As a young man from rural South Africa, Ewert dreamed of being an engineer. He worked his way through college in Pretoria, yet lacked the job skills and connections he needed to launch a career. Then he found CoachLab and Kabelo, a Cisco engineer from similarly humble origins. Now Ewert is ready to make his mark on the world.
Like many young, disadvantaged people from the countryside, Ewert Tau Makgaile wanted to find a better life and pursue a career. His passion for technology led him from his childhood home to the city, where he pushed himself to earn an engineering degree.
As he neared graduation, Ewert discovered CoachLab, a leadership program aimed at promising students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds. The program matches students with mentors; Ewert’s mentor was Kabelo Letsoalo, a Cisco engineer and former CoachLab participant with a similar background.
After graduating, Kabelo had found an entry-level technical job, but craved bigger challenges. He wanted more schooling but couldn’t afford to quit his job. The CoachLab program let him do both – advance his education while working in technology, with Cisco. Inspired by Kabelo’s story and eager to further his own career, Ewert applied to the CoachLab program and was selected by Cisco for a sponsorship.
Started in 2001, CoachLab is a 9-month “industry readiness” program that stimulates innovative thinking and develops leadership potential. It is a partnership between universities, companies, and the Innovation Hub – a science and technology park dedicated to teaching innovation.
The focus is on top students, specifically those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, studying in technology-related disciplines. Partner universities identify promising students for the program, based on the needs of the sponsoring companies. Twenty to 30 students are accepted each year. Participants receive mentoring from their corporate sponsors and work on real projects, using space provided by the Innovation Hub. This project-based approach helps students bridge the gap between the academic and business worlds.
“We learned responsibility, time management, how to report, and how to engage with the client,” said Kabelo. “We managed to put what I learned in university into practice.”
Cisco joined as a CoachLab partner in 2005, with a sponsorship of 5 students, and through 2014 sponsored between 5 and 10 students each year.
The program has two parts: a community project and an internship where students work on real projects and engage with real clients. The community projects challenge the students to solve real-world problems, working with agencies and experts. This gives participants experiences they might not have in graduate school, and teaches them skills they can apply in the workplace for the rest of their lives.
Kabelo remembers having the freedom to be creative. “It was the ownership. Taking ownership is what makes you successful at Cisco. They gave us the framework to be innovative, to achieve the deliverable within the given timeframe.”
After completing their community work, CoachLab participants move to an industry-specific internship at their sponsoring company. They work under the guidance of qualified industrial coaches who help them transition to the workplace.
CoachLab participants also spend time on the soft skills they need to succeed in the corporate world. As Gopolang Setumo, a CoachLab business manager, describes it, many students “know how to be ready for a test, but not how to meet work demands. They may not know how to deliver a presentation or write a professional email, and they don’t know where to start.”
Students like Ewert give presentations, write a technical document, discuss business ethics, and experience working in diverse teams. As Kabelo remembers it, “We learned responsibility, time management, how to report, and how to engage with the client.”
CoachLab partners with companies that operate on an international scale, and this helps people like Ewert and Kabelo, who grew up in isolated communities, become part of a global community. CoachLab participants have access to expertise, people, and opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise. This exposure to global, diverse teams can be life-changing.
“I’m working with a business unit in San Jose and developers in India,” Kabelo said. “The physical boundaries are flat. I enjoy that most about Cisco. I can give so many scenarios, it doesn’t matter where or who they are, there is openness.” Following Kabelo’s lead, Ewert also aspires to expand his opportunities to the world. He wants to work as a Cisco networking engineer and is considering a program in Poland that would prepare him to be an associate networking consultant engineer.
Kabelo is committed to giving back to the people who helped him get where he is. He volunteers as a CoachLab mentor himself, helping recruit new students and guide them through their community-oriented projects. He also provides guidance and feedback to students whose internships are sponsored by Cisco. He received a Mentor of the Year award in 2013.
The CoachLab program and Kabelo’s coaching have changed how Ewert sees himself in the workplace. “The mentoring provided by CoachLab differentiates me from other graduates,” he said. “Kabelo helped me build my confidence.” So much so, that Ewert would like to become a mentor, too. “Now that I’m finishing, I believe I can go out there and make my mark. I want to motivate others who come from humble places and help them move into the world, too.”