Stefan Ferreira: Pushing Boundaries to Change the World Through Education

Top 10 Most Inspiring CEOs in Business, 2022

Stefan Ferreira, the ambitious CEO of Growth-Ten, loves to challenge comfort zones and push his own boundaries. He also inspires others to step up to challenges and achieve things that they never thought of as attainable.

Ambition is what drives Stefan, but his definition of success does not only include quickly climbing the corporate ladder. Over the years, he has consciously looked for those opportunities that allow him to use his unique skillset and experience to make a difference in the world around him. Stefan is on a mission to help create a world where people can live life to their fullest potential for as many people as he can.

At Growth-Ten, he is setting the strategic direction as well as ensuring that the right resources are available and deployed for successful implementation. “As a leader of a business, I don’t see myself as the one that needs to know everything or to be the best at everything the business does,” Stefan says. “I see my role as the one that sees the vision or opportunity no one else sees and then to build and enable an A-team to make the vision a reality.”

Professional Life: Before and After Joining Growth-Ten 

Stefan spent the early part of his career as a management consultant driving efficiencies through business process improvements. After a successful stint as a consultant, he sought out an opportunity to lead the growth acceleration of a South Africa-based business unit of a multinational private equity-backed business. Since then, Stefan has worked mostly with private equity-backed businesses.

In 2019, Stefan joined Growth-Ten. He took over the leadership of the business from the company’s founder, who was also the CEO at the time. Accepting the leadership role in a founder-run company can be tricky, but Stefan, fortunately, faced no major issue. His close working relationships with the board and investors, which also include the founder, ensured that he encountered no roadblocks while implementing a transformational growth strategy.

“During this transformation journey, we have narrowed down on our core value proposition, our delivery model, and target market to align to the biggest needs and impact we can make in the industry,” Stefan says.

In the beginning, he was very much the hands-on CEO, involved with anything and everything at Growth-Ten. Stefan believes that such a leadership approach was needed then, to effectively shift the direction of the business and create positive momentum toward the chosen strategic direction. Now, he focuses on the key priorities that drive their business forward, while his exceptional teams take care of the day-to-day activities at the company. “If you build a team that passionately do the right things, for the right reasons that drive meaningful impact, success is surely to be the outcome,” Stefan says.

From very early on in his career, Stefan has been in positions where he had been chosen to step into big leadership positions. He became the Managing Director for the first time in his late twenties – led a multi-national organisation based out of the UK with operations in South Africa. “The lessons I learnt by winning over the hearts and minds of the Senior directors, with much more work experience and years of institutional knowledge, continuous to serve me well today,” Stefan says, remembering his time at the company. He was the “youngster” without any industry knowledge but still produced great results – revenue more than double in three years.

The lessons early on in his career continued to pay dividends when Stefan went on to manage the turnaround and growth acceleration of another multinational in the Nordics, based out of Stockholm, a couple of years later. “Although the challenges manifested themselves differently, at the core they were the same, and the team, with my leadership, went on to achieve extraordinary results,” Stefan says. “This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout my career journey to date.”

“Fast forward to today, the challenges I seek out and the lessons I have learnt throughout my journey continue to accelerate our growth at Growth-Ten,” he adds.

Growth-Ten Focuses on High-Quality Education and Employment  

In South Africa, the youth unemployment rate is 46.3 percent. Recruiting managers often struggle to find suitably qualified candidates to fill their open position, especially in the technology space. Stefan points out that affordability and access to education are also a challenges for many young people in Africa. Only 51 percent of youth entering higher education have the means to fund their education.

There are government grants available, but only about 70,000 openings exist in public institutions in South Africa for new first-year students. “This leaves a staggering 4,00,000 qualifying school leavers every year without an opportunity for higher education,” Stefan says. It is, therefore, not a surprise that only about 40 percent of the workforce in South Africa has some form of higher education. The Growth-Ten portfolio companies are ideally positioned to address this problem.

Stefan says that Growth-Ten holds a portfolio of companies in the Private Higher Education Market focused on high-quality education and employment of graduates in South Africa. And, unlike traditional universities and other competitors in private education, where the focus is on the number of graduates, Growth-Ten’s key metric across its full portfolio is on the employment of its graduates.  “We clearly differentiate between employable and employed post-graduation and that drives many of our strategic decisions,” Stefan says.

Because of his past experience in talent management, where graduate recruitment is a big part of the value offering – and where he was a hiring manager himself – Stefan knows how organisations struggle to recruit high-quality people; and, he has also experienced how the right team can drive exponential growth in any business. “These experiences and the realities of our market have laid the foundation for our strategy at Growth-Ten,” Stefan says.

Business Units of Growth-Ten Portfolio

Growth-Ten portfolio companies are among the first in the industry to incorporate work experience into the higher education journey of every student. They partner with some of the largest employers, understand their unique challenges and requirements, and build this into their curriculum as learning outcomes.

Seeing the rapid pace of change, specifically in the technology space, Growth-Ten portfolio companies now have vendor-based skills training as add-ons to their formal curriculum. “All of these small, but meaningful changes result in a very unique learning journey that prepares every one of our graduates for the modern world of work,” Stefan says.

In addition to innovation on learning content, Growth-Ten group also has done a lot of work on how students learn best and has updated their delivery model accordingly, leveraging widely available technology.  Recognising that many of their students value flexibility, the delivery model has is an industry-first blended learning model offering the best of on and off-campus learning.

“We also understand the day-to-day challenges of many students and have made it as easy and cost-effective as possible for every student to engage with the learning material,” Stefan says. “From free mobile data to access learning resources right through to the laptops and tablets students need to learn at their best – we enable every student to become the best version of themselves.”

Richfield, the largest business unit within the Growth-Ten portfolio, is a leading player in the Private Higher Education market. It focuses on high-quality education with a specific focus on IT.   Because of its unique approach and focus on work readiness and most up-to-date technologies, Richfield graduates are sought out in the industry. Richfield Graduates make an impact from their first day of employment.  Richfield also launched an industry-first technology-enriched MBA in 2020.

PC Educational Holdings, a Growth-Ten business unit currently trading under the Richfield brand, focuses on technical and vocational training for everyone that does not qualify for formal higher education. For students who may not have had the ideal environment to make a success of their school career, this business unit provides the opportunity to further their studies. With internship placements and work-integrated learning as part of the academic journey, it ensures that all graduates have an equal opportunity of employment.

AAA School of Advertising is the leader in creative design and digital marketing education in South Africa. Stefan says that in line with the ethos of work readiness, the whole education experience is shaped around the experience of working in an advertising and design agency; therefore, as a result, graduates receive real-world experience from their first year of studies and essentially have three years of work experience and a full portfolio of work at graduation. AAA students are often offered employment at top marketing and design agencies even before graduation and continue to make big impacts through the work they do.

Substantial Growth During Pandemic and Future Growth

In the past three years, under the leadership of Stefan, Growth-Ten and all its portfolio companies have grown substantially – despite the COVID-19 headwinds.  Stefan says that the strategic reset and business-building initiatives of the first two years are starting to pay dividends and as a group, they are very positive about their own growth and the impact they are making in the communities and regions they work in.

Growth-Ten has a clear strategy and execution plan to be one of the biggest and most impactful Private Higher Education platform businesses in Africa. “Not measured by just how many graduates we produce – instead of by our employment rate in high-quality jobs – be that self-employed or taking a corporate job,” Stefan says.

He and his team are also making big impacts with their technology-enriched MBA; so, recently, leadership development naturally has become something that pops up on their agenda more often, Stefan points out while talking about his future plan for Growth-Ten.

Step Up and Think Differently 

If one considers “conventional wisdom,” some of the most stressful events in life are moving to a new home, new country, or starting a new job – all of these things Stefan has done several times. This same “conventional wisdom” also thinks that completing an Ironman Triathlon is impossible for most. Stefan, who has taken part in this long-distance triathlon race a couple of times, says that he can only laughs at such “conventional wisdom.”

“To what the majority think is impossible, I seek out to prove possible,” Stefan says, adding that he lives to shatter boundaries and inspire others to do the same. And, for him, challenges are an opportunity to step up, to think differently, to feel the fear but to take action anyway.

Stefan thinks that challenges often seem bigger than they really are in people’s minds. “We are all capable of so much more than we can imagine – challenges are there to teach us this and if we are open to learning the lessons, challenges can absolutely make us stronger,” he says.

And Stefan’s broad range of international experiences, leading start-ups right through to business units within large listed multi-national organisations across several geographies, enable him to see opportunities where many others see challenges. He reframes obstacles as enablers that ultimately help individuals, teams, and businesses to be the best versions of themselves.

Work and Personal Life Intertwined

Stefan does not believe in the concept of work-life balance. Work and life are intertwined, according to him, and one should not try to separate them. He feels that it is possible to maintain work-life balance naturally if through work, one realises their personal purpose in life.

“That does not mean I’m always in the office working non-stop,” Stefan says. “It does, however, mean I’m always working in some way or form through the integration of all the components of what makes up my life.”

Stefan’s drive and purpose are the same for work, personal life, and as an athlete.

And he is a seeker of extreme challenges so that he can proves to himself that he can do them. Stefan also likes to spend hours on his mountain bike outdoors, meditating and brainstorming new ideas while conquering a big hill, technical trail, or multi-day stage race.

“I love the quiet of the water passing as I swim laps in preparation for the next adventure,” Stefan says. “Nothing ends a day quite as well as an evening bike ride under the beautiful African stars.”

Advice to Aspiring Business Leaders

Stefan’s advice to aspiring business leaders stems from an African Proverb – “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” He points out that at times, it is also important to realise that one needs to venture out alone.

“Don’t let others hold you back and don’t be afraid to leave others behind,” Stefan says to aspiring business leaders. “And when going far, make sure you surround yourself with the right people – people that positively contribute to your vision and the journey you are on.”

Still to Scratch Surface of Possibilities 

Stefan is proud of his achievements – which are plenty. However, he feels that he has not yet scratched the surface of possibilities. He continues to have big dreams. And he also has a clear vision of what the future holds for him.

“My experience to date, inherent love for entrepreneurship and business, and the crossover of my journey into the education industry with Growth-Ten have helped me see many new opportunities that really excites me about what the future holds,” Stefan says

Quoting the words of Nelson Mandela, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Stefan adds that he is now in a position where he has the resources and opportunity to “change the world through education” and “leave a better South Africa – and Africa – for the next generation.”