Roberta Naicker is watching CNBC Africa in her sunny corner office in Johannesburg’s upscale Sandton suburb, and she is not looking happy. A series of bomb blasts have ripped Abuja, Nigeria, only days before the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa summit, and she has a team of cameramen, TV journalists and managers leaving to cover the continent’s most important business meet.
As Managing Director of the ABN Group in South Africa that operates CNBC Africa, she has the onerous task of deciding the course of action: news first, or people first?
The coffee on her table is cold. Her fingers are perhaps clammy, as she clasps them, pursing her lips, making her decision. Her people come first.
For the group’s 40-year-old managing director, family has always been a pertinent part of her life, and this, her 300-employee company, is family too.
Hailing from Durban, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province where the weather is warm and the Indian population numerous, Naicker spent most of her girlhood aspiring to become a chartered accountant. Where others dreamt of Barbie dolls, she dreamt of a college education.
Money was always in short supply, but her parents encouraged her to study. It was 1991, three years before a free South Africa, when Naicker completed her matriculation. She recalls boycotting classes and participating in the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ campaign in school. Somewhere in the mind of the young girl, the stirrings of change. Would she have known that 17 years on, she would be at the forefront of a large media organization covering the country Mandela envisaged?
After school in 1992, Naicker enrolled for a BCom degree at the University of Durban Westville (now UKZN).
“My parents said, ‘you worry about getting into university, we will worry about paying for it’,” says Naicker. But that was not to be. Naicker discontinued college, opting to pursue her second year BCom part-time through the University of South Africa (UNISA). In 1993, she signed up for a full-time job in her hometown at the age of 19.
“I always had a passion for numbers and my first job was as a junior accountant in a small manufacturing firm. I knew that if I am not going to get somewhere through a formal education, I am going to have to do it through hard work. Those were the goals I set for myself and that is the way I have lived my life the past 20 years,” says Naicker.
Marriage in 1998 saw her relocate to Johannesburg with her husband; this is where her career blossomed, starting in the commercial property management industry. Next up was an assignment as the finance manager of a large organization for six years until 2006.
This was before joining the ABN Group in March 2008. The group had just launched CNBC Africa, and she was hired as Head of Finance. Naicker admits it was an industry she had little knowledge of at the time.
“I was comfortable from the finance perspective, but I didn’t understand media at all. It was completely nerve-racking walking in here and thinking, ‘what am I honestly going to do’? But I saw it as a challenge.”
Naicker calls it the start of an association with an organization that believed in her, and placed all faith in her to do the job, and do it well. For this, Naicker gives all the credit to ABN Group’s Co-founder and Vice Chairman Rakesh Wahi.
As Managing Director, Roberta Naicker is responsible for the overall operations of the ABN Group, which includes CNBC Africa and FORBES AFRICA. She plays an instrumental role in the strategic planning, financing and implementation of FORBES AFRICA, ABN Productions and ABN Training Institute. She currently also serves as a board member; Chair and Managing Director of ABN Productions, ABN Pictures and the ABN Training Institute, Chair of the ABN Education Trust, and Chair of ABN Nigeria and Kenya.
A firm believer in the empowerment of women, here, Naicker speaks about how she made every opportunity – and adversity – a part of her learning curve.