As a child growing up in the newly integrating South Africa of the 1990s, Aisha Pandor faced a lot of explicit and subtle racism. Coming from a previously exiled and multicultural family, she often was made to feel excluded and “less than”. Luckily she wore the armor of parental love and support.
“My parents raised my siblings and I to be confident, smart, and independent. We’re all quite self-assured, not afraid to go against the crowd and often question the status quo. These are essential qualities for entrepreneurs and all four of us have quite a strong entrepreneurial streak.”
That feeling of being something of an outsider as a child has proven to be invaluable as a business owner as Aisha finds she can identify with and understand the diverse marketplace her startup serves. The biggest challenge for SweepSouth, a tech-enabled cleaning services platform, is managing supply and demand and the complex needs of customers on both sides of the socioeconomic coin.
“I wish I knew how hard it would be, that I would give up a lot of time with family (including my young daughter) and friends, and that things get harder, not easier, with more and more at stake. But this is all part of the journey!”
After spending her early years in Botswana with a highly political multigenerational family in exile during South Africa’s liberation struggle, Aisha returned to Cape Town in 1990. Her love of science and the process of knowledge-seeking and discovery led her to study microbiology and biochemistry.
Barely into her 30s, Aisha already has a list of impressive accolades to her name. In addition to a PhD in Human Genetics and a business certificate from the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, she was named one of Mail and Guardian’s “top 200 young people to take to lunch” a few years back. She’s the recipient of a South African Women in Science award and – more recently – has added some startup stamps-of-approval to the list, winning the SiMODiSA SA pitching competition in 2014 and being selected to participate in the prestigious 500 Startups accelerator in San Francisco last year.
But how does someone with multiple science degrees choose the path into the startup world?
Working as a consultant at Accenture following her studies, Aisha hit upon the idea for SweepSouth while struggling to find domestic help.
“My husband Alen and I went through a cumbersome process of asking friends for referrals, using classifieds and finally (begrudgingly) calling agencies. When querying these domestic services agencies, talks with the actual cleaners revealed that they were unmotivated and badly paid. The process of first getting a quote, interviewing and then paying, was so time consuming and left much to be desired. We thought, ‘We can do this better.’”
And so they did.
SweepSouth is an online technology platform for booking, managing, and paying for domestic cleaning services within a few minutes from your laptop, phone or tablet. Think of it as the “Uber of cleaning”. Aisha and Alen – her co-founder – connect clients with domestic cleaning professionals who go through a rigorous interview process and are experienced, reference- and background-checked, and fully insured. On the other hand, they offer an invaluable service to some of the over 200,000 domestic workers actively seeking work in South Africa.
“While we provide a fast, convenient and reliable platform for homeowners to book cleaners, we also provide flexible work opportunities at decent rates for domestic workers, most of whom have previously had little success connecting with potential employers.”
Since launching in June 2014, the company has provided work for over 1,000 domestic cleaners and completed over 50,000 cleaning jobs.
Like many new businesses, SweepSouth was bootstrapped for the first year while the platform was being built. Aisha and Alen pitched the concept at SiMODiSA Startup SA, which was the biggest tech conference in South Africa at the time. Early investors (including well-known South African tech entrepreneur and investor Vinny Lingham) were on the judging panel and, following the competition, Aisha’s network expanded to include investment from Edge Growth and a referral from Startup Grind Cape Town to 500 Startups in San Francisco, which became an investor and selected SweepSouth to join its accelerator programme.
“It’s incredible how one great chance event can lead to so many lasting benefits,” Aisha explains.
But success doesn’t come without sacrifice.
“I wish I knew how hard it would be, that I would give up a lot of time with family (including my young daughter) and friends, and that things get harder, not easier, with more and more at stake. But this is all part of the journey! I had also worked hard as a PhD student (having slept under my lab desk a few times and even spending one New Year’s Eve doing experiments) but hadn’t banked on the endless 18- to 20-hour work days.”
And while Aisha’s achievement in turning SweepSouth from an idea into a company has mostly been thanks to grit, smarts and dedication, she recognizes having a husband as a great co-founder, access to a supportive personal and professional network, and the strong emphasis placed on education has also been important to her success as a female founder in South Africa.
“A disproportionate number of South African households are headed by single mothers (50-64%) which means that many women cannot responsibly take the risks of entrepreneurship without having a partner with a stable job. For these and other reasons around access to education and financial stability, it is also more difficult for women to start businesses and secure business financing. However, attitudes are changing and as it is becoming recognized that entrepreneurship and small businesses are the best means of job creation, support for women businesses in the public and private sector is definitely growing.”
But at the end of the day, it’s really down to the individual.
“There is little luck involved in lucky breaks and success stories. I’ve always been competitive, liked to continue achieving and wanting to improve myself and those around me. It’s difficult to do these things without education (not necessarily formal) and hard work.”
And with her sights set on becoming a household brand in five years, expanding to offer a full range of home services and operating in other emerging market countries in Africa, Asia and South America, Aisha will have her work cut out for her.
- Focus! Focus on building out your platform, satisfying the needs of your target customer, finding product market fit, and delivering a superior service to customers. Don’t get distracted by all of the other opportunities that may come along.
- Make sure you have researched your business idea very well; you should ideally have experience in the field you want to go into or want to be a customer of your business yourself. Know that setting up and launching your business will probably take longer than anticipated, and search actively and proactively for resources for funding and support (http://www.entrepreneurmag.co.za/advice/women-entrepreneurs/support-women-entrepreneurs/funding-and-financial-assistance-for-sa-women-entrepreneurs/), there are many industry-specific funding vehicles and support groups targeted to women in business.
- SweepSouth is in the tech industry, where there have traditionally been few female founders. The ecosystem is changing rapidly thanks to organisations like Silicon Cape and Startup Grind, and government and private initiatives have made access to resources a lot easier for women in particular. Get involved in meetups and industry events, as other attendees will often be your early clients and biggest supporters. Be confident and become familiar with the industry and how it works.