My work is changing lives: a conversation with Genevieve Simiyu

Get to know our team! After Lemuel Hawkson, this interview is the second of a series featuring the outstanding team from Chalkboard Education.

Genevieve Simiyu is Chief Operations Officer at Chalkboard Education

I feel my role is so diverse; it’s a blend of everything we do. As the C.O.O, I handle the company’s day-to-day running, which comprises customer projects, human resources, business development, and a little finance and accounting — ensuring that we are working within the law where we operate as a legal entity in Ghana. Additionally, I handle client satisfaction, checking in on them, and making sure they are happy with our services.

What attracted you to work at Chalkboard Education in the first place?
I joined Chalkboard Education in 2016, and what attracted me to the firm, first of all, was the application process. I saw the opening on Twitter, which at that time was a pretty unconventional place to see openings. I applied and met the entire team as part of the interview process. I liked their perspective on things and their vision of what Chalkboard Education was trying to do: as a student in Kenya and AIESEC representative in Ghana, I could attest to the need for easy access to relevant content. When I realised what they were trying to do, I joined, and it’s been great since then.

What have you learned at Chalkboard Education?
I think I am more tech-savvy, now I can do basic coding and have a lot of knowledge about what happens in the education space. I am more aware of so many different things happening in education, such as learning types, learning methods, and how to enhance learning. Importantly, I have learned how to use technology to support teachers. Most people think we are trying to replace teachers and make them redundant, but this is incorrect. We are only making their work easier and more efficient, while allowing more organizations to offer training to more people.

What do you like about working with the team?
I keep telling most of my friends and family that I have an excellent work environment. My team is among the top I have ever worked with before because people are very self-driven, which is brilliant because I don’t have to chase after anyone. The team is also quite diverse; everyone has their mindsets, which means we don’t go in one direction for the sake of unison. Everybody is willing to bring ideas on board, which is interesting because, from previous work experiences, people agree to what a leader says without any questions or suggestions. The team is outspoken and willing to learn from each other, each member brings something to the table, and people are eager to take something from each other.

Genevieve Simiyu is part of Chalkboard Education’s leadership team, in charge of defining the strategy and orientation of the company on the long term: here in Lagos, Nigeria (2018).

What is a highlight of your career at Chalkboard Education?
I would pick when we secured our first paying customer. At the time, it was project larger than we had ever done before, and a real challenge but we did it and that client has since renewed our engagement. It is always exciting when we sign new clients: they come to us with ideas, but it is often up to us to define the best roadmap. When they need to execute it, they trust our expertise to deliver on the work — and what work! We are literally changing lives: our clients are universities and NGOs, often solving enormous challenges, and we help them scale their impact and grow their activities into new territories and languages.

What is your background?
I started working pretty early as my dad’s secretary. I am not entirely sure if it was a real job, but it was an excellent opportunity to make side money and learn what office spaces look like. It was an engineering company so we had a lot of insight into mobile telcos. When I went to university, I was running my little side gigs. We ran a tour company to help people find accommodation and get a commission from the accommodation providers. After that, I joined AIESEC pro-bono. We helped young people maximise their potential through leadership training, mentorship, team building activities, etc. I then got an opportunity to come to Ghana as a resource person to work on projects nationally. It was my first time working on large budget projects, and it was an opportunity for growth and change. That’s when I decided that I liked Ghana, and applied at Chalkboard Education.

What are your interests outside work?
I love to travel, but COVID-19 has restricted travel. I like to see new places, meet new people, and take in new cultures. I wouldn’t say I like routine, so it is always a relief to go somewhere different and see new things. I enjoy nature, so I am either by a water body, the beach, a river, or some resort. I like to climb a lot, trees inclusive; I guess mainly being outdoors with the elements is fun. I also enjoy many D.I.Y projects, either painting or trying to make something out of experimental materials.

What is the most challenging task you have had to do since joining the team?
When the team was starting, there were two things. The first thing was sales to schools and universities because, at that time, nobody was thinking of using technology for teaching. We had door-to-door meetings prospecting and going to universities to explain what we do and how we could help. We would have interactive sessions and expressions of interest, but we could not get callbacks. Learning to make sales was quite challenging because, while we felt there was a need for our solution, we didn’t find the way to make it attractive to schools administrations. After a few months of trying to sell them the solution and long nights of reflection, we realised that we needed to make teachers’ work easier and not just students’. This is how we came up with what is today our Impact Dashboard. Once we sold this to the institutions, the mobile app used by the trainees would naturally go along.

The second thing was when we onboarded our first client, and our software wasn’t as efficient as it is today. We had many books, and we had to work long hours to make sure it was ready to go live. It was a stressful one week, but we learned a lot: ever since, we worked with the tech team to make our work easier as well, and we are now doing in a few minutes what used to take a week. Being a part of this process is very satisfying.

You face clients all day. What have you learned working with so many organisations and profiles?
There is a lot to learn. I think that customer relations and customer service are my most demanding tasks. I have to deal with people from different countries, speaking different languages, and with different priorities and work styles. Their mood will also translate to how they interact with you: you have to continuously adapt, which can sometimes be demanding, but I think it is an excellent practice as a Manager, and a stimulating challenge.

Genevieve Simiyu with Adrien Bouillot, CEO of Chalkboard Education, in the Accra offices.

What are your objectives with Chalkboard moving forward?
As we scale up, I would like to focus on client retention, making sure our clients move with us to the next level as we go ahead. Our technology is in the upgrade process, so we look forward to offering our clients new and improved solutions. I would like to see Africa’s education space embrace technology as a tool for teaching and learning: we don’t have enough libraries or access to books and relevant content, so the quality of education has struggled quite a lot. We are also trying to expand into other continents such as South America, Asia. It will be awesome to know that our product, made in Africa, is a solution appreciated globally. To showcase a team from Africa can deliver on multinational projects, and impact various places in various languages. We are heading there, and I look forward to leading the team in that direction. I want the team to grow as well, right now, we are about a dozen people, and I would love to have more opportunities to onboard young people. And yes, we do have job openings coming soon.

You are originally from Kenya. How has adjusting to working in another country been?
The first thing I would say is different is the work-life experience. Nairobi in particular is very fast-paced, people are always in a hurry and the market is more competitive, more aggressive. Ghana is culturally very different. Here, there’s a lot of calm when it comes to working. The people in Ghana have a way of being very professional yet always friendly and available. People take the time to really understand what you are trying to offer, and provide valuable feedback and insights as to how we could work together. Life here is also very comfortable: in my experience, moving around has not been a problem because it is very safe. I have also adapted to eating spicy Ghanaian food, and I like it quite a lot now!

What advice would you give to people starting their careers?
After getting a degree in a general field, you don’t necessarily have to pursue something in that specific range; feel free to explore other opportunities. When it comes to careers, I have learned that it is not a ladder going upwards but more of a jungle gym. You can always go sideways, try something new, experiment with stuff, and build on your skills. Have as many diverse experiences as you can and feel free to fail. Finally, set measurable goals, S.M.A.R.T. goals, and keep skill-building; the world is changing very fast, so you need to keep up.

Thanks, Genevieve!

Educational technology in Africa and emerging markets