A Sweeping Statement
Sweep South’s Aisha Pandor
Aisha Pandor’s simple idea for an online cleaning service has resulted in hundreds of jobs for unemployed South Africans.
Aisha Pandor laughingly reveals that her parents weren’t pleased to learn that their daughter – a scientist whose outstanding work in human genetics earned her a South African Woman in Science Award – had left the lab to “start a cleaning company”.
As it turns out, their concern was illfounded. Sweep South – the app launched by Pandor and her husband Alen Ribic to link up domestic workers seeking employment and homeowners requiring cleaning services – has earned one plaudit after another, first winning the SiMODiSA Startup SA pitching prize, before becoming the first South African enterprise to be granted a place in Silicon Valley’s 500 Startups accelerator. Most recently, Pandor was named one of Africa’s Breakthrough Female Tech Entrepreneurs by the World Economic Forum.
But how, exactly, did Pandor make the switch from science to start-up? Her entrepreneurial foundation was probably laid during childhood, she says, with her parents encouraging her to always think against the grain and question the status quo. These traits would serve her well as a scientist, too. And, she says, there isn’t much difference between positing a theory and then conducting research to prove or disprove it, and coming up with
a business idea, testing your minimum viable product, and tweaking it to suit consumer needs. “I also believe that your path influences what you become. Look at Elon Musk – he’s currently working on about three different businesses, none of which are related, but he uses the lessons learnt from each to improve all of them.”
It’s not as though Pandor hurtled into the world of business unprepared. After completing her PhD, she worked as a management consultant in industries as varied as mining and telecommunications, concentrating on supply-chain management, digital strategy and HR. But why, given her success as a scientist, the change to business? “I wanted my work to have a more immediate impact,” Pandor says. “With research, it can take at least a decade before the fruits of your labour become apparent. I had seen people grow their businesses relatively quickly and wanted to experience the same immediacy.”
Of course, watching someone grow a business is very different from growing one yourself. Entrepreneurship turned out to be a surprising journey, especially when it came to the sheer volume of work that the founder inevitably shoulders alone. Pandor says that she is no stranger to hard work, having spent New Year’s Eve working in the lab and sleeping next to her petri dish on more than one occasion. But when you find yourself responsible for every aspect of a business – from setting strategy to menial tasks like printing documents – the notion of hard work is redefined.
As a woman, that challenge is amplified. Pandor reveals that there are times when other startup founders or potential business partners bypass her completely, assuming that the male investor beside her is in charge. The gender divide is even more apparent when she is trying to pitch the business to a male audience. “Business decisions are rooted in emotion. This is a very female-oriented business – our Sweep Stars are all female, and it concerns a service that is predominantly considered part of a woman’s domain in the household. It can therefore be hard to make that emotional connection with a male,” she points out.
She adds that tech remains unchartered territory for many women (and especially black women). It’s not simply a matter of black women being underserviced by technology – whether that relates to access to connectivity or relevant apps – it’s also about the lack of exposure that means that women aren’t even invited to the table, Pandor says. Thankfully, this is changing. With a number of companies establishing support networks specifically targeting women, she hopes that the next generation of women will view tech as an attractive career choice. She’s also eager for tech to be demystified, for women to stop viewing it as something complicated and scary, and more as an enabler.
In fact, Sweep South’s success stems from its ability to leverage technology in this way. Pandor observes that the service was launched in response to an age-old problem, simply using technology as the best platform to create scale. She also maintains that this is a critical insight for other would-be entrepreneurs to bear in mind: “Your business idea must provide a real solution to a consumer pay point and, once you’ve identified it, you must move swiftly to make it happen.” It took just five months from the time Sweep South was conceptualised to introduce the first version of the service to the marketplace, and this focus on execution remains one of the company’s hallmarks. Pandor says that in this regard, it helps to have a cofounder who is just as committed to the vision as she is.
That vision includes expanding the types of services offered by Sweep South. “Why not have your Sweep Star help sort out your plumbing problem, for instance?” Pandor says. She’s also looking forward to launching the company in other emerging markets.
It’s only a matter of time until Sweep South becomes firmly entrenched in the household lexicon.