Contributed to EO by Marina Byezhanova
Justinus Adriaanse is an EO Canada Bridge member who grew up in a middle-class family in South Africa, keenly observing the glaring disparities that were unmistakably present in his surroundings. Nelson Mandela’s 1999 retirement brought these injustices further to the forefront, unveiling the deep-rooted inequalities within South Africa’s education system and society as a whole. These injustices ignited Justinus’s drive to take action and create a profound and lasting impact on his country.
However, Adriaanse’s path to uplift South Africa would prove to be a challenging and unpredictable one, a journey befitting a true entrepreneur.
Carving through peaks and valleys
At 23, Adriaanse joined and later served as CEO of Private Property, a real estate technology platform. Private Property swiftly emerged as the most frequented “for sale by owner” property site in Africa, attracting external investment, orchestrating numerous acquisitions, and scaling with remarkable speed. However, just as the path seemed paved with success, an unforeseen twist of fate — the 2008 global financial crisis — caused the market to collapse and sales to plummet.
It was a pivotal moment, and a true litmus test for Adriaanse’s resilience. The economic collapse wasn’t the only challenge he faced that year: relocating to a new city, being midway through an MBA program, welcoming a new addition to his family, and simultaneously grappling with a business partner’s horrifying near-death accident made it a tumultuous time. Finding the ability to navigate the treacherous economic landscape while tirelessly securing additional funding to keep Private Property afloat was a complex and identity-testing experience.
What once was a company whose primary tagline (displayed on billboards for years across South Africa) read “You must be crazy to pay commissions” had now completed a 180-degree switch to include property listings by real estate agents on its platform. Convincing a private equity firm to invest despite the bleak economic climate, Adriaanse turned the company profitable again within 18 months.
“You don’t solve a problem by thinking alone,” Adriaanse said. “You solve a problem by taking action. And the only way to solve this problem is to go over the edge and ski down the mountain.”
Every twist and turn of his arduous journey served as a crucial preparation for the defining purpose of his lifetime: Solving educational and employment opportunities for South Africa’s youth.
A 2012 ski holiday in Canada triggered a remarkable new realization.
“Although I had a tech business for 15 years, it dawned on me that I never actually wrote code myself,” said Adriaanse.
That summer, he completed a three-month software development bootcamp in Chicago called Starter League. With code as a new tool in his toolkit, Adriaanse quickly realized how powerful the skill of programming was — and, if done correctly, how quickly and effectively it could be taught.
The time period became another inflection point in his life: In 2013, the world mourned Nelson Mandela’s passing in Johannesburg. It was an emotional moment for both South Africans like Adriaanse and for the world as a whole.
“That’s when we really felt the impetus to do something for South Africa,” said Adriaanse.
Reconnecting with Yossi Hasson, whom he had met during his MBA, the two spent hours talking about South Africa, the power of programming as a skill, and social entrepreneurship. Quickly, their vision pivoted to the idea of addressing the lack of diversity and access to opportunity in South Africa’s IT industry.
Problem-solving with purpose
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” —Nelson Mandela
With Mandela’s famous words resonating in their minds, Adriaanse and Hasson realized education and work opportunities had remarkable potential to act as key drivers of change for the next generation of South Africans.
“On one hand, there was a huge market demand for programming skills,” said Adriaanse. “On the other, we knew that with the right training, a software development career path could help a South African earn up to three or four times the income of their entire household.”
The opportunity to upskill South Africans while pulling them out of generational poverty and connecting them to meaningful work opportunities would become the mission of Adriaanse and Hansson. The two joined forces with Arlene Mulder and Camille Agon.
In 2015, WeThinkCode, a software development training academy with a purpose, was born. Leveraging a progressive business model, the program was entirely free for South African students, funded instead by corporations that pre-purchased training costs for aspiring developers they were eager to hire.
The company slowly spread its message about the power of code to unemployed youth from underserved communities. Adriaanse and team were floored when WeThinkCode received thousands of applications for its first-ever cohort.
A non-profit mindset coupled with a business-oriented strategy led to rapid growth: WeThinkCode established three campuses across South Africa, scaled to 55+ partnerships with technology enterprises looking for talented software developers, and graduated 500+ students with a 93% rate of full-time employment for graduates.
WeThinkCode’s impact is fueled by a scalable snowball effect: As each individual graduates, a household income grows — and, by extension, communities across South Africa begin to thrive.
“The potential is almost limitless,” said Adriaanse. “With the right partners, right funding models, and right processes, we can go from 500 students a year to 5,000 to 50,000.”
Backed by community
For Adriaanse, none of the success of WeThinkCode could have been possible without the support he found within EO.
An EO member-leader since 2011, Adriaanse is today a member of EO Canada Bridge alongside some of Canada’s finest entrepreneurs and changemakers. EO serves as the community he relies on through both challenging and prosperous times, and provides him with valuable insights about himself. Transformative for his thinking and for his connection with others, Adriaanse hopes to gain even more value from the organization in the future.
“I’ve been in five EO chapters and six different Forums over the course of 12 years. It’s been an absolutely fantastic journey,” said Adriaanse. “Simply put, I wouldn’t be where I am today without EO.”
Justinus Adriaanse is the co-founder of WeThinkCode, the first tuition-free, peer-to-peer, industry-led, technology-based programming academy in Africa. Justinus is an EO Canada Bridge chapter member, currently serving as Membership Chair.
Marina Byezhanova is an EO Canada Bridge chapter member, global speaker and university instructor on a mission to inspire entrepreneurs to stand out, speak up and be radically authentic. She is the co-founder of Brand of a Leader, the personal branding agency for entrepreneurs.