I run EY’s Enterprise Growth Services (EGS): a not-for-profit, not-for-loss extension of our consulting business which supports social entrepreneurs in low-income countries. We and our clients are all about scale. My team and I are building a sustainable social-impact practice inside one of the world’s largest professional services firm. Our clients are entrepreneurs who are bringing clean water, clean energy, affordable sanitation, healthcare and education to millions of the world’s most excluded people. Frankly, I’ve always been a bit sniffy about traditional CR programmes, which are often small, peripheral, and designed more around the needs of multinationals than the people they’re supposed to help. A few weeks ago in South Africa, I began to take a more nuanced view.
In one day, I saw two very different schools. The first was a government-funded township school: grinding poverty a couple of miles from tranquil Joburg suburbs, in that wonderful but most unequal of countries. I saw worn-out classrooms holding 58 children, sharing textbooks in groups of three or four.
Some come from what are euphemistically called “child-led households”. For many, school lunch is the only meal they have all day. Their teachers work incredibly hard, with great professionalism and patience, but simply don’t have the resources or support to change lives in the way they want to.
EY supports schools like this through the NextGen programme, investing in girls from under-privileged backgrounds who demonstrate strong potential. One of them is Rose, a supremely confident and impressive 16 year-old who showed me round. She was unflinchingly honest about the challenges of education there: on the day we visited, there was a pupil rebellion alarming enough to shut the school early. She told me about her ambition to be a film-maker. She described the hands-on, unpaid experience she’d already notched up, and a path from Joburg slum to film school in New York. Rose is in school at 6 every morning, and studies on her tiny phone late into the night. She graduates at the end of this year, and can’t wait for her life to begin. If my own children grow up with half her self-belief, good humour and resilience, I’ll consider that a job well done.
Then I went to a SPARK school. SPARK was set up in 2012 by two business school graduates, appalled by the state of education in South Africa and determined to do something about it. With no background in education, and armed only with brains, charm and conviction, Stacey Brewer and Ryan Harrison persuaded investors to back their idea of a chain of low-cost, high-quality private schools. The one I visited was extraordinary.
The pupils were polite, confident and eye-wateringly smart. (I heard the head teacher, Bailey Thomson, gently encourage them to “dress for success” so many times that I found myself tucking my own shirt in.) Facilities and equipment were first rate. The place hummed with energy, team-work, aspiration and kindness. Today there are four SPARK schools in Joburg; Stacey and Ryan plan to open another four this year. I have no doubt that’s just the beginning.
All of their schools are profitable within a couple of years of opening, which gives them the cashflow and credibility they need to attract investors and grow SPARK to a really significant scale. Because they charge fees, they don’t reach all the way to the ‘base of the pyramid’. But since their annual cost to educate a child is lower than Rose’s school’s – let me say that again: their average cost to educate a child is lower than government-run schools’ – they reach the children of taxi drivers and cleaners who share Nelson Mandela’s view that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.
On my way home, I thought about those two very different schools (see photos attached), and what EY can do to help.
Our EGS team has been set up specifically to make the best of our colleagues available to social enterprises like SPARK. EGS is accessible, scalable and high-impact. I’ve tended to look down on traditional corporate responsibility programmes, because they’re often not. I still think many of them deserve a slating. (Think of legions of bright, high-qualified people painting schools and grooming donkeys.) But what I learnt this week is that small doesn’t necessarily mean bad.
There’s an apocryphal story about a little girl on a beach, throwing back into the sea a single starfish out of stranded thousands, because “it makes a big difference to that one”. I’m very proud of the work we do through EGS. But every Rose we put on a path from Joburg slum to a career in film-making, counts just as much.