Thato Tsotetsi is forging a dynamic and exciting career while passionately playing her part in re-shaping the South African economic landscape.
In 2020, advertising industry history was made when Joe Public United became the largest black-owned independent advertising agency in South Africa.
It was a big moment for the members of Ikhamva Lakusasa, a newly established company which acquired a 26% stake in the agency, and a big moment too for private equity investment company Senatla Capital, now owners of a 34% stake. But it was Senatla’s Thato Tsotetsi, who helped broker the deal, who had the most reason to celebrate.
Thato explains that the transaction is sacred to her because it answers the firm’s structural mandates: providing growth capital and mezzanine finance, with a special focus on black industrialists. Senatla was established 10 years ago with a vision of driving transformation by investing in South African companies that have a track record of profitability, excellence, integrity and commitment – and Joe Public United certainly answers this description, Thatho says. ‘This deal is the perfect combination of both our mandates in a single exposure,’ she enthuses. The result is a landmark transaction in an industry which is sorely in need of transformation.
There is much for Thato to be proud of, but what makes this a particular highlight is that it is the ultimate instance of living her purpose. ‘It brought together everything I stand for,’ she enthuses.
Finding value in scarcity
What Thato stands for is simple, really: a transformed South Africa underpinned by equality. ‘I’m highly honoured to have been part of this journey and to be able to contribute to the transformation of black industrialists. It means even more to me because the deal has helped to advance women.”
To understand why Thato holds these imperatives so dear, you’d have to spy into a bedroom in the Soweto of the 1990s where a little girl has woken up at 4 am so that she can get to her school in the privileged suburbs. By the time her peers arrive in the classroom four hours later, she already feels as though she has worked a full day – but that doesn’t stop her from giving her absolute best.
Her endeavours and perseverance were noted by PwC, which recognised her efforts with a Top Achiever Award. ‘Without that award, I wouldn’t have been able to study without incurring debt. It was a major steppingstone on my journey,’ Thato muses. Having been lifted up in this manner, her life philosophy centres on helping others – hence her unswerving commitment to transformation.
Her upbringing was influential in other ways, too. ‘Growing up in Soweto, which has a rich revolutionary history, has had an elemental role in my foundation and view of life. My humble beginnings have also shaped my outlook. I learned how to make a lot with little means, and to find value in scarcity.’
Living your purpose
Viewing life through this lens, it is not surprising that Thato was drawn to a career in value investment. However, she says emphatically, this is not simply a job; it is a platform that enables her to live her purpose daily.
This has guided many of her choices. For example, after completing her articles at PwC, she joined the firm’s New York office. Thato thrived on the exposure to a large institution, as well as the international experience, but she couldn’t still a nagging voice that asked: how am I going to take all I have learned back to my country? The answer lay in joining a private equity firm which, she felt, would allow her greater scope to pursue her transformation agenda. ‘This agenda is the golden thread that has guided all my decisions,’ she explains.
But ask if transformation is her end goal, and she’ll demur. ‘There is no end goal,’ Thato insists. ‘Transformation is a progressive realisation that requires constant investment until we achieve an equitable society. I don’t know if that will happen in my lifetime or if it will belong to the next generation, but it’s a privilege to be part of that.’
Build to adapt
It’s Senatla Capital that is responsible for affording her this privilege. The company has a simple approach to achieving its goals, it looks for exceptional management teams and solid growth prospects; then partners with these operators.
Joe Public United illustrates this tactic perfectly. Thato points out that the business has a proven track record, boasting a 21-year history and stable leadership, with the top team having worked together for the past decade. ‘We draw confidence from the fact that we are partnering with an organisation that is outstanding in its field. This is a leading agency that’s profitable and has great growth prospects, and which can now lay claim to forging a path in transformation – crucial in an industry where there has been a clear vacuum.’
Thato’s pride in Senatla stems not only from its intentional approach to transformation but also from its relationship with its stakeholders. Senatla is a sounding board for many entrepreneurs, she says, and helps to co-create their vision.
Partnering with these entrepreneurs has been a formative experience, she says, because it requires a degree of vulnerability to create relationships of this nature. More than this, having supported entrepreneurs from diverse spheres, she has learned that people are all valuable assets.
That is why she is particularly affected by funding applications that have to be turned down. There are so many black industrialists who need support, she muses, and the fact that they are not receiving it reveals a gap in investment channels. Of course, their situation has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted supply chains and resulted in massive growth constraints. On the other hand, it has brought about some critical learnings, ‘We’ve been challenged to build adaptive capabilities; to ensure that businesses are agile.’ The changing environment has also helped her realise that she needs to stop focusing on finding solutions to a specific problem, because that problem may change. ‘We have fixated on “building to last” when in fact we should be led by a new mantra: build to adapt.’
Striving for sustainability
It would seem that ‘building to be adapt’ is the new sustainability – another of Thato’s passions. She attributes this, once more, to her humble beginnings. However, fostering sustainability is something that brings her enormous joy because it is, once more, linked to her overarching objective of transformation and its inseparable twin, social development. In South Africa, there can be no talk of one without mentioning the other, she insists, and this is why a focus on creating value in society almost certainly advances the social and economic agenda.
Thato rarely takes her eye off that goal. ‘I’m always asking: how can I drive this?’ she says, adding that there is a real reward in ‘being able’.
Sustainability is her life’s work, she believes that there should be no separation between what you do for a living and your mission, because it’s when you combine your values and your calling that you are able to make a real impact.
Her own ability to live this reality is thanks, in no small part, to her CA(SA) qualification. While she holds the technical aspects of the qualification in high regard – especially skills like project management and complex problem-solving – it is the softer side, the ethical foundation, that she has embraced. This has taught her the importance of being transparent and accountable, she says; and when you have adopted an ethical posture in one aspect of your life, it inevitably holds you up in others.
How does a person who appears to be exactly where she wants to be plan for an even brighter future? Thato wants to start by making sure that she grooms those around her, just as she was groomed by PwC and Senatla.
It comes back to offering that sounding board to the entrepreneurs who need it. To this end, Thato is studying towards an MBA focusing on entrepreneurs in emerging markets. She hopes that her learnings will hone her ability to deliver practical assistance through the value investment space. ‘Entrepreneurs need more than funding, they also need mentorship,’ she comments.
Excited as she is about being able to increase her impact, she is also enthusiastic about what lies on Senatla’s horizons. ‘We’re currently raising capital to achieve a final close for our third fund, which will help us drive our mandate,’ she informs. Going forward, the firm is looking to introduce thematic investing; establishing diverged specialist and impact funds with targeted lens investing.
AUTHOR | Lisa Witepski