Winning The Future 

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Winning the future 

In the 1980s, Palesa Sibeko played Digger (an MS-DOS game) on her engineer father’s PC. At high school in a now-free South Africa, she had the chance to pursue technology, music, gaming and communication – and parlay her interests into a wide-ranging work life. And now she’s helping grow a new generation of girls in tech careers. 

The Professional is a podcast from Profmed Medical Scheme about how the world of work is changing in surprising ways. Palesa Sibeko is part of this new workforce. As a child, she wanted to be a scientist, musician and writer – and she didn’t see them as mutually exclusive. She’s already at home in this strange new landscape, someone who’s comfortable jumping off a cliff and building her parachute on the way down.

Starting with a BSc degree in molecular cell biology at Wits University, she made an unexpected jump from bio-sciences to music. She made another unexpected jump next. She worked for South Africa’s first social media company, Cerebra, in 2007, a year before Facebook and Twitter went mainstream. “We were creating this thing as we’re going along,” she says.

Palesa says brands had to adjust to giving up control of their message, because de-centralised social media means anybody can say anything about your brand.

But there were also surprises and cautionary tales. For instance, remember Mxit, the free instant messaging service born in Stellenbosch in 2005 – two years before the word “iPhone” even existed? At its zenith, it had seven million users in 2013, and it was bankrupt by 2015.

“Mxit was taking advantage of the mobile explosion. I was coming up with text-based games and creating opportunities for brands to reach that huge audience. Part of their success was being able to run on as many phones as they did. Some of the early messaging apps were geared towards the fancier phones.” But Mxit worked on everything.

But they didn’t innovate fast enough. Whatsapp overtook them. “They also didn’t see the explosion of smartphones coming, they also probably didn’t anticipate what data would become as opposed to the voice call, such as was the case when most people didn’t have smartphones.”

The lesson? “There’s just this complacency when you’re the top. Keep innovating, even when you’re at the top of the game.”

This is crucial for companies, but also for people. Palesa’s innovation was to strike out on her own. She left Cerebra at the end of 2011 and co-founded a company called Inquisition.

“We wanted to make people happy about work. We were trying to change individuals in teams: how do you get them to work better together and give them a methodology to do that?”

Inquisition evolved into another company called BetterWork – looking at ways of harnessing the potential of multi-talented, multi-skilled employees. And Palesa is using a technique that she didn’t learn during her science or music studies, but while creating experiences for mobile and social media users. It’s called design thinking. 

“The fantastic thing about design thinking is that it gives people permission to use their creativity to start tackling or just exploring problems, which is not something that organisations typically give people an opportunity to go into.”

Design thinking is a process of innovating, testing and refining. It can be applied to virtually any field. It’s particularly useful in solving so-called “wicked” problems – problems that are ill-defined and don’t have an easy or obvious answer. It’s also great when you need to empathise with an end user; it helps you understand what someone might want or need, and how you can help them. 

For instance, one South African resort group was struggling to attract black visitors to its resorts in the post-Apartheid scenario. 

“We took them through this creative methodology to get them to start thinking about what that person’s experience will be when they get to their resort.” Because even the smallest of changes can have enormous ripple effects, design thinking can help you identify things that might not seem crucial – but are. 

“One group suggested we should start greeting people in African languages. People from other cultural groups started to feel more comfortable because now they were being acknowledged. It’s a small action that can have such a radical change. And from a customer service point of view, that’s very successful.”

With Inquisition and Better Work, Palesa is helping transform businesses from the inside out, using nudges to prompt profound organisational change. 

But there’s more she wants to do; focusing on hardware instead of software… So she co-founds another company, of course… 

“With SIGNL we decided that we wanted to be hardware focused – lots of people are making apps and software, but we wanted something that was tangible.”

The fourth industrial revolution demands that people – and businesses – can and must be more than just one thing. A world in which people don’t work set hours or in single departments – or even in formal office spaces. A world in which people spontaneously collaborate and innovate – and strict reporting lines become outdated. 

The problem with a world in which everything seems possible is that it can be hard to focus. 

The temptation is to try to be all things to all people – but that can be overwhelming. 

Palesa wants to make sure that the next generation of girls in this strange, sometimes confusing new world of ours feels at home. She runs a non-profit initiative, Girls Invent tomorrow, to educate and mentor girls about opportunities in science and tech. She’s worried that we’re already lagging behind in South Africa, even before the fourth industrial revolution has even properly begun… “And there is a shortage of women in these spaces.” 

Girls Invent Tomorrow focuses on the STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths. But because of Palesa’s background in the arts, she prefers STEAM – a term that’s gaining traction in scientific circles – science, tech, engineering, ARTS and math…  STEAM investigates the same scientific concepts, but uses inquiry and problem-based learning methods generally associated with the creative process. Like design thinking. 

For Palesa it’s important not to lose sight of who she’s designing for – to make sure that the tech she’s developing is human-centred – to keep people at the core of problem-solving. 

This drive to keep in touch with her creative side even in the world of robotics, coding and tech – that makes Palesa stand out. It’s what’s going to set her – and others like her – apart, in a rapidly changing world. And it’s what’s going to keep her relevant for decades to come.


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