Champion for SA Youth, Taddy Blecher
In 1995, Taddy Blecher – a talented actuary – received a $200K job offer (worth $320K in 2016) to work in the US. After buying his plane ticket, Blecher changed his mind and decided to remain in his native South Africa to work in education and help disadvantaged youth.
Blecher recognised that something was broken with South Africa’s further education system. It was too expensive for many young people who found themselves stuck in a vicious circle of low education and poverty. His idea was to a create a virtually free bricks-and-mortar university in South Africa – affordable to all – “where anyone could succeed no matter how poor or underprivileged”. It was a highly ambitious, daunting challenge. For instance, it took six appeals just to become government accredited.
We had no money, books, computers, dormitories, classrooms, teaching qualifications or even students. But we did have an idea to start Africa’s first virtually free university. ~ Taddy Blecher
Blecher hit on the clever idea of recruiting and training 250 students to help run the campus (The Community and Individual Development City Campus, known as CIDA City Campus); to take proud ownership of the institution; and, to promote the nascent college to their own communities to further boost student numbers.
As Blecher pushed forward, his efforts were noticed by the community and local government A turning point was when an investment bank gave CIDA the use of an office building in Johannesburg and a former employer gave Blecher the use of an office.
Today CIDA continues to provide education for disadvantaged youth, with 80% of its 800 students going on to find full-time employment after graduation. Over the years, it has helped thousands of students graduate and find work or start businesses.
How Taddy Blecher built a virtually free university from nothing
We never took no for an answer. ~ Taddy Blecher
- Think big. Blecher had a dream to create South Africa’s first virtually free university and that was all he had. No money, books, teachers, buildings, qualifications, accreditation. Just a vision.
- Lack of money is no excuse. Money was always a challenge but creative thinking often won out. For example, Blecher wanted to ensure the university was teaching relevant, sought-after skills in a practical setting and so empowering students to aspects of the university and partnering with businesses whose professionals would teach pro bono killed two birds with one stone. Students received hands-on, practical experience; real-world education was being provided and the university saved on staff salaries.
- Use what you have. Blecher recalls teaching students to type 30 words a minute with nothing but a photocopy of a keyboard. That’s bootstrapping.
- Look for creative solutions.
- Blecher recruited and trained 250 students to run the campus, exposing them to every major business discipline – IT, finance, marketing, human resource management and entrepreneurship – in an integrated way.
- His students became his marketing team – telling others about the college and raising its profile. As CIDA’s profile grew, people in influence began to step forward to offer assistance.
- He approached local businesses and convinced professionals to teach their skills, pro bono.
- Deliver a quality service. Affordable should not mean inferior. CIDA focused heavily on delivering a relevant, technology-centred, hands-on education to all its students so they could find employment – or start their own enterprise – after graduation.
- Do great work and others will notice. As CIDA grew through the efforts of its students and Blecher’s stewardship, he was able to secure donations from the likes of JP Morgan, Dell, SAP Africa, SUN Microsystems, CompTIA, Cisco Systems and entrepreneurs Oprah Winfrey and Richard Branson. So impressed was First National Bank by CIDA’s mission and efforts, it renovated and donated an 11-storey space in downtown Johannesburg to the cause. CIDA would also go on to secure a $1m donation from the Skoll Foundation.
- “I had been working for a consulting company as an actuary, earning an incredible salary with all the benefits I could ever need, except for personal spiritual fulfilment.”
- “I believe resolutely in the innate potential of every human being. If we can nurture every person’s talent, teach them how to create something from nothing, they can and will lead lives of dignity and empowerment.
- “I suddenly realised I was free to do anything I wanted with my life. The only jailer was myself.”