Chinezi Chijioke on developing generations of African innovators and leaders
20 June 2018
Posted by: Sharon Bacon
Nova Pioneer | Kenya, South Africa | Pre-Primary | Primary | Secondary | 8 Schools | 2,200 Students
I recently became a Nova Pioneer parent myself. I am a father now and it was both emotional and inspiring to have my daughter walk into our school in second grade.
On the night before Nova Pioneer opened our first school, I called Sandy Sparrow to say thank you. Ms. Sparrow had been my middle school principal when I first moved to the United States at age 11. I hadn’t thought of her in many years, but I thought of her because she stood at the start of my Nova Pioneer story. It was her who, years and years ago, had first encouraged me to dream wildly – casting aside practical restraints on ‘how’ while I did so – and to believe in the reality of those dreams.
It was then that I started daydreaming about one day being part of a team that would build education institutions of excellence back home in Nigeria, and across Africa, that would be places where young Africans would cultivate and unleash their talents and spirit of resourcefulness. I was keenly aware of the resourcefulness, calibre and initiative of my peers at home, and of the power great educational institutions would have when matched to that talent. For me, that was the genesis of the dream and mission of Nova Pioneer.
Over time my dream evolved but never left me. It has at times taken the form of universities, schools, sports academies, after-school programmes, and more. Always it was to be part of a team that would build great educational institutions across Africa. That dream led me to start my career as a teacher at George School, a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, USA. I loved it but ultimately left the classroom to try to build the competence and confidence to start a new educational organisation. I chose to pursue an MBA and Masters in Education – which in retrospect probably built more confidence than it did competence! However, that led to 8 years as a management consultant working with school systems across Africa, the Middle East and Europe where I did do a fair amount of learning…and ultimately to opening the first Nova Pioneer school in 2015, and to a thank you call to Sandy Sparrow.
In my role I find I am constantly managing the dual emotions of  excitement and gratitude for the work and progress of our students and team, and  a sense of impatience about how much further there is to go, how much better we can get.
I am deeply grateful for all the challenges opening Nova Pioneer has presented; we are constantly learning and getting better. It is constantly challenging, but if it wasn’t it probably wouldn’t be worth doing.
Our mission is to develop generations of innovators and leaders to shape the African century. Our vision is to do that through building a pan-African network of exceptional and accessible schools, and as a result to earn the right to have impact beyond our walls. We have grown very quickly and, as is true of all high-growth school networks, have had to navigate key choices and tensions around the delivery of the Nova Pioneer promise in our schools with our pace of growth and constraints on affordability.
The core strategy for doing so can be boiled down to culture, people and practice: we think of those three things as our ‘core muscles’ – and they are the areas in which we invest the most resource, effort and focus on being intentional and on building strength. We believe schools are ultimately people, the culture that lives amongst them, and the practices they employ. At the level of a single school, you can’t have a great school without great culture, people and practices. Thinking scale, we also believe that we can only grow to be a great network that meets our mission if we build great and consistent culture, if we grow great people, and if we define and consistently employ clear and effective practices across all our functions, academic or otherwise.
We are a for-profit enterprise. We describe it as “for-profit for purpose” because ultimately we exist for a purpose, which is our mission, and we believe a for-profit model is the most effective way (and perhaps only possible way currently) to attract the capital to meet that mission. In general, and in the long run, our mission and commercial imperative are aligned – if we deliver on our promise to students and families at scale, we will be successful commercially and will in turn earn access to more capital to expand our impact. However, there are of course some shorter term tensions that can arise between our purpose and profit imperatives, and we embrace the task of navigating that tension as a team and with our board.
For us, having clarity of purpose, intent and vision has been extremely valuable. Where we are fuzzy on that, I find we end up rehashing conversations multiple times, building divergent realities across schools or countries, or generally just creating confusion and frustration across a team of wonderfully-intentioned teammates.
We see ourselves as part of the broader African, and ultimately global, education movement. Even if we open 3,000 schools, that will be a drop in the bucket of what our continent’s and world’s young people need. We have also learned eagerly from – and feel deeply grateful for – the many other schools and school groups who opened schools before us or alongside us, and who have been so generous in sharing their practices and experiences with us. It has been wonderful to adopt, adapt and share back practices; or to be able to anticipate the challenges that lie ahead of us at the next inflection point in our development. We still seem to run headlong into too many of those challenges(!), but the advice of others has made those moments much easier to manage. In turn we hold the intention to share openly with other educators and school groups, but too often find ourselves too absorbed with trying to do a good job with our schools to be able to proactively invest adequately in those collaborations. That shared learning and peer-mentorship is one of the wonderful possibilities I see in the Global Schools Forum. The caliber, intentions and aspirations of our fellow GSF members is inspiring, and our collective potential is transformational.