They both live in Cape Town, but are poles apart. Wendy Ackerman is on everyone’s rich list; Rapelang Rabana wants to be, but for now is content with being on the FORBES ‘30 Under 30: Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs’ list.
Ackerman is polished, prim and proper; Rabana is young, spunky and bright. Both have struggled against what the business world thinks women should be. Between them, they weave a fascinating story of how women can become successful entrepreneurs.
Be warned, anyone who refers to Ackerman as the chairman’s wife. Legend has it that she once received a lunch invitation bearing the words “wife of Pick ‘n Pay mogul”. This did not go down well.
“This makes me cross. Don’t introduce me as the chairman’s wife. I have had to work very hard. I want to be recognized as a person in my own right,” she told Independent on Saturday.
Decades in business have made her a force to be reckoned with and a source of great knowledge, opinions and advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Ackerman attended convent schools during the Second World War. Despite being destined for the retail industry, she majored in history of art, English and psychology at the University of Cape Town (UCT). In her second year at university, she married future retail magnate Raymond Ackerman and moved to Johannesburg, where she lived for 12 years and completed her degree. Taking care of three children at home frustrated her.
In 1964, the year Nelson Mandela went to prison for life and amidst the biggest political crack down in the country’s history, Ackerman was part of the team that put on a Shakespeare festival in South Africa’s townships, with actors from the University of Cambridge. This led to Ackerman giving English lessons in the townships.
When it came to learning economics at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Ackerman dropped out because she didn’t understand the “airy fairy” subject. Outside the classroom, her husband became her teacher and she picked up her business knowledge through osmosis, when they attended business lectures. The couple went to the United States to study supermarketing and worked at supermarkets together—the business that was to make their fortune.
Ackerman says working with her husband has been good, as he’s an understanding person. Their biggest fights were about company policy. They fought over the building of a hypermarket in picturesque Constantia, Cape Town.
She walked into his office, wearing a pinstripe suit, to hand in her resignation letter. She would stay until the day the company broke ground in Constantia. Ackerman says many of the company executives tried to change her mind, warning her that it could be detrimental to her marriage. As far as she was concerned, this was all business and had nothing to do with her marriage. The hypermarket was not built—the pinstripe suit had won.
The journey that led to South African supermarket chain Pick ‘n Pay (PnP) began in 1966 when Checkers, still a grocery store at the time, fired Raymond Ackerman.
“I’ve always had enormous faith in my husband; I was delighted when he was fired,” says Ackerman, adding that he hadn’t been happy at work for a long time.
When the Ackermans moved back to Cape Town to establish PnP, Raymond would call her, whenever he was snowed under, to do anything from human resources to balancing the books and building homes for black managers. The housing project was one of the ways they took a stance against apartheid and says she was never worried she’d push too far.
“It never occurred to him that I might not be able to do something. So I did it. It didn’t occur to me to think that I couldn’t do it,” says Ackerman.
Equally ready for the fight is Rabana. Born in Botswana and called Africa’s Marissa Mayer—the CEO and president of Yahoo—Rabana is the co-founding CEO of Yeigo Communications. The daughter of an architect and electrical engineer, both of whom had moved out of corporate to start their own architectural firm, she spent her first eight to 10 years in Gaborone and left to board at Roedean School—a private school in Johannesburg.
Rabana wasn’t keen on university, but her strict African parents would have none of that. Unsure of what to study, she asked her brother to pick something for her, as long as it wasn’t accounting or actuarial science. She was so uninterested that she only realized she had been enrolled for a business and computer science degree, when she attended the first lecture at UCT. Her brother defended his choice by saying that she needed a challenge.
In an interview last year with Ventures Africa, Rabana said: “Most of us will be familiar with the Chinese proverb about teaching a man to fish as opposed to giving him a fish. My proposition is: teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime. Expose a man to the internet and he will change his life.”
It led to a Bachelor of Business Science in computer science and finance. Rabana was faced with the question that plagues most graduates: “What now?”
She was tired of starting at the bottom of the food chain. Entrepreneurship was a way for her to make her own way. Her parents took some convincing—they felt that going into an established company was the way.
Rabana and two of her classmates wanted a solution to the high cost of communication. They spent months prototyping and by September 2006 had a working demo. Lungisa Matshoba was chief technology officer, while Andrew Snowden was head of engineering. The pair ran the development side of the business, while Rabana focused on financing and a business plan. She gave up on banks and went looking for mentors and connections.
“Everything we were doing was cutting edge,” says Rabana.
Yeigo launched in February 2007, promising Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which had just been made available in South Africa. Two other foreign companies released the same program at around the same time. As far as Rabana is concerned, people need to conquer the fear of someone stealing their ideas to become the next Mark Zuckerberg.
The partnership with Tellfree began with the Swiss company licensing software from Yeigo. Tellfree bought a majority stake in 2008 and provided the young start-up with the infrastructure it needed. In return, Rabana become Tellfree’s global head of research. Prior to this there was a multi-million-dollar investment deal with American company, Quality One Wireless, a mobile handset distribution firm. It fell through after the preliminary agreement.
Rabana says that things were very bad for a long time and that the industry still has a long way to go. The problem seems to be a risk culture that scares most from venturing out on their own in a country where joining a corporate is considered safe. There is also a shortage of accessible networks, and a lack of financing from traditional institutions that think this business is too risky.
It seems that more can be done on this front. Rabana has joined the advisory board for Grindstone Accelerator to assist high-growth technology SMEs. She says that South Africa has lost its competitive edge on the continent, in communications and technology, because of delayed responses to regulatory issues. She cites Kenya’s success as the result of having technology and communications ministers that are in tune with the industry.
Take Israel. In 1993, venture capitalism was kick started by the launch of a prototype government-owned fund called Yozma. In three years, 10 drop-down funds were established and each given $20 million. The country now has 70 venture capital funds, raising around $607 million last year.
Rabana doesn’t feel that she lived under a glass ceiling as she skirted the corporate world. Both hope that women in business will soon find their rightful place. Ackerman has traveled the longest road as her parents didn’t even want her to work.
“They didn’t understand the hunger in me to work,” says Ackerman.
Ackerman once asked her female staff members if they wanted careers or jobs—around 80% said that they wanted a job. She believes that this is because of the many responsibilities these women have at home.
For years, Ackerman didn’t draw a salary, but has always considered her financial independence extremely important.
As for her role in the company, Ackerman says she does the jobs that no one else wants. She recalls how she once went away and handed over some of her work to her daughter, Suzanne Ackerman-Berman. When she got back Ackerman-Berman walked into her office, threw the files on the table and said: “You have a shit job.”
If Ackerman were 20 years younger, she would do it all again and doesn’t believe that it’s easier to start a business today than it was for PnP in the 1960s.
“You’ve got to eat, sleep and drink it 24/7,” she warns.
According to the rising star, Rabana, having a bright idea is not good enough because success is more about execution than anything else.
“Entrepreneurship is a much more personal journey than it is a business journey,” says Rabana.
“Entitlement is a disease in South Africa. I say nobody is entitled to anything. I’m afraid there are no short cuts, you’ve just jolly well got to work—that’s all there is to it,” says Ackerman.
Ackerman says BEE—South Africa’s affirmative action policy—is rubbish and that she didn’t have a glass ceiling to break through, but a glass box, as she even had to fight her husband. She wanted recognition in the company for what she had offered and not just to be the chairman’s wife. It took her 15 years to become a director at PnP.
Although Rabana feels that policies such as BEE have a role in achieving some balance, she too has a problem with entitlement.
“The culture of entitlement fostered by policies like BEE has also undermined the drive of young black professionals and this will cost South Africa dearly,” according to Rabana.
Then there is discrimination. Both women agree that double standards exist. They say, in business, if a man is being kind and gentle he’s complimented, but if a woman does it she’s just being a typical woman.
A born teacher, Ackerman saw the lack in her country’s schools. In 1973, she set up the Ackerman Family Education Trust with the 2% of PnP shares her husband gave her. The trust gives bursaries, worth $353,000 a year, to deserving individuals and has more than 800 graduates.
“I’m not a name at the bottom of a check,” she says.
One of the recipients is Isaac Motaung, the company’s human resources director, who started at PnP as a trolley pusher. He received a bursary to study through the University of South Africa.
Rabana is the chairperson of Ubuntu Africa, a children’s HIV/Aids NGO that provides healthcare and support services to HIV positive youth in Khayelitsha, a township in the Western Cape.
Ackerman, who was recognized as one of 60 women on the 2013 Women, Inspiration and Enterprise Network ‘Africa Power Influencer’ list, once said that retirement was not in her and her husband’s DNA. She still feels that way.
At the other end of the life scale, seven years after the start of Yeigo, Rabana is just beginning.
“Our hearts remain in start-up mode… I don’t imagine I’m anywhere near my peak,” she says.
Rabana sees herself starting a number of businesses in different industries, but still linked to technology. Her latest ventures are a web and mobile entertainment platform for the American market and a local technology-driven education company called Rekindle Learning. The start-up provides a mobile learning application aimed at schools and corporates. The KnowledgePulse uses micro-learning to make the content easier to retain.
With a number of achievements under their belts these women prove that making it in business has nothing to do with your background, generation or environment in 21st century Africa. It’s all about knowing what you want and getting it.
Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa
Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.
In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.
On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.
In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).
Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.
“I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra.
That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.
The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.
The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”
He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.
“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.
“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”
Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.
It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.
But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”
And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.
“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.
The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.
Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.
“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”
Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.
Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died
The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.
It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.
READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo
She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.
That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.
She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.
One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.
Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.
-Jill De Villiers
Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo
Thandi Ndlovu and Nonkululeko Gobodo, moulded by South Africa’s apartheid past, tore their way into male-dominated sectors , leading them boldly through a quarter century of democracy. Failure was never an option.
On a sunny winter’s afternoon in a quiet suburb of Randburg in greater Johannesburg, a second white Mercedes-Benz pulls up in the driveway of a photographic studio, and finds a shady spot to park.
Already seated next to a pool glinting blue in the sunlight, an elegant woman dressed in black and white sips green tea and talks about her early life growing up in the former Bantustan of Transkei in South Africa.
Absorbed in recounting her story, she looks up as a tall, slender woman, also in a chic black and white ensemble, walks towards her. The two women beam in recognition. They are here to be photographed by FORBES AFRICA and to share their unique stories as businesswomen in two traditionally white male-dominated sectors – auditing and construction.
This year, South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy. As the country started shaking off the shackles of oppression in the 1990s, both these women embarked on their paths to greatness. Both had been moulded by the harsh final years of apartheid, gaining the strength and conviction to fight for what they believed in.
In the process, they built successful businesses, changed perceptions and became role models.
And as with all stories of achievement, their journeys came with times of adversity.
Nonkululeko Gobodo: The visionary in auditing
As a young girl, Nonkululeko Gobodo had very low self-esteem. She was shy and quiet and as the middle child in a family of five children, she felt overshadowed by her very outgoing older siblings. Her mother made it clear that she thought Gobodo wasn’t “going to amount to anything”.
Yet, there were factors in her upbringing, at home and in her community, which shaped her and prepared her for a future as a captain of industry.
Her mother was very hard on her. “I’m someone who needs affirmation and she did the opposite of what I needed. Fortunately, my father was doing that, he was doing the affirmative things.”
As an educator, her father was excited when she achieved “goodish” results at school, even slaughtering a sheep in celebration.
“When my parents were running shops, I used to be the one who would help in running the shops during the holidays. And I was quite young to be given the responsibility. My mother was literally taking a holiday, and I would run the shop perfectly, no shortage or anything like that. So, in spite of the fact that she was too hard on me, she must have thought she was nurturing this talent and making me strong.”
Growing up in the then independent Transkei (now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa), Gobodo was largely sheltered from the impact of apartheid in other parts of the country.
“I lived in this world where you were sort of cushioned from what was happening in South Africa. So you were socialized to be a fighter, to be strong. My parents used to say that we should never allow anybody to tell us there were things we cannot do,” she elucidates.
It was an everyday thing to see black people running a variety of formal businesses like hotels, garages and wholesalers.
“I suppose I was very fortunate in that I was raised by these parents who were in business, who were working very hard during those times and with very strong personalities, both of them. Within the Xhosa tribe itself, although there is patriarchy and all that, Xhosa women are very strong and they are sort of equal partners with their husbands.”
Still very young, Gobodo fell pregnant. Her parents insisted on marriage. The marriage would end several years later, after the birth of three children, when she was 34 years old.
While taking a gap year working at her father’s panel-beating shop in Mthatha (then Umtata), during her first pregnancy, Gobodo discovered her calling. While her parents thought she would be well-suited to a career in medicine, she found joy in accountancy.
The gap year also revealed her innate strength to stand up for what she believed in. For the first time, she encountered racism. White managers remained in place when her father bought the business from the Transkei Development Corporation (TDC).
“They were really so upset by these black people who had taken over this business, and they were just bullying everyone. So I was able to stand up to them and then I realized I’m actually smart, I’m actually not this thing that my mother was saying, that I’m not just smart, but I’m strong, I’m tough, I can stand up to these men during apartheid years and it was not because my father owned the shop, but it was this thing of suddenly discovering who you are for the first time and just waking up to who you are and suddenly knowing what you wanted to do. Oh wow, accountancy, I didn’t know about that,” she smiles.
She was also inspired by the fact that black auditors did the books for her father’s business. They were WL Nkuhlu & Co, owned by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu. Her father supported her decision to study BCom and she enrolled at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University).
Gobodo became a star performer at university and her confidence grew. After qualifying, the university offered her a junior lectureship. While there was no racism in the academic environment, it was here that she had her first taste of gender discrimination. A male colleague instructed her to do filing. She thought this was ridiculous considering her position, and she refused. He treated her as an equal from then on.
“I made a decision to fight the system differently,” she says. “I was sure there was no system that would determine who I am and how far I can go. I used to say this mantra to myself: ‘Your opinions of me do not define me. You don’t even know who I am’. So I never allowed those things to get to me.”
Early on, she already had a vision to have her own practice, so she was not distracted by her peers complaining while doing their articles. She was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to get the best training she could get. “Those guys never became chartered accountants, so it was a wise thing not to join them,” she smiles.
In 1987, she made history when she became South Africa’s first black female chartered accountant.
Working at KPMG, she grew to rapidly build her own portfolio of challenging assignments.
“It was my driving force right through life to prove to myself and others that there was nothing I couldn’t do. And for me, being black really gave me purpose. I can imagine that if I was living in a world that was readymade for me, life would have been very boring,” she says.
She was offered a partnership eight months after her articles. She would be the first black partner, and the first woman. It was very tempting. But she remembered her vision to start her own practice and taking the partnership would be “the easy way out”.
So she moved on to the TDC, where at the age of 29, she was promoted from internal audit manager to Chief Financial Officer within three months. Again in 1992, she decided to break “the golden chains” of the TDC to pursue her destiny. But first, she restructured her department and empowered five managers; thoroughly enjoying the work of developing leaders, and setting the tone for the business she runs now – Nkululeko Leadership Consulting.
At the time, her father questioned her decision to leave such a lucrative position to take the risk of starting a business. “Everybody was so scared for me and was discouraging me. I realized these people were expressing their own fears. I have no such fears. And it’s not saying I’m not fearful of the step I am taking, but I’m going into this business to succeed.”
The best way to do that was to step into the void without a safety net. So, no part-time lecturing job to distract her from her vision. “If I had listened to them, how would I have known that I could take my business this far?”
She describes herself as a natural entrepreneur. Yet, the responsibility of leading a business is not a joke.
“It sobers you up,” she says. “You realize you have to make this work, otherwise you’re going to fail a whole lot of people. But when you have the courage to pursue your dream, things sort of work out. Things fall into place.”
Eighteen months into the practice, she took on a partner and felt an “agitation for growth”. It came with a “massive job” from the Transkei Auditor General, and things changed overnight. With only four people in their office, they now needed 30 to complete the assignment and they hired second and third year students who attended night lectures at the university.
“At that time, as a black and a woman, you had to define your own image of yourself, and have the right attitude to fight for your place in the sun. And I can’t take for granted the way I was socialized and raised by my parents. My father was such a fighter. And he shared all his stories at the dinner table. He used to say in Xhosa: ‘who can stand in front of a bus?’, so you just have those pictures of yourself as a bus. Who can stand in front of me and my ambitions in life,” she laughs.
This self-confidence, belief in herself, direction, purpose and her clear vision steered her ever further.
“Unfortunately, I had a fallout with my partner Sindi Zilwa [co-founder of Nkonki Inc, a registered firm of auditors, consultants and advisors], and that was a hard one, a very difficult one. I used to say it was more difficult than my divorce, because that happened almost at the same time. First, the divorce started and a few months later, I divorced with my partner,” she says.
“It was a lonely time. It is amazing that out of hardship, we find an opportunity to grow and move to the next level.”
She went on a five -week program with Merrill Lynch in New York in 1994. On her return, she saw herself being cut out of negotiations to establish a medium-sized black accounting firm. While these plans were scuppered now, her vision still survived and no one could take that away from her.
She approached young professionals who were managers at the big accounting firms in Johannesburg to join her. “But you can imagine, they were young, they were fearful. It took about eight months to persuade and convince them.”
Gobodo understood their fears as she herself had to overcome her doubts about moving from a small community in the Transkei to the big city. But the visit to New York had helped her overcome her fear. If she could make it there, she could make it anywhere.
Gobodo Incorporated was established in 1996. It was the third medium-sized black accounting firm.
The others were Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba and KMMT Brey.
She believes that providence has always sent “angels” to her at the right time in her life. Peter Moyo, a partner at Ernst & Young at the time, gave his time and invaluable experience leading to the establishment of Gobodo Incorporated. Chris Stephens, who was the former head of consulting for KPMG, facilitated bringing a fully-fledged forensics unit to the firm. They took up a whole floor at their new Parktown, Johannesburg offices instead of the planned half-floor.
From a small practice in Mthatha, Gobodo Inc. grew to a medium-sized company with 10 partners, 200 staff and three offices – in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was an exciting time.
Gobodo firmly believes that visions are not static. Once a summit is conquered, there will always be another one waiting for you.
The next summit beckoned her 15 years later. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a program launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of apartheid, was firmly established and accounting firms were compliant, and Gobodo Inc. started losing out on opportunities as previous joint-audits done in partnership with the big accounting firms fell away.
She started talks with Victor Sekese of Sizwe Ntsaluba to merge the two medium-sized firms.
Again, people questioned the wisdom of the move. What if the market was not ready for a large black accounting firm?
There was somewhat of a culture clash when the “somewhat older, disciplined, bottom-line” Gobodo Inc. and the “younger, more creative” Sizwe Ntsaluba teams came together. A new culture combining the best of both emerged. Ironically, while no people were lost during the merger, some were uncomfortable with the culture change and left.
In the beginning, “a lot of sacrifices had to be made to make this thing work. Like the name. My partners were saying Nonkululeko’s name should be in front because she’s the only remaining founder,” explains Gobodo.
Sizwe Ntsaluba wanted their name up front, and it was a deal-breaker. She decided the vision was bigger than her and she wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardize it. The company name was agreed on: SizweNtsalubaGobodo. The business grew to 55 partners and over 1,000 staff.
“I think we underestimated how hard it would be,” she says. “Mergers are difficult in themselves, around 70% of mergers fail. People were laughing at us saying ‘ah, black people, they’re going to fight amongst each other and fail’, so we were determined not to fail. Failure was not an option.”
When they did their first sole tender, “you could smell the fear in the passages. There was so much fear”. Then the call came from the chair of the audit committee of Transnet to say the board had decided to appoint SizweNtsalubaGobodo as the sole auditors.
Gobodo had led the way to the establishment of the fifth largest accounting firm in South Africa. Her vision had been realized.
“It was just so fulfilling, really so fulfilling,” says the grandmother-of-three. “So it was time to move this thing forward.”
She was the Executive Chairperson and Sekese was the CEO. She commissioned partners to find the best governance structure for the firm. Their recommendation was for one leader to lead the firm forward, and a non-executive chair.
“That was going to be boring for me. If I was not going to be part of driving this vision forward, it was time for me to leave,” Gobodo says. “There comes a time that the founders must leave and hand over to the next generation.”
Although she had achieved her dream, it was not easy to let go. The separation took three months.
“I learned a lot about letting go at that time. We have to let go layer by layer. I had to accept that they would do what they had to with the legacy. And here they are now, having merged with Grant Thornton. The dream was to be a true international firm, and now with SNG Grant Thornton, it is still basically a black firm going into the continent. The dream does not die. This is still a black firm taking over an international brand.”
Gobodo now heads Nkululeko Leadership Consulting, a boutique, black-owned and managed leadership consulting firm. Here, she can live her passion for developing leaders. She also sits on the boards of PPC and Clicks. The future awaits her with more promise.
Side bar: ‘The World Is Not Kind To Strong Women Leaders’
What were the greatest challenges she faced during her career?
“Making a success of your life in the South Africa of the past. As a black person, you always started from a place of being dismissed, as a woman, you always started from a place of being dismissed. So you had to be true to yourself and find yourself for you to be able to succeed. And that was hard. I don’t want to make it as if it was easy.
“The second thing was being a strong woman leader. The world is not kind to strong women leaders. And for me, being a strong woman leader was the hardest thing because both men and women don’t accept a strong woman leader. So you have this big vision, you are driven, you have to move things forward and if you’re a strong man, you’re accepted.
“But if you’re a strong woman, you are not. So you had to grow up and mature and try to find that balance of still moving people forward to achieve your vision, because I realized early that I would not get to the finish line without them. I could not leave them behind. So I always had to find that balance and sometimes, I didn’t do it well.
“Because there was this urgency of moving forward and you have to drag people with you. And they didn’t take kindly to that. Do I regret it? No, not really. I don’t think I would have achieved what I had. I had been given these gifts as a strong woman for a reason. I just feel sorry for strong women leaders, because it is still not easy for them today.”
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