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The Accidental Academic

MasterStart chief innovation officer Faryn Pearson talks to Silicone Cape co-chairperson Professor Sumarie Roodt

Professor Sumarie Roodt is the co-chairperson at the Silicon Cape Initiative, an NPO and ecosystem enabler for tech-enabled startups and the co-founder at the Tech4Good Lab at the University of Cape Town, which is Africa’s first dedicated research lab of this kind. She is also a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Information Systems in the Commerce Faculty at UCT.

1. It’s relatively unusual for an academic to be heading up an industry body – what led you to take up the Silicon Cape position?

I’m the accidental academic; I did not come from an academic background, I didn’t teach from the beginning. I finished my undergrad in informatics and went straight into the banking sector where I spent almost half a decade in financial services. There I had exposure to banking and the digitisation of the industry across the continent and to the number of cultures and micro-societies that provided so many opportunities. But we were always aware of the complexities and the challenges in the continental disparities. It was clear Africa has the potential to be a global player in the innovation landscape and for disruption and innovation. Fast forward 14 years later, my research led me to this point, being at the helm of an NGO and a lab pushing for innovation in tech.

2. How do you juggle the various hats you wear? Where do you find the time?

It is really all about how we use our time and whether you are working on things that you’re passionate about. You make sacrifices, you make choices. Being a board member at Silicon Cape is non-paid and if you look at the amount of time we spend on supporting and driving it forward, it is substantial. We do it because we’re deeply passionate about entrepreneurship, technology, and how technology can disrupt and innovate to really take Africa to the front of the innovation leaderboard globally. So to do this, we make choices. It’s that simple. I’m also selective about how I spend my time, who I spend it with and where.

3. How does being informed tie into woman empowerment in the industry?

The two words that go hand in hand are vulnerability and authenticity. You can’t be truly vulnerable if you’re not authentic either. Vulnerability is one of the most powerful things that you can share with somebody because it shows your intentions. I’m willing to do the work. My sights are set on my entrepreneurial journey, or at least being on the Fortune 500 list, being one of the first African women. 

But we see how male-dominated the industry is and even though the lists for men and women are separate, we don’t need a separate list – we need change and I think that will come from being informed across the board. It’s always ironic to me when women have these conversations when men are meant to be part of it too. I think there is, of course, room for us as women to talk about this stuff but we need to include men and their experience and information as part of the conversation else we are becoming the thing we dislike in excluding men from the discussion.

4. How do you, as a person from the global south, think we need to change our mindsets to keep up internationally?

I’m willing to do the work. There are no guarantees but what I ask for is a chance and I need to know what I need to do to get that chance. One thing I always say is, “Do not make yourself small; there is no reason to make yourself small.” I see myself as a bright, shining star and you are a bright, shining star. 

This also comes with supporting other stars, upcoming ones too. It’s really about self-belief. There have been instances where people said to me, “Sorry, don’t even bother applying for that because you’re never gonna get it.” But it wasn’t actually about me. 

South Africans have this mentality of making themselves small on the global stage. I see it with our startups pitching alongside startups from the US and UK, facing European privileges. Somehow, our entrepreneurs make themselves small in those situations and when they lose out, I ask what happened and the response inevitably is, “These guys from Silicon Valley know exactly what they’re doing.” My response is, “Do you not think you know what you’re doing too?” We truly need to be honest about the fact that as South Africans – and maybe even as Africans – we view ourselves as less advanced, less developed, and we don’t stand a chance. That mindset needs to change both ways – from us and the rest of the world.

5. What are your thoughts on the concept of ‘lifelong learning’ – what does it mean to you? How do you apply that concept to yourself?

I’ve never aspired to be academic. I thought after my initial research that it was not going to happen. The reality is, being in that academic space gives you the freedom of space to think about what kind of world I want to live in and how can technology be used in that type of world, and to then explore that as well as contributing to people’s own self-development, meaning education, which I also am deeply passionate about. 

Education is one of the key enablers of growth as a society. What was apparent to me when I did begin research was that the venture capital landscape in South Africa was very much male-dominated and had very few women, either in founder or leadership positions. And that worried me and this needed to change. 

Fourteen years later and the representation – or lack thereof – is still quite scary when you look at the gender distribution of fund founders and fund leaders; 9.7% of all funds in this country are either founded and or led by women. We need to be actively working on and pursuing a change in that disparity.

At 43, I feel as if I’ve lived a few lifetimes in one, and yet, I feel still so young at heart in terms of what the future holds because here we are at the precipice of the digital revolution in Africa. I get goosebumps because I’m witnessing the most incredible innovation come from this continent daily and I’m watching how it’s transforming the continent and its capabilities in technology.

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