CEO Today Global Awards 2022: Interview with Lilian Niemann

We hear from CEO Today's top business leader of 2022 for South Africa.

The Motivation to Start

“I had a vision. I saw this huge education centre, with people streaming in and out, day and night, talking about all the wonderful things happening inside the centre.”

At the dawn of the new South Africa – the first democratic elections, 28 years ago – Lili Niemann started a Saturday school, Ed-U College Port Elizabeth, teaching extra classes for township learners. Today, E-Squared Education has educated more than 37 000 students ranging in age from six to 80 from pre-primary school to university level. Lili’s vision is for E-Squared Education to become a world-class organisation – a global provider of relevant online learning via the eCUBE online platform. E-Squared also seeks to become the world’s foremost education centre and an Institution which creates entrepreneurs who are job creators,not job seekers.

Lili hopes to make education even more accessible by taking her courses online, thereby making a world-class education possible for local South Africans and the world, and to produce self-motivated individuals who are ready to tackle the next phase of their lives, whether in education or the corporate world.

It Starts with Passion

In 1994, while conducting research for her Master’s Degree in music, Lili Niemann began investigating the link between music and maths. After spending time at a few Eastern Cape primary schools, Lili discovered that many of the township learners were behind, especially in the area of mathematics. This situation resonated with Lili, who then decided to start a Saturday township school where she could help disadvantaged learners catch up with their peers.

“It was through my passion for education and inspiring people that I ended up finding my path in life. By teaching and encouraging the learners in the township school in Port Elizabeth I realised that I could be successful and give back through becoming an educational entrepreneur,” Lili explains.

It was through my passion for education and inspiring people that I ended up finding my path in life.

Social Entrepreneurship and Giving Back

Lili is a committed philanthropist and social entrepreneur. She established the Rara Avis Foundation in 1996 to support talented students and help them to achieve their full potential. This was achieved through providing gifted students with bursaries, with the financial help of corporate sponsors, for Excellent Achievements in Academics, Music and Sport.

“I have always been a social entrepreneur first and a business entrepreneur second, as business was the mechanism I used to create change in education in South Africa and soon, globally,” concludes Lili.

The way people access education has changed dramatically over recent years, with online learning now becoming more popular than ever. But as the new global environment becomes more competitive and knowledge-based, millions of people without online access are getting left behind. Lili Niemann has built her career on redressing the balance by making quality learning accessible to all.

eCUBE Online is Lili’s latest venture, reinforcing her dedication to innovation and entrepreneurship. The new online service will eventually offer nearly 1,000 varied courses that will be available to candidates all around the world, any time, any place, through any mobile device with an internet connection.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Education

Due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the move towards online learning is more critical than ever as the world faces the challenges of isolation and blended learning. The move towards online learning comes at a pivotal time for South Africa, which is currently facing many economic challenges and a significant jobs shortage as well as critical pandemic-related obstacles. However, Lili and her team of passionate, dedicated educational professionals are focused on making quality education as easily accessible as possible.

I have always been a social entrepreneur first and a business entrepreneur second

Her latest online educational platform further solidifies Lili’s commitment to innovation and change in education. eCUBE was already in the pipeline before COVID-19 forced most educational facilities to think online and digital, and over the course of the next year Lili aims to release hundreds of new online courses based on the need and demand that she anticipates. Programmes are developed specifically around practical teaching and learning, encouraging important skills such as self-motivation to help students realise their potential as business leaders themselves.

eCUBE ONLINE offers a host of Matric subjects, including the opportunity to upgrade SA Matric as well as Microsoft IT courses, because this is where Lili sees a gap and an opportunity.

“Online is how most people choose to learn these days, whereas before face-to-face was the norm. eCUBE ONLINE gives anyone anywhere in the world access to a top-notch education. All that is needed is a digital device and reliable internet connection,” says Lili. “The online programmes are developed with remote learning in mind and are structured to teach people the skills they need to become self-reliant and reach their educational goals. After they have completed their course, they will also have the skills necessary to be successful in their career pursuits.”

Globalisation and technology have radically changed the way we live; transforming the world economy and connecting us in ways that past generations could never have imagined possible. This can be seen in all aspects of life, but one of the most exciting paradigm shifts has been in the education sector.

The way we see access learning has changed dramatically over recent years, and it is now possible to access a quality education without ever setting foot in a classroom. For children growing up in the digital age, technology provides a powerful platform on which to play, socialise and learn. Online learning is also often a cheaper option, which also makes it more accessible to students on tight budgets, and the use of the internet has made it easier for students and teachers to collaborate and share resources and ideas. All of these combine to create an enriching, environmentally sustainable learning experience with huge potential.

Online learning has created a far broader, more flexible educational environment, and it is widely considered that the future of education is online. But there is still work to be done. As the new global environment becomes more competitive and knowledge based, millions of people are getting left behind. Over 265 million children are still not in any form of education, of whom 22% are of the crucial primary age. While basic numeracy and literacy skills are improving and there are more learning opportunities for women and girls compared to ten years ago, there is still great disparity higher up the educational ladder.

As noted above, Lili Niemann has built a career on redressing the balance. Having already established an exceptional educational institution that is inclusive and accessible, she is now embracing the technological revolution by offering online learning as well. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored Lili’s drive to move her education platform online.

Collaboration and Philanthropy

“Collaboration is an important element of our work. We have secured global partnerships with Durham University Business School, Nuffic & PUM Netherlands, University of Twente, the Entrepreneurship Institute and GeniusU.”

Perseverance is the Key to Success

Finding her path was easy; the difficult part was leaving the surety of her lecturing job at the University of Port Elizabeth (UPE).

“When I started as an educational entrepreneur, I had no business knowledge, an overdraft of R20,000 to fund my business, an Honours Degree in Music, the will to succeed, and the vision to create a global business in education,” says Lili. “And 28 years later, my dreams have come true. With the launch of eCUBE ONLINE, we are now a global player offering education worldwide.”

Lili has also faced many obstacles over the 28 years it took to create the successful educational business she has today. “When you are an entrepreneur it’s not all smooth sailing; bad things happen, there are some very tough times and lonely times when you run your own business,” says Lili. “When you start becoming successful, suddenly people who never supported you want a piece of it. You learn very quickly who your true support system is and your strength of self,” says Lili.

When you start becoming successful, suddenly people who never supported you want a piece of it.

Strength of Character

“When you first start out on your entrepreneurial journey you are excited and the opportunities are endless,” explains Lili. “However, you need to be ready to face some difficult situations and overcome tough barriers to get to where you ultimately want to be.”

“If being an entrepreneur was easy, everyone would be one. To be an entrepreneur you need to have the strength of character to stay true to your goals and not take no for an answer.”

Adapt to Change and Keep Going

“Change is inevitable. As an entrepreneur you need to embrace your ever-changing business environment and be flexible enough to turn it into an opportunity for growth. Pivot the business, expand, grow, and innovate to stay relevant.

“A good example of this which I have experienced in my career is the impact technology has had on my business – which is why I launched eCUBE ONLINE.”

Lili reminds us that quitting should never be an option: “Twenty-eight years ago, I started an educational business based on my passion for teaching music and math, which turned into an education success story. All of which would not have existed today if I had stopped when I thought I had reached the top.”

Future Ventures and Plans

“E-Squared Education Enterprises is working steadily as part of the global GeniusU group to become a globally accessible education platform.

“The CEO Today Awards 2022 will give global recognition to E-Squared Education Enterprises, which will boost our global status. I am honoured to be nominated for this prestigious award.

In this coming year we will deepen our commitment to innovation and change in education via our global online growth plans.”

About Lili Niemann

Lili Niemann, founder and CEO of E-Squared Education Enterprises, is a dedicated and passionate educational entrepreneur who is driving change in South Africa via education. She fulfils many roles as a businesswoman, social entrepreneur, philanthropist, art lover, avid reader, agent of change, mother of two and grandmother of one, and beneficiary of over 37,000 students.

Lili obtained an Honours Degree in Music in the late 70s and was lecturing Music at Nelson Mandela University when she had her vision to start Ed-U College Port Elizabeth Saturday School at the dawn of the new democracy in South Africa. Without any formal business degree, MBA, HR or sales and marketing qualification – but with an abundance of passion, creativity, energy and enthusiasm and the support of her family, she excelled. She has survived an extremely tough education entrepreneurship journey as CEO of E-Squared Education Enterprises for 28 years.

E-Squared Education Enterprises is a world-class education organisation that creates entrepreneurs. Today, it has educated more than 37 000 students ranging in age from 6 to 80 across its various educational entities: Ed-U College Port Elizabeth Schools (pre-primary, primary and high schools); Ed-U Options Academy (a private vocational college) and Ed-U City Campus (a private higher education institute). The organisation continues to innovate with the 2020 launch of its international online company, eCUBE Online.

E-Squared Education Enterprises has secured global partnerships with Durham University, the Entrepreneurship Institute and Genius U, as well as being the only Microsoft partner in the Eastern Cape. These collaborations, together with cutting edge technology available at the Campus and a value system aligned with the 17 self-sustainable goals of the United Nations, are the core strength and focus which grounds Lili’s private education institution. Successful alumni have excelled both nationally and internationally – from soccer players in Belgium to athletes in the London Olympic Games and opera singers in New York.

On top of this, Lili launched the Rara Avis Foundation out of her strongly-held belief that education should not be about teaching learners in order to make money, but instead to strive to make money in order to provide a consistent learning platform. More than 35 million rands were donated to deserving learners and students via the Rara Avis Foundation in the past 28 years by supportive partners, trusts, donors, foundations and directors of E-Squared Education.

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