Rapelang Rabana has been listed on Oprah’s 2012 ‘O’ Power List, mentioned by CNN and is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, all before the age of 30. A founding partner of Yeigo Communications, developer of some of the earliest mobile phone VoIP applications, shared her experiences and insights with Ventures Woman in an interview. Here’s what she had to say:
VW: Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
RR: I have been able to have live in 3 cities thus far in my life and seen very, very different ways of life. I lived in Gaborone, Botswana, then Johannesburg and now Cape Town. I did most of primary school at Thornhill Primary School in Gaborone, and then proceeded to Roedean School in Johannesburg to complete my primary and secondary schooling. I matriculated in 2001. Cape Town became my home when I came to study at the University of Cape Town and I never left. I studied at the University of Cape Town for four years, where I completed a Bachelor of Business Science with Honours in Computer Science. While programming was very difficult for me, I ultimately chose to stick with it, because I believed unlike finance, accounting, marketing, psychology and various other industries, you didn’t have to spend so much time analyzing, reviewing, auditing and evaluating something someone else did, in the hope of adding some marginal value. With Computer Science, you could create actually create something, from the figment of your imagination, from nothing – there seemed to be real power there to create tremendous value.
VW: So what motivated you to start Yeigo Communications?
RR: I genuinely didn’t think that getting a job made any sense. It was not out of trying to be rebellious or brave. Getting a job scared me on many levels. On one level, I was scared about who I would become – I believe that how we spend our time, what we spent our time doing, what ends up taking our attention, thoughts and energy, has a huge influence on who we become, and in a big corporate environment, the degree to which I could control that, seemed very limited. There was a sense of loss of controlling my own destiny and that seemed to me a greater risk than doing a startup. On another level, I was simply tired of playing the system. While I had done it very well up until that point, I was horrified at the idea of doing it for the rest of my life – I was aching just to spend my time doing something that mattered and not playing organizational politics.
My co-founders and I decided to apply ourselves to issue of the cost of communication, having been plagued with sending ‘plz-call-me’ for a large portion of our varsity careers. We were inspired by the reality that using the internet / IP could dramatically change communications of the future: not just in terms of cost but also just the sheer variety of the different forms of communication and interaction that become possible when you are online. We went into mobile VoIP market early in 2006, when it was ground-breaking on a global scale. When we launched our first mobile VoIP application to the public in 2007, it was among the first in the world.
I see great potential for technology and the internet to bring inspirational change. Telecommunications is one of many industries that can benefit, and there are many other areas I look forward to being involved in and bringing about that inspiring change. Ultimately it is the end-user, the society we live in that will benefit from better access to services, from services becoming more affordable, from being part of a knowledge economy and consequently being more able to contribute to the world economy and improve and grow businesses.
VW: Access is a very important word in your company. What does it mean to you?
RR: The quintessential device to reach young people is the mobile phone; it can deliver the kind of access that will change lives. With the growth of mobile broadband connectivity, the mobile phone will go beyond traditional GSM voice and SMS. From more cost-effective communication using mobile VoIP, instant messaging and social media, to portals of information, to educational applications and games, community forums and platforms to engage and exposure yourself to another world of information - the list of ways to make an impact is endless.
I believe the internet and mobile represent for the millions and especially young people around the world, the most effective tool for empowerment. The internet can be a most crucial enabler. And this enabling factor is not limited to freedom of expression we all observed in the Arab Spring. It goes beyond openness and transparency of political institutions. For billions of people, the internet can prove the most effective and scalable method in delivering, facilitating or improving access to critical supporting information and systems for farming, education, health, financial services, entrepreneurial activities, job opportunities as well information portals that provide a broad range empowering information and an understanding of what else is happening around you. The printing press in the 1400’s enabled the dissemination of information at an unprecedented level and contributed significantly to the exponential growth in global trade at that time. The internet can take that dissemination of information to another level.
Most of us will be familiar with the Chinese proverb about teaching a man to fish as opposed to giving him a fish. My proposition is:
Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime. Expose a man to the internet and he will change his life.
VW: The internet is indeed powerful! Please tell us a bit about what Yeigo does. Why is it so unique?
RR: The Yeigo story is compelling because it shows what imagination, hard work and perseverance can do, with some help from a Google search. We started as university graduates, who just thought they should try doing something interesting and potentially powerful and stayed committed to that for years. And it wasn’t just any kind of business, it is top-end high tech innovative software that holds its own on an international stage.
Yeigo is about innovation-driven product development and has been pioneering world class innovation for 8 years. Known for producing some of the earliest mobile VoIP applications globally, Yeigo has continued to specialize in the conceptualization, development and deployment of software solutions that take full advantage of convergence trends within the mobile, web and cloud computing arena.
Late in 2011, Yeigo developed and launched Office Connection, a business telephony solution hosted in the cloud and fully accessible though a simple online interface. Delivering everything expected of a traditional on-site telephone system and much more, Office Connection has been custom built to provide the necessary tools to meet the challenges South African businesses face in accessing professional business telephony services. There is no expensive setup cost; it has a simple web interface with ‘drag and drop’ features to give 24/7 control; it provides real-time billing and budgeting on a company-wide or individual level; and it connects dispersed office-bound, mobile and home workers under one telephone system.
VW: In 2008, Yeigo established a key partnership with Telfree. What necessitated that partnership and how has the partnership changed or improved the way Yeigo works?
RR: Along the way it became imperative for us to be able to control the telecoms back-end over which our mobile applications operated. Furthermore, the consumer mobile VoIP space required significant venture capital funding for markets that remained inaccessible from South Africa. The partnership with Telfree gave control of the carrier-grade telecoms network they had just established in South Africa as well as distribution access to the business SME market where our products could be combined with a holistic business offering.
VW: On a more personal note, what part of your work excites you the most?
RR: It’s the extraordinary privilege of seeing something you have worked on manifest into reality, after all, it started with just a thought! It always makes me smile, that all we had in the beginning was a thought – how incredibly powerful human thought, the imagination and discipline can be, when backed by persistence.
There is so much to learn here as new eco-systems will be created especially in emerging markets where the impact of technology is yet to reach the vast majority. I hope to find opportunities to challenge myself in a wider variety of areas as we try to make technology relevant to more people.
VW: What would you say has been the single best decision you have made on your entrepreneurial journey?
RR: Having people I absolutely love spending time with around me for the journey, my partners Lungisa Matshoba and Andrew Snowden. It’s a long and exhausting journey and very often difficult. Success or failure is the ultimate outcome of a business, it's the fun of the ride, the pleasure of working with people you think are amazing, everyday for years, because at any given point that is all you have.
VW: So what is your working relationship with your partners like?
RR: Our working relationship is based on mutual respect and trust. It’s important that at no point, one partner feels they are better off without the other, and that was never a problem for us. The crucial ingredient to the lasting partnership is that our values are aligned. People go into businesses for various reasons, some to get a big tender, or maintain an extravagant lifestyle, or just for the sake of exploiting opportunities. We wanted to do something great and hopefully make a success of it.
VW: Do you have any mentors? Who has influenced your professional life the most?
RR: While I didn’t have any mentors at the start, I developed a few good relationships along the way with more experienced businesspeople. However, the most influential people on my life have always been my partners.
VW: You are involved with Ubuntu Africa. Please tell us about your work with this NGO. Why do you feel it is important to contribute to African development in this way?
RR: While there are many orphanages and homes for HIV positive children, the Ubuntu Child Healthcare initiative was very compelling for me. It operates from the premise that the HIV affected child’s best chances for a whole and fulfilling life is to remain amongst their family and community and works with child and care-givers to enable them to deal with the implications of caring for an HIV-positive child, making it more manageable. And only if environment is destructive, is a child pulled out of it. I deeply appreciate this approach because if I think about it, this is how I would help an HIV positive cousin or someone I loved – I would want them to be able to live their full lives and manage the disease and not end up in an orphanage. I believe real help, is about helping people the same way you would help someone you actually loved (so true!). I help on a strategic level to steer the NGO and hope to expand into the rest of South Africa.
VW: You and Yeigo have received some fantastic awards and international recognition. Which awards experience has been most meaningful to you and why?
RR: Mostly recently, it was the mention in the CNN article, ‘Africa’s Marisa Meyers’ that touched me the most. It is very special because it's the first direct comparison with the technology giants in Silicon Valley which have thus far seemed much removed from us in South Africa. It was great to see that technology innovation is becoming as appreciated here.
Secondly, I would have to mention the inclusion in Oprah Power List 2012. This was just mind-blowing because I was included on the same list as women like Aung San Suu Kyi, Lady Gaga and Dalia Ziada whose influence on society is extraordinary.
VW: Finally, there are a lot of young African men and women who have recently graduated and are faced with long-term unemployment prospects… Considering that you started Yiego fresh out of university, what is your advice to these graduates?
RR: There will never be enough jobs for all the young people today – more and more of us must become entrepreneurs. The internet does a lot to level the playing field with regards to access to information…you can become an expert in any field now if you put in the work and time to teach yourself. All we had to start was an internet connection and a cheap laptop, yet we produced world-class innovation.
Develop your mind. More than ever, there is so much to learn, so much to know, so many different things to do. The opportunities to be whoever you want to be have never been more accessible to those who pursue their dreams.
Thank you Rapelang! The opportunities are out there and commitment is crucial. We appreciate you sharing your insights.
Feel free to leave your questions and comments below!