Refirement Story: Louise van Rhyn


Louise van Rhyn qualified with a BSc in Computer Science in 1987. Her early work life was spent as a computer programmer, analyst and project manager. She completed an MBA in 1992. In 1998 her family moved to the UK where she was offered a position in a Change Management firm. While in the UK she commenced her doctorate studies on Large Scale Social Change.

After 6 years in the UK Louise and her husband felt that they wanted to return home to South Africa. They wanted to give their 2 daughters the opportunity to grow up in Africa and to know South Africa as their home. But their return was confronted with lots of negativity from outsiders who thought they were crazy to come back to SA with all that was wrong here.

Louise felt that having had the wonderful opportunities to study and travel abroad that she had enjoyed, she wanted to give back to South Africa, but did not know how or where. She came to the realisation that the key lay in mobilising citizens to action and she started looking at how her experience in her doctoral studies on large scale social change could help her contribute towards a positive change in the South African situation. As there is no doubt that education is one of the most significant challenges facing South Africa, Louise decided that this would be her area of focus.

In 2010 Louise kick-started a large scale programmes to change education. The programme, known as the School @ the Centre of Community project is designed to mobilise citizens and communities to partner with principals and educators to educate South Africa’s children. The project has a bold, audacious goal to realise a significant improvement in education outcomes for all children in South Africa by 2022. “The programme found me more than I found it, and I just knew that this is what I had to do to contribute to a positive change in South Africa,” says Louise.

The project has a number of individual initiatives aimed at making local schools the centre of communities. The Partner for Possibility leadership development initiative partners business leaders in co-learning and co-action partnerships with school principals. The Elders for Quality Education for South Africa Initiative involves matching South Africans aged 50+ who have a wealth of time, wisdom, experience and skills with local schools who need volunteers to help in a number of ways. “Many people have so much to give but don’t know where to get involved, so we want to link people to schools who need volunteers,” says Louise.

“We are also involved in starting a Community of Committed Parents at local schools as a way of getting parents involved in their children’s education and educating them on how to help the education of their children in partnership with their teachers,” Louise explains.

90% of South African school governing bodies struggle with governance and financial management. In response to this we have started the Accountants for Quality Education for South Africa initiative where accountants can partner with local school governing bodies and volunteer their skills to help in governance and financial management.

“We want to make education a national priority and are sending out a call to action for all citizens to get involved in making our local schools the centre of communities. Children spend 5800 hours awake each year, and only about 20%, or 1200 hours of this, is spent at school. The other 80% of their waking hours are spent at home and in their local communities. We need the local community of parents and grandparents, friends and neighbours and other committed citizens to provide support in the form of mental and emotional stimulation for children during the time they are not at school. For far too long we have abdicated our responsibility for educating our children to the Education Department, but they cannot do it on their own. We now need to educate parents on their role in education and what good parenting looks like so they know how to help and support their children. We have 19 000 schools that need to see better education outcomes in the next decade and we need everyone to help, says Louise.”

Asked about her challenges, Louise says that a lack of resources is her greatest challenge. She sometimes feels overwhelmed by the enormity of what has to be done and the shortage of time to do it in. She has had to learn everything about the South African education sector from scratch and build new networks from nothing.

To date the project has operated mainly through volunteer activity, with business funding for certain initiatives. The project is looking for innovating funding solutions that combine leadership development and social contribution in order to avoid becoming donordependent.

“I have been pleasantly surprised at the receptiveness of people and really believe it is because we are working on a project whose time has come, and that people want to get involved and make a difference. I know that our goals cannot be achieved by one person, but are dependent on collaboration and partnerships. I feel that my strengths as a connector and influencer are key to bringing in and connecting the right people together to make the project work. I am working to my strengths and focusing on what I love to do,” says Louise.

“We have one opportunity to leave a legacy, we need to grab it with both hands and live fully into our possibility. Most of us have so much to be thankful for, having lived a life of privilege. Now it is time to give back and make a difference for others. Education is key to giving others opportunities and is the root of many of South Africa’s other problems such as poverty, unemployment, crime, teenage pregnancy etc. Let us work together to make sure that every child gets a quality education, and in so doing change a nation, one school at time,” concludes Louise.

Louise’s advice for others who want to Refire:

  • Follow your gut and your heart
  • Don’t listen to the naysayers
  • Don’t ask permission, but ask forgiveness if required
  • Partner and collaborate with others as much as possible
  • Go places that stretch you outside your comfort zone
  • Be in conversations with people you would not normally spend time with and cross traditional boundaries