SA gets a bad rap and she wants to change that – meet Shalane Yuen, the dynamo behind the Trevor Noah Foundation
Describing herself as an ‘Asian American Pacific Islander’, she has taken on the task of helping South Africa’s most famous comedian use his newfound wealth to improve the country’s broken education system – working with 19 schools in the Gauteng region, as well as unemployed young people in nearby communities.
‘South Africa always feels like it’s on the brink of something great,” says Trevor Noah Foundation (TNF) executive director Shalane Yuen.
“The energy is always forward-moving and for some reason – whether it’s poor leadership or systemic challenges – we get pushed back one or two steps. But I can feel the forward-moving energy and it is addictive in some ways. I wanna be a part of that.”
Born to a Chinese native-Hawaiian father and a Japanese-American mother, Yuen says she identifies as an “Asian American Pacific Islander”.
She says her mixed lineage and a broad educational outlook – going from a sociology and economics undergraduate degree at the University of California to postgraduate studies in Thailand, then back to the US for a master’s degree in public administration in international nonprofit management and public policy at New York University (NYU) – shaped her passion for the practical, impact-driven work she does now.
Speaking of her time in Thailand, Yuen says she was fascinated by how the capital Bangkok had all the hallmarks of a modern, urbanised and thriving city hub, but also fringes that were rural and undeveloped. She felt that something was not quite right. And she would soon learn that South Africa was similar in many ways.
I had my first job when I was a junior in high school; I worked at Starbucks. I’d always worked – for me it was fun.
She says her studies helped her understand the “puzzle pieces” of the global economy and issues of development and access. This fuelled her interest in impact-based and sustainable work.
Yuen has always found herself in a “mediation” role, starting from childhood when her parents divorced and she often had to play the go-between.
She believes a natural curiosity has drawn her to the many implementation- and sustainability-focused projects she has tackled the world over.
Yuen fondly recalls how her grandfather, shortly before passing away, had saved up $30,000 for her to go to university but at the time she did not know how much it was and felt that she would have to make some money of her own.
“I had my first job when I was a junior in high school; I worked at Starbucks. I’d always worked – for me it was fun.”
Yuen says she only tapped into her grandfather’s saved money when she decided to go to NYU, by which time it was enough to pay for one year of study. She had to take out loans to pay for her second year.
She says her experience of NYU was that the institution was overwhelmingly white and wealthy and the entry-level jobs that would come from her course in public service were all unpaid.
Heavy financial burden
She specifically wanted to go to New York and live there to benefit from the opportunities of work in her sector – only to find the financial burden too much.
“I always find it strange that all those public sector jobs were unpaid and guess who gets to fill them… At one point during my postgrad I was at school, working two internships and working as a waitress just to supplement tuition fees,” says Yuen.
One of the strengths she developed during her time waitressing was a knack for reading people through their body language and non-verbal communication. It helped her discern how best to tailor her service to people’s needs.
No stranger to how costly education, particularly university, can be, Yuen says when she graduated and started working she had about 10 years’ worth of student loans to repay. By working out how interest rates work, down to the granular day-to-day costs, and having the stringent frugal sensibilities of a student, she managed to pay off the loans within six years – ahead of the arrival of her baby daughter.
I knew I wanted experience in different sectors, so I said yes to management consulting. But I don’t care about consulting to help corporates become more profitable.
Yuen moved to South Africa in 2013 in an advisory role to the US Agency for International Development for a year, and then had an 18-month consultancy with FeverTree Consulting and the Namibian government. After that she worked with Seed Academy on entrepreneurship support and then set up her own consultancy.
The Trevor Noah Foundation opportunity came about in 2017. With her husband being a comedian himself and in Noah’s circle of acquaintances, she was approached to help set up the foundation, which focuses on education, based on her wealth of experience in the public service sector and in management consulting.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Want to raise happy children? Take a leaf out of the Dutch book
“So I went out and did a needs assessment of the education value chain in South Africa, spoke to tons of people and then pitched a model for areas in the education ecosystem that we can influence. And that’s how TNF started. I was initially an independent consultant, doing everything, for two years.
“I knew I wanted experience in different sectors, so I said yes to management consulting. But I don’t care about consulting to help corporates become more profitable.
“Even now at TNF, in the way we design projects and solutions, this idea of cross-sector leadership and cross-sector partnership comes through in everything we do.”
Yuen says the foundation has learnt a lot in the five years of its existence, particularly in defining its role in being an implementer and a partner with schools – as opposed to just providing grant funding.
She says the organisation has learnt to closely examine and understand power dynamics in partnerships, the significance of the language used and the level of participatory control of schools.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Well-run and well-maintained schools dramatically reduce learner drop-out rates
“In the 19 schools we work with in Gauteng, our relationship with the schools is at the forefront, and we get to build this environment where learners and teachers have access to digital skills and career guidance.
“Also, their infrastructure is being improved by the unemployed youth in the community and the leaders of the school are getting leadership support.”
Energy is addictive
Yuen says that she loves to hear of pupils’ first experiences, like the first time touching a computer or learning coding.
It’s a combination of these small moments that change young people’s mindsets about what is possible. She relates this to how Noah’s access to good schooling and good teachers shifted his thoughts to what was possible to achieve through education.
Asked what South Africa means to her, Yuen says: “It really invigorates and excites me and I think, because South Africa gets a lot of bad rap in the media on the surface, it challenges me even more to want to change that narrative and be a part of people seeing South Africa for what it really is.” DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.