Women Should Lead The Revolution Of The Entrepreneur

Published 12 years ago
Women Should Lead The  Revolution Of The Entrepreneur

On the day President Barack Obama made his State of the Union address earlier this year, American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought together almost the full complement of an elite group of 24 women in Washington D.C. It was the inaugural meeting of the International Council of Business Women’s Leadership. Among them were vice chair Cherie Booth Blair, a top lawyer and wife of the former British Prime Minister, and South Africa’s Wendy Luhabe, chair of Women Private Equity Fund.

Seated at a U-shaped table, Clinton outlined the purpose of the group: “…to hear from you and to get very specific ideas about what you think can help us boost growth, take some of the untapped resources and mobilize them, follow smart strategies to increase productivity, and add new value to companies and economies. Now, everyone is searching for answers to those questions, but not enough people realize that part of the answer, a large part of the answer, lies with women.”

Wendy Luhabe is already “hard at work with some totally radical ideas”. Within six months of the initial meeting, the women will report back, through four committees, with their findings on Access to Capital, Access to Markets, Capacity Building and Leadership Development.


A respected business woman, entrepreneur, board director and free thinker, Luhabe first drew attention when, along with three other women, she launched the first female-only black economic empowerment company in 1994, Wiphold—Women Investment Portfolio Holdings.

“Wiphold was really a response to our democracy, and observing that men were organizing themselves and they were excluding women. It felt like a perfect opportunity to do something for ourselves. It was a moment of choice—either we waited for some man who felt generous enough to invite us or we actually found out whether we could do it on our own. And the irony is that some of the initiatives that started then, the first generation of empowerment companies, don’t exist anymore. Wiphold is the only surviving initiative from that first generation of economic empowerment initiatives. With our initial offer, we were able to bring in 18,000 women as shareholders and investors for the first time. And it was unprecedented anywhere in the world,” says Luhabe.

The empowerment of women is very much a part of the mandate of the Clinton-initiated group, International Council of Business Women’s Leadership.

At the inaugural meeting the US Secretary of State told the women: “We all know the numbers. About 3% of the CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies are women. There are still a lot of obstacles to women entering. It depends, of course, on national, cultural, ethnic, religious reasons. But it cuts across all of that, and it is, to a greater or lesser degree, present in every society. So the challenge before us today—as we represent government, business, NGOs, workers, institutions—is what are the ideas that we can promote that can help women be able to fulfill their own potential. How do we widen that circle of prosperity to lift the entire global economy, women and men alike, and how do we, within our own organizations, do more to train and promote women to positions of leadership?”


Asked why she thought there were so few women in leadership positions, especially in business, Luhabe replied: “Because there are not enough women in the pipeline.”

Men have traditionally had a different, more defined road to the top. They started at entry level, and moved through the rungs into middle management and then senior management. Women were often uprooted from entry level and expected to cope at a level they had little or no experience with. Women should be encouraged to go through the same steps.

Then some industries attract more women than others. “It is not every industry that is attractive to women and it’s not every industry that wants to work with women. So I think we should accept that the opportunities exist for women and that women can choose what they want to study, which was not the case when I was at university, there were very limited options for women. And women can choose what professions they want to pursue, so we shouldn’t use the fact that women are not in those positions as a failure. Maybe women are just not interested. I’m sure there are instances where women are not rising through the ranks, but we are changing attitudes and stereotypes that have been around for many, many generations. It will take a while but women themselves have to believe that they can do a good job if not a better job and whether they want to do it. When they want to be in these positions, I think the opportunities are there for them.”

From an African perspective, Luhabe believes the time is right for a revolution of entrepreneurship, and that women are well placed to lead.


“My sense is to leapfrog the economy of the country in terms of growth, and in terms of creating new opportunities for future generations to participate; we actually don’t have an option but to generate almost a revolution of entrepreneurship. It already exists, but it is not formalized, it is not properly channeled, it is not properly resourced and supported. So my very naïve view, maybe romantic view, is that if you see what women already do in Africa, that they intuitively become entrepreneurs, I always wonder how much more we could realize as a continent if there was a systematic approach.

“Let us cultivate what already seems to have a seed, rather than be something that we’re not… We’re a mining economy—let’s see how we can leverage the mining economy and everything else that exists to start a completely new foundation for our economic existence that is not based on what MBAs or highly educated professors tell us what needs to be. I think we should always start from reality and say: What can we do with what we have?”

So often lately, Africa is optimistically labeled as the ‘next frontier’, but what exactly does that mean, Luhabe asks. Does it mean raping Africa of its mineral wealth, much more deliberately than in the past? Or does it mean enabling African people to find their place in the world?

“We need to define it ourselves, rather than wait for others to define it on our behalf. Maybe we should ask ourselves what we see as the potential of the continent and where we want to take it. You know visionary leaders who really have what it takes and who have the courage to take Africa to where it really deserves to be.”


Personally, Wendy Luhabe has taken a new direction in her career. After almost 20 years of sitting on boards as director or chair, she felt she was not really enjoying it anymore. The free-spirited Luhabe found private sector boards to be set in their ways.

Public sector boards were more appealing as they were more open to change and to the participation of women. “And their mandate since we became a democracy was a transformation mandate, so I found that in those boards I was able to do much more and contribute more and to change things a lot more than I feel I have been able to do in private sector boards.

“My philosophy is to be involved in things where I feel that I’m adding value, where I feel that my contribution is valued,” she says.

Although the development and empowerment of women and enabling them to find the courage to live their best lives on their terms is close to her heart, Luhabe is open to mentor young people, irrespective of gender: “If people find me and give me the honor of mentoring them and guiding their lives, I have a duty to respond to that.”


Members of the International Council of Business Women’s Leadership gather for their inaugural meeting

Luhabe’s involvement with promoting women in business has also extended to the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an international business plan competition. As jury president of the sub-Saharan African panel, she has been part of shaping of the evaluation criteria that prioritize creativity, sustainability and social impact. Through the Initiative, Luhabe has witnessed the creative genius of hundreds of initiatives steered by women in different parts of Africa over the past six years.

Entrepreneurship is something that needs to be modeled. “When people look at what we’ve achieved as women, then they begin to believe that there are possibilities for their own lives. I think we should not underestimate how effective role modeling is. When Obama became president, can you imagine what it did for black people everywhere, not just in America? So there is an enormous power in when people who have been previously disadvantaged and who have not had access to certain positions assume those positions.

“But then, they also carry a huge responsibility because they have to consciously use those positions to not only be an inspiration as to how they conduct themselves, with respect to what they achieve through those positions, with respect to how they use those positions to change circumstances for the majority of people who will never become presidents. But maybe they can change the environment for a lot of people to achieve their own dreams.”


“In corporations, where people who have been exposed the most—generally white males get the most exposure at corporations, but when black people, black women and white women are exposed to the same opportunities or even projects that white males are, they develop much quicker,” she says.

She also believes that a sense of curiosity and adventure should be encouraged in young people, so that they can see the world and how it works and decide where they want to live and work.

But don’t discount the advantages of working in Africa. Looking at South Africa specifically, a lot of people who were educated here and ran various industries here have gone on to become global CEOs.

“We should not underestimate that South Africa offers an enormously fertile training ground for people because we have to deal with so many issues,” Luhabe says. “Our circumstances are very different from issues that people have to deal with in other parts of the world. People who studied overseas hopefully bring back some value, but I don’t necessarily think that they have such a huge advantage over people who have studied here, or whose work experience has only been here.”

Because education is so important to her, she formed the Wendy Luhabe Foundation shortly after writing the book Defining Moments. Royalties from the book, as well as other funds, are channeled into the Foundation and are used towards the education of disadvantaged people.

When she reports back to the International Council of Business Women’s Leadership, with her strong financial background, she will give input into insurance for women, among other things.