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Business Is Music To Her Ears

Published 6 years ago
By Forbes Woman Africa

It’s always a humbling experience meeting artistes. Their discipline has come from years of slog, and they take their assiduous approach and loyalty to the craft to almost everything they do.

Loyalty is a key word.

Katinka Schumann is Divisional Executive: High Impact & Regions at the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) in Johannesburg. And she has been with the organization 21 years, joining them the year South Africa became a democracy.

It’s the only career she says she has known.

Schumann could have also made a career in music – she spent years playing the viola, but says she was too ambitious, leaving it to her more gifted sisters, two of who are now well-known pianists in Austria and Cape Town.

Growing up in the beautiful winelands of Stellenbosch, in South Africa’s Western Cape, where “art, music, culture and intellectual conversations” were in abundance, hers was “a musical family”. All her four sisters too studied music, goaded on by a diligent mother, who set aside money just so her daughters could take music lessons.

“We all played, and would have family concerts [at home]. We played in orchestras from a young age. Somehow there was never a feeling I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do.”

Which is why, Schumann spent two years as an exchange student in Germany after her matric “to discover what she really wanted to do”. She worked odd jobs, and even studied German.

“There wasn’t a big cheque around me, I really had to look after myself. I had R1,000 in my pocket for the year, I found a job, I sold ice-cream, I sold strawberries, delivered newspapers on Sundays in the snow. But I got a lot of money I was grateful for. It was just one of those things. As children, we were told to take responsibility. Our parents said they were not going to spoil us with comforts.”

Schumann was still finishing her MBA when she received a call “out of the blue” from the IDC, asking if she would like to join.

“I hadn’t even heard of the IDC then. Within days, I convinced my husband about it… I remember I arrived at the IDC starry-eyed, knowing very little about business. But I learned so much. I would walk around with a little black book, and if somebody said ‘dividends’, I would write that down; if somebody said ‘financial structure’, I would say ‘how do you calculate it’. I loved the traveling, every second week, to a different place, looking at different industries, from mushrooms to wine to dirty foundries, and working with communities under a tree, trying to negotiate with a chief versus the CEO of a listed company. The IDC is still like that today – it’s a very broad spectrum you get exposed to at a young age,” she says.

When Schumann joined the IDC, she says it was “a white male-dominated environment with a few black people”.

She says that’s when she knew growing up with sisters and always being competitive was a good thing.

“I didn’t grow up in an environment where you had to fight with men, I just assumed it was like that. So maybe I was oblivious to it, maybe in a way it helped. I didn’t look for conflict. In hindsight, I think they were testing the waters with me. Today, more than half the staff at the IDC is women. They are in many senior positions.”

Busi Mabuza is the current chairperson of the IDC, which is celebrating its 75th year.

“Busi has this calm, mature nature, she’s gentle but also tough. She has a maturity, even-handedness; it’s a calm environment, she never allows it to get completely out of control. So I think as an organization, we have moved mountains, a lot faster than many of our peers or others in the financial services industry,” says Schumann, who has other role models too – in life and art.

Both her grandmothers, she says, were formidable women.

“My mother’s mother came from Holland in 1948, very poor, and through suffering raised her children. She was a tough woman and a go-getter. She was a world traveler on a shoe-string budget her whole life. My dad’s mother was an amazing woman too. Her husband was a lecturer, and started the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University. He was well-known, but she on the sidelines probably achieved more than he ever did. She spent a lot of time working on women’s issues. There probably wasn’t many women with formal university education then, which she had. She did a lot despite people possibly thinking she was a housewife. I think that’s how our parents’ generation worked it; they made the men look like they were heroes; on the sidelines, they actually achieved a lot on their own. For our generation, we shouldn’t complain. Life for women is a lot easier than it was then.”

In art, Schumann counts her namesake, South African filmmaker and actress Katinka Heyns, a role model.

“She’s probably the best South African filmmaker and producer we still have. She is an artist with words, and very special.”

Schumann had the opportunity to meet Heyns through the IDC recently and calls it one of her “awe moments”.

“I said to her I have always been asked when introduced to people, ‘are you Katinka Heyns’? All my life, I have lived in her shadow because of this name, as it’s not common. Now, when I phone her and say, ‘hi Katinka, this is Katinka’, she says ‘it’s like we are talking to a tunnel’.”

Part of what also makes Schumann’s job at the IDC interesting is the opportunity to assess how companies grow and constantly meet entrepreneurs.

“I have the greatest respect for entrepreneurs; they have so many challenges, and they focus on solutions and try and overcome them. Every now and then they stumble but they have that goal in mind that they have to make it. We see failures as well. You get entrepreneurs who disappoint you, so it is the full spectrum.”

Schumann never planned on staying at the IDC this long – there is still so much to do, she says.

“Our job is never done. Our economy is not growing fast enough, there is unemployment, so there is always scope to do more.”

Schumann also has enough opportunity to work with the younger generation.

“The young women are eager and anxious to move quicker. The one thing I am seeing a lot more is they are starting to use their relationships. Twenty years ago, we didn’t see the power of relationships, of networking.”

Would the 46-year-old mother of three ever turn entrepreneur herself some day?

“I have always had an entrepreneurial flair… I don’t know what I want to do but would like to try it.”

Whatever she does, Schumann will be sure to take her discipline and loyalty to another level.

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Related Topics: #August 2015, #Executive, #IDC, #Katinka Schumann.