Ceo and Founder the Unlearners
Zanele Njapha, the ‘unlearning lady’ is the CEO and founder of the organisation The Unlearners. The business helps corporate organisations and their leaders build cultures where instead of frustrated and overwhelmed - people are EXCITED about change.
“What we do is help them to unlearn and relearn, helping them to move through the process of who they used to be and into who they now want to become,” explained Zanele.
As Zanele has a passion for children, her career started as a primary school teacher. However, she said, “I knew that there was a call for something bigger. I see myself still as an educator or facilitator but making a different kind of impact.”
Initially, Zanele worked with a company focused on strategic thinking and the future of work before deciding to form her own. She explains that she believed the world was ready to have the conversation about letting go and grabbing hold and that’s what motivated her to start The Unlearners.
Zanele’s late grandmother is a key motivator in her journey. “She didn’t complete any profound level of formal schooling and never held formal employment. I believe that if she had the opportunities that I have access to today, I can’t even think what she would have done with them. Even in her circumstances - she was resilient, adaptable, flexible, creative, loving, and empathetic. All these are skills that I help organisations to build today; I didn’t learn them from someone with a college education, but someone who didn’t have one.”
There have been some great achievements along her journey, of which Zanele is really proud. The main one, is the founding of The UnLearning Children Foundation. An organisation that is focused on supporting adolescent youth to build key mental health skills with the aim of lowering Africa’s high suicide rate.
As someone who herself attempted suicide in her youth, Zanele has a deep appreciation for the role that unlearning the heavy expectations of society can have on young people. This comes with having the tools to support one’s mental health through life’s trickiest challenges– especially as a highly influenced young person today!
One of those skills is being open and willing to change one’s mind about what we thought was true. 'Our key values in our organisation are; learn, change, and grow. Every intervention is about the process of learning, changing, and growing. When we see that in our clients, that’s always so exciting and an achievement.” Zanele has some phenomenal stories that have been shared by her clients about their successes.
Zanele says that she has experienced her fair share of challenges; one of them was being taken seriously as a 20-something year old female in the consulting industry. “I would sit in briefing calls with a client who, once they saw me or they engaged with me, would say we might want to work with someone else before we’d even discussed content and my expertise. When you experience something like that, the concept of ageism starts to feel very real. But you start to understand how it’s OK for you not to be for everyone. Although initially it hurt,” she explained.
Zanele commented that it’s really important to firstly understand who your ideal customer is and serve those individuals, as you don’t want to work with a client where there’s misalignment.
Another of Zanele’s biggest challenges, as an introvert, has been building a team with herself at the helm of the organisation. However, she explains that as a strategic thinker, she has realised that she cannot fulfil all the roles in her company and must collaborate.
Zanele has many goals both personally and for her business. She explained, “I’m big on goals - I set big, ambitious, hairy goals. With her business, Zanele’s biggest goal was to triple the company’s revenue and they are well on track.
Together with the growth of the business, a future goal is to expand the business globally, especially the consulting leg, and to be a lot less tied down to being anywhere at any given time.
“The business is building in that flexibility because we don’t have an office space. The intention was always to be a virtual business that can operate from wherever our clients are,” said Zanele.
The key thing that Zanele would say to young women following her path, is to live from your strengths and not doubt them at all.
“I love the quote of a mentor of mine, Michael Beckwith, who says that ‘if you don’t do you, you won’t be done’. That quote is so powerful because every person is unique. Sometimes we are so focused on trying to fit into the mould that we forget the tiny nuances that make us unique. And when we’re able to leverage those strengths and make the most of them, we grow, and we find that it’s easier to do business.”
Zanele enjoys reading when she has timeout from her busy schedule. But she usually read books that will support her business or help her become a better leader. “I love to just sometimes switch off. On weekends I try to do absolutely nothing. I don’t give feedback on anything; I don’t sign off on anything. The only thing that I do on a Sunday is to set up for the rest of my week. I’ll sit there and just try to disengage because a lot of what we teach our clients is how our moments of insights, moments of creativity happen when we’re not working.”
An impact to be made
“Being part of the KZN Top Business Women gives us an opportunity to inspire, and to elevate some of the work that we do and leverage co-creation. When you have a platform, it really creates that beautiful momentum for us to make an even bigger impact and to do it together with other awesome people.”