Jesmane Boggenpoel’s book My Blood Unites and Divides was a compelling account of her experiences as a woman of colour breaking barriers at a time when opportunities for people of colour were scarce. Now, she’s helping others learn from those experiences in a new online course, Diversity and Inclusion in the Workforce, available on Udemy.
Jesmane, managing partner of AIH Capital, a black women-owned and -managed private equity fund, comes from a marginalised community, and therefore it’s always been very important for her that other marginalised people realise that they don’t need to be defined by their backgrounds. And this is one of her big reasons for penning her book back in 2019. At the same time, she wanted to tell the story of historically mixed-race people − a history which, to date, has received little attention. ‘At a time when issues of oppression have been brought to the fore by events such as George Floyd’s murder and our differing experiences of COVID, I feel that this story is more relevant than ever before,’ Jesmane points out.
This is all the more true because of the challenges created by COVID-19, which highlighted the reality that as much as diversity and inclusion have been on the South African agenda for many years, these issues are by no means limited to our country. Jesmane observes that there are clear similarities in how obstacles impeding inclusiveness manifest in different countries: in the United States, for example, there are notable historical systemic inequalities which have created problems when it comes to accessing healthcare and education and which inevitably lead to generational poverty. Nepal is another country with a devastating history of lack of access: one of the people interviewed in Jesmane’s book, a member of the country’s Hyolmo1 people, of Tibetan descent, later earned a PhD from a UK university – and yet, for years (until he finished primary school, in fact) there had been no high school in his community, effectively placing an immoveable barrier on further education.
A difficult childhood
Jesmane’s inclusion of interviews with such individuals – and with other people from countries as far afield as Rwanda, Japan and Armenia – gives her book international relevance, but its account of her upbringing in one of Johannesburg’s poorest suburbs, Westbury, roots it firmly in a local context.
The suburb was a microcosm of apartheid’s ills: Jesmane’s father was a construction carpenter who worked on a project in Namibia until she was two years old, when a nervous breakdown forced him into an institution. With his employment options limited, the family relied on Jesmane’s mother – who had not completed high school – as the breadwinner. Her father’s struggle with alcohol (which he won when Jesmane was 10 years old) created even more challenges for the family – and yet, in spite of their straitened circumstances, both Jesmane and her identical twin sister thrived in the nurturing environment their parents created.
‘They also taught us the value of academic achievement,’ Jesmane recalls – which is why both girls were consistently top students and how Jesmane came to earn a bursary to study towards her CA(SA) degree through Anglo American, while her sister went on to become a medical doctor.
Forging a career path
When Jesmane entered the commerce faculty at Wits, fewer than 10% of her classmates were of colour. This isn’t surprising: Jesmane admits that there were no role models from the profession in her own community and the lack of black colleagues was to prove a stumbling block throughout her early career. In fact, her interest in diversity and inclusion was birthed around this time. ‘I struggled to get placements when I entered the workforce,’ she says candidly. ‘I felt that I had to invest extra effort in my work path, compared to my peers. Where they could rely on their networks, I had to approach partners and managers personally to ask for work.’
It was both humbling and daunting to ask for opportunities to prove herself, but Jesmane says that she was driven by the spirit of perseverance and resilience that had been cultivated during her childhood. ‘Giving up was never an option,’ she says. ’Even when I felt disheartened, I was determined to qualify and get the requisite experience. I knew that education was the tool I needed to break the cycle of poverty.’
Her experiences taught her a simple survival skill: staying power. ‘Coming from a marginalised community, it was a revelation to realise that I had agency: I could make choices that impacted the world around me. This is something I would like all people who have grown up in similar backgrounds to understand. You don’t need to wait for anyone’s approval or acceptance. When things don’t stand in your favour, push on through and create your own world.’
An innovative approach
Of course, reaching the point where you are sufficiently empowered to act on that agency requires a lot of internal work – and this is precisely what Jesmane encourages through her course. Her take on diversity and inclusion is unique, because she understands it to be an issue that affects the individual as much as the organisation. ‘The starting point of the course is introspection: before we can even deal with issues of diversity and inclusion at a global level, we need to see how they affect us. What is your identity, and how does that reflect on others in the workplace? Are you able to reframe your experiences so that they take on a different meaning? What are your subconscious triggers and predispositions?’
Importantly, because this process is self-led, it is not judgemental, and there are no ‘shoulds’ attached. Rather, says Jesmane, it aims to change thought processes – because it’s only when a mindset shifts that behaviour can follow suit.
‘Essentially, this course aims to connect your past, your present and your future. It strives to help you cultivate a better understanding of yourself and give you the tools to help you navigate the workplace more comfortably,’ Jesmane concludes.
A global perspective
Just as her book includes both local and global perspectives, so too does the course. The course includes interviews with global thought leaders on diversity and inclusion. The animated case studies are based on a fictitious corporate and feature characters of various ethnicities, making them relatable for people around the world.
Jesmane has included much of the feedback she received during the panel discussions and keynote speeches held to explore the issues raised in her book, which means that the course is both topical and timeous.
To view the course, click here.
Jesmane Boggenpoel CA(SA) holds a master’s degree from Harvard University’s JFK School of Government. She serves on the boards of Spur, Murray & Roberts and EOH. She was honoured as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum in 2013. Jesmane loves travelling and has visited 70 countries.
1 One of the 59 indigenous peoples recognised by the Nepal government, residing in the Helambu region.