Watch and read Kristine Pearson’s inspiring talk at Successness Fest 2017
Kristine’s inspiration highlight: “I focused on not what the donors felt they would fund, I wanted to focus on what the kids wanted.”
Here is a transcript of Kristine’s inspiring 20 minute talk at SUCCESSness Fest Cape Town, 2017
Wow type-A personality, the type-A term was invented by, or coined, by an American cardiologist in the 50s…because he tried to identify those behaviours and personality traits that would be most likely to bring on a heart attack. So if you look at some of the drivers of type A on the screen behind me you might recognise yourself. I’m not going to go over all of these, but I happen to fit 14 of the 15!! I might share later which one isn’t me.
- Waiting in long lines freaks you out.
- Words like perfectionist, overachiever, workaholic fit.
- You have a phobia about wasting time.
- You’re highly conscientious.
- You’ve always been a bit of a “catastrophist”.
- You frequently talk over and interrupt people.
- You have a hard time falling asleep at night.
- People can’t keep up with you.
- You put more energy into your career than relationships.
- Relaxing is hard work.
- You have a low tolerance for incompetence.
- You’d be lost without your to-do list.
- At work, everything is urgent.
- You experience stress intensely.
- You make it happen.
So I grew up in a place called Sacramento, in California, I was a ‘laat lammetjie’, my parents were in their 40s when I was born and I have a brother and a sister who are 16 and 18 years older than me respectively, so I essentially grew up as an only child. My father had something that at the time we didn’t know what it was, but I think it’s well known now, and it’s called PTSD. As a result of that he couldn’t hold down a job, so I went to 13 primary schools, 3 junior schools and 1 high school. Anything I wanted I had to earn myself, and I started working when I was 7!
When I graduated from high school at 17, I left the house and I moved to Los Angeles. So I’m pretty sure that this type A personality of mine was actually set by the time I was 17. I entered University and for a 4 year degree, I finished in 3 and a half years. Further, I worked 10 part time jobs while I was at university, so I could have the skills that I felt that I needed as I went out into the world.
When I graduated from university, well let me just say the best advice that I got when I was at university was from a cultural anthropology professor, who said: “Allow the laws of hospitality to protect you.” And that always really stuck with me, and that really truly was some of the best advice I’ve ever had. So when I graduated, I did not want to get married, did not want to have kids, I did not want to buy a house, nor did I want to save the world, I wanted to see it and see it I did. And I, to this day, have seen and visited more than a hundred countries. So when I graduated, I went to work for a consulting firm which suited me really, really well. The more that I worked, the more I billed, the more money I had to spend on travel.
Then in 1986, I spent 3 months traveling around Eastern and Southern Africa by myself. I had the time of my life and I came back and announced that I was emigrating to South Africa. You can imagine, in the heightened state-of-emergency how supportive people were. But I was determined to come.
I took 2 years to close down what I called my manicured life in Beverly Hills where I was living at the time. I spent 2 and a half months travelling through Latin America, and I immigrated through the Mafikeng border post on the 3rd of January 1989. It’s a decision I’ve never once regretted, and it’s been an amazing, amazing experience having what I call a ringside seat to history, living here, and arriving at that time. So initially I established a consulting firm, focused on the development of women in business and boards, and then I was hired by one of my clients – Nedcor – where I worked for 7 years as an internal consultant and at an executive level. At the same time in Johannesburg, I got married and my husband created a company called Freeplay Energy, which pioneered the wind up radio and also the human energy space. I was on sabbatical from the bank at the time, and I was asked by the board if I would be interested in running a charity as a way to find out how to get this wind up technology to the people who need it most but could afford it the least. Of course I had no experience in this sector or space whatsoever, but I said: “Ok well I will do it for you for 3 months”, and that was that.
So as I was tasked with this product with a great name called an FPR1, I went into the field in rural Mozambique and I did what I do today, I sat on the ground with rural women and I asked them, what do you listen to? How often do you listen to the radio? What have you learnt? They looked at me like I had come from Mars as they didn’t listen to the radio because there weren’t any radios in their communities. Bear in mind that this was still only 7 or 8 years beyond the civil war, and so the economy was still very, very wrecked. This was a rubicon day for me, because it became very clear that if you could actually get information to women in their language, because they were largely illiterate, that you could start to change outcomes.
I happened to be in Mozambique a week later, when the country got its annual rainfall in 4 days, and I spent the better part of my next 6 months in Mozambique. And I really came to understand the importance of information to people who have been displaced, whether they’re displaced because of conflict or because of natural disasters, there’s so much they want to know and it’s not always what you think they will.
Another fantastic project at the time was “kalashnikov’s for radios”, where we exchanged 12500 radios for illicit small arms, and that was in collaboration with the UN, with the military in Niger and with the sultan of iair. So that was a fantastic project.
But nothing impacted me the way that this letter did. It arrived in my office in February of 1999. It was from a charity in Rwanda who had said our wind up radios are making a tremendous difference to child headed households. It was a term I had never heard and they invited me to come to Rwanda. These radios had gotten there because the British government had bought 1000 of them and they had intended to use them for old people living in the hills of Croatia during the Balkans war, but the Balkans war ended early. And so, like what often happens is products get dumped into Africa. So these were dumped into Kigali, but luckily an NGO had the foresight to distribute them to these kids. So I went to Rwanda and nothing, nothing prepared me for what I saw. The country on every level was completely wrecked. At that time there were 101 thousand child-headed households living largely in absolute destitution. I had the great privilege of speaking to many, many of these children, obviously through an interpreter, to find out what a difference these radios were making in their lives. They told me things like, they listened all night long, that the voices they trusted were those on the radios. When I asked them what they wanted to listen to the most, what do you think they said? Music?? Educational programs? No. it was the news. Because they didn’t trust the adults around them, so they wanted to know what was going on. I remember a little girl in the corner told me that until she got her radio she wanted to kill herself, because she couldn’t imagine that anyone was living like she was, she was living in a very deep rural area, and she said, that when she had a radio then she knew there were other girls like her, and she learnt of an association that was making baskets and she said she felt it saved her life.
It’s so hard to explain what information means to people when you don’t have any. But there was a big problem with these radios. If you wound them anti-clockwise they would break. And I felt that we had a moral and ethical obligation to create a radio that would be designed specifically for children living on their own and for distance education. And I’d ask these kids, if you could name a radio, what would you call it? What would be the name that you would give it? It is what unifies us. What brings us together. And another girl told me: “Medicine for my heart”
So I tried for a couple of years to try to get the funding to develop a radio that would be designed for children living on their own and for distance education, and no one was interested. Then, in 2001, we won something called the Tech Museum of innovation award. We were the very first award winners of that and we got our first 50 thousand dollars funding and once we got that we could then raise the rest of the funding, which was another 200000 dollars. So it wasn’t insignificant, to create a new radio. I had the design brief from the children, took it to a group of Stellenbosch educated engineers, who went sort of: “Right, a design brief from orphaned kids”. I said: “Well, if you can’t come up with something then you don’t get paid.”
So they brought me this design, we took it out in the field, took it to kids that had very little access or exposure to technology. But it wasn’t right and so I said come on we’ve got to go back to the drawing board. What was important to these children? It had to be pretty, that’s what girls said, I paid attention particularly, our products weren’t purchased by the end users, they were purchased by NGOs or governments or UN agencies, and then distributed for groups. But I focused on not what the donors felt they would fund, I wanted to focus on what the kids wanted. They wanted something that was solar, that could be wound in either direction, because these original radios could only be wound in a clockwise direction. so if you’re in a rural area, what do you know from this or that, so we needed something that was unidirectional, that was solar, that was pretty, that would be quote shaped like a handbag, that wasn’t black because they take it into the fields and it would get too hot. I still have that design brief.
The next prototype that the engineers came up with for me, there we go, was that beige one in the corner. I took that back to these same kids that I’d been speaking to, and asked them for input and what they would do to improve it. I discovered the greatest menace to technology in Africa is the adolescent boy with the screwdriver and girls commented on its look and boys, I put a screwdriver down, they’d wanna open it up. So it was an amazing experience watching these kids with this product and putting it down and based on their feedback, 32 changes were made and this radio was created.
So we launched it, and it was absolutely a huge success. So for the next 10 years, we had 215000 of these radios distributed to many, many projects. 10000 went to Malawi for distance education over the course of that period. 15000 went into Zambia for distance education, 15000 child-headed families in Rwanda, 20000 to Madagascar and the the numbers went on and on.
We put 265000 of another radio into South Sudan prior to the referendum. Also during this time we had unbelievable amounts of media attention and my husband and I were some of the early fellows of the foundation of the World Economic Forum. We had received numerous Awards, in 2005 I won an award that was given to Bill Gates in 2006, we were made time heroes of the environment. It was absolutely fantastic.
In 2008 FreePlay, the company, was sold to an Indian investor and then on a Friday afternoon, 2 years later, I was on holiday, and I got a call from my office that said the company is moving out. But what I came to find out is that they had gone into administration, but had never said a word to us. This was a company that we’d had a very collaborative and productive relationship for the last dozen years really but was now under new management. I came to find out that in a very short time that not only had they moved out and gone into administration and soon to be liquidation, but that the hundred thousand dollars that they owed us was not coming our way. They also had the tooling from my LifeLine radio, so we had no product.
So if it couldn’t get any worse, it shortly did, because the company that we had had such a great relationship with for all these years, had been bought out on something called a pre pack, which is a financial instrument in the UK, where a Hong Kong company had bought the assets from the company and now this new group was going to be our competition. It was very well financed, we were flat on our keisters. Not only did this happen, but, we shared a server with them, so they also had all my contacts, all photographs, all of our case stories, all of our research, and we had very little.
So it all fell apart, and that started the journey where I fell apart. So instead of getting the 3 boards together and the team and the rest of our stakeholders, to try to come together to find a solution, what did I do? I tried to solve everything myself, I tried to keep everybody else calm, I tried to make sure that they were ok. But it’s never one crisis that hits you, it’s one crisis after another after another. and especially when you literally a few minutes earlier had been what you considered very successful on most measures have this huge gigantic rug pulled out from you, it is very emotionally, physically, mentally on every level, exhausting.
But the only way that I know how to cope with any problem was to try to work harder. And try to solve it, because I’m in charge, I’m ultimately the one that’s responsible, so then you go into this whole thing of what if? How could I have not seen this? How could I have not… the sign was there, was it there? What if I had done that? What if, what If I didn’t do that? Then would this be different now? Also at this time my mother passed away, I wasn’t with her, I was working, then my two cats died, you know, I was an absolute wreck, but I didn’t mourn, I didn’t grieve them, I just kept working, cause that’s how I knew to solve a problem, you just worked it out of your system.
What was great about this time though, is that we did have the funding to create new products, so with that funding we created a ‘for profit’ company, registered in the UK, called LifeLine Technologies trading, so we could control our products, we could control the design and the manufacture of them. And we launched these two products, one was called a prime radio and another, a life player MP3.To listen to Kristine’s full story, click here to go to my podcast interview with her