04. Sharron McPherson: Disruption, creating impact and setting big goals

Sharron L. McPherson

Sharron McPherson, co-founder of the Centre for Disruptive Technologies in South Africa talks to Sue Stockdale about disruption, creating impact and setting big goals. Sharron is a former Wall Street investment banker /attorney turned serial social impact investor. She is one of Africa’s leading experts on the impact of technology disruption on emerging market growth, development and future work.

Sharron is Adjunct Senior Lecturer (University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business), and a member of Faculty at Singularity University (NASA Ames Research Centre – Mountainview California). Find out more about Sharron McPherson.




Sharron McPherson transcription

Sue : [00:00:00] today I’m talking to Sharron McPherson, co-founder of the Center for Disruptive Technologies located in South Africa and a serial social impact entrepreneur. During her career she’s raised over $1 billion in investment and has had a positive impact on over 1 million people. In terms of wealth and creating sustainable jobs. Wow, that’s amazing. Welcome, Sharron.

Sharron: [00:00:33] Thank you. Thanks for having me on the podcast. It is good to be here.

Sue : [00:00:37] Well, you’ve got a lot that you can share with us, I’m sure, and a fascinating background. Perhaps we start with the center for disruptive technologies, so tell us about what it actually is and what it does.

Sharron: [00:00:48] Okay. So about 10 years ago, I went to singularity university, which is based at the NASA Ames research center in Silicon Valley, right in the heart of mountain view, California, [00:01:00] because I was looking for next generation technologies for the smart city projects that I invest in. So I teach I advise, I invest, and there’s a number of vehicles that I use for the impact investing. And I’m really interested in sustainable water, energy and food systems. So I went to singularity university thinking I would bring back some next gen tech for some of the projects, and I had a pivot and my life changed and it was just absolutely amazing. And then when I came back, I set up the center for disruptive tech because I’m actually interested in impacting a billion people before I leave the planet in a positive and measurable way. And what better way to do that than through education and wealth creation and job creation. So the center for disruptive tech really be called the center for disruptive human capacity. Sue, because that’s really what we spend a lot of time helping to prepare people, organizations, businesses, [00:02:00] governments for the impact of the fourth industrial revolution. But certainly the technologies that are in part, well, a key factor that’s driving all four I R.

Sue : [00:02:10] From what you’re saying there, Sharron, I’m getting the sense that it’s not so much focused on the technology per se, but the environment and the capacity for humans to be prepared to adapt. To those technologies. Is that right?

Sharron: [00:02:25] Yeah, that’s absolutely right. You know, when we really went deep into technology and we have an incredible network, our business model is network orchestration. So we have thousands of incredible technologists around the world and certainly across Africa, and we use those technologists and those tech experts to swarm on challenges that governments and institutions are facing and businesses.

And one of the things that we realized as we were becoming transformation partners is that the best solutions are always going to be human ingenuity coupled with the right strategy, [00:03:00] coupled with technology as an enabler. That’s the winning formula, but it becomes what transformation, and that’s very much a personal journey. Institutions and organizations are made of people. And so we really are transformation partners.

Sue : [00:03:14] And if you’re a transformation partner, I’m reminded of your TEDx talk that I watched recently, Sharron, where you talked about your own personal transformations and those pivots, as you described them, the synchronicity that has been created in your own life to get to where you are today.

I think it would be useful for the listeners to get a sense of those things so that they can get a better understanding as to how you’ve come to develop the center for disruptive technologies, and perhaps more importantly is how the essence of you shows up in that as well.

Sharron: [00:03:46] Well, thanks for that question. I think it’s an important one. I believe in the indomitability of the human spirit, and I’m really interested in people’s stories, and I’ll come back to that a little bit later because I think that that’s an important part of influence and power is [00:04:00] really being interested in people and stories, but just a snippet of my own.

I am the youngest of eight. I’m a preacher’s daughter in every sense of the word. And I’ve had a number of breakdowns in my life. Some of them very public. I’ve had massive public failures that really took me right to the bottom and. I felt forced really to evolve in order to survive. And so I’ll give you an example. You know, my background is in banking and law. I came to South Africa many years ago in the mid nineties I worked for the constitutional court, then went back into banking and started one of the first women focused funds. Back then we were trying to raise about $250 million to invest differently in women in Africa, and we had really raised a lot of capital.

I think we were ahead about $20 million at the time, and the market tanked. So this is back in 2008 I mean, the global financial crisis capital’s running out of South Africa at an [00:05:00] extraordinary rate. Well, really out of most emerging market destinations. There was a lot of fanfare, a lot of hype, and it was a really big public failure. I’ve had a number of those kinds of experiences that have come very close to breaking me as a person, and sometimes I think you have to have a breakdown in order to have a breakthrough.

Sue : [00:05:19] Yeah, that’s important learning.

Sharron: [00:05:21] Yeah. And so as a result of me being broken, I had to go through a transformation process really in order to try to piece myself back together again. I mean, I’ve been to, I’ve been just about homeless. I’ve been penniless. I’ve been in a situation where I didn’t know how to pay my daughter’s school fees. I didn’t know where the next meal was coming from, and I’ve taken lots of chances. And quite often those things work out. Sometimes they really don’t. And that has been really the impetus for my personal transformation journey has been going from survival to how do I thrive?

Sue : [00:05:57] So it seems to me that you’ve got a willingness to take risks [00:06:00] and to accept that some of them will work, and some of them may not.

Sharron: [00:06:03] Yes. I think,

Sue : [00:06:05] and yet as a society, we do want to encourage people and leaders want to encourage their teams to be risk takers very often because that’s where the breakthroughs come from, but we don’t like necessarily the consequences when those risks don’t follow through in the way that we didn’t expect it. I don’t know if you’ve got a take on that.

Sharron: [00:06:22] Yeah. I’m a former wall street banker and attorney and I really do call myself a technologist and a social impact entrepreneur. What I realized was that there’s a common thread, and I talked about that in the Ted talk where I talked about synchronicity as being really the key to impacting the lives of many, many people.

And I do respond to that call to courage. I don’t necessarily think that everyone is wired for the kind of risk that I am prone to take because entrepreneurism is part of me. And so I’m an impact entrepreneur. I care about impact, which is why I [00:07:00] care about power, because I really am after being a catalyst for change in terms of the people that I mentor and more part of my life and who mentored me, but also big change.

And I think that when people are interested in impact in different kinds of ways, that also has value. I don’t think everyone’s called to be a visionary and they’re going to go out and take on kind of global grand challenges. I think some people are programmed to look at what is happening in my country. Some people are looking at what’s happening in their city and some people are change makers through how they nurture and develop their own families.

Sue : [00:07:36] So it can be a macro or micro level.

Sharron: [00:07:38] Yeah, exactly. And so I definitely believe though, that if you are a visionary and you’re kind of called to big systemic change, that really requires transformation on a personal level as well as organizations and then you go out and you’re a transformation agent in society.

Sue : [00:07:55] One of the phrases that resonates with you Sharron I think is an Oprah Winfrey  [00:08:00] phrase “power is the capacity to impact with purpose”.

Sharron: [00:08:03] Yes.

Sue : [00:08:04] Andwhen some people can make an impact with purpose and get what society thinks perhaps as a negative result. So it’s not taking us as an organization or a society forward in the way that perhaps would be resonating with most people’s values. So I guess it’s power can be used for good or for evil is really what I’m saying here. What’s your take on how we focus more on the good than the evil?

Sharron: [00:08:28] I think the heart of your question is based on the concept of shared values. One of the things that I’ve run up against in my quest for power is once you have it, how do you wield it for good. I’ve lived in South Africa for almost 25 years now, but I’m a new Yorker. My MO is a new Yorker. I have a Western approach to things, and so if I find myself in North Africa and I’m having a conversation with a group of women, business owners, you know, who [00:09:00] are wearing her hijab, my values around how they create influence and how they utilize their own influence can be very, very different than my take as a Western woman. And so I’m always having to kind of engage in metacognition to allow room for me to continue to evolve myself and to realize that I do have a frame of reference and that is not everyone’s frame of reference. So I spend a lot of time investing differently in women, for example.  And in some cultures that’s not good. There are societies who do not share women’s economic empowerment as a value. And I’m mindful of that. And so I think I am on a continuous quest to develop a better understanding of shared values and certainly continuing to transform personally to try to strike a balance between me doing what it is that I really believe I’m called to do, but [00:10:00] always being mindful that other people can have a different sense of what is good and not being prescriptive in that regard.

Sue : [00:10:07] Another thing that you mentioned there, Sharron was about this personal transformation that you may need to, to undertake continually to develop. Now, some of our listeners might also be in that situation working with people who are undergoing personal transformation journeys. What have you learned from your experience of doing that? And perhaps maybe I should actually back up a little bit and ask you what do you mean by personal transformation? Because it may mean different things to different people.

Sharron: [00:10:32] Well, I don’t mean change. I really mean transformation. I think it’s a cliche metaphor, but I definitely believe that the butterfly is probably the pupae to the butterflies, one of the most profound metaphors. So I believe that we. have within us, every single person on this planet has within them the seeds of greatness. I think that we have tremendous power. How do we learn how to harness that power [00:11:00] to help to shape the world that we live in, in a way that allows us to have maximum abundance today and maximum abundance in the future?

So I’m kind of plugging in some, some thoughts around sustainability into that answer. But when I think about transformation, I literally think about self-directed neuroplasticity. I think about creating positive feedback mechanisms that enable us to unleash our human potential.

Sue : [00:11:29] My final question to you, Sharron, is around the topic of inspiration, because I also see that the power of inspiration can be truly amazing, and that’s part of what this podcast is about, is giving people access to things that get them to think differently, to give them some inspiratio. I’m wondering what you think the role of inspiration has in this whole journey that you’ve been talking about.

Sharron: [00:11:48] I think of inspiration. I like to dig down into like the really the root, the core of a word and its origins. If you look at inspiration and [00:12:00] respiration, breath, breathing, life into something that’s powerful. So when I think of inspiration, I literally think about breathing life into others. I think it’s critical and I think that people who are inspired themselves are great at inspiring others. The question is how do we ourselves. Inspire ourselves. And I think that that’s a very individual quest. What inspires me can be profoundly different than what inspires someone else. And that inspiration is meaningless if it translates into an emotional response and there’s no action. And so I’m interested in inspiration, but I’m also interested in how do we catalyze.people to action, which is probably why I spend so much time thinking about cognitive behavioral therapy because I am interested in behavior change. [00:13:00] So inspiration is critical, and I believe that some people are gifted. I believe that we all have gifts. I kind of picture humanity as this humongous orchestra, and every person in that orchestra has a unique instrument. And that instrument is so critical that if that sound is missing and that psychometry of sound, then we are attitude. That’s why I started by saying I truly believe in the indomitability of the human spirit, and I believe that everyone has an incredible story and everyone has a unique voice. I think if we can help people to raise their awareness around their unique contributions and their own personal value, then I think we unleash people’s capacity to inspire one another and to be inspired, and that’s critical.

Sue : [00:13:50] Wise words there Sharron. And speaking to you today has been very inspiring just to hear your views on things. Finally, if our listeners want to find out more about what you do and how they’d like to be [00:14:00] in touch with you, what’s the best way they can get them in touch with you or. Look at you on the internet.

Sharron: [00:14:04] If you want to connect with me, LinkedIn is probably the best way.

Sue : [00:14:09] Thank you so much for your time today and it’s been great to speak to you.

Sharron: [00:14:13] Thanks Sue. Thanks for having me, and I wish all of your listeners an amazing day and that they have an amazing transformation here.