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.
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