Building a Call Center Industry Through a Community Approach

Africa is quickly becoming a new HUB for the call center industry.  However, through misperception or inexperience, many “call center” people around the world are unaware of what this burgeoning market has to offer.  Well, the African people are working to change that.  Africa is a huge place with diverse cultures, a highly educated workforce, a supportive business climate, and a solid, community-driven desire to do a good job in order to build up the “whole”.  The Call Center Power team is committed to assisting the African people to change the perceptions of their call center market by educating as many people as we can about this amazing place.  Check out our podcast series “Africa – The New Lion of the Call Center Industry” to learn more.

 

In this episode, we speak with Lizelle Strydom, Managing Director of a very innovative organization called Career Box. Career Box is an excellent example of the innovative and supportive ideas and real-world tactics that the African people are taking to build up not only their call center industry but more importantly, their local communities.  Lizelle is an amazing person and the work she is doing here in Africa is something the rest of the world should pay attention to. Listen now to start your African call center journey! 


Brian:

Welcome to the Call Center Corner brought to you today by Call Center Power. My name is Brian Redden and I’m here with our special guest Lizelle Strydom from Career Box. Hi, Lizelle.


Lizelle:

Hello, Brian. 


Brian:

How are you? 


Lizelle:

Wonderful. Even better hearing your voice and thanks for having me. 


Brian:

Awesome. Well, thanks for joining me today. I’ve been looking forward to spending some time with you to talk about some very important things that are happening here in the African market, and certainly some of the great work that you’re doing. You’re definitely a special person, a great leader, and in the impact you’re making is huge here. Just real quick for our listeners: normally we do these podcasts from Washington, DC and Texas, but we’re actually down in Durban, South Africa, we’ve been on a trip with our friends and new call center partner, CCI global. We’ve gone through to several couple of countries here in Africa and over the last week and a half, we’ve learned a lot, met a lot of great people and Lizelle was one of those folks. Over the last few days, we’ve gotten to see the work that she’s doing and it’s just incredible. We definitely wanted to take this opportunity, to spend time with Lizelle so that she can tell her story and share the impact that she’s having and that her organization’s having, but also talk about that whole support network and support system and that community feel and community approach that really, I think the African people have as a whole, that we’ve experienced so far. So Lizelle we’d love to learn more about you and Career Box, your organization so fire away. 


Lizelle:

Any opportunity to share the African story and you’ve got me interested so very happy to be here. Thank you for visiting. It’s always good to see what we talk about in action. We are very, very proud of the work that we are doing at Career Box. About me, I am a proudly South African woman, but love Africa as a whole. I’ve been part of the GBS or the contact center industry for now 17 years. I’m currently the managing director of a phenomenal organization called Career Box. It really is a phenomenal organization, not because it unlocks potential, but also the opportunities and the impact that it has in our many, many desperate needing communities. I really get paid to do what I love with the salary at the end of it. I’m currently in a position where I’m able to pave the way and create a lot of opportunities for individuals that are disadvantaged, but also excluded from sustainable employment. Individuals that are excluded from opportunities. Individuals that are amazing, talented, display the right behaviors, and for whatever reason are not in a position to fend for themselves or create a sustainable income. So like I said, I started in the industry 17 years ago, but my real career change was about eight years ago where we partnered up with philanthropy trusts such as the Rockefeller Foundation and also the Mandela Legacy. The goal there is to really tackle this issue of youth unemployment we have in Africa. What we’ve seen, the stats are scary, but specifically even more scary for young females. Between the age of 18 and the 34, the unemployment stats even got up to 65%. Imagine young talented women so much to offer and just no opportunities to get into the employment market. 

Over the last eight years, we’ve worked really, really hard in building our case study, but more importantly, proving the hypothesis. That it is possible to take someone who comes from a disadvantaged background, somebody that has been excluded for whatever reason, whether it’s sexual orientation, whether it’s race, whether it’s religion, develop their skills and provide sustainable opportunity. It’s been a very rewarding journey, but I think what’s made it easier is those partnerships between Career Box being a not for profit and for an example, CCI being a corporate, but also getting the government involved and let’s collectively start working on and addressing the issue of youth unemployment in Africa.


Brian:

That is fantastic. And I’ll tell, we visited the Career Box offices yesterday and had the opportunity to go into the classes that you guys were putting on. And there were a couple things that really struck me. I definitely want you to talk more about this, about how you guys get this and what you’re seeing, but just the commitment of the people that were actually participating in the program was astonishing. Obviously I want you to go into more detail about that, because it’s really something special. But also what we witnessed was, more enthusiasm and a genuineness and a significant desire to work and accomplish and to provide, not only for themselves, but also for their families in particular. We heard a lot of stories yesterday that, my goodness, you almost had me tearing up a little bit. It was so special when we went in there. It was just a great situation. This is important for the audience. We’re going to talk a lot about Career Box today and we’ve talked about Career Box, but Career Box is one of the most pro people, pro community approaches that I’ve ever seen. I’ve worked in contact centers and partners all over the world and it’s a very special concept. I think it’s just a small example of the Jewels of Africa. The things that the African people, are doing here, that again, they’re supporting each other and they’re collectively building up in Durban, we saw very similar work in Nairobi. So it’s just a special place. This is just a microcosm of what we’re trying to talk about. Tell us more about Career Box and how it works and what you guys are trying to accomplish there.


Lizelle:

In a boring definition, people will call us a recruitment and training incubation center. But when we unpack what we really do and the social impact Career Box has, it’s unheard of. When you say, we are so pro people, and those are our natural skills as Africans, we can compete with whoever. I think there’s just a natural people attitude that we have that, to your point, Brian, something that you fell in love with when you came into South Africa or Kenya, wherever you went to, the synergies around people and how we feel about the communities we come from, what we call black tax, and you need to get it right Brian it’s called black tax. How we create and pave the way for many others, it’s just something that is our natural skills. What Career Box does is really, identifies individuals that display the right behaviors, have the right attitudes and just develop those skills and then create a way for sustainable employment. It’s about joining those dots. I was saying yesterday, when talking to you guys, Brian is, I rarely feel that as African, our time is now, there’s a lot of historic myths and preconceptions of what is Africa, the people of South Africa, and to be in a position to finally showcase the talents that we have through our training programs that we offer. Our training programs yes, focus on developing skills, but it’s skills that have been suppressed through our high unemployment rates, it’s skills that are naturally bolts within us as Africans, but we haven’t had the ability to showcase. It could be for the reason that we lack role models. There’s nobody that we could look up to, individuals that we are dealing with. And also, my background is, somebody comes from a disadvantage environment and my mom was a domestic worker. I always use this as an example, I’m going to strive to be a domestic worker, as opposed to an operations manager in a contact center or a senior operations manager in a contact center. What Career Box does is develop those skills through our training programs that then creates opportunities for individuals to get placed. 

Contact centers for me is one of the industries where the impact sourcing model is an absolute, absolute, no brainer specifically in Africa. Number one, like I talk about those natural skills of resilience, communication skills, the ability just to want to serve and serving being from the time you were two years old, all the way till the time you 60, that’s a natural skill that we have. Putting that and formulating it into something that provides a services with it, onshore offshore has really been our success story. So being able to identify individuals, develop those skills and then go out into those markets and create sustainable jobs for these individuals and their success on international campaigns. We’ve placed candidates from the USA to the UK, to Australia, and even locally on complex campaigns or complex client accounts to non-complex. We’ve seen that the success of impact sourcing and what Career Box does, it’s not just about taking someone who comes from a disadvantage background, developing their skills and placing them, but it’s been, how do they perform? How do they excel in those organizations and how do their lives improve for the better? That’s the social impact. Now I understand that you can make money. I always say, “Make money, yes. But do good at the same time.” And the social impact is there.


Brian:

That’s very, very, very accurate, given what we’ve witnessed and the time we got spent with you and your folks yesterday, one of the things that you had mentioned, were the perceptions or I say misperceptions rather of the African market, irrelative to the contact center industry. That’s one of the things we’re trying to accomplish, with our podcast and the messaging that we’re trying to get out, as we learn more about the market is really try to break through those misperceptions. I’ve been very open and honest. This is the first time over the last couple weeks that I’ve ever been able to come to Africa. I came in with what I thought I was going to see, and I will tell you that I could just check almost every single one of them like, “Yep, that was wrong. That was wrong. That was wrong.” The problem with that is, a lot of people are that way because they either haven’t been to Africa or they just don’t know or have don’t have any experience working with contact center partners in Africa. Very similar to the Central and South American markets, 10, 12, 15 years ago, I think there was a lot of that same, I don’t want to say fear, but just misperceptions. Well you hear the word Honduras. It’s like, “Well man, do we really want to do work down there?” But when you go down there and you meet people and you see what’s happening, you’re like, “My God! I don’t want to operate anywhere else.” Well, Africa we quickly have found that has that same vibrancy and potential. And there’s just a lot of really great things going on down here. So if you would do me a favor, because you deal with it every day. Can you talk about maybe two or three, misperceptions that you’ve come across that you and your folks and the African people in general are really trying to, I said, trying to break through? What are some of the things that you’ve seen and the issues you’re trying to address to get more business and more activity down here?


Lizelle:

I think one of the key things that people, when they think about Africa or doing business in Africa, you feel like you have to compromise on quality. A lot of people are fine, choose to do work in Africa, purely based on price rather than the quality that they receive, and that is a pure misconception because I think there’s this historic myth again, “Disadvantaged backgrounds, what really quality am I getting? What are their computer skills like? Is communication really an issue? What is the English capability? Are they able to provide a service and to what level?” Those are I think one of the debates that constantly I’m having with international clients is, there’s no compromise even with the Career Box model. We are not saying recruits or take people that come from Career Box because of their previous disadvantage. Absolutely not. We are saying there are talented individual who just need a break and just need an opportunity. I think one of the things is, dismissing those preconceptions that you have to sacrifice on quality. We’ve done, competitions, both with clients onshore versus offshore and we’ve come up, beat them hands down based on quality, customer services or you name it. So there’s no need to debate around that quality that you’ll receive from an employee perspective. But also if anything, we’ve seen an increase in most client stats when it comes to providing services in Africa. I think the second one is around the infrastructure, and how does it look? Is safe enough? Does it have the right buildings? The building that I’m currently sitting in, we can compete with the likes of Google or I shouldn’t say company’s names, but that’s the level of infrastructure that we have. We have infrastructure now where I can go and do my hair, I can do my nails. We have salons, we have gyms, the infrastructure I can connect anywhere. I’m talking to you now, Brian, but I had called every single today from across the world. We can compete with first world when it comes to that infrastructure.


Brian:

Absolutely. I’m sitting on the same campus as you are right now and, looking outside my window, I see construction cranes and out of one window, I see beautiful rolling hillside. I see the Indian ocean on the other side. So this is just an example of the great climate and again, just a lot of really cool activity happening here for example, in Durban. So completely agree. That’s great. Well Lizelle, those are great insights, obviously coming from somebody like you, that’s been on the front lines of really busting out these misperceptions and then really working with not only companies like CCI, but it sounds like, you’re working with government agencies and you’ve actually traveled, to I think Oxford and to New York and so forth, spreading the word. Tell us a little bit about those experiences.


Lizelle:

I think when we started off Career Box, it was really birthed from CCI because they wanted to really grow their organization and they wanted to pull their talent and give back to Africa as a whole. Whilst Career Box was birthed from CCI originally, there was always the goal to expand what we do as an organization and that Career Box was to expand their reach out of CCI. CCI can create so many jobs and have done a phenomenal job over the last few years and created those job opportunities. But there’s other industries we want to diversify our portfolio. We want to go into retail, we want to go into hospitality. We also want to service other contact centers. Creating that reach is very critical but more deliberately addresses what we’re trying to achieve in that’s job creation. Our partnerships outside of CCI are currently with other contact centers, but we also looking in the retail and hospitality space, like I mentioned. But it’s also important that those partnerships like a corporate, like a not for profit like Career Box and then those government interventions incentivize each other for the greater good. Because those are how we build those case studies and dismiss those preconceptions that currently exist because they cost money rights, but somebody has to do it. Those partnerships create the opportunity to bulk case studies and to better showcase our story and what we service and what we offer. Impact sourcing specifically in Africa is this new phenomenon and a lot of people are now attracted to impact sourcing and the work that we are doing. I just want to specifically say to the guys in the US have completely completely embraced it. Talking to US clients that never been to Africa before have really embraced what we are doing and what we are trying to do. So a huge complement for people that don’t sit on this side of the fence, but are willing to listen, willing to understand more without understanding the bigger picture and what it contributes to Africa as a whole, because we really trying to change that African narrative.


Brian:

That’s awesome. Again, this is my first time and the experiences that I’ve had and the people that I’ve met. This trip for me has been a people story hands down, it’s just amazing how positive folks are. In the sessions yesterday with the folks in Career Box, the level of commitment was just sky high. 


Lizelle:

That level of commitment and authentic, genuine attitudes are coming from individuals that don’t know where the next loaf of bread’s going to come from, but you would never say when you walk into their room. Our training programs, which I didn’t mention is unpaid – we don’t pay you for the training, we ask you to come in, we ask you to get committed, give us your time, we’ll invest in you and we will develop you. We don’t even guarantee that you get a job and the level of commitment and loyalty that you get is on another level.


Brian:

I definitely witnessed that yesterday, it was crazy. And I did want to ask just for the listeners, one of the things that we witnessed yesterday, it was a display of what I call really teamwork from people who haven’t known each other very long, but I will say it was a demonstration of complex and coordinated teamwork that the folks did in one of the classes, it was a graduation type activity where they put together a song and dance steps and so forth together. It was a way I think to bring them together and it was really complex and it was long, but can you tell us about that a little bit. It was ridiculously cool. We were all smiles while we watched what they were doing, but I sense there’s probably more to the story on that than meets the eyes. I wanted to cover that.


Lizelle:

Very good observation Brian. One being, the community spirit and the second one song and dance as Africans is just what we do. On the community spirits, it’s something that we call Ubuntu. Ubuntu is our culture, our communities. It means we are because of the communities that we come from and rebuilding that community spirit and bringing it into the workplace has been absolutely instrumental and linking it into what we do, which is sing and dance in any situation. We try and find love and light and happiness, and that positive mental attitude is critical. You said it – these individuals have not met before. They didn’t know each other and there, they created something so amazing. But just with that spirit of what we call Ubuntu, community upliftment, caring for each other, paving the way creating opportunities for each other whole handing and their teamwork is in every part of the journey, whether you are unemployed or even referring, “I’m going for an interview.” There could be one position left. “I will not leave going for an interview without telling my neighbor or somebody in the community that you also need to come with me because the opportunity is for us all.” So it’s really embedded in us as Africans that community and their team spirit. In our training, we try and make sure that it follows through so people feel that it’s part of them, it is them, it comes from them and it just makes it an easier learning process. Also it’s that stamp of approval that, “Yeah, I’m doing it and I’m doing it not just for me, but for my sisters, my brothers and the community and where we come from.”


Brian:

That’s amazing. We were all really struck by the people we met and just the demonstrations of commitment and teamwork and so forth, positive attitudes, and it was just fantastic. Watching as you go into these sessions, you hold these people in the palm of your hand, you’re a very good leader. I have no doubt with, folks like you leading the charge on this. I think Africa in general is going to be in a really good place from a call center perspective. I think you guys are doing great work.


Lizelle:

Thank you Brian and Call Center Power for joining and championing on and changing the African narrative.


Brian:

Absolutely. This has been a fantastic week and a half and again, we really appreciate it. Thanks for joining us today. 


Visit callcenterpower.com/call-center-corner-a-podcast-series to listen to the full podcast episode.

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