When South Africa marks 20 years of democracy next year, it will not be alone in celebrating. Wiphold, Women Investment Portfolio Holdings, will also mark 20 years of existence as the country’s first women-owned investment company.
In the early 1990s, after winning the political battle to ensure all South Africans had equal rights, the country’s leaders had to deal with an important challenge: how to include black South Africans meaningfully in the economy.
Louisa Mojela, Wendy Luhabe, Nomhle Canca and myself founded Wiphold to make sure that the women of South Africa were not excluded from this life-changing conversation.
Our women political leaders had done their best to ensure that gender rights featured in the Constitution. However, as a worldwide phenomenon, big business does not seem to be comfortable including women in executive discussions.
When we founded Wiphold, my colleagues and I were well aware of the challenges involved in including women in the mainstream economy.
Using our rare, privileged position, championed by the South African government’s policies, we deliberately tried to rearrange boardroom conversations all over the world.
Over the past two decades, I think it is fair to say that Wiphold has met its ambition of being a force to be reckoned with. The company is fully entrenched in its chosen industries: financial services (Old Mutual and Nedbank); coal mining (Sasol) and infrastructure (the construction of a cement plant). Wiphold has also left its mark on consumer goods and services, and on tourism and leisure. While there were many highlights during this 20-year journey, some experiences stand out as particularly memorable.
When we started out, we needed seed capital of $50,000. For young professionals from not-so-rich backgrounds, this was a lot of money, and family and friends came on board to help us. I remember that my young brother-in-law, Lazzy, who had just started his law articles, delayed buying himself a car in order to loan me $500.
Early on, when the South African government introduced Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation to include black South Africans in the white-dominated economy, Wiphold approached a gold company. We offered ourselves as a unique BEE partner, trading on the fact that women are known consumers of gold. The CEO was impressed with our presentation and kindly offered us a rose garden project, which the company had undertaken as a corporate social initiative. We have never forgiven him.
Another BEE company was so impressed with Wiphold, that it offered us a merger. This was very flattering, except that the company had an Net Asset Value of almost $500 million, while Wiphold’s was a mere $3.5 million in comparison. It would seem that we were a nuisance that needed to be removed from the BEE playing field.
Perhaps the highest point in my career is when Wiphold listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1999. It was the first women-owned company to do so; further proof that we were pushing the boundaries.
Another high point was Wiphold’s decision to build a cement plant. Construction is traditionally a man’s domain – it is no rose garden – and I am proud that our company is comfortable enough to enter the sector.
Over the years, there have also been disappointments. A continuous frustration is what I see as women’s lackluster efforts to carve out a space, to coexist alongside men, in the world of business. I see it happen time and again here in South Africa and elsewhere in the world. We are not getting the traction we believe we deserve – and there are plenty of reasons why not.
It is not enough to complain that our male counterparts are not taking us seriously. In the end, this is a fight for survival, for women’s economic and financial independence. When it is successful, it translates into more harmonious relationships with men, free of financial dependency.
In the South African context, women have battled long and hard for emancipation – some have even given their lives in the fight for equal rights. The next phase is economic emancipation – and it is impossible to argue that there are no opportunities or a lack of economic platforms on which to do so.
As a pioneer in South Africa, Wiphold did not have the luxury of failing. The burden of the next generation of women entrepreneurs was on our shoulders. Success and excellence were not optional, but necessary.