Every problem has a solution

Nicholas Riemer (32), SAICA’s 2021 Top 35-under-35 overall winner, is proudly setting an example as a young leader. 

‘Being included in this year’s competition was a truly humbling experience. The finalists are a remarkable group of individuals and seeing how each of them is flying the South African and CA(SA) flag high is an inspiration,’ says Nicholas.

Started by SAICA in 2014, the competition recognises young CA(SA) achievers who are not only excelling in their professional capacity but who are also making a meaningful contribution to society.

‘It took a few seconds for the words to truly sink in that I was this year’s winner. Receiving this award is one of the proudest moments of my life and walking up to the stage was a mixture of tears and excitement. The journey to becoming a CA(SA) is a challenging one and hearing my name called out brought back memories of all those late nights put in studying and working towards my goal, and how absolutely worth it all those sacrifices were,’ he continues.

Nicholas feels the competition is the perfect opportunity to pause and reflect not only on your own accomplishments but the other finalists around you and draw from that to fuel the fire even more in building and growing companies that have a positive impact on South Africa. ‘The CA(SA) qualification has provided me with the foundation to truly excel in the business world and the competition brought like-minded CAs(SA) together to celebrate our success and build networks for future successes. I am exceptionally proud to hold the CA(SA) designation and winning this year’s competition will allow me to showcase what the qualification has unlocked for me, from a business foundation to my networks in co-founding The Invigilator.’

He believes if there is a problem, you can find a solution – a mindset that led to the creation of The Invigilator, an entry-level smartphone application used to monitor online and remote assessments, of which he is the co-founder and CEO. The Invigilator was built and priced so that South African universities and schools can move to continuous assessment, improving teaching and learning in South Africa. The creation of The Invigilator meant students could continue writing exams and assessments remotely while in lockdown and can reduce the cost of education going forward due to no physical venue constraints.

‘Launched in 2020, The Invigilator app is a tool that mitigates the risk of unethical behaviour during online assessments and examinations, using non-invasive Artificial Intelligence (AI) to prohibit collusion and cheating. Unlike international proctoring systems, The Invigilator was specifically designed to address the socio-economic challenges of an unequal society through an inclusive technology solution,’ explains Nicholas.  

The Invigilator allows for monitoring of students through an entry-level smartphone and runs AI algorithms to generate automated reports for lecturers should there be any unethical behaviour detected through facial recognition, microphone recordings and GPS mapping. The application does not need a constant internet connection, allowing the application to work anywhere in the country, meaning students can study for the qualification of their choice from a location that is convenient to them.

‘Taking The Invigilator to its full potential inspires and drives me day in day out and as a team, we will not rest until we are one of the biggest educational technology companies in the world,’ says Nicholas.

At the moment the app is being utilised by 15 education entities including the University of South Africa (UNISA), the University of Johannesburg and the University of Cape Town. One million assessments and exams have been written using The Invigilator app since its inception in 2020. It was also the number one most downloaded education application in South Africa in September 2021.

Nicholas hopes that The Invigilator will show other young students on their CA(SA) journey that innovation can exist within the profession. ‘Four South African entrepreneurs were able to create a solution that outperforms all the international proctoring solutions due to better execution and understanding of the market. This demonstrates the infinite possibilities out there with our foundation and that once qualifying, it is up to you to use the qualification to the best of your ability to create business opportunities.’

He describes himself as an enthusiastic, creative, ambitious individual who thrives on challenges. ‘My degrees and practical experience gained have given me insights and prepared me for the responsibilities that lie ahead.’

Nicholas attended the University of Johannesburg where his passion for finance and education developed. He passed the SAICA Assessment of Professional Competence (APC) in 2018 on the first attempt. He also placed top 20 in CTA overall rankings. He was fortunate to spend a year in academia before completing his articles through FirstRand before moving to the investment world where he headed up the investment education team at FNB Wealth and Investments before giving his full attention to The Invigilator.

Following his passion for education and business, Nicholas not only created a company that he believes will add significant value to the academic world in mitigating online examination risk, as well as making education more accessible across the globe, but he also created FNB’s beginner, intermediate and advanced investing courses as well as video content to allow South African citizens to access financial education material to improve their financial literacy and investment journeys.

However, The Invigilator was not Nicholas’ first creation. While studying, he created a brand called Pro-Oats and Pro-Pasta, which was sold in mainstream retail, including DisChem, Spar and Checkers. ‘I started this venture to put myself through my CA(SA) studies and sold a percentage of the company to a South African private equity group for growth. I eventually sold all my shares to the same company to allow me to focus on my CA(SA) journey.’

According to Nicholas, his journey towards the CA(SA) qualification was an unconventional one. ‘I initially studied a BCom and joined the Hollard mergers and acquisition team. Here the importance of the qualification resonated with me, and I decided to leave corporate to pursue my dream of qualifying as a CA(SA). I had big dreams and ambitions and realised that to achieve them, I would need the best foundation possible.’

He is a firm believer that the CA(SA) qualification provides you with everything you need to succeed in the financial world. ‘It’s up to you, once you have qualified, to use the skill set acquired to reach those dreams and ambitions. I have used this qualification as a foundation to build my career on while constantly looking for new ideas and ways to innovate. I believe it is the responsibility of CAs(SA) to drive the economy forward and create employment opportunities.’

Having spent a year at the University of Johannesburg doing academic articles, his passion for education and finance was enhanced. ‘I was fortunate to spend a year at UJ doing academic articles. This is where my passion for education and finance developed even further. I continued to lecture part-time while heading up the FNB Investment Education Team, where I wrote articles and represented the bank in interviews on radio and TV. I built up a solid network in the education space and was always looking at new ways to improve academia through technology and combine my entrepreneurial vision with education.’

The problem faced by academia was clear to Nicholas. ‘There was no technology solution that could be used by universities to monitor students across the whole institution due to price, technology constraints as well as data costs. Together with my co-founders, Dewald Joubert, Jurie Wessels and Matthew Riemer, we created a solution.’ 

Nicholas feels that the company has assisted in maintaining academic integrity through technology and has allowed students to continue writing remotely. ‘I have used the CA(SA) qualification as a building block in creating a company that aligns to my passion which is education and improving the accessibility of learning to both South African and African students.’

Nicholas is constantly looking for opportunities and ideas to create companies and jobs. He also co-founded FoxSky (Pty) Ltd, which owns and operates a business called YouBar hair and YouBar Nail and has created 30 jobs. The co-founding of The Invigilator (Pty) Ltd has created another 45 jobs including the hiring of CAs(SA) and has recently sold a minority percentage of the company to the Buffet Group to allow for faster global expansion and scale. Furthermore, he owns a percentage of a property development called The Vanguard in Sandton.

‘As I continue to build these companies, more jobs and opportunities will be created. I believe this is one of the most effective ways we as CAs(SA) can uplift the business community,’ says Nicholas.

He draws inspiration from how many opportunities exist in South Africa for those who are prepared to find them. ‘What drives me is building a business that disrupts conventional thinking and pushes the barriers with regards to education. It is my vision that education should become more accessible and affordable through the use of technology.’

Nicholas’ dream for the future is to introduce The Invigilator into many different geographic locations and show the world that a South African educational technology company can achieve international market share through outperforming international offerings. “My dream is to make SAICA proud in the next 12 months of holding the title of Top 35 Under 35 winner and continue to invest in new businesses that allow other South Africans to benefit through job creation.”

Nicholas’ advice to other young CAs(SA):

  • Look for opportunities here in South Africa. Find that gap in the market and use your CA(SA) qualification to create companies and grow businesses here in the country we love. 
  • Obtaining your CA(SA) is a massive accomplishment but it’s just the start of your journey. You have been blessed with the best possible financial foundation one can get, and it’s your responsibility now to use that foundation for the good, by looking for ways to assist in growing South Africa’s economy.
  • Work as hard as possible until you achieve the desired outcome. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Something worth having means having to work hard to achieve it.

By Marteli Brewis

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