|His feet are firmly on the ground, but Taddy Blecher, the founder of CIDA City Campus university, steers by the stars.|
Words like beautiful, wonderful, unbelievable, joyful and love trip off his lips with such ease that you know they are very meaningful to Taddy Blecher, the chief executive of CIDA City Campus university.
One of the founding members of CIDA City Campus, South Africa's first almost-free tertiary institution, in downtown Johannesburg, he is clearly also the spark that makes this "huge and audacious dream", a success.
Blecher, 38, describes himself as "a great lover of life and human potential" and "a believer in dreams". CIDA must be one of his greatest dreams. Started back in 2000 with 250 students and no equipment, it now has 1 300 students, drawn from poor backgrounds with very little hope of attending university.
The first 83 students graduated from CIDA in May 2004 with Bachelor of Business Administration degrees, fulfilling one of their wildest dreams. For the moment the university will only offer this degree, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.
Students pay 7 percent of what they would pay at other universities - R350 for the first year, R150 a month in the following three years - but contribute to the running of the university by helping with cleaning, maintaining computers and working in the administration offices.
CIDA is a private-sector sponsored institution, with some of the country's major corporates, like Investec, FNB, MTN, DaimlerChrysler and T-Systems, giving to its coffers. Some of their top executives also work as teachers.
Five years down the line, the institution owns four downtown buildings (all donations), has books worth R100-million, 1 400 computers, and has just trained 1 500 call centre agents from Soweto and Diepkloof in its latest venture, CIDA ConnectLab (The call centre company Connectivity was donated to CIDA).
In February 2003 an ICT Academy was opened, sponsored by leading information and communication technology companies, with an initial enrolment of 121 students. The academy now has 321 students.
The Dalai Lama sponsors a student. American talk show icon Oprah Winfrey sponsors 10 students and has donated money for a student residence to be built at CIDA Park. Richard Branson is planning to fund a School of Entrepreneurship, a future school of CIDA. Other international funders include Suze Orman and JP Morgan.
In 2002 CIDA won the grand prix award in the Age of Innovation competition for the most innovative organisation in South Africa. In the same year the Commonwealth Secretariat appointed the university to serve as a Regional Centre of Excellence in Higher Education.
Discovering the stars
Blecher tells the story of how he discovered the stars as a three-year-old. On a trip into the country he ran outside one night and looked up into the sky, and saw a night full of stars.
"Wow, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. They became my friends," he says. Back in the city, he looked for the stars in the murky Joburg sky but couldn't see them, and rushed to his mother, asking where they had gone.
He takes this as the point where he focused on "creating a wonderful world" for himself.
But this does not mean that his feet are not firmly on the ground. "I have made tons of mistakes. I don't get overshadowed by stuff, if something failed at least I tried. But I am a realist and optimist."
He says he used to be terrified of public speaking, a claim that's hard to believe. I have been to CIDA on two occasions where he took the podium and on both occasions I heard people alongside me swear that they were going to give up their jobs and come to work at CIDA, so inspired were they.
"I used to be sick for three weeks in anticipation of a speech," he explains. But then he made a sudden realisation. "I was trying to be like somebody else, but then I decided to just be myself, for better or for worse." In addition, he only talks about things that are meaningful and uplifting - not hard when it comes to CIDA's story.
He's come so far in public speaking that The Star newspaper acknowledged him in 2002 as one of the top 100 people who made the headlines: "An inspirational speaker whose incredible story made every major publication in South Africa."
It is hard to reconcile this warm, caring, vibrant person who loves working with people, with being an actuary, a numbers and desk job.
After matric his father offered him two options at university: medicine or actuarial science. He qualified as an actuary, picking up several awards, including the Liberty Life Gold Medal for the top actuarial honours student in the country.
He worked as an actuary for a number of years and was voted consultant of the year three consecutive times at Monitor Company. But the world of numbers and money became too much, and a change of direction was precipitated in 1995 by a R1,3-million job offer in the US.
He had bought his air ticket and had packed up his life, but changed his mind. He puts this down to something spiritual, a depth of belief that a better world, free of suffering, is possible. "I am very driven by spirituality - you begin to weave and God will provide the thread."
A week later he was in a township for the first time in his life. He spent five years in Alexandra and Soweto, helping school kids pass their matric exams.
That led to other problems. Kids came back to him, saying they could not afford tertiary education and couldn't get jobs. So the idea of CIDA was born, with students taking the skills they have acquired back to the rural areas. Blecher estimates that about 900 000 people have benefited from students passing on those skills. This is real empowerment, he says.
Has he learned from the students? Without a doubt: "I have learned about the unbelievable ability to share, from people who have almost nothing. Also, their incredible tenacity and courage, how they sacrifice and how they motivate themselves. And how to be happy - these have been very joyful times."
What have the students learned from him? Says a fourth year student: "He's a great leader, a good negotiator, to get funding, the best lecturers for us. I have enjoyed it here every step of the way."
A third year student agrees: "Taddy Blecher is a star, more than the president, he's everything, a friend, a mother, beyond what I can describe him. He means everything to me."
So, where does he get his energy? "I meditate twice a day, I walk, I do yoga." He gets up at 5am, and spends two hours meditating, repeating the process in the evenings. He learned to meditate as a 10-year-old, he says.
Besides this, Blecher says he has "an unbelievable passion, love and excitement for what we're doing for this country. What I do is not work".
He also believes passionately in the power of education. For every R1 that is put into education, up to R200 goes into the hands of the poor, he says. For every 120 students who get jobs, R10-million goes directly to disadvantaged families.
"Education is about wisdom. It is not just content but also discipline, love, caring and support," he maintains.
He won the Global Leader of Tomorrow Award from the World Economic Forum in 2002 and again in 2005, among others. Yet he sees them as immaterial, only offering further networking and fund-raising opportunities. "If I didn't win them it wouldn't matter - I truly mean it. I have done just as many things wrong. The awards are more exciting for my mother."
Where does he see himself in 10 years' time? Probably still with CIDA, where there is "still a lot to do". A model of CIDA opened in Cape Town at the beginning of the year, with plans to open in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape in two years. But otherwise, he would be "having a wonderful time somewhere". I bet.