How words can hurt.
Four years into her graduate course studying property law at Kingston University London, Cheryl Ankrah-Newton was tritely told, to her utter dismay, that she may have to give up her dream.
“I am not sure this is the route for you,” said her personal tutor at their final career-planning meeting.
“It is not the type of industry that is suited to a woman.”
The lecturer’s words, though hurtful, were not entirely misplaced. Ankrah-Newton was one of only five females in a class of over 100.
Fast forward a few years, and Ankrah-Newton is glad those words didn’t dissuade her from her chosen path.
She now owns a property consulting firm and has played a role in recognizing the importance of – and helping bring – big brands, like international clothing giant ZARA, to South Africa.
“I was quite naïve in the beginning. I did not realize the challenges that come with this industry is that it is a very male-dominated industry, especially a white male-dominated industry,” says Ankrah-Newton. There was no way she was going to give up.
The eldest of three children, she had to set an example for her siblings. Born in Britain to a mother of East Indian heritage from Trinidad and Tobago, and a father from Ghana, Ankrah-Newton spent 10 of her formative years in Trinidad and Tobago and visited Ghana at least twice a year from the age of 16.
Africa was always on her mind – even though she says in passing she was once crowned Miss Trinidad and Tobago.
Her parents told her no matter what she chose to do, she must do it to the best of her ability.
“My uncle was the one who gave me the advice to be a surveyor. So I looked at the top schools for property law. Kingston was number one for surveying and they also had a decent law school. So I thought that if I go there and do surveying and I don’t like it, after a year I will just switch to law.”
Ankrah-Newton enjoyed the course so much she decided to do it full justice. She studied management, tenant law, land law, investment and development. She landed her first internship with Jones Lang LaSalle, a leading commercial real estate development and investment services company.
“I went in very fearful because of what the lecturer had said to me, but when they hired me it gave me confidence because everyone wanted to work for them. It was an amazing experience because it made me realize that the property industry could be fun.”
But Ankrah-Newton’s lecturer was right; the industry was patriarchal. She secured her next position with Land Securities, Britain’s largest commercial property company, to help develop one of Britain’s largest shopping malls.
“The funny thing was the tutor who told me I couldn’t do it, taught me shopping center development but had never worked for such a prestigious company,” says Ankrah-Newton.
She also soon gained experience at another top real estate firm, Hammerson, before deciding to shake things up. She had an interest in retail development, where she developed a passion for being creative, and yearned to be part of something bigger.
“Even though I had worked with such prestigious organizations, I could not really say I built this building in Birmingham, because I was really a small part in such a big engine,” she says.
Her husband, who at the time was moving to South Africa for his new role with Google, helped her decide on making the move to Africa. She took this as an opportunity to explore her entrepreneurial side. She had realized she had it in her when organizing events in Britain to earn extra money.
It led to her starting her own property consultancy firm, Illuminate Africa Group.
“Consumers are still not given enough choice when in Africa. I believed we needed an infusion of some competition and the best way to do that was to bring some international brands into the mix because the African consumer is ready for change and diversity,” she says.
Although South Africa has a market for luxury retail, she says it lacks properties to house formal retail trade. She believes international brands will no doubt provide more choice for high-end shoppers, but she also understands the limitations of this model.
“You will still get the ones who will fly off to London to shop and unfortunately we won’t be able to bring those shops here yet, but there is scope to bring the big international brands, once we get the basics right.”
And where better to build on this hope than in Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile?
Ankrah-Newton currently works with Liberty, the owners of Sandton City, one of the largest shopping centers in sub-Saharan Africa. She was also a part of the mall’s Diamond Walk project, featuring exclusive, high-end stores.
Ankrah-Newton is determined to claim her rightful position in an industry she was told she did not belong in.