Stella Bida, in conversation with Gugulethu Ndebele, Executive Director, Oprah Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG)
Summarised conversation transcript
This is a summary version of the conversation. More details, stories, and amazing insights are mentioned in the video!
STELLA BIDA: Hi everyone, and welcome to this new Conversation of Excellence. My name is Stella Bida, and I am excited for the next minutes that we will be spending together. We have a special guest for this great conversation, Ms Gugulethu Ndebelu. She is the Executive Director of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. She is also much more than that, and I am happy that we are going to discover together the Human Being that she is. Gugulethu, welcome to the Conversations of Excellence!
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: Thank you very much Stella. I'm so honored to have this conversation. I even like the topic of Conversations of Excellence, because I think there's a space for them in our world now. So thank you for inviting me. Happy to be here.
STELLA BIDA: As we are starting this conversation, what would like us to know about you?
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: I want you to know that as much as I'm the Head of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, I'm also a mother, I'm a Human Being, I'm a teacher. I'm an ordinary person, but most of all, I'm a mother.
STELLA BIDA: As a mother, what are the values that you thrive in communicating to your family and your children?
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: I consider that when you are a mother, you are a mother to your biological children, but you're also a mother to a lot of other people.
The first value that I share with my children and to all of you is Integrity. I think how you turn up is as important as how you end up being.
The second one is Humanity. In South African language, we say Ubuntu, “You are because I am”. I always instill that in my children. I share with them that they always need to be humble, they must always be kind to other people, regardless of where others are in life.
I always want my children to be. I consider that the greatest gift that you can give to your children is to allow them to be, to be who they are, being able to express themselves the way that they would like to express themselves.
Childhood is a limited time in life. So we need to make sure that the experiences of children and young people are as fulfilled as they can be, and that they can explore as much as they can, before the world deflects on them.
STELLA BIDA: That's beautiful! I love the way you value childhood. The way I feel about it is that sometimes childhood is like a moment which does not really matter in life. But the way you bring it up, it shows that it does matter in life, and that it is a great space for exploration.
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: Absolutely. Your experiences in childhood most often determine how you're going to be in life. If it's a negative experience, a lot of your life is spent mitigating that negativity.
When I worked at Save the Children, my biggest challenge was to protect the childhood of children, so that they experience the beauty of just being, so that they are in a world that protects them and allows them to express themselves – even though it is a world that is framed – that we create a framework for them, allowing children to be. It is through that exploration that they become whoever they're going to be.
When there's a negative childhood experience, and they need to mitigate things later in life, then you see children either ending up taking drugs, or becoming criminals, and you wonder why that has happened - but you haven't looked back at their childhood, to see how that experience has been for them. It’s important.
STELLA BIDA: The depth of what you shared about around childhood brings me to asking a question regarding your new show, Sipping Tea with Thishomkhulu. I still remember when I discovered your new show online, when I saw the banner with you. It was beautiful, and there was a quote underneath which said: “Deep conversations with the right people are priceless”. I wondered, why did you choose that quote and not another one to materialise your show?
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: Let me share with you some context around the show. I was raised by a domestic mother, whose mother was a domestic worker, in South Africa’s context.
Every Thursday, domestic workers, wearing their uniforms, would sit outside their bosses’ houses having tea. This used to fascinate me, that despite the challenging conditions in which they worked - the exploitation from their bosses - they still found the time to sit and have tea, sharing their experiences and the dreams they have for their children. They shared what they wanted for their children, for a better life than they had. It has always struck me that in the middle of such difficult conditions, these women in that time would sit, have tea, and talk about what matters to them.
Over time, I realised Stella that everyone's story matters. When they were sharing together, it didn't matter to them that they were domestic workers. The things that they shared probably shaped who I was as a young person, and who I grew up to be. So, I'm shaped by the conversations of a domestic worker, sitting in the corner with other domestic workers, having tea.
Then I thought that sometimes, we think that the greatest conversations are with well-known people. That's of course important, because they don't get well-known by chance, they went through stuff. But conversations are also with ordinary people. It is in the stories of those ordinary people that sometimes you find greatness.
That’s the idea. This is why I chose to do it. Anyone’s story matters, no matter where they are in life. If your story has got lessons for leadership, then I would want to listen as I grow in my path of being a leader, but also so that it impacts my girls here at the school.
STELLA BIDA: The way you described the importance of these conversations on shaping who we become, gets me actually curious to know: what do you think is the most important thing about yourself, that got shaped through these conversations?
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: When I went to events, I used to introduce myself as a short black South African, African woman, who had a chip on her shoulder. I would explain to people why I say that. The message I'm sending is that I come with a context, I come with baggage.
I'm also black in South Africa where I went through racism. I'm an African in a continent that has got poverty, where we are not recognised as Human Beings. I'm also a woman, and women are not treated as well as they should, here in South Africa and in the world.
So when I came into conversations, I came with that. It was a way to say: “Please understand that sometimes, when I come to you, it might not be because of anything other than the fact that I bring all of those biases”. I needed to recognise that I bring biases. So sometimes, I missed the realness in what people are saying, because I was already on edge - Is she saying that because I'm black? Is that because I'm a woman? Is that because I’m short? – All this instead of hearing the question and hearing the conversation.
These conversations have helped me to also share my baggage. They've helped me to get into conversations as pure as I can and accept that conversations have got nothing to do with me. I understood that I need to do my own healing, but I must also accept others in the conversation as being who they are.
I'm learning to share my baggage, I'm learning to own my story, and I'm learning to give people a chance. I’m also learning to understand that it's not about me all the time. The question that I might not like is not about me, it's about the question. I'm learning, and it is through those conversations that I'm learning that.
STELLA BIDA: What you just shared makes me think about the identity that we bring up of ourselves into society. I don't know for you, but sometimes the way I felt it is that I had to make a distinction between the way others defined me and the way I aspired to be defined, even though I was not there yet. This leads me to the following question: During your journey, have you ever had to redefine who you are, in order to “fit” into society?
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: Thank you Stella for the context in which you ask that question. There are different levels to this: having an aspiration of how we want to be defined, how we are defined, and how we define ourselves at some point in time.
I grew up being that girl who is fat. I've always been bullied, because I was not a typical beautiful little girl. I grew up in a context where size matter, with a standard of beauty dependent on how small you are. So I've spent a lot of my life trying to aspire to look like what I think society wanted me to look like.
Until I reached that point when I understood that I’m actually bigger than my weight, I'm actually smart.
Through that, I learned to define confidence from an inner perspective, rather than from an outer perspective. I can lose the weight anytime I want, but what I have in me that no one can have is how sharp I am, how intelligent I think I am, and how beautiful I think I am.
Then I started to determine my own sense of identity in the way that I want society to treat me. I've had to redefine those things over time and shape some of the things that I think we're taken away from my identity and my own authenticity.
STELLA BIDA: Gugu, I love the way you brought a piece of your story into answering that question. As you were talking, I really connected to what you said, thank you very much for making it relatable.
In that process of redefinition of ourselves, sometimes we need to go to areas where it's deep and where there are difficult conversations to have. They are important stepping stones to change. Through your role in the academy with the girls, you are building these leaders of change. Concerning the difficult conversations: what are the most important skills that need to be developed in order for the girls to dare to have these types of conversations?
I think the first thing, in which I've always believed in, is being authentic. For me, being authentic means being comfortable in your flaws, being comfortable in your weaknesses, but also being perfect in your imperfection.
I think that sometimes, we want to be who we are not, and we don't realise that actually the power lies in who we are. The reason why people respect you is not for who you are not, but it's for who you are. So what I always tell the girls all the time is: own who you are, own your story, own your journey, because it has shaped you, but also own all your flaws.
Being open to learning all the time
The second value that I share with them is to be open to learning all the time, even from people that they don't think that they are as important or as great. Being open to learning is important, because you will always find something worth learning, and even something worth unlearning. Learning is not always learning the positive things, it's also learning the ones which are not so positive, and that you need to tweak and get out of your system.
The third thing is about integrity, as I’ve shared before. For me, integrity is how you turn up and it needs to be who you are. There is nothing more important in leadership than integrity. People need to trust that what you say is true, because people look at you in your wholeness.
The last thing is about being worthy. Part of self-worth is understanding that I'm good as I am. Part of working with the girls who come from disadvantaged communities is letting them understand that they are incredibly smart. Some have allowed the narrative of being disadvantaged, being poor to overwhelm how intelligent they are, and how amazing they are, as a young leader.
I ask them to listen to the voice that is positive, listen to their strengths. They are here because they are leaders and not because they are poor. Poverty is a circumstance, it's not something that defines anyone. So they are here at the school because they are smart, because they are a leaders. We instill leadership potential, that's what we're working on with them. Their circumstances are not part of their identity.
We encourage them to bring their stories forward. This is why we have a very good program on storytelling, because it's also a journey to healing, for us and for them.
STELLA BIDA: I love the fact that you encourage the girls to own who they are, to own their stories, but also to know how to tell their stories. I also love the fact that you highlight the impact of sharing their stories on the healing process.
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: One of the things important for the founder of the school, is that it’s a school which allows the girls to be the best that they can be, a school that allows the girls to grow.
At the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, we are very conscious of the role of trauma in our lives and also in the lives of the girls. We have trauma that we bring into situations. No effective learning or growing can happen if you don't attend to that trauma. We are a trauma-informed school. Our approach to learning, teaching and leadership has a trauma-informed lens. This means we try and work with the girls to recognise that trauma and go through it.
There is an example to illustrate this, that I always take, Stella. I love gardening. Sometimes I will sow something and realise that it doesn’t grow. I’ve realised over time that it doesn't matter how good the seed is, if the ground and the soil is not ready, the seed will not grow. So our approach is to work on the ground, so that we can make it fertile. In this case, if we bring curriculum, the girls can learn. If we bring leadership skills, the girls can grow.
Part of doing that is asking questions differently. When something happens, for example when working with someone who is very nasty or someone who bullies me, the idea is not to ask them: “What's wrong with you?”.
Asking the question differently is saying: “What happened to you?”. Once you understand what happens to someone, you view their actions differently, through another lens. It's a journey of growth that we all go through as a school.
STELLA BIDA: I am personally amazed by the safe space that you are nurturing and creating through the academy for the girls, with such a question for example, through: “What happened to you?”.
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: This doesn't mean through this question that you are minimising the negative action going on. It's not an excuse, but it is a way of trying to deal with the trauma, and to deal with understanding. It helps to position the person in their own experiences, and it also allows you to grow in your own journey.
Our journeys are not static. You don't stop growing, you don't stop healing. You don't get to a point where you say: “Ah! I'm healed!”. The healing happens in different pieces.
As a school, we’re very conscious of the fact that we’re changing the narrative of an African girl, of a South African girl. We are changing it into the one of a girl from the world, that is a positive story. This is done in such a way that when you tell your story Stella, you acknowledge that you come from the Central African Republic. You also know that you have the story of this amazing young woman, who is creating this platform for people to have these conversations. Creating this platform is your story. That's the story that you're writing, it's not the story of the torture and where you come from.
I admire that, I want my girls, my children to tell a different story. Not the story of abuse, not the story of poverty, not the story of hunger, but a story of how great they are as young girls.
STELLA BIDA: Thank you for sharing that. I feel touched.
When you were sharing, I felt connected to your motto: “Leaders leading leaders".
Before we started the conversation together, I talked to you about why I actually started this platform. I have another vision of leadership which is powerful, but operating from a space of openness, vulnerability and sharing. I really felt in security when you were speaking, and felt that you were a leader leading another leader, creating a safe space for conversations to happen.
I am curious to know - Why did you choose the motto: “Leaders leading leaders" to drive you? Why is it so important for you?
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: You shared your own story and your own journey of leadership, and how it has been shaped over time. I think that the biggest weakness in our leadership narratives today is that we think there are leaders and that there are followers. I think that part of that contributes to the egos and the narcissism.
Regardless of who you are, you are a leader, because you can self-lead.
You might not be a leader with a title in a defined space. But in the space where you are, you are a leader because you are turning up for school every day, that’s self-leadership. Making sure that you do your homework and assignments is self-leadership. Choosing to engage in the activities that the school makes available to you is self-leadership. Choosing to grow and to create a positive path for yourself, that's self-leadership.
I believe that in the space that I am in, I'm leading leaders. As leaders together, we are sharing, we are growing together. If I take that as a mentality, I don't have a deficit approach to leadership. I have a much more affirming and growing approach. I'm dealing with people who have this innate in them, and my role in their lives is to grow it and to make it better.
So, I'm not creating leaders, I'm nurturing leader, I'm growing leaders.
Parents have got an incredible role that they play in building leaders, even though it is not called leadership.
It's very important for us as leaders with titles to understand that we're not leading followers, we’re leading other leaders. That requires a different set of skills and a different mentality.
I grow from the girls as much as they grow from me. They've got the kind of creativity that I didn't have, they've got a kind of sharpness that I didn't have as a young person. It's a mutually growing experience. I'm learning from you now too.
STELLA BIDA: You've brought up so many times the importance of childhood, and how it shapes us. If you had Gugulethu of 10 years old sitting by your side, what would you tell her?
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: “You are enough, Gugu you are enough”. That's all I would tell her.
I was raised by an amazing mother, my mother was probably the most affirming person in my life. My mother instilled in me a notion that I can be anything that I want to be. There were never any space that she didn't think that I wouldn't be great in.
As I shared earlier, because I always had this image of myself, it was always something that blocked me. You waste so much time not accepting who you are. Even to my 15 year old children - I've got twins, I've got a girl and a boy - I tell them all the time that they are enough, that they are okay as they are.
STELLA BIDA: To end this conversation, I really wanted to give you the floor to anything which you think is important, in helping people to realise that they can all be these leaders who lead other leaders.
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: I've always believed Stella, that it's very important firstly for people who have these incredible platforms that we have, as spaces of access for other people. Not to speak on their behalf, but to create those spaces for them to speak for themselves. Because at the best of times, we want to represent people, when in fact we could create those spaces for them to represent themselves. That's a challenge to people who’ve got these spaces.
The second thing to take into account is the fact that being enough is important. The world can throw so many things that draw you back. It is very important that we build people's self-worth.
If that's not your starting point, it doesn't matter how many degrees you have, if you don't believe in yourself, you don't think you're worthy, nothing you acquire we will be meaningful. That emptiness of worthiness is critical.
As a school, our leadership model is really about building self-worthiness. It's about the girls understanding that they are enough, it's understanding that they are worthy. All the girls are not here because they're lucky. They're here because they're worthy, they've earned their spot.
As society, it’s important to instill self-worthiness in young people. I think that's a game changer.
STELLA BIDA: Thank you for bringing that up. Self-worthiness is indeed a critical aspect to take into account.
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: Thank you Stella, not just for the conversation, but also for taking this step to opening these conversations. The more people talk about their experiences, the more we can all learn and grow. Congratulations on the platform, I think it's timely.
STELLA BIDA: Gugu, I have personally loved this experience and I know that the people who are listening are loving it too. If people want to follow more about you and also want to know more about the conversations that you are creating through “Sipping Tea with Thishomkhulu”, is there any way we can follow you?
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: Yes, you can follow me on all of my social media platforms, as well as on the OWLAG Facebook. Whether it's in my personal space or in my professional space, I speak about the same things, because I don't think that you take a break from being a leader. I think leadership is an everyday thing!
STELLA BIDA: I love that sentence: “We don't take a break from being a leader”. That's a beautiful sentence for the end. Thank you very much for being with us and for bringing your presence to the conversation.
GUGULETHU NDEBELE: Thank you so much for the opportunity and for allowing me to share not just my story, but the story of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. I honestly think that it's an incredible game changer for young women. Our vision is to make sure that people have access to what we do. We want everyone to get an opportunity to enjoy the gift that we give to South Africa and to Africa. So thank you so much for creating that platform.
STELLA BIDA: Awesome! Thank you, bye.