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Tesla’s secret formula

Elon Musk has inherited Steve Jobs’ mantle as the cult favorite CEO. And his electric car company has grabbed Apple’s creative crown. An inside look at the world’s most innovative company.

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The first thing you notice when you step onto Tesla Motors’ production floor are the robots. Eight-foot-tall bright-red bots that look like Transformers, huddling over each Model S sedan as it makes its way through the factory in Fremont, Calif., on the eastern, shaggier side of Silicon Valley. Up to eight robots at a time work on a single Model S in a choreographed routine, each performing up to five tasks: welding, riveting, gripping and moving materials, bending metal, and installing components. Henry Ford and the generations of auto industry experts who have followed would dismiss this setup as inefficient – each robot should do one task only before moving the car on to the next Transformer.

The first thing you notice when you step onto Tesla Motors’ production floor are the robots. Eight-foot-tall bright-red bots that look like Transformers, huddling over each Model S sedan as it makes its way through the factory in Fremont, Calif., on the eastern, shaggier side of Silicon Valley. Up to eight robots at a time work on a single Model S in a choreographed routine, each performing up to five tasks: welding, riveting, gripping and moving materials, bending metal, and installing components. Henry Ford and the generations of auto industry experts who have followed would dismiss this setup as inefficient – each robot should do one task only before moving the car on to the next Transformer.

It’s a $3 billion criticism, to be specific. That was the amount shaved off the company’s market value in early August after Tesla cut its sales forecasts for the year by 10% to 50,000 vehicles, citing delays in teaching the robots to make both the Model S and the new crossover SUV Model X. “The Model X is a particularly challenging car to build. Maybe the hardest car to build in the world. I’m not sure what would be harder,” admitted Elon Musk, Tesla’s billionaire founder and visionary CEO, who also serves in those same roles at SpaceX.

But neither delays nor the cash burn ($1.5 billion in the past 12 months) particularly fazes Musk. He just wants to focus on making the world’s best car, and the $90,000 Model S, by all rights, can claim that prize. An all-electric vehicle, it offers a week’s worth of driving on a single charge from any one of a nationwide network of free solar-powered charging stations. It goes from 0-60 in under three seconds in “ludicrous” mode, the fastest of any four-door production car on the planet, and is also the safest car in its class. When it collides with the crash-test machine, the crash-test machine breaks. You can order it online and have it delivered to your door, get software updates beamed wirelessly and receive maintenance alerts before bad stuff happens. Plus, it’s beautiful. The door handles reach out to be opened as you approach, then fold flat for better aerodynamics. Don’t believe us: Consumer Reports called it the best overall car on the market for the past two years.

These are the kinds of superlatives that shoot Tesla Motors to the top of FORBES’ World’s Most Innovative Companies list in the first year we’ve had enough financial data to consider the company. The word “disruptor” gets attached to Tesla all the time. For several years we’ve closely studied the phenomenon of disruptive innovation, identified in the late 1990s by Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen. We quantify it, based on the difference between a public company’s market value and the measurable intrinsic value of its existing business – an innovation bonus, if you will. Despite all the buzz – and that’s something we try to factor out when measuring the premium – we were initially puzzled by Tesla’s growing success. Unlike classic disruptive innovations such as steel mini-mills, personal computers and, in the car business, cheap Japanese imports, Tesla never pursued the classic route of going after low-end, price-sensitive customers first with cheaper, inferior technology. It doesn’t pursue nonconsumption, or customers who don’t currently drive cars. Tesla automobiles look and drive much like other cars, use established infrastructure like roads and confine much of their product innovation to only one aspect: the power system.

These facts don’t fit the required mold for successful low-end disruption – a traditional case study would point to Tesla hitting a wall. Even Musk wasn’t sure at the beginning. “I didn’t ask for outside money for Tesla, and SpaceX, because I thought they would fail,” he says. But Tesla has instead proved to be a different kind of disruptor, a high-end version that can be just as troublesome for the incumbents.

High-end disruptors produce innovations that are leapfrog in nature, making them difficult to imitate rapidly. They outperform existing products on critical attributes on their debut; they sell for a premium price rather than a discount; and they target incumbents’ most profitable customers, going after the most discriminating and least price-sensitive buyers before spreading to the mainstream. If you look within some large companies, you can flesh out previous examples: Apple’s iPod outplayed the Sony Walkman; Starbucks’ high-end coffee drinks and atmosphere drowned out local coffee shops; Dyson’s vacuum cleaners now have solid market share; Garmin’s GPS golf ­watches have taken much of the business from range finders. The incumbents didn’t react fast enough, and the high-end disruptors took over their market.

Tesla has built its entire company around this idea. The Model S and X will be followed in 2017 by a cheaper Model 3, a $35,000 Tesla for the masses, if all goes according to plan. And despite the fact that Tesla abandoned its forecast of turning a profit this year (even with its unusual and pro-company lease accounting), investors can’t get enough of it: Musk has raised $5.3 billion in equity and debt for Tesla since 2010, with each round increasingly oversubscribed by investors, including a $650 million secondary offering in mid-August, partly to complete its giant battery-making Gigafactory in the Nevada desert. “The willingness of the markets to support the company with various financing structures leads me to believe that everything will probably be okay, assuming the model proves viable,” said Jacob Cohen, senior associate dean at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

That viability moment should come around 2017, say analysts at Credit Suisse, when Tesla is expected to show its first significant dose of free cash flow, or operating income after capital expenditures (see charts, p. 28). The other metrics look golden: It is on track to gross $5.5 billion this year, up 54% over 2014. Its shares have soared 15-fold since its 2010 IPO to a recent $33 billion market capitalization.

Meanwhile, incumbent automakers face the same challenge now and long term: If much of the auto business ends up going electric (and that’s a big if right now with sub-$3 gas and sales falling overall for electrics and hybrids) Tesla will be miles ahead at the high-end and coming down-market to eat away at the $1 trillion industry. Detroit finds it easy to dismiss Tesla as a moneylosing startup, but it has changed the industry. “[In 2001] GM crushed all of its electric models in a junkyard,” Musk says. “When we came along and made the Roadster, it got GM to make the Volt and then Nissan felt confident enough to go with the Leaf. We basically got the whole ball rolling with electrification of cars. The ball is rolling slowly, but it is rolling.”

Peel back the aluminum skin of a Tesla Model S and you will see what high-end disruption looks like. The motor and gearbox are a fraction of the size of a combustion engine drivetrain, mounted low between the wheels to create a larger crumple zone for passenger safety. The chassis is like a giant skateboard built to accommodate lots of battery wattage.

To create a car that looks this different, Musk has engineered a team and process that look different. Call it the Musk Way. Most car companies try to capture value with an established product. Laboring under radical uncertainty, Tesla has a process that is centered on a single purpose: speed. Like the big automakers, Tesla stamps its own body panels in-house, but it also makes its own battery packs and motors in the Fremont assembly plant. It even makes its own plastic steering wheel casings – a part easily and usually outsourced – because suppliers (much to their regret) tried sending their B teams and took months to turn around designs.

Tesla cannot wait – it updates designs continuously, borrowing ideas freely from its sibling SpaceX, including its extensive use of aluminum in both the body and the chassis of the Model S, as well as drawing and casting techniques used to produce the aluminum bodies of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and Dragon capsules. “It’s very helpful to cross-fertilize ideas from different industries,” says Musk.

You’ll rarely find someone at Tesla who worked at GM, Ford or Chrysler or an automotive supplier (Aston Martin is one notable exception). Sterling Anderson, a former McKinsey associate and MIT-trained expert in self-driving cars, was hired in the summer of 2014 to work on Tesla’s autopilot systems. Now he’s the program manager of the Model X. The reason Tesla will occasionally put someone in a position without prior industry experience is that Musk is known for selecting people based upon their ability to solve complex problems—not based upon experience. Says Tesla Chief Information Officer Jay Vijayan, “Elon doesn’t settle for good or very good. He wants the best. So he asks job candidates what kinds of complex problems they’ve solved before … and he wants details.”

Musk’s team screens job applicants for their ability to learn under uncertain conditions. Every new employee, no matter which department, has to have proven some kind of ability to solve hard problems. “We always probe deeply into achievement on the résumé,” says Musk. “Success has many parents, so we look to find out who really did it. I don’t care if they graduated from university or even high school.”

Promotions and bonuses at both Tesla (and SpaceX) are built around a 1-to-5 rating system, with 4 and 5 being “great” and “phenomenal”, respectively. “You don’t get the two highest ratings,” says Musk, “unless you have done something innovative. It has to be significant in the case of phenomenal, something that makes the company better or the product better. Anyone can be an improver: HR, finance, production, they can all figure out how to improve things.”

When Tesla first called Vijayan to ask him to consider the CIO job, he said maybe but then pulled himself out of contention. He had a cushy CIO job at Silicon Valley blue-chip software firm VMWare and wasn’t looking to step out on any ledges. Tesla appeared to be taking huge risks, and Elon Musk had a reputation of making monumental demands of the leadership team. But 18 months later he got a call back and was asked to reconsider. During his interview with Musk he became convinced this company could change the world.

Vijayan’s first major task? Build all the software to run the business, from scratch, in three months, for one-fifth the cost. Typically big companies spend millions of dollars on enterprise resource planning software – which handles product planning, finance, manufacturing, supply chain and sales – from large vendors like SAP and Oracle. When Vijayan told him such a task wasn’t possible, Musk simply stated, with a Steve Jobs-like confidence: “Let me know what you need from my side to make this happen.” Says Vijayan, “He doesn’t accept constraints as ‘givens’ the way most people do.”

Vijayan and his team implemented a basic but functioning homegrown system in four months, and with steady improvements it now gives Tesla a lightning-fast feedback loop. “We have a seamlessly integrated information system that gives us speed and agility like no other automaker,” says Vijayan. By comparison, GM outsourced its entire IT function after spinning out EDS in 1996, and only since exiting bankruptcy has it rebuilt its IT strength, but at huge cost.

After hiring folks with a demonstrated ability to solve complex problems, Tesla deploys them in small teams that sit cheek-by-jowl to hasten the solutions. “Our communication allows us to move incredibly fast,” says chief designer Franz von Holzhausen. “That is an element that isn’t happening in the rest of the automotive world. They are siloed organizations that take a long time to communicate.” Von Holzhausen was able to design the award-winning Tesla S with a team of just three designers sitting next to their engineering counterparts. Bigger automakers typically have 10 to 12 designers working on each new model.

Even the car itself is designed for speed of learning. Customers are continuously connected to Tesla via their car’s 4G wireless connection and 17-inch touchscreen control panel, which sends usage data to the manufacturer in real time. Tesla will release fixes via overnight software download or make physical ­changes at a moment’s notice. That ludicrous mode that shaves the zero-to-60mph time by 10% on the top-of-the-line P85D Model S sedan is available as an over-the-air $10,000 software upgrade. And in 2013, after receiving feedback that the back seats in the Tesla S were uncomfortable, Tesla service workers changed every owner’s seats in a matter of weeks, midyear.

Learning in an environment of uncertainty requires a willingness to admit mistakes and move quickly rather than digging in and doing nothing for fear of admitting failure. In fact, obsessively attempting to avoid failure can lead to the greater failure of missing the big opportunity.

When the Model S was introduced in June 2012 it came with a “smart” air suspension system that automatically lowered the car at highway speed for better aerodynamics and range. One day a Model S owner was zooming down the highway and ran over a three-ball trailer hitch. It punctured the underbody’s ballistics-grade armor and the battery pack above it with incredible force. No one was hurt; the car’s warning system told the passengers to exit the vehicle before a fire started in the front compartment. Tesla quickly added a titanium underbody shield to the existing armor on all new cars and made it a free upgrade on existing ones, and it updated the software so the car doesn’t automatically lower at highway speed.

Most automakers lay out their shop floor once to minimize costs and plan model lines that will remain unchanged for several years. Tesla’s production engineers are continually changing the layout of the factory to learn as much as possible. Over time, as Tesla wrings out the uncertainty in the development and manufacturing process, it will transition to a more familiar arrangement, a process that is already starting to happen in the second and third production lines for the Model S and Model X. Tesla learned the benefits of staying nimble early on with the Roadster when, in an effort to reduce costs, it tried to establish a global supply chain similar to a giant carmaker’s. Tesla wasn’t ready for that setup, and having manufacturing spread out over the world led to massive coordination problems. “We definitely don’t get it perfect on the first try, not even close,” says cofounder and chief technical officer J.B. Straubel. “But that’s how we learn.” The stakes will go way up when Tesla adds the future Model 3 on another production line. If one part isn’t right, the whole factory can grind to a halt. FiatChrysler, for example, delayed the launch of the popular Jeep Cherokee by about six months because of problems with its new nine-speed transmission.

Tesla’s innovation process is neither easy nor comfortable. A recent Musk

biography tells the story of the time when, after asking already overworked employees to continue pulling overtime before the launch of the original Tesla Roadster, one employee said, “But we haven’t seen our family in weeks.” Musk’s response: “You will have plenty of time to see your family when we go bankrupt.” Musk also looks down on holidays, having nearly died from malaria following a trip to Brazil and South Africa in 2000. “That’s my lesson for taking a vacation: Vacation will kill you.”

The Tesla team is successful at achieving seemingly impossible goals not just because they work harder than anyone else. It has a process for solving complex problems that is effective. “I operate on the physics approach to analysis,” says Musk. “You boil things down to the first principles or fundamental truths in a particular area and then you reason up from there. Then you apply your reasoning to those axiomatic principles to assess what is really possible and what is simply perceived to be possible.” This method leads to innovative solutions that even Tesla executives didn’t think were possible.

Says Straubel: “Musk challenges everyone to work incredibly hard.  I know that sounds stereotypical, but I think he does it to a degree that is pretty unusual, and it is highly uncomfortable for most people, but the results are fairly undeniable. If you challenge people to work hard, they achieve more than they think they can. Most leaders don’t want to do that.” Adds Doug Fields, vice president of engineering: “We take leaps of faith that are like jumping out of an airplane and designing and building the parachute on the way down.”

That’s the necessary approach when you’re making the transition from a one-car company to a multi-car company, and doing it at scale, while simultaneously building a giant indoor energy-storage business. That’s the Musk Way.

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Cover Story

Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

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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.

READ MORE | The Big Bank Theory: South Africa’s Banks Of The Future

 “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. 

Beyond economics.

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.

Raghu Malhotra President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“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.

READ MORE | The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him

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.

READ MORE | Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

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.

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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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.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

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

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Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

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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. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

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.

READ MORE : WATCH | The Making Of The New Wealth Creators Cover

 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.

READ MORE : Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent

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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