By Elske Joubert
Aisha Pandor is the CEO and co-founder of SweepSouth, the tech platform that took South Africa by storm. With an inquisitive mind and a nick for solving problems, Aisha together with her partner (in business and in life) – not only offer much needed solutions to combatting the steep unemployment rate, but also offer a different narrative around what it means to be a domestic worker in South Africa.
Tell us more about the platform and how it works?
Our company SweepSouth is a tech platform that is used by domestic workers and home owners to connect to each other. By using technology – we have both a website and an app – we have developed a very quick real-time way for domestic workers who are looking for work, who are available and who we have vetted, to connect with home owners who are looking for their services.
Please elaborate on how SweepSouth helps with alleviating unemployment in South Africa?
There are approximately 1.2 million registered domestic workers in South Africa. We have a population of almost 54 million people – so domestic workers make up more or less 2% of the population. South Africa has unemployment rates anywhere between 25% and 40% – depending on which definition of unemployment you use – that’s a high number of people looking for work. One of the problems that SweepSouth is trying to solve is the unemployment rate in this country.
We found out from speaking to various domestic workers that there are a lot of people in this industry who are treated very badly, who are paid badly, who have many problems around logistics – we wanted to solve those problems, but to do so in such a way that respected the rights and the dignity of domestic workers.
You offer a different narrative around what it means to be a domestic worker in South Africa. Tell us more about that.
SweepSouth is not just a platform, there’s a lot of intelligence behind the way in which the platform works and the matches that are made between the two parties. Moreover, the company seeks to create a new mindset around domestic workers in South Africa, and the value of the work that they do, and how domestic workers are treated.
We call our domestic workers SweepStars, and we’ve done quite a lot of work with them on our platform. We’re trying to move away from the terms ‘maid’ and ‘char’ because we believe that with this new mindset also comes new language. Those terms – especially the term ‘char’ – suggests that someone is replaceable, whereas our goal is for people to see that this domestic worker is a professional and has a specific set of skills.
How passionate is SweepSouth about women empowerment?
The empowerment of women, treating our SweepStars and encouraging our clients to treat our SweepStars in a way that also empowers them as women is very important. We’ve specifically designed the platform to be flexible around how our employees need to deal with other issues in their lives.
SweepStars can tell us that they’re not available to work a specific day or a specific job – this flexibility allows them to take their kids to the doctor or go to parent–teacher meetings or to school concerts, or the like.
Through our work with SweepStars we found out that a lot of the women are single mothers – approximately 60% are single mothers, and 74% on the platform are the primary breadwinners. Thus, a lot of our employees are responsible for family and the household.
Do you think it’s difficult for women entrepreneurs to ‘make it’ in South Africa?
I don’t think it’s especially hard for women to ‘make it’ in South Africa as opposed to another country. I think in South Africa we have a good example of women in business and leadership roles and in government. There are things in this country that make it a bit easier to be a working mother, but it does remain difficult nonetheless. There’s a lot of personal struggle involved for women when it comes to the work–life balance. A big thing for me and something I am very conscious about is to be open and non-critical of other women leaders and their experiences.
Do you think women and men face different challenges in the entrepreneurial space?
My co-founder and I often go to events together, but we make it very clear that I am the CEO of the business and he is the CTO. I never think we need to rely on men to be able to give us the space to be able to take up leadership roles, but I will not deny that it definitely helps having supportive men around you who are confident enough to step back when society expects them to be the face of a business.
An example of when I felt overlooked or undermined: we had a guy come to the office to fix our aircon. I was introducted to him by our operations manager as the head of the company, however, he was unable to look me in the eye and instead spoke to our operations manager, who is a man. I would ask him a question and he would answer to our operations manager.
Another example would be when my co-founder and I would attend conferences and someone would come up to us and speak about how wonderful SweepSouth is, but they would be speaking to him instead of to both of us – completely ignoring me.
How do you overcome that? You’ve got to have a strong personality to try and combat that. You’ve got to be assertive even though it may be nerve-wracking. You’ve got to be conscious every time it happens and you’ve got to push back against it every time it happens.
For other women entrepreneurs out there, Aisha has the following advice:
Have a very good, honest support network. You need to have people who are your backers and cheerleaders, who can honestly talk to you about your career and whatever choices you want to make.
I think it’s important to have a good business partner – whether it’s a man or woman – who is supportive and who allows you to step up into the limelight (for lack of a better word) – someone who isn’t threatened by your success.
Understand your self-worth, don’t undervalue yourself. From early on as women we get told how to think and we get put into boxes. But you’ve got to understand yourself, your value and what you bring to the table.