Six picks from scientist Thulile Khanyile
What inspires the inspiring? The Gates Foundation Goalkeepers are a community of changemakers who are advancing the Sustainable Development Goals in diverse and innovative ways. But what inspires them to reimagine and work toward a better future for all? We asked scientist and Goalkeeper Thulile Khanyile for her six sources of inspiration.
Thulile Khanyile is a scientist, but the title renaissance woman seems more fitting. Her work drew the attention of Goalkeepers, an initiative led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that’s designed to inspire and incentivize doers and thinkers to work toward achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In 2022, she was invited to join the Goalkeepers community.
As a young girl growing up in Durban, South Africa, Thulile was raised by two civil servants—her mother, a teacher; and her father, a policeman. When her father wasn’t dropping pearls of wisdom, he was engaged in debate with his children. “If I ever got into trouble, I had to write an official account of what happened, almost like an affidavit,” she says. As a teenager, this felt like punishment, but Thulile came to appreciate the process of defending her actions. On her mother’s side, she comes from a string of teachers and is in the fourth generation to graduate from college. Her most vivid childhood memory is of her grandmother giving the keynote address at her mother’s graduation. It appears that Thulile was destined for a future of critical thinking and education.
If you got high marks in biology like Thulile, there was an expectation to pursue medical school. So when she didn’t get in, she was devastated. But not for long. She soon discovered an alternate path to medicine through research. “I find the intellectual gymnastics of research interesting and exciting. And I think it’s all the better when it lends itself to something that’s in the world.” The thrill of research led her to pursue a Ph.D. in HIV pathogenesis research.
Thulile’s nonprofit, Nka’Thuto Edu Propeller, which she co-founded with a former graduate school classmate, Thandeka Mhlanga, helps to fill gaps in the education system and bridge the disconnect between bench science and entrepreneurship. Students who participate in the organization’s programs learn to think like innovators by identifying problems they observe in their community and developing solutions. Here are six inspiring resources that she turns to when she needs to look at a problem through a new lens, in her own words.
Thulile Khanyile’s six picks
1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I literally binge Chimamanda. Her books are fantastic, but when I say binge, I also mean her interviews and her lectures. Chilling. The way she uses language even to take jabs is absolutely phenomenal.
2. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
I enjoy how Malcolm is able to draw parallels between different cases and form a conclusion and theory that actually stands. I suppose that’s how “10,000 hours” became a real thing—because he’s able to validate what he’s thinking through storytelling.
3. Black Tech Green Money with Will Lucas
It’s the equivalent of comic con, but for techies. Lucas brings in Black entrepreneurs, most of them in the tech space who’ve made it. It could be a person who has started some kind of platform to help female entrepreneurs or someone who’s developed code, or even a chief innovation manager. Guests talk about how they got started, what their purpose is, or how they got back on their feet after losing a lot of money. It’s what I imagine the innovation and technology culture should be like in South Africa.
4. South African talk radio
I want to know what people are thinking about the politics of the day, and I like talk radio for that. It allows me to sharpen some of my arguments and think in a particular way. When you just listen to yourself, it becomes problematic because your assertions are never challenged. The history of the country is important to me. I’ve even started listening to American political talk radio. I find some interesting parallels between American and South African politics.
5. Coded Bias on Netflix
This documentary is incredible. It led me to follow Joy Buolamwini’s work. She investigates the exclusionary aspects of technology, particularly AI, algorithms, and facial recognition technology. I find her particularly inspiring because she went beyond the lab and went to the people to give her work more meaning.
6. Global education numbers in the 2022 Goalkeepers Report
Keeping abreast of the 2030 SDGs is critical for my work. The 89% learning poverty rate in sub-Saharan Africa, where I operate, beyond being a measure of the proportion of 10-year-olds who can’t read and understand simple text, directly impacts the advancement of our societies. My organization, and academic institutions more broadly, need to keep this data in mind as we all contribute to advancing society within formal educational structures. Failure to address and prioritize this data and what it means compromises the success of the work we do.
Thulile’s interests are clearly varied. The work she does as a researcher, podcaster, and social entrepreneur is centered on people in local settings pushing for progress for themselves and their communities. Her approach underscores two values that she believes all innovators need to embrace. The first is the value of diverse interests: Innovators working on the same problem shouldn’t come from the same discipline. In research, a molecular biologist is just as vital as a behavioral scientist who can think about the logistical and social impacts of any given solution.
The second value is prioritizing local voices. “In South Africa, we seem to struggle with translating research to the people for whom it’s intended,” Thulile says. “We import quite a lot of intellectual property and solutions designed for the ‘First World’ and translate them for the ‘Third World’ and then they don’t work.” For example, HIV vaccines might be developed for the wrong subtype or therapeutics might not survive the trip without a certain type of refrigeration. With multidisciplinary teams and local innovators, she believes, we can solve challenges more effectively and creatively.
Who are the Goalkeepers of the Sustainable Development Goals?
With seven years left to achieve 17 ambitious goals, these are the thinkers and doers working to accelerate progress in their regions.