The Executive Director of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG), Gugu Ndebele, is passionate about children’s rights and says that growing women leaders of tomorrow is a privilege and part of her life’s purpose.
Placing Children at the Centre
Gugu Ndebele is very open and frank about her life – the good and the bad. Her philosophy in life is to take whatever lessons life has to teach you and run with it.
She grew up in Soweto where she attended primary school. Her mother wanted an excellent education for her children, and so Gugu went off to attend Inanda Seminary boarding school and her brother went to Ohlange High School, both in KwaZulu Natal.
Apart from a few tricky stops and starts (like failing Form One – or Grade 8 as we know it today) Gugu went on to do well in her school career and applied to do pre-medicine at the University of Fort Hare.
“Those days, when you were smart they put you in medicine, but I was hopeless at pre-med,” she admits.
She moved on to the University of Natal (UKZN), where she found her academic groove and did a/her BSc. It was during this time, working at the SRC shop, that she realised that she was more a “humanities girl”. Her tertiary years were “colourful” in the post-1976 period of unrest in South Africa. Despite the many challenges in a turbulent political landscape, she went on to achieve a post-graduate diploma in adult education from Wits and her Management Advancement Programme at WBS
In her early career, she worked for SACHED, an education NGO and then spent many years with the Department of Basic Education, working in adult education. From 2007, she held the position of Deputy Director-General responsible for social mobilisation – and is proud to have spearheaded many of the health, literacy and nutrition programmes that are still in progress today. Always dedicated to her own growth, she took some time out during 2000/2001 to study at the University of Manchester where she got her MSc in Organisational Change and Development.
My Mother's Legacy
When looking back on her upbringing, Gugu isn’t surprised that she landed up in children’s rights and education. Growing up in Soweto, she lived in a home surrounded by children.
“My mother always looked after children…. She used to sell chicken pieces and ice blocks to make sure we were all fed well. She would hold community meetings with teenagers and always talk about teenage pregnancy, prevention and condoms. I would just cringe: Why is this woman talking about these things, I would ask myself?”
But her mother’s passion for the wellbeing of children shaped Gugu’s way of thinking and influenced her career path. In 2014, she joined the South African arm of the Save the Children NGO, and was at the helm for five years as CEO.
“I absolutely loved my time at Save the Children. It was challenging and depressing, because you get to see how badly people treat children. But you also get to see how resilient children can be when given the right environment.”
In 2019, she was headhunted for the position of Executive Director at the Oprah Winfrey Academy for Girls.
She says, “I’ve always been a believer that the failure or the success of education depends on whether or not you put the child at the centre. The model of OWLAG is so much more than curriculum – we encourage our children to play sports, be involved in the Arts and do other things. And when they draw on their personal skills they are able to regulate themselves.”
We encourage our children to play sports, be involved in the Arts and do other things. And when they draw on their personal skills they are able to regulate themselves.
OWLAG selects children from extremely poor families and Gugu says that they need support on many levels.
“They spend time at this institution with all of these amazing facilities and resources, and then they have to go home and adjust to home life. So, the work that we need to do in the school is for them to be able to adjust – to understand that they need to be able to thrive in their own environment.”
She says many of the girls attending OWLAG need a focused psycho-social approach that takes into account their background, circumstances and many challenges, and the academy is now a certified “trauma-informed” school.
“We’ve been trained formally and accredited by the Child Trauma Academy in Australia and some of our psychologists and teachers, including myself, are trained in Neurosequential Model (NM) and are able to recognise and help children dealing with trauma. We also ensure that every person in the Academy is exposed to the trauma-informed approach.”
In terms of expectations, she says she has personally come a long way since she started at OWLAG, when she envisioned the academy being THE leader in the STEM space in Africa, producing women scientists who would change the world. But Oprah had other plans.
“Miss Winfrey kept saying to me, Gugu – I just want the girls to go on and be the best that they can be. And after a while I realised the best gift you can give to a child is the opportunity for them to be the best that they can be.”
As a mom of three, including teenage twins, she says one of the biggest challenges in heading up OWLAG is simply manoeuvring the slippery slope that is teen-hood.
“There are over 300 girls at our school, all with different personalities, interests temperaments and backgrounds. And so, you have to navigate this space understanding that, firstly, they are teenagers, so we must allow them to experiment and grow. But also recognising that children need firm boundaries and guidance, so that they know they can’t just do anything they want.”
In addition to a solid frame and an understanding of their own boundaries, she says it’s also very important for the OWLAG girls to have a sense of their place in the world.
“I tell them, it’s the Oprah Winfrey Academy, but it’s not about Oprah, it’s a South African school that is producing South African and African girls who are going to do amazing things!”
While OWLAG is 100% funded by Oprah Winfrey, the school is happy to partner with other corporates in different programmes, and is currently working in conjunction with WDB Investment Holdings to launch a coding programme.
“We don’t just want it to be a subject. We believe coding is a life skill we want every girl who goes through OWLAG to be exposed to it, and every employee,” she says.
She hopes other corporates will collaborate with the school and support some of the big programmes as a way of expressing their gratitude to Ms Winfrey for her contribution to South Africa. “After all, these are our girls,” she says.
I tell them, it’s the Oprah Winfrey Academy, but it’s not about Oprah, it’s a South African school that is producing South African and African girls who are going to do amazing things!”
Her internal radar is always to “do right by people”, inspired by her mother’s example of generosity and compassion.
“When I joined Save the Children, I remember my mother looking at me and saying, ‘you really are my child’. That brought tears to my eyes. She was my inspiration, but she also made me appreciate women because she was always surrounded by incredible women.”
She admits that her career has taught her many things – to remain humble, never stop learning and to always practise gratitude.
“I call myself the lifelong learner. I am a sponge; I just absorb. I learn from people that I work with; I learn from the world; I learn from my own experiences – which are not always positive. And … I learn from the girls at OWLAG. For me to be given the blessing and the privilege of having to work with those girls is an absolute pleasure. And I grow every day.”
Gugu Ndebele nominates Ms Pam Yako , Director of Zenande Leadership Consulting. She is a Leadership Coach, Mentor and Public Speaker. “I refer to her as a coach with SOUL,” says Gugu.
Look out for our upcoming profile on Pam Yako.
The celebration of women should never be an occasion but a daily practice. Join us as we honour women across industries by nominating a woman who inspires you. #CelebratingWomen #EveryDayofTheYear
WDBIH’s Business Manager, Rose Mamabolo has nominated Executive Director of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG), Gugu Ndebele.