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An Ode to Leadership: Reflections of a 30-something-year-old leader

In one of the schools, there is a boy by the name of Tshepang. He is a natural leader, although his efforts need to be redirected. Tshepang was deeply troubled by the critical shortage of furniture in his school. He once successfully mobilised a peaceful demonstration which had the schools at a standstill for weeks on end. Tshepang also advocated for teachers and learners in his school to have desks, chairs, and furniture – he never lets us forget that the school is functional because of him…” 

“We are all born naked into the world, but each of us is fully clothed in potential” – Emmitt Smith 

We are seated at a table having lunch. I am listening to my team share their Trevor Noah Foundation (TNF) stories and some of their highlights from the past four years. Because we work so closely with schools, it’s no surprise that many lessons learned come from engagements with schools. I am seated at the far end of the table, listening attentively. I cannot help laughing at some of the stories the team is sharing. Some funny, some sad, others inspiring. I marvel at the team with so much pride and gratitude – when did we get here? 

It’s surreal that I’m the leader of such a brilliant young team. I have never really considered myself a “boss”, or the Executive Director, and I am only reminded of such titles when it’s time to report back to the Board. If anything, I consider myself a member of the TNF team, with my own experiences as well as my own moments of “We did it, team!”.

I’m waiting eagerly for Thati, our Programmes Manager, to finish off with her story so I can share mine.  

When our Founder, Trevor Noah, started TNF, all he had was a vision. Trevor knew that he wanted to impact South African public schools positively. He was able to share it in a way that made sense to us all. And with that vision, our programmes were born. We launched TNF through a partnership with New Nations School in 2018. We had just one school partner, and five years later, we find ourselves having worked with 14 school partners, over 6000 learners impacted, 500 educators and a significant growth in our personnel team. All this came from a vision. 

Trevor Noah Foundation has made such positive strides towards the empowerment of young people. Trevor expresses his vision as a world where an education enables youth to dream, see, and build the impossible. By empowering youth, TNF hopes to build a stronger future for all. TNF’s mission is to mobilise the global community to empower youth with the foundation for better access to high-quality education. TNF has cultivated strategic partnerships to grow our communities through education. We have improved learning infrastructure and continuously strive towards creating “conducive” environments for teaching and learning. At the crux of our programmes are the mental and psychological well-being of learners and teachers. We implement interventions to equip them with leadership capacity, tools and skills to survive in the digital age.  

Shalane loves what she does because she gets to work for an organisation she would want to work for.  

“As a leader, I now have the privilege of building a company that I’d want to work for…” 

Particularly gracious, warm, and outstandingly beautiful, Shalane has an authoritative yet comforting demeanour that lets you know from the onset that she is an enthusiastic and devoted person. You immediately feel at ease. 

Meet Shalane Yuen, Executive Director for Trevor Noah Foundation. These are her reflections on leadership: 

Walk us through your personal leadership philosophy.  

Lead from behind.  

“I’ve learned a lot about leadership from motherhood. When raising my daughter, I set boundaries but let her explore, discover her strengths, and gain confidence whilst solving a new problem. I’ll step in if she falls and needs help, but I follow her lead.”  

“My approach to leadership is very similar to my mothering style. My responsibility is to anticipate the team’s needs and create an enabling environment for them to learn, innovate, and thrive, individually and collectively.  

What have been some of the challenges of leading a young, dynamic team?  

Overall, leading a young, dynamic team is net positive! We’re energetic and enthusiastic, have dynamic lived experience and can relate to our school-going-youth partners’ needs, hopes and dreams. (I say we because I, too, am still a youth by South Africa’s definition!)

We place a high value on inclusivity and invest significant effort into building trust and reiterating the importance of feedback loops. Young people want to be heard, taken seriously, add value, and work in a safe environment free from toxicity. We listen, celebrate our diversity of thought and lived experiences, and respect a difference of opinion. Inclusion is a compelling business case, but don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy, and we don’t always get it right.   

For example, opening the floor for all staff to comment on a new policy is time-intensive, slows down decision-making and can cause confusion along the way. Ensuring a policy or a decision is inclusive of all voices challenges the very idea of leadership – should the company set a clear strategic voice, or should the policy reflect the voice, thoughts, and opinions of the team it governs? Most times, it’s a balancing act.   

What has helped you grow in your leadership (Both personally and professionally)? 

I’m unafraid to take on a new role if it means I’ll gain a unique social, tangible, or intellectual skill set. In 2011, I moved to New York City for graduate school. During those two years, I had a vibrant and perhaps unconventional side hustle journey. I “bartended” in Korea Town for one night when an interview became an on-the-spot training (I quit that night and walked home with $20 in tips). I waited tables for celebrities at a Michelin starred Japanese-Italian restaurant in Tribeca and interned for a global humanitarian nonprofit in a building where I couldn’t see the sun. I interned at one of the first crowdfunding initiatives to support women’s projects exclusively. I also volunteered for a social services organisation, accompanying asylees to sign up for social benefits programs. Can I learn something new, engage with communities outside my social circle, or explore a different part of the city? If yes, I’m game.  

Since graduating with my undergraduate degree in 2009, I’ve held a laundry list of volunteer, internship, paid and unpaid roles. On paper, my complete work history would make no sense to a recruiter; I’ve zigged, zagged, and made circles. However, I gained agility, resourcefulness, and an extensive professional network.  

From each job I held, I noted leadership aspects I respected and those I did not. As a leader, I now have the privilege of building a company that I’d want to work for – collaborative, transparent, inclusive, fun, kind and impact-driven.  

What are the three qualities that you wish to develop in yourself?  

Personally, there are many aspects of leadership that I have yet to develop and learn. Greater self-confidence in boldly and unapologetically using my voice for change. Self-love and prioritising my mental health; sometimes, this means saying no or knowing when to get up and go for a walk. Disciplined reflective thinking

Any last words? 

Give young people their voice! 

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