all new classes of jobs that spring up in communities closer to where the unemployed are?

This is where understanding the South African economy is structured. And being very real and accepting the shortcomings that where unemployed people are spatially marginalised, where the jobs are, where the economic centres are, are a distance from where young unemployed people are. Harambee has done some lovely research to show that one of the biggest costs people face in accessing jobs is the transport cost, and they might forego eating just to get to the job and that opportunity.

So it’s about how we not just build jobs inside existing companies but how we think structurally about overcoming special marginalisation, how we think structurally around shifting or spreading economic opportunity more broadly into SMMEs. I think if we look at countries that have gone on this developing-to-developed path, the route to that has always been the growth of the SMME sector. So how do we do that here, really taking it seriously?

So yes, it is going to be a tough job. We face structural challenges from the education system, around transportation and infrastructure and multiple [obstacles]. But we also see huge potential.

If you’ll indulge me, there is a company that we are looking to bring on. We know that a lot of our solutions have to be tech-based. We are going to have to use technology in beautiful and creative ways to make this work. And one of the big issues in our economy is people who don’t get into the education infrastructure, don’t get a matric. If you don’t get a matric, you can’t get into the TVETs, you can’t get into the SETA funding, you can’t access all those avenues of state funding to help you. If you don’t get that matric, or if you get a poor matric, you are actually locked out of the system.

Now one of these companies is [that of] a Harvard doctorate who looked at behaviours and he did some studies. So there are these cool games which you play and – through the length of time you take to answer things, your strategy in dealing with what’s going on in the game – they are able to unpack what your dispositions are, or what your knacks are. They tell if you are number-cruncher and you balance emotions and you are risk-taker. There are about 35 of these elements. They did these test in India. The beauty is that you don’t have to have an education to do these tests. A 15-year-old can do them and a PhD can do them, and the same sort of data is pulled regardless of your skillset in terms of formal education.

They go to these underprivileged kids in these communities and they make them do these three tests and they also take top global management companies, the people that are going into MBAs, MBA applicants, and they make them do the same tests. Then they do scatter plots to map how you perform in terms of your aptitude and in terms of innovation and creativity, entrepreneurship and problem solving. Guess what? The distribution is the same.

So where YES is exciting is we are building ourselves to give to those unpolished gems, the people with incredible potential but no access, access avenues to unlock that latent potential. We talk a lot about the demographic dividend but we will not realise that demographic dividend if we don’t create the structures and the pathways for young people to access a pathway into a job or create their own job. Then there is no demographic dividend; then it becomes a liability. Lots of young people with no jobs become a liability. And YES hopes to turn that around, and say we are going to be building those access pathways. Guess what? We will build them in your communities, close to where you are.

What we need for this is a compact. We need everybody to rally around. This is a national priority. Can we get everybody to just put aside whatever issues you have – business, government, civil society organisations. If we can all focus on two or three priorities we can really take a big leap forward.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  And the reception you’ve received this far in terms of the YES initiative, what kind of feedback have you received?

TASHMIA ISMAIL-SAVILLE:  Most people are patriots. What they’ve been feeling is a sense of disempowerment and I want to help change things. But how, where, what can I do? As YES, we are saying commit to YES, invest in YES, invest in young people. We are calling it a first chance. Give a young person a first chance. We know that if you give a person a chance at a year-long opportunity and they come out of that with a CV and some kind of reference letter, you improve their chances threefold of being called back for another interview.

For women there is an 86% likelihood that they will be called back, just with that reference letter and that experience. They’ve been de-risked. Someone else has de-risked them. So we are saying to South Africans, to South African companies, rally around this, give a young person a first chance because you change the trajectory of that young person. So whether you are going to take that young person on in your own organisation. Or, if you don’t have the capacity to take enough young people on in your own organisation, sponsor them and we are going to place them in SMMEs. We are also going to use technology for hybrid programmes that we can upskill people to, even if that job is chopping vegetables at Katie’s Kitchen. Via the app and via community ambassadors we are also going to be building short skills training programmes that ensure that when you come out at the end of this, not only do you have that work experience but you also have some short skills programmes to put next to your name.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  How do these young people find you, someone who is listening to this interview?

TASHMIA ISMAIL-SAVILLE:  We are still setting the systems up. We have agreements to sign. But there will be freely available entry points or portals through social media, through our website, where companies and young people can onboard themselves, log in and register. That’ll be open to the public hopefully at the end of January, beginning of February, if all of our talks and agreements are signed.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  I was talking to somebody two weeks ago about these new stock exchanges that have come on board and are giving the JSE a run for their money, and he was saying that back when he started as a stockbroker the idea that there would be another stock exchange was unheard of. When you look back and even look at the world, is here a piece of news that comes out that a year, two years ago, would probably have been unheard of. For me personally it’s the fact that the US president is Donald Trump. I would never have believed it.

This is your reality right now. Is there a piece of information that surprises you, whether in a pleasant way or otherwise?

TASHMIA ISMAIL-SAVILLE:  I don’t know if it surprises, but I can tell you something that excites me is Elon Musk’s talk about meshing neural networks into the human brain. Yes, there are many threats that people – Steven Hawking also – saying that artificial intelligence, AI, is dangerous. But if we are able to integrate the power of AI into our own thinking, for me that is very exciting. I’m one of those people who loves technology. If you said to me you know what, Tash, we are going to chip you – we are going to put a chip under your skin and it means that any airport you walk through, any credit card payment you need to make, the chip is going to be read – I would go for it. This is amazing. So I’m not afraid of technology. I think it will be our salvation.

If I look across sectors, for instance to agriculture, there is a brilliant figure. There is an MIT scholar who uses sensors to grow plants. Calebgrowsfood I think is the link. Even in agriculture, if we can apply technology to the way we do things, we can just do things so much better for everyone. So I’m excited more than surprised by a lot of the fourth industrial technologies that come through.

Having said that, with our education system and the issues around STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and STEM subjects, we’ve got to get on top of this because most of the six million unemployed that we talk about – if we don’t have interventions they will be locked out of the fourth industrial economy, they will just not have the tools to participate in any way. So I think programmes like YES will start to structurally make those adjustments to ensure that more young people are included in this new world economy, because it won’t stop for us. It’s a global movement and you cannot operate as an island economy. So it’s here in part. We already see the drama with Uber. In part it’s here. But how do we ensure that we get the best of it rather than the worst of it?

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  That was Tashmia Ismail-Saville, who is the CEO of the Youth Employment  Service.

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