A Sweep­ing State­ment

Sweep South’s Aisha Pan­dor

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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.

Text: Lisa Witep­ski Images © Sweep­South

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