CFO cares: Elisa Mkhize’s story starts with three and a dream

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CFO Elisa Mkhize opened the doors of Soul Leadership Academy in January 2022 to address the still-limited access to quality education for disadvantaged students, and help grow a new generation of leaders for the future.

Elisa Mkhize was born to parents that she describes as “staunch educationalists”, who instilled their passion for learning and development in their children.

“My father headed Letshega Malokwane High School, which is situated in deep rural Limpopo, in Crackow village where I grew up. Under his leadership, the school went from a zero percent pass rate to 100 percent in just a few years,” she shares, explaining that his dream would later lay the foundation for Soul Leadership Academy.

It was also Elisa’s father who recommended that she pursue accounting because it aligned with her competencies and core values. “My parents have had a great impact on my life, giving me a strong foundation that I’ve built on to this day,” she recalls.

Elisa entered the finance industry in 2003 as an articled clerk at PwC, where she earned her qualification as a CA(SA). She progressed through the ranks and assumed the role of CFO at Clinix Health Group in 2016. During her time there, she successfully developed and implemented governance structures and a robust finance strategy to support the business’s growth objectives, earning her a nomination for the 2020 CFO Awards.

In 2020, Elisa decided it was time to explore new opportunities. She resigned from Clinix and took a six-month sabbatical, using the time to reflect on her life and determine which direction it would take next. She kept on coming back to her father’s dream, and realised that her heart was guiding her in the same direction – towards her passion for empowering the youth through education.

“I realised that there was still a big inequality problem in South Africa’s education system, despite people like my father’s best efforts to address it. Many children still struggle to access quality education due to affordability issues."

"The reality is that private education has become highly unaffordable in our country and therefore inaccessible to a large part of the population. If we can find a way to broaden access to quality education, we will begin to bridge this inequality gap,” Elisa adds. “If we develop the children of today, they will go back to develop their own communities tomorrow.”

Nurturing holistic humans

Elisa decided to create a distinctive offering that would bridge the gap in the industry, and expand access to quality education for the underserved population and so Soul Leadership Academy was born.

When the academy opened its doors in January 2022, it only had three learners. “I remember telling the teachers and the headmaster that, if we’re not able to teach these three the same way we would a full room of learners, we shouldn’t even start.”

Even though the school is accredited for grades one through 12, Elisa adopted a phased approach when rolling out classes, starting with the high school first. In the first year, she intentionally started with Grade 8 classes. In 2023, she also introduced Grade 9, and this year she has introduced Grade 10. “The school is progressing towards becoming a fully-fledged institution and will offer all high school grades by 2026.” Currently, the school has 34 pupils.

Elisa’s approach to developing scholars is unique. “We view each child as an individual and aspire to develop them as such, avoiding comparisons among them. We’ve established a ‘personal best approach’, where learners set their own goals and teachers assist them in achieving those.” This fosters a culture of self-competition, while staying attuned to educational trends.

She emphasises that, at Soul Leadership Academy, they believe world-class is a state of being within yourself, not a place to be.

“Crucially, our focus extends beyond developing global leaders. We aim to nurture citizens who will give back to society, by developing our learners holistically. This means looking at all of the aspects of being human, not just academically, but also physically and psychologically, and even creatively,” she explains.

Elisa is doing this by ensuring the teachers are highly qualified, passionate, and committed to excellence – much like herself. “Our teachers dedicate themselves to ensuring that no learner is left behind.”

She has also created a cross-pollination environment with the corporate world, where leaders actively engage with the students face-to-face, sharing examples of the challenges and opportunities they face in their careers.

“In many cases, our first exposure to the working world only happens when we start our first job. This approach allows us to cultivate and harness leadership skills at a young age.”

Another initiative Elisa has introduced to ignite students’ interest in the outdoors and natural environment was inspired by the Finnish education model. “This model encourages the integration of nature into learning, and it has proven to be successful in our school,” she says.

She emphasises how Soul Leadership Academy has intentionally sought to create an environment that is not only conducive to learning, but also safe. “Our students come from very diverse backgrounds, presenting various challenges that manifest in the classroom. These challenges reflect the social ills and inadequacies they encounter.”

The school has taken an intentional co-parental role alongside these students’ parents. “As a school, we firmly stand for three values: authenticity, love and respect. Every day, we strive to embody these values, aiming to instil them in our learners, with the hope that they will extend into society as well.”

Elisa adds that, while this responsibility is immense, “we are prepared to embrace it. We hope that, in doing this, we can establish a foundation for the students that will sustain them into the future. It’s been amazing to witness the children’s growth and development. Being on this journey with them is incredibly rewarding,” she says.

Breaking the barrier to entry

Elisa acknowledges that the challenges she faced while creating the school were immense, including getting access to resources and funding, as well as securing accreditation.

“The accreditation process is intricate, involving numerous regulatory requirements. But we persisted with passion and successfully obtained our accreditation,” she says.

Accessing funding and resources is still a challenge, however. “It’s very difficult for a startup to get funding. You have to have a proven business model and a robust track record before you can approach commercial banks, which also requires substantial initial investment,” she explains.

This is where Elisa’s financial expertise comes in handy.

“My involvement in business has exposed me to the world of entrepreneurship and the harsh realities it presents. The world of entrepreneurship demands resilience, grit, and perseverance… which we maintain to this day.”

When she’s not spending time at the school, Elisa is still crunching numbers – albeit in more of an advisory role. “I was looking for a small- to medium-sized entity that I could assist with their growth journey on a consultancy basis, allowing me the flexibility to focus on Soul Leadership Academy,” she explains.

She joined Kiara Health as a part-time CFO and financial advisor in 2021, contributing to the implementation of corporate governance structures, controls and processes, as well as enhancing their financial reporting.

Even with the current challenges of accessing funding and resources, Elisa is not deterred from her vision. “If my father could take a school with limited resources in deep rural Limpopo from zero to 100 percent in only a few years, then there’s nothing we can’t achieve. A lack of resources cannot hinder us from delivering a world-class experience and producing excellence right where we are.”

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