Tanzanian Lawyer turned Tech Entrepreneur, Faraja Nyalandu, on Choosing to Create Instead of Criticise
About Faraja Nyalandu
Born and raised in Tanzania, Faraja is a resourceful social entrepreneur passionate about developing cutting edge social and educational programs that empower youth and children. In 2013, she established Shule Direct, a thriving organisation providing comprehensive web and mobile educational platforms offering learning content across multiple subjects to over 1 million in and out of school youth. Shule Direct has just launched its brainchild, Ndoto Hub, Tanzania’s first start up incubator for innovative young women entrepreneurs. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Education, Gender and Work. Faraja has been awarded a 2017 System Innovator award by Segal Family Foundation for systemic change in digital learning in Secondary School education in Tanzania and Woman in Tech award by the Tanzania Women of Achievement Awards 2018. She has also authored two youth empowerment books written in Kiswahili, Tanzania’s national language, to reach underserved young people and catalyze their dreams. Faraja is a qualified Lawyer with an LLB and LLM (Master of Laws) in Human Rights and Migration.
'Mindset of Mentors' with The Africa List
As part of a CEO Night with The Africa List community in Tanzania, Faraja answered questions from the members about the leadership practices she has cultivated along her leadership journey. This was part of a quarterly series of ‘CEO Nights’ hosted by The Africa List communities under the theme of unpacking the 'Mindset of Mentors'. At these events, a range of senior CEOs and Chairs from across Africa spend time with the community of 'next-in-line CEOs' that make up The Africa List community to unpack what it really takes to make it to the top. We only run 'CEO Nights' once a year so to make the interactions with the CEOs in attendance as structured and useful as possible, a selection of CEOs host breakout sessions, answering questions posed by the members on their 'CEO Life Hacks' that cover a range of topics including productivity, leadership, management strategies and their personal reflections.
These are some of our favourite pieces of advice that Faraja shared with The Africa List:
What is the best career decision you have ever made?
I’m a trained human rights lawyer, but I decided to switch to education technologies. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I learned that I’m a very creative person and the legal system was not allowing me to thrive as a creative person. I realised that my skills, my personality, and drive can be used to do more than just criticising. I can create something. Now I create content every day, and new digital platforms for our clients. It’s an amazing space because no day is the same whereas at a law firm, I knew exactly what the next day would look like. Now I can’t even tell you what tomorrow will be and that’s exciting.
How did you come up with your idea?
It happened by accident. I was doing my undergraduate degree in law in the UK and was also looking after my two kids at the same time. You can imagine being a mother, a wife and going to University and being in the UK where it is always dark. But what I learned is that I can just learn online, do assignments online, converse with the lecturers online. There is so much you can do with technology that we don’t take advantage of back home, in Tanzania. When I came back, I learned that over 600,000 young people had failed their national exam that year. Over 87% of secondary students in Tanzania had failed. Some of the challenges are textbooks, teachers, and learning resources. So, I thought what about spending a fraction of what all that would cost on web solutions instead, with qualified resources for students and teachers to enable them to learn and connect online. Eventually one of my mentors encouraged me to just do it. I started five years ago, over time we have gained over a million users, and here we are.
What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about creating solutions that can improve people’s lives. You can very easily just create a platform – people come in, use it and go. But I am keen to see how we can translate that solution to improve people’s lives with a focus on how education can improve learning outcomes and lead people to have better jobs and businesses. I’m keen to have more solutions and build on what we have developed so far.
What does success mean to you, and how do you judge your success?
I don’t have a uniform way of viewing success - either as an enterprise or who I am as a person. It varies from time to time. At some points, it’s more about “How many people can we reach?”, or “Should we be expanding to this place?”. But one trend that stays constant in that, is reaching people. Not just serve them in terms of providing solutions, but making sure those solutions improve their lives. The education we provide is very important but we also evaluate our impact on the community. We look at improved results, improved test scores, and how we can help improve the trajectories for their careers. At some points, the success focus is raising more money. At others, it’s just how can we improve our offering. So, it changes but it’s always about how are we improving lives.
What have you learned as a CEO that you wish you knew before?
Last year I learned the power of leadership fellowships. The first three years of the business I was more into fundraising and building systems, but I feel I would have done better investing in myself through fellowships or incubators that would’ve helped me grow as a business woman.
What has been your most worthwhile investment?
My education, but also the relationships I made while getting my education. I invested a lot of time in creating friendships there that I still have, including mentors that were my lecturers, supervisors and professors.
Who are you inspired by?
My inspirations also change from time to time depending what I’m going through in my career or personal life. For instance, this week I am inspired by Afua Osei, a woman from Ghana living in Nigeria who runs She Leads Africa. I’m also inspired by people based on who they are personally as well as professionally. I’m inspired by Maya Angelou because of her journey to become who she was. Last month I re-read a book by Randy Pausch called The Last Lecture. I’ve also been going through his videos online and taking inspiration from him. I also like Beyoncé - I am a millennial! Mainly because of her work ethic because I think talent without hard work is nothing. She is talented but she works very hard to hone her craft, and that shines in her performances and who she is as an entrepreneur.
What would you go back and tell your thirty-year-old self?
Turning thirty was a major turning point for me because I realised I can’t be so open to risk. There was a time I used to take on experiments and I wouldn’t think of the repercussions. A few years later, I have a team, stakeholders and users who all depend on my decisions. I’d tell my 30-year-old self to be more careful and make decisions that are better informed and keep everyone or everything in a balanced state.
What advice would you give a new graduate?
Something I wish I was told earlier; try as many things as you can. Most graduates finish university with expectations and a very specific plan of what they want to do. I think that is a mistake. The world is your oyster, you can try and fail and try again and you learn so much, which is a valuable part of your career. Keep your options open.
What are the challenges you’re going through now?
It’s tough to be an entrepreneur. It’s even tougher to be a female entrepreneur because you face the challenges both as an entrepreneur and as a woman. I think the first challenge is low expectations, as people come to you expecting less but it's also fun when you surprise them and deliver more. The other thing is that you have a team that you have to assign tasks to, and yet they might not respond to you with the same respect as they would to a man. There are some things that people wouldn’t ask of a man, but will ask a woman. Once I was speaking on a panel and a person asked me how much I pay myself. I asked him if he’d ask the same question to a man; after a thought, he said he wouldn’t. All that coupled with being young. Another thing is that there are always issues with our official systems. Being a woman, we tend to think of corruption as asking for bribes, but there are many forms of corruption.
What is one thing you’ve committed to becoming world-class at?
I am passionate about building solutions for social development. It’s something that’s driven by what I see every day, not just things I think of myself or through my team, but things I see in the community. We look at the challenges and try and come up with solutions for social development to solve economic challenges. I look at things around education, health, environment and social justice. Things which can really make the world a better place.
Which other CEOs do you look up to?
I really like Beng’i Issa who was the Director of Finance and Administration at TACAIDS when I met her, and now the Executive Secretary of National Economic Empowerment Council in Tanzania. She is one of my mentors. I like her leadership style. I also really admire Elsie Kanza who is the Head of Africa at the World Economic Forum because she is very smart yet very grounded.
How much of your life is spent making versus managing?
That also varies at different teams. I recently taught myself how to programme through YouTube. I was just curious, but in that way I get to be part of the technical team especially understanding what it takes to build digital platforms.
What happens when someone in your team fails?
I work in technology and failing is a core part of our existence. As much as you try to prototype and build solutions that are user-centric, we will still fail. Failing for us is almost something we embrace. We need to fail to learn. We tell each other that as you’re failing, you’re learning. The moment you fail, look at what the solution can be. So fail fast and fail forward, use the lesson to build into your platform.
How do you encourage idea sharing at your company?
The fortunate thing is we work in a very dynamic space, in technology and innovation, so developing platforms and content requires the space for idea sharing to be there. We have an open plan office, and I have a desk there so people don’t have to come to my office to ask questions. It makes a huge difference. There’s transparency and open communication so we try and create a corporate culture with an open-door policy.
What’s the hardest part about leading your company?
The hardest part is we work in technology, which is exciting but constantly changing. There is always new technology that you have to incorporate. Keeping up with changes can be taxing but very exciting.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I am very open. We laugh a lot. I think I am a very easy leader. I have to be friendly because I work with millennials. I am the second oldest member of the team, the others are all under 30 years old. They are hardcore at what they do and very talented. But they can text you at 9am to say they can’t come to work because their girlfriend is sick. But these are also the same people who will stay at work until 2am. We have some junk food and keep working. You just have to strike a balance. If you are strict, they go. I’ve learned with other companies and knew that dealing with millennials and fresh graduates and being in the technology space many people can work in pyjamas at home. I want ideas to be fluid, to just communicate. User testing should be among the staff. I don’t mind failing, because we are just trying things out. It’s about communicating in a way that everyone feels valued and important.
How do you know you are leading well?
Apart from the cupcakes I get on my birthday, the core team I started with are still with me. Retaining them was tricky as there was not much to promise; all I had was an idea and what we can do together. It was a start-up so I couldn’t pay the right salary, just allowances for quite a while but the fact that they joined the dream really means a lot to me. We have a retention rate of over 75% so I must be doing something right. When we were starting, the salaries were close to none, which really shows that they were dedicated because of the mission we have embarked on. I think one thing which makes me stand out as a leader is the fact that I aim to serve others. I serve the people I work with, they are my first users – then the community we work with. I try and lead from my soul.
What about your leadership style would you change?
I’m terrible at focus and I procrastinate a lot. I don’t want to have any more sleepless nights or to leave the office at 3am but that’s what happens when you wait until the last minute. It’s something I’m working on.
How do you balance being a mother, a wife, a friend, a CEO and not lose yourself in it?
I get lost all the time. I don’t have a balance, truth be told, I don't think it's realistic. I enjoy what I do and I always tell myself I am living my life. I take work home, I cook and have dinner with my family, then when the kids are asleep I can send a few e-mails. When I’m working at 10pm at home, this is still who I am. I look at balance in a sense of who am I, what am I giving? If I’m cooking a meal, that’s what I’m giving at the moment. I’m there as a person, it’s just my life. We stress too much about work life balance. We want compartments. I don’t think you have to draw lines, you can have a blurred space and just live fully.
What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
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Stay in touch with Faraja on Twitter: @FarajaNyalandu