Evolving To Lead & Empower Others
I became CEO for Streetlight Schools on the eve of my 30th birthday, and this is my first time publicly sharing the story of me, the story of our Streetlight family, and the story of empowering the next generation through education.
The founder and former CEO for Streetlight, Melanie, also penned a moving letter about her experience handing over the organization to another leader.
Before I start telling you about my journey, I have learned that in South Africa greetings are an important ritual. It’s a measure of respect and shows ‘Ubuntu’, so without further ado:
Sawubona, Molweni, Hello and 你好. I’m Fu.
My maternal grandparents were life-long educators, and my father has been a professor for as long as I can remember. I was raised by parents from rural China who became 1st-generation college students. This not only changed their lives, but it transformed their children’s lives too. I believe that anyone — empowered with the right values, mindsets, skillsets, opportunities — is capable of overcoming challenges like trauma, poverty, racism, displacement to become self-actualizing individuals.
No one has taught me this more than our students and teachers at Streetlight Schools.
While all our students and staff inspire me daily, I’d like to share a striking example. One of our fourth graders stays with his grandmother but effectively looks after himself. When he joined us in first grade, he would often act out and struggled academically. Now, he is a leader in his class and one of our most talented coders in Python. He wrote a letter last year inviting South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to attend our career day, advising him to improve roads & education, and signing it ‘Your Future President.’
Your. Future. President.
What’s striking is not just that he has grand ambitions, or that he is developing 21st century skills like coding.
It’s that we’ve empowered him with character and values like love, kindness, and honesty to lead ethically & authentically.
It’s that we’ve empowered him to think critically and reflect on what would help improve our community and country.
It’s that we’ve empowered him to have the unwavering confidence that he can become anything.
This is the crux of what I believe makes for an excellent leader, and how I’ve worked tirelessly to become such a leader since starting to advise Streetlight in the 1st year of its afterschool, moving across the world to co-lead it in the school’s 2nd year, and becoming CEO in the school’s 3rd year.
The Butterfly Effect: Leading With Vulnerability
In To Pimp A Butterfly, Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Kendrick Lamar finds himself in a new world inhabited by new vices & temptations. At first without self-awareness, he falls prey to these forces. But then, he begins to realize that he must look to himself to gain self-awareness. He returns home, continues reflecting, and emerges an empowered butterfly who uplifts & empowers his community.
A powerful moment for me came in January while preparing for the first management meeting of 2019, four months after taking over. It dawned on me that in order to lead as CEO, I would need to unlearn habits developed as COO. Constant pacesetting — treating everything as a ‘to-do’ to check off — was insufficient for leading & inspiring my team.
So, after some reflection & soul-searching, it became obvious: I needed to ‘dare greatly’ and have the courage to share my story with my team, and to create the space to let them share their stories with me.
Later, my team would affirm, they noticed that I was leading differently. They appreciated that I was communicating with vulnerability, engaging them with challenges I was facing, and connecting their individual roles & aspirations to Streetlight’s vision & mission.
This difference was only made possible by developing the habit of deep and consistent reflection after moving to South Africa. Facing new challenges, reflecting consistently, changing mindsets & behaviors, and shedding old habits has allowed me to become a better person and a better leader. I’ve evolved from unenlightened to self-aware butterfly who fights to empower others. We are all on a journey together, and I’m currently focused on empowering and growing the Streetlight family.
A Family That Leads With Love
Streetlight is a collective labor of love & leadership.
Streetlight is ALL of us, from the school leadership team to the students to the community members, who helped cofound and build Streetlight into what it is today.
Watch this space as over the coming months, our family members share their stories. People like:
Tatenda Mafodya, a founding teacher who has since become our school leader. She used to teach in rural Zimbabwe, where she would use her (already low) salary to pay for school fees, stationery, and uniforms for girls in her community to attend school. Under her leadership, we started conducting home visits, implemented teacher subject specialization (which is quite unique globally for elementary school) and have partnered with our first public school to collaborate on innovative teaching & learning.
Brian Ngoveni, a founding tutor (previously working as an administrator for Youth Employment Accelerator Harambee) who began incorporating design-thinking into all aspects of his practice and within three years became a senior teacher & our Grade 4 team leader. He is someone who constantly challenges himself to become better, and has grown & excelled at every opportunity as a teacher and as a leader.
Mabongi Mntambo, a parent who is a community matron & champion. She is the first to hear of happenings in the community, someone who looks after people, and is one of our administrative staff who keeps the school running smoothly.
Hlengiwe Mthanti, a parent who is a single mother raising a 2nd grade daughter. Inspired to empower her daughter to have a better future, she found and had a whiteboard installed in her home so that her child can practice numeracy & literacy and express her creative visions, hopes & dreams. She also helps us keep the school & office running smoothly.
All Of Us, Leading Together
Our vision is a world in which students across South Africa and across the world have access to quality education, regardless of culture, class, creed, gender or geography.
Our next mission is to improve access for 10,000 such students — a nearly 40x increase over the number students we currently serve in our flagship school in 2019 — within the next 5 years.
To do so, we must be open and actively seek partnership, to create a collaborative, trust-based ecosystem and break down the silos keeping us in separate lanes.
This means that whether you work in a government school or the district, run your own school, ECD, firm, work in a company big or small, or are a community organizer, advocate, or champion, we need you.
If you’re someone who ‘made it,’ especially out of a tough community, we need you.
If you’re someone who wants to support others to do so, we need you.
If you’re someone who believes that all children, no matter their background, deserve to be given love and the chance to become anything their heart desires.
Ultimately, we hope you’ll join us in creating a more just, beautiful, loving, reflective, empowering society, where we:
Take responsibility, lead by example, and develop foundational values like compassion, self-awareness and integrity.
Become the citizens and leaders South Africa needs so desperately to deconstruct the legacy of apartheid and discrimination.
Become the self-aware, empowered caterpillars that unleash their full potential as butterflies who uplift and empower themselves and their fellow sisters and brothers.
Yours, in education,
30 June 2019