This month, we spoke to seven strong, empowered, empowering women who prove, beyond any doubt, that there is no limit to what women can accomplish and that, as Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.’ They are proof that if you do what you love, success will follow, and that passion is the fuel behind a successful career
For most of history, ‘anonymous’ was a woman. But, in the wise words of poet Maya Angelou, each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.
True female strength comes from within. A strong female is free. She knows what she wants and will not settle for less. She is confident and realises her value. She knows her boundaries, but she also knows where she is going. She stays true to herself and her vision and does not let the opinion of others move her. She sticks to her true north and builds greatness for the long term. She is adept and patient at untangling complex problems, multitasking and seeing the possibilities in new solutions.
As we continue to make strides towards more gender diversity in the workplace, we can get inspired by the approach of women who have made it to the top and paved the way for others to follow. Every woman’s success should be an inspiration to another.
So, in a world where women still have to fight hard to access opportunities, what can we learn from some of the most powerful female leaders in business?
Author: Marteli Brewis
Inspire and be inspired
As CFO of MTN South Africa, Dineo Molefe (43) originally from Diepkloof in Soweto, is no stranger to the challenges of becoming a successful woman in business. She knows it takes sheer determination and willpower to succeed without the privilege of financial support and to climb the corporate South African ladder. Throughout her career, Dineo has held various audit and finance positions.
‘I have been blessed with so many opportunities and people along my career path who were willing to give me a chance and challenged me to realise my full potential. All the way from when I did articles, I had audit partners who gave me opportunities, mentored me and encouraged me to grow. I remember one senior of mine during articles who said: “Don’t let anyone stop you; if they try to, they must give you very good reasons why.” My family have always been super supportive and a centre of strength. Yes, I am a bit of a workaholic, but a lot of people have helped me and continue to graciously do so.’
What she loves most about her current role, is that the work is dynamic and varied and she does not only look at finance matters but at business-wide strategic and operational matters as well. ‘I therefore partner with the CEOs and chiefs of business units in driving the growth and profitability of the business. The telecommunications industry is fast-paced, dynamic and evolving whilst being a leading enabler of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There is always something to learn and interesting problems to solve. I like solving problems and creating solutions. I work with a capable and diverse team, and together we are co-creating for the future.’
Dineo knows her CA(SA) qualification has laid a solid foundation for success in corporate business. ‘The training one goes through is thorough and also instils disciplines that you need as your career grows. It assists in understanding and appreciating the need to operate ethically in business and in your own conduct. Because of my training as a CA, even when I was CEO or an independent non-executive director, I was able to link commercial matters to financial impacts in order to have a holistic view of the business and make decisions that take a holistic view of data points.’
She feels the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on how people live and operate. ‘I recovered from COVID-19 in January this year. I thank God I recovered because recovery is not in our hands. There is a lot of reflection and direction-changing decisions that your mind is faced with when facing the reality of being sick with COVID, which for me when I recovered was an opportunity to further refine my life goals, focus on achieving my goals and ensure I focus on living my best life.’
Dineo lives her life in the hope of positively influencing those around her and those who work with her, to inspire people to pursue their dreams and achieve the dreams and aspirations they have while supporting them in the necessary ways. ‘I believe we are on earth for a limited time, and in this time, we are here to fulfil a purpose, therefore in leading, we must be intentional about fulfilling that life purpose as we lead and touch lives.’
For her, the glass ceiling that keeps women from reaching the top no longer really exists. ‘I think if you apply yourself diligently in what you are doing, obtain the support you need and focus on core disciplines and right values, you can get to where you want to get to.’
Both her late mother and late grandmother has been Dineo’s source of inspiration to become a success. ‘Both of them were very strong women who did not have much, yet had an abundance of will to live their best lives. They pursued what they wanted in their lives, did not allow circumstances to tell them “No, you can’t”, persisted in most difficult situations and raised us in a way that we were taught that in life you face what is in front of you head-on, you do not cower in fear. Their quiet and bold strength was hard to miss.’
Dineo’s dream for South African women
‘My hope is that all women, regardless of social, economic or educational standing, can have control over their lives and destinies, by having financial independence and the ability to take care of their children and families. I hope that women in South Africa would be able to live in a way so that they don’t have to fear for their safety, and that they feel secure in the knowledge that those who are charged with protecting them, are doing so committedly.’
Always ready to ROAR!
Marilise de Villiers Basson
A few years ago, Marilise de Villiers Basson, founder and chief executive officer of ROAR! Coaching and Consulting (based in the United Kingdom) had a successful corporate career as a female executive in a Big Four consulting firm. ‘However, my success came at an enormous price. I was bullied by my boss and on the brink of a nervous breakdown − mentally and physically exhausted.’
Marilise admits her relationships with the people closest to her were suffering. ‘It all came to a head one dreadful day in the boardroom when he demoted me, with no prior warning, in front of my team. That was the final straw; I quit. Somehow, I believed that I was the problem. I worked harder and harder to prove myself. In the process of being bullied, I started bullying myself.’
Marilise didn’t realise how something traumatic that happened to her as a young girl had a major impact on the way she perceived the world.
‘When I was eight years old, I was sexually abused by a neighbour. I was twelve when I understood it for the first time. I realised it was wrong and I exposed him − my very first ROAR! However, I believed it was all my fault, and my shadow of shame and guilt – my inner bully – was firmly formed.’
She started exercising obsessively and restricting her food intake, unable to bear the weight of her shame and guilt. ‘This spiral of self-destruction continued for 15 years. My eating disorder eventually landed me in rehab. Little did I know at the time that it would take another 15 years – and a bully – to silence my inner bully once and for all. Fast forward to today − I can now see how the workplace bully reignited my inner bully and self-destructive patterns of behaviour; how my past influenced my present.’
Seventy-five per cent of workers will either be a target of bullying, witness bullying, or both. Marilise admits she tried so hard to prove herself and pushed herself to please not only her boss but everyone else around her. ‘I was exhausted; my resilience was hanging by a thread. I blamed myself. I felt like a failure. After I left my job, I felt empty and without purpose. However, when I thought my life was falling apart, it was falling into place. I just had to see it with my inner eyes – to find the meaning in my mess – to see how my abuse was in fact a gift.’
When she left the corporate world behind to start her own business, Marilise started finding her own life’s purpose and passion – to help people become successful, fulfilled and healthy. She does this by guiding clients to get clarity on their purpose and to design a life they love. She also helps people to silence their inner bully, connect with their personal power, find the courage to speak their truth and positively influence themselves and others.
Marilise’s experience with different forms of abuse – including her self-abuse – taught her that abuse is abuse – full stop. ‘It doesn’t matter if the abuse is physical, verbal, emotional or sexual − the invisible scars cut deep. It also taught me that that the only way you can win is to let go and move on. If we live in the victim story, the abusers win.’
This ignited a passionate fire in her to give victims a voice and lead her to write a book, ROAR!, about how to tame the bully inside and out. This book was published in February 2020 and is available on Amazon and other platforms. ‘Dealing with a bully can be a slippery slope. Most people either keep quiet or leave quietly, so the abuser gets away with it − time and time again. This book aims to inspire readers with the confidence and courage to speak up and find their ROAR! This book describes how I strive to live my best life every day − with purpose, courage and power − to face difficult conversations with others and myself head-on.’
She also started ROAR! Coaching and Consulting – a proven method to live your best life: on purpose, in your power, with the courage to speak your truth. ‘Unfortunately, for many of us, the relationship with ourselves is the most toxic relationship we’ll ever be in. That voice of self-doubt inside our heads lies to us all day long and tells us we are not enough. If we don’t stop that voice in time, we start to believe the lies and once those lies take root as beliefs about ourselves, they can destroy our self-confidence and affect all areas of our lives. You are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for. You are your superpower.’
Find your ROAR
- Step 1: RECOGNISE their behaviour – what are they saying and doing? …. Recognise your own thoughts and feelings… Regulate yourself. Stay calm. Remember, ‘I’m OK, you’re OK.’
- Step 2: OBSERVE … See the other person … really see them … and listen attentively. Stay present.
- Step 3: ASSERT… Depending on their response, you will either say what you think, how you feel, or you’ll ask the appropriate question. It is important to focus on the impact of the other person’s behaviour (not their intention). Stay in your power zone – be clear on your rights and respect the rights of the other person.
- Repeat steps 1, 2, 3 as many times as necessary. Then, when you’re ready, go to
- Step 4: REDIRECT the conversation towards win-win outcomes.
Be your unique, authentic self
As CEO of the Solidarity Fund, Tandi Nzimande (50) has her work cut out for her. The Solidarity Fund was created in March 2020 to help in the fight against COVID-19. The fund provides a platform for both the public and private sectors to contribute towards the various initiatives supported by the fund.
As a mother of three teenage daughters, it was a big decision for Tandi to take up this role. ‘I spoke with my husband and the girls before taking up the job at the Solidarity Fund, apologising upfront that I would be more around them than with them for most of the time that I would be working at the fund. That said, I do try to check in on them daily, but I am nowhere near the kind of mother I would like to be most times. On weekends I try to have a little bit more quality time with them, even as I have to put in a few hours of work. It’s a continuous juggle,’ she admits.
Adapting to the way the fund has been configured has, however, been an interesting learning curve for Tandi, as the work environment is entirely virtual – a completely new way of work for her. ‘To this day, I have only met many of my colleagues virtually! I am also quite astounded at the level of my tech-savviness compared to this time last year,’ she laughs.
Although she is flying high and achieving immense success, it is important for her to remember her roots. ‘It is humbling to be perceived as successful. Mine is a journey of growth and a village, as I have had many people contribute to my growth in a variety of ways. The first was the grounding given to me by my mother − a strict disciplinarian with strong Christian values. I was a bookworm who read voraciously and over time I came to open myself up to interactions with people too,’ Tandi explains.
Throughout her life, she sought opportunities and applied herself diligently and extended a hand of collaboration whenever given the opportunity. ‘I would often feel like an oddball in the spaces I grew up and worked in, however, I had a strong inner compass, and I was clear about what I was not prepared to compromise on. I stretch myself a little out of my comfort zone every year, gradually increasing it. Most importantly, I have had a tribe of women who saw beyond what I presented as an introvert and insisted on pulling me more and more into the fullness of my being.’
Not only has the pandemic had an impact on the way she works, but it has also challenged her on a personal level and has shown her inner strength that she was unaware of. ‘I have learnt that I have more in me than I ever would have considered before the COVID-19 pandemic. On days when I just want to curl up into a silent ball, I can only do so for just a second, then I must get up and not only move but move energetically. I have remembered how 10-minute power naps served me well when I pulled all-nighters at university. I have learnt that I can draw additional energy to guide my daughters, support my colleagues and make significant decisions even when I thought I had nothing more to give. Finally, I have learnt that I am NOT a superwoman, so I listen to my body. I manage my sleep, I ensure that I get my 10-minute exercise regimen in, and I see to it that my spirit is nourished through prayer and intentional joyful moments with family and friends. Making sure that I consistently eat well is still a work in progress!’ Tandi admits.
Especially in these turbulent times, Tandi has realised the immeasurable value her support system adds to her life. ‘I am eternally grateful to my sisterhood and indeed my whole village − past and present, young and old. I acknowledge those who opened up opportunities for me, held my hand and let go when it was evident that I had found my feet. I am grateful for those who threw me in the deep end and knew I could swim.’
She likens a great leader to a strong conductor of a mass choir or an orchestra. ‘Your role is to support the team to reach greater heights both as individuals and as a team. Leaders should endeavour to have an orientation to abundance, to know that no one has to shrink for you or anyone else to grow. Surround yourself with diverse, smart, knowledgeable and able people who complement you.’ For her, the focus should be on building a culture of objective-focused rigorous debate where all voices are heard, not just the loudest or most senior. ‘Make peace with the fact that it may not be you who is the smartest, the most knowledgeable, the most organised or the most connected. Surrounding yourself with the best will result in the best outcomes.’
Her advice to younger women is to be their best, authentic selves. ‘You received the invitation to the spaces you occupy because you are uniquely you. So, while you honour the team code, remember that your identity is what gave you the right to the position in the team. Play your position to the best of your ability.’
Tandi’s hope for South Africa is that women will become honoured and respected at home, in communities and in workplaces. ‘My hope is that the scourge of gender-based violence is eradicated. That the best that we have to offer should not be received as threatening but enriching. That the words used to describe us at our best and even at our worst, are uplifting and not demeaning.’
For her, it would be amazing if an apolitical, amorphous sisterhood code could be practised. ‘A code that cuts across age, race and social status so women are there to uplift each other and be invested in each other’s empowerment. These are the conditions that would allow us to shake free the chains of societal expectation; the hard and soft racist and the engendered barriers. I hope that as women of South Africa we rise to be the very different women we choose to be: sometimes fearless, sometimes nurturing, sometimes outspoken or soft-spoken – whatever we choose. That all women be honoured and respected − the homemaker, the street vendor, the activist, the professional, the entrepreneur and the street sweeper.’
Tandi knows that no matter how shy or different you are, building relationships at work is key. ‘The pain of being awkward can be overcome. Learn how to network. Ask for help. Step up and offer assistance. Building work relationships helps you to understand what drives things and helps you to know who is good at what, so as to complement your areas of growth. These relationships are the beginnings of your network, speak to your seniors, your contemporaries and your juniors, in your area of work and beyond. The quality of your work (not just your qualification), your attitude and the strength of your relationships are key enablers in moving up the ladder.’
Success means living your purpose
As group financial director of EOH, a listed company in the information and communications technology space, Megan Pydigadu (46) loves being part of an ICT company that is at the heart of digital disruption. ‘Digital disruption has the ability to democratise the economy and bring down so many barriers to entry.’
By being her authentic self, Megan is making an invaluable difference. ‘Through EOH and the challenges we have faced we have had to act in a courageous manner and often make the hard decisions. I hope what we have done will help other corporates and the people within those corporates to measure themselves to a higher standard and not always make decisions that are easy but rather the right ones. We need to restore our integrity in terms of how we do business, we need more leaders who are willing to take a stand and distinguish between what is right and what is wrong.’
At EOH, one of the biggest learnings, according to Megan, has been for the people who were in the system at the time the corruption happened in the finance space it was more what they didn’t do than what they did do that enabled a culture of corruption and that must be guarded against. ‘At the end of the day the performance and delivery of the strategy of organisations are told through the story of numbers and being a CA gives you that unique skill.’
The biggest challenge for her during the pandemic has been the loss of the human connection in the workplace. ‘We have only begun to realise what we are giving up by never setting foot in an office. Being online only, we start to lose our emotional, subconscious connections with one another. Many of us took for granted the value of the myriad, often unregistered meetings and interactions that take place every day amongst groups of people. We’ve lost what Vaibhav Gujral, Partner at McKinsey & Company, calls the “heartbeat” of the office: the energy that comes from serendipitous encounters that aren’t boxed into Zoom screens; the creativity that comes from spontaneous collaboration; the trust and relationships that are built through countless and unsaid small gestures and interactions. We’ve also had to battle to remain focused in the midst of more, shorter meetings and rapid demands on our time and attention. That said, some employees continue to thrive in the new environment.’
During this trying time, Megan has learnt that to keep this human connection going, one has to re-emphasise what it means to be ‘present’. ‘Being online resulted in a lot of multitasking taking place in meetings as well as black screens and bad cases of attention deficit disorder. Being present is achieved by having cameras on and contributing in meetings.’
For her, it is also important to re-evaluate what is required from leadership. ‘Leading remote or hybrid teams requires an emphasis on empathy, the ability to foster a sense of togetherness and mutual purpose, and an enhanced understanding of technology. We must also be flexible about how we can best measure performance. The KPIs that we used last year might no longer suffice. We might need to adjust metrics more flexibly, depending on the way in which individuals fit into a hybrid model.’
According to Megan, it is also vital for managers to be sensitive to the mental wellbeing of staff and its impact on performance. ‘The pandemic remains a time of exceptional stress, anxiety and uncertainty. This must be taken into account when evaluating employees and their needs. If an employee’s delivery has been affected, if they seem distracted or forgetful, or if they struggle to focus, it might not be as a result of an inability to adjust to remote working; it might instead be a natural reaction to extraordinary circumstances. Performance management is meant to lead to the achievement of personal and organisational goals. Sometimes the best way to get there is first to listen and understand.’
Megan defines success as living out your purpose, which is something she gets to do in her current role at EOH. ‘Viktor Frankl best sums up success for me: “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”’
For her, it is important to always live according to your principles. ‘Be your true self, don’t take on male traits or attributes to try and fit in to climb the corporate ladder. Don’t be afraid to call out behaviour or biases in the workplace that are unacceptable. If you are ever in a difficult situation or facing a challenging problem, let your principles guide you and you stay true to them you will find the right outcome. My other favourite quote − and I say it often to my finance team and my children − is “if there is anything you can be in the world, be kind.” This was never needed more than now when there are so many people going through struggles and tough times.’
As a mother of two, Megan and her husband like to take on the challenges of raising their children together. ‘I find it interesting that women in the workplace are still asked the question about balancing your career and parenting when a male colleague is unlikely to be asked this. I think it talks to the fact that we still have unconscious biases that we need to work to eliminate in society.’ She feels there is still a significant amount of patriarchy in the South African context that creates a glass ceiling for women. ‘In certain organisations, the culture is so strong that it’s difficult to break down old norms and unconscious bias. A significant amount of work has to be put into shaping new cultures that embrace all forms of diversity in the workplace and it’s critical that it starts from the very top of the organisation,’ Megan explains.
Her hope for the women in South Africa is that they get to reach their full potential in whatever they choose to do. ‘My wish is that we can rid society of gender-based violence, which is so prevalent in our society. And finally, break down patriarchal and traditional structures and in so doing embrace the value and benefit of real transformation, diversity and inclusion.’
Women who inspire Megan
‘Brene Brown has done some amazing work on leadership, being vulnerable and showing up as your whole self. I love reading her books and drawing inspiration from her work and try and take it into practice. So much of what she talks about is being authentic in the workplace and that really talks to me.
‘Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, epitomises what it means to be a woman in leadership. She is not trying to fit into any club and is comfortable being her whole self. She leads with empathy. One of her quotes really resonates with me: “One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both empathetic and strong.”’
Touching one life at a time …
As the CEO at Mineworkers Investment Co (MIC), Mary Bomela (48) feels blessed to have a job she loves and looks forward to daily. ‘No two days are the same. I enjoy investing and providing capital to grow businesses, contributing to the growth of the South African economy and job creation.’
Throughout her successful career, Mary has always set herself certain goals and then actively worked on the path to get there. ‘I always look into my toolbox to ensure I have the requisite tools to get myself there. I also have had good mentors along the way. God has been with me all the way and a little luck of course. Success, however, is in how you define it for yourself, and it is important that each person does this for themselves.’
Just like Judy Dlamini, the late Dolly Mokgatle and Michelle Obama – the women she looks up to – Mary has remained humble regardless of her success. She is continuously working on improving herself and does not consider herself as ‘having arrived’ …
For her, it is an honour to be leading such a competent team, but she values the impact of the work they do, even more. ‘The annual dividend that we declare to our shareholder, the MIT, goes towards funding the social project that benefits mineworkers and their dependants. Most notably is the JB Marks bursary scheme that provides tertiary education funding for our beneficiaries. To date, we have produced more than 1 500 graduates in various disciplines including 18 medical doctors. This is the cherry on top and makes everything that we do so meaningful and worth it!’
Mary believes that although being a CA(SA) has added immense value to her career, qualifications are only a key to the door or a licence to play, but once you are through the door, you need to play the game well.
The pandemic has created a number of unique challenges. ‘For me, it meant immediate flexibility. Firstly, home-schooling a child with special learning needs was a real challenge. We were fortunate in that the school was able to move online within a short period of time, but the parents still had the responsibility for supervision and explaining concepts. I had to get myself back into the Grade 6 curriculum to teach him and also learnt so much in the process. This meant I had to make time in my busy schedule to focus on home-schooling.’
Through the trials and tribulations of the pandemic, Mary has learnt a valuable lesson: ‘That I have more patience than I thought and tenacity to remain positive in the midst of adversity. I even learnt to be a teacher!’ she laughs.
Having three children, Mary feels you can’t juggle motherhood and a career. ‘For me, it’s about priorities and being present in the moment. There are times where your career needs more attention and times when motherhood does. It’s important to make sure you know which to prioritise at what point in your life. There are also non-negotiables or things that you cannot outsource, such as your children’s proudest moments at school or extra murals or when they are ill and the mother’s touch is important. It is therefore important to set clear boundaries and your boss or colleagues must know these.’ For her, workplaces must also be flexible because it’s not about the hours that you put in but rather about your output. ‘If it means a woman needs to attend to her children during working hours but can allocate time to her job in the evenings once the children are asleep, then let it be so. The age of the children also plays a role, as they become more independent as they grow which does lighten the burden. I can also not overemphasise the role and support of my husband in this regard. As we are both professionals and share the load with the children, and it has indeed been easier. Lastly, I always tell women to delegate the menial tasks and stop trying to be superwomen.’
Even though her life is extremely busy and demanding, Mary knows the importance of me-time and self-development. ‘I love travelling and going on family holidays. I do retreats on my own and will usually visit a wellness centre at least once a year. As a Christian, my spirituality is also important, so spending time with my God and in stillness, especially early morning. Lastly, I enjoy light reading (romantic novels are my thing).’
Her philosophy in life is about touching one life at a time. ‘To this end, I mentor a few ladies as they climb the career ladder. I am also a firm believer in imparting knowledge beyond the classroom. To that extend, all our company CSI programmes are in schools where the main focus is on providing students with life skills such as career guidance, performing arts and public speaking.’
In Mary’s experience, the glass ceiling probably still exists, but it is up to individuals and corporations to lift it. ‘I do however believe that the environment has opened up significantly, and legislative requirements have helped to lift the glass ceiling for women,’ she explains.
Her advice to other women wanting to climb the corporate ladder is simple, yet profound: ‘Firstly, it’s important to identify where you want to go and set yourself objectives. Then, understand what you need to equip yourself with to get there, in terms of formal qualifications (including short courses), skills set and experience. Then work on a plan to acquire these, but in the meantime take practical steps of getting yourself out there. Make contact with the right persons who can help you to climb the ladder, in other words mentors and through networking.’
Her hope for South African women is that they may be free to reach their full potential and have equal access to education and jobs without any barriers being set in their way or stereotypes hindering their success.
Mary’s leadership advice
‘It’s good to know yourself and be critically honest with yourself to be a good leader. Empathy is necessary to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes and for them to trust and want to follow you. Take it in your own stride and walk your journey in your own stilettos − just make sure you don’t step on anyone’s head while you are getting there. Also, a good leader surrounds themselves with a great team, because they don’t know it all. Leadership is a position and it’s important that it doesn’t define you. Thus don’t let positional power get to your head, as the power will immediately disappear when you vacate the position.’
Thriving in the new normal
As managing director at Optimi Home, part of the Optimi Group owned by PSG, Louise Schoonwinkel (38) knows that as a provider of alternative methods of education, her team makes an impact on children’s lives, not only in South Africa but also abroad. ‘Our mission is to bring accessible learning solutions to all. We provide home-schooling, online schooling and supplementary learning solutions for parents and tutors. We bring quality, accessible private education to the market at affordable prices.’ Louise enjoys not only interacting daily with a dynamic group of colleagues who challenge each other but also being involved in both the strategic and the operational side of the business.
She explains that the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified existing gaps in South Africa’s education system (unfortunately mostly linked to who can and cannot afford to pay for education). ‘It has also sped up our market’s readiness to adopt online learning and has therefore opened opportunities to bring quality education to the bigger market. We tend to make conservative choices when it comes to our children’s education and COVID has forced society to push the boundaries and be more open to alternative ways of education.’
For her, the future of education will be one where parents can watch their children’s individual learning needs to various options in the market. ‘There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach here. The beauty of online learning is that it makes quality education much more affordable. The future holds endless possibilities where online tuition and in-person teaching can be linked to ensure we bring the best possible solution to all children in SA. Imagine a world where a school without resources can stream lessons from the best teachers in the country to enrich learning and all learners write standardised online exams. With regard to tertiary studies our world has already changed significantly over the past 10 years; students can now obtain degrees from global universities without leaving their homes.’
She feels online learning tools are becoming an integral part of learning. ‘I believe that there will always be a place for face-to-face interaction in the classroom, supplemented by online tools. It took a global pandemic to change the way we learn, which was established more than 100 years ago during the industrial revolution.’
Even so, the pandemic did pose certain personal and work-related challenges. ‘Hard lockdown posed a massive challenge at home in trying to balance work, home-schooling and household tasks. During this time, I learnt that no matter how much you think you embrace change; we all get change fatigue. I also realised how much I value face-to-face interactions with people and how much it energises me. I now know where the mop is kept and how much more advanced Maths is than when I did Grade 1.’
‘On the work front, I am proud that we debunked myths around working from home. We sent all our staff (except our warehouse staff) home and closed our office in March 2020. We have now successfully implemented a hybrid working model where employees at all levels, including our call centre and admin staff, choose the number of days per week they would like to spend in the office.’
From a business perspective, Louise and her team had to adapt offerings, systems and processes continuously throughout 2020 as things kept evolving. ‘We quickly learned that there is no such thing as a foolproof plan and that the only way to survive was to be flexible and adapt when necessary.’
Louise’s skills as a CA(SA) gives her an understanding of finance, which is an integral part of managing any business. ‘Being a CA taught me the importance of implementing key processes and systems, where my natural inclination is to be creative and wing it. I also believe that CAs gain invaluable experience during articles and it cements work ethic, time management and other important skills. Having worked for PwC and Deloitte before, I was exposed to brilliant people who influenced and helped shape my leadership style.’ She also knows she probably would not have been in her current position, was it not for her qualification. ‘It gave me the fundamentals needed to do my job. It is a trusted brand in the market and opened opportunities along the way. Back in articles I already knew that pure auditing and finance roles were not for me. This qualification indeed brings a variety of options to the table.’
Louise believes success depends on how you define it. ‘I believe that I still have so much to grow and learn. To me, success means looking at your life and being content with where you are and what you have. I feel successful on days when I manage to balance and integrate my work and personal life.’
According to her, there are not enough female role models in the workplace. ‘I am passionate about women supporting each other in the workplace. I am part of a mentorship programme we run internally at Optimi and realised again that we all forget what we struggled with when we started our corporate careers. I try to assist others in navigating these changes.’ In theory, the glass ceiling no longer exists but in reality, Louise knows women are their own biggest enemies. ‘We don’t support each other in the workplace. We have preconceived ideas and let our own issues around guilt, perfection and hierarchies get in the way of believing that we can break through the ceiling. I had to make a massive mind shift when I initially stepped into my role. I do think younger generations are already much better at this since they have more role models.’
Her advice to other young women wanting to climb the corporate ladder is: ‘Women bring diverse values, leadership styles and perspectives to the boardroom table. The days that only women who acted like men climbed the ladder are over. Don’t be afraid to craft your own style and to lead with compassion.’
Louise knows you cannot lead and motivate others if you do not believe in the end goal and product yourself. ‘You cannot lead and motivate others if you don’t believe in the end goal and product yourself. True passion and commitment are contagious (no pun intended).’
Her dream for South Africa is that women would not have to live in fear of domestic violence − that women would truly become equals in society.
As a mother of two young children, it took a long time for Louise to get over the guilt of having to work. ‘When I worked, I felt guilty for not spending time with my children and when I spent time with my children, I felt guilty for not working. I have a support structure and make sure that I am present when spending time with my children. There are some hard non-negotiables; for example, I don’t miss year-end concerts and I take my children to the doctor when they are ill. I also try to fetch them from school on certain days. It took a long time for me to realise that I am a role model for my daughter as well and it is important that I show her that having a fulfilling career and a balanced family is possible.’
Never burn bridges and be authentic
Anine Pheiffer (41), general manager of strategy at Astron Energy, who also serves as a director for both Astron Energy (Pty) Ltd and the Astron Energy Development Fund NPC, loves her job because no two days are the same. ‘I have the opportunity to work with a broad range of internal and external stakeholders, covering a range of intellectually stimulating topics. As a company, we play an important role in the security of the fuel supply of the region − the impact of this industry on the economy as well as the opportunity to effect positive change throughout our value chain makes for fulfilling work. I also work with great people – it should thus come as no surprise that I’ve been at the company for over 14 years already!’
Thanks to her company’s balanced approach to personal safety and business sustainability, they quickly decided to have as many staff as possible work remotely during the pandemic.
On the home front, things were a little bit more difficult, Anine admits. ‘I wasn’t sure if I was working from home or living at work at some point in time! I’ve been a caregiver to my elderly parents for several years and while this has always meant juggling my work schedule with specialist appointments, hospital visits etc. being able to work remotely allowed me the flexibility I needed to be my best self at work and home. As women, we often play many roles within our personal lives – I hope that we find a hybrid of remote/onsite working post the pandemic as this period, the largest social experiment around remote working, has proven that many roles can indeed be quite effective, even when working remotely.’
She treasures the focused time she could spend with her family during the various lockdown periods – in particular the special memories that she more than likely would not have had in the busyness of her pre-COVID lifestyle. ‘I lost my mother recently and I am so grateful that this period of relative isolation also allowed us to grieve in private while still experiencing the love and support of our family and friends through calls, messages and tributes sent to our home. This life-changing event has also allowed me to take stock of what is most important in life – it has profoundly changed my approach to life, work, in fact – everything.’
The woman who still inspires her most is her mom. ‘Having been born in the aftermath of World War II, having experienced the pain of forced removals due to the Group Areas Act … Although she suffered from a range of chronic illnesses, she continued to teach and preach loving your neighbour. When reflecting on her legacy, I am immensely thankful for all the life lessons she taught me, for teaching me to live by faith-based principles and always to go after your dreams.’
Growing up in Grassy Park in Cape Town, Anine, who now lives in Table View, had great examples of how hard work pays off in her parents and older siblings. ‘It was easy for me to follow in their footsteps. I didn’t have to battle against apartheid laws as they did when navigating their careers. Through my parents’ hard work and sacrifices, I was able to attend great schools and receive a quality university education − #wynbergpride #maties.’
Anine explains that while the technical knowledge acquired in pursuing the CA(SA) qualification is broad, the application thereof during articles was of great value to her. ‘As I moved from client to client, I had to quickly adapt to new systems and apply my knowledge to their environment to identify areas of strengths and risk. I also learned early in my career to practise continuous improvement. This, coupled with the experience of dealing with varied industries and cultural backgrounds, was a great foundation for my career. Being part of a profession and adherence to a code of ethics also require reflection on how one chooses to do business and how to evolve via continuous professional development.’
Being the first CA(SA) in her family and broader circle of influence, Anine is often called upon to speak to young people to explain what the qualification entails. ‘Through this designation, I have benefited professionally and personally, and I thus enjoy being part of formal structures related to the qualification in support of growing the gender and racial diversity of CA membership − for example African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA) and the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants of Southern Africa (ABASA).
She has also served on the SAICA board in the past as well as a serving on the Member in Business committee in the Southern Region. Currently, she is the president of the SAICA Southern Region Council and a member of National Council. ‘I also leverage my business acumen through serving on a range of not-for-profit boards, for example Mizpah-Foundation NPC, Community Media Trust and Woman Zone.
The best advice she received was from a partner who interviewed her for her first holiday job, and she carries it with her to this day. ‘Never burn bridges. She also encouraged me to take the good out of each work opportunity and use it as a building block towards my next career goal. To other women wanting to climb the corporate ladder, I would say be authentic – you have gotten this far by being yourself – always strive to be the best version of yourself.’
For Anine, it is important to make time to relax and recharge. ‘Spending quality time with family and friends as well as travel and photography is usually at the top of my list. During the pandemic, I found joy in the simple pleasure of walking at the beach, having my hair done or enjoying a spa treatment and relaxing with a great read. Since I now spend so much time at home, I have started gardening and knitting as new creative outlets and am thoroughly enjoying seeing these projects flourish!’
Her hope for South African women is two-fold: first, to be safe – within the home, within the community and at work. ‘The risk of gender-based violence is ever present for so many women in our country. Second, for women to be able to realise their purpose and potential – we all have different skills and talents and not everyone is blessed with the means to pursue their dreams.’
The common thread in the lives of all these amazing women is humility, strength of character and conviction, quiet determination and self-efficacy.
There is something special and exceptional about a woman who dominates in a man’s world. It takes a certain grace, intelligence, poise, strength and fearlessness to never take no for an answer and to change the world.
CELEBRATE AND HONOUR
On National Women’s Day, Anine Pheiffer wants to celebrate and honour women. ‘We recognise the important role of women in the transformation of South Africa into a democracy and we honour the endless hours of unpaid work done by women in the home and in caring for the family. It is encouraging to note that more and more women are getting involved in the mainstream economy of our country and are active in different sectors, ranging from commerce to engineering, agriculture to information technology. Let’s continue to drive the agenda of gender equality – there’s much work to be done!’