A complete irony that just as the words ‘women power’ are mentioned in the room, the power goes off.
It’s a cold winter’s day in Johannesburg and the Greenside suburb that we are in for this interview is encountering unscheduled load-shedding.
The word power was in describing Phuti Mahanyele’s and Stacey Brewer’s ascent to corporate celebrity.
On this day, just before the photoshoot, they are quivering in the cold, dark studio, defiantly relating separate stories about their successes, but united in their quest for excellence in a renewed South Africa. They are resolute about gender dynamics and what it has meant to stave off stereotypes and rise to being leaders in their individual spheres.
Sipping hot coffee out of a styrofoam cup, Mahanyele talks about success born of years of hard work.
It was not just blood, sweat and tears that defined her growth, but also sacrifice and illness.
Today, she is one of the richest self-made entrepreneurs in South Africa, a mentor and businesswoman commanding the boardroom.
This is a world away from apartheid South Africa into which she was born.
She was born in the urban township of Soweto, home to icons like Nelson Mandela, Richard Maponya and Trevor Noah. Here, she first learned about struggle, power and resilience.
In the 1970s, it was a place of defiance and resistance. She credits her parents’ hard work, in the face of a racist South Africa, for her success. Her father, Mohale Mahanyele, one of the country’s pioneers of black business, taught her that limitations are actually opportunities.
Mohale knew hardship. He grew up in a four-room house in the township with 12 siblings.
“He once told us how he told his friends he wanted to have a degree and they would all laugh. I remember him telling us that one of his friends said to him, ‘you know, if you work hard at this job, one day, you won’t have to catch a bus because you would be able to catch a taxi. That’s how good life can be’. But my father had other plans for his life and worked hard to make it happen,” says Mahanyele.
At the time of his death in 2012, Mohale was one of South Africa’s most successful businessmen who served on many boards. He left a wealth of knowledge and a legacy.
“My father used to include us in everything and travel with us. I remember going to events with him as his partner. He was not afraid to expose us to things he wanted us to achieve. We would go with him to gala events and meetings here in South Africa and oversees,” she recalls.
It steeled her for a future in the cold, dark world of business.
“I remember at one gala event, my father was sitting next to the CEO of a large mining business. The CEO was a very big personality in South Africa but for some reason, they didn’t get on well. At this event, they sat next to each other and I was in the middle. I was so confident that I took it to myself that since he won’t talk to my dad, I would speak to him. I remember speaking to this man and he would look at me awkwardly and respond to me very briefly and I would ask him another question,” chuckles Mahanyele.
She says her father spoke to her like she was an adult business woman. He also had a career plan for her. He wanted her to study economics, but she wanted to be a ballerina. Like an obedient daughter, she followed his instructions and went on to study for a bachelor of economics in the United States (US).
“Even after finishing the economics degree, I still wanted to be a dancer but my dad had a whole plan for me. He had even worked out which companies I should work for,” she says.
It was only when she was working on her thesis for her MBA in the United Kingdom (UK) that she fell in love with business.
“I was looking at how black economic empowerment would impact black business. I then had an interest in mergers and acquisitions because I saw this as an area where one could create opportunities for black-owned businesses in South Africa.”
After graduation in the US, she returned home to work for her father. She says it was interesting but she quickly discovered that working in an environment where her father was the boss was not ideal.
“You could never really achieve anything without it being attributed to your father,” she says.
In 1995, just a year after South Africa became a democracy, she moved to Cape Town to work at a company where her father had no influence.
“I remember going to interviews and they didn’t know anyone with my surname which was wonderful.
I knew I was getting that job because of my own merit.”
It wasn’t as fulfilling as she thought it would be. She was employed as a brand manager but had little to do.
“I had a title, a lovely office and everything but there was no work. I essentially could show up, do nothing all day and nobody would care. I wasn’t expected to do anything. I think it was a time when people were just trying to fill the numbers to say they have a black female employee except I had zero to do. Everyone was busy and the person who had worked in that position before had work but I didn’t,” says Mahanyele.
She quickly realized it was time to move on. To properly arm herself with enough tools to disrupt the world of business, she swapped her high-paying job for a less-paying position in advertising.
“They were launching SABC 1, 2 and 3 and I was recruited as an account manager back in Johannesburg. It was very busy and I worked unbelievable hours but I loved it because I needed to grow.”
As she was working, she realized there wasn’t going to be any longevity on the job. This was when she left to study for her MBA in the UK. She then applied for a job at Fieldstone, an investment banking advisory service firm in New York.
“They were not looking for anyone and they had never had a black person from the African continent apply for a job so it was a bit weird. I heard ‘no’ several times but I kept applying.”
When they realized she wasn’t going to stop, they offered her an internship. It came with a small stipend, long hours and no benefits. Even though it was less than she was used to, she grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
“It was very difficult at first because I was from the African continent and I had never been to an Ivy League university. People I worked with were from Ivy League and it was difficult competing with them…I made the most of it. At home, it had not made sense that I would go from a corporate job to having an MBA and then an internship. It seemed as if I was going backwards but I knew I wasn’t going backwards because I was getting experience in an industry I had zero experience in.”
With hard work, at the end of the internship, she was offered a job.
“I didn’t expect it at all because I remember one of the difficult times during that internship was when I tried to speak to a black female partner so I could introduce myself. She was shocked I was there and assumed I was lost. She quickly showed me the way to where the interns sat.”
Mahanyele dedicated seven years to the firm. She went from intern to associate, then associated director and finally the vice president of the company.
“I worked long hours and one more thing I used was what I learned from my father. He taught me to always have good relationships with people. It doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with everyone but it means whenever you engage with people you are positive and it’s meaningful. That’s how I managed to climb the ladder fast,” she says.
After seven years, it was time to move back home. With her skill and experience, she was immediately snapped up by a big organization.
“I was used to working long hours to get the work done but here, I had a team and at 5PM, they would all leave to go home. I remember the first time it happened, I thought there was a meeting somewhere and my PA had forgotten to tell me about it. I remember calling one of them and he told me he was home. I said ‘what time are you coming back?’ and he said ‘why?’ and I’m like ‘the sun is still up’. I was shocked but quickly realized everyone came at 8AM and left at 5PM.”
She says it was a difficult time for her as a leader. She assumed that her team was demotivated and had many of them in disciplinary hearings.
“I realized I had to understand my new environment. People here had a different way of doing things. Because you go home early, it doesn’t mean you are not productive,” says Mahanyele.
“What I didn’t realize was that the problem was with me because I hadn’t looked at the environment to realize the culture here was that people did what they needed to do at the time.”
It wasn’t long before she was recruited by South Africa’s current President Cyril Ramaphosa as the head of the energy division of his then business, Shanduka Group. She was soon chosen as the CEO of the group.
“The boardroom was very interesting. We weren’t seeing a lot of young black women. I remember one of my colleagues telling me that they walked into a boardroom and one of the board members assumed she was one of the tea ladies and immediately placed an order…I remember even being on a flight and sitting next to a person I had only read about and he started flirting with me telling me what apartment he could buy me even though I was married,” she recounts.
She didn’t let these gender setbacks deter her.
At the helm of Shanduka, she managed the group’s multi-million dollar investments in South Africa and on the rest of the continent including in energy in Mozambique, and telecom in Nigeria. Shanduka had big investments in companies such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, SEACOM, Aggreko in Mozambique and in other sectors.
“What I loved about Shanduka is that it was business that wasn’t just focused on returns but focused on impacting the lives of people. When we launched the business, we also launched a foundation.”
In 2015, after a decade of service, she left the company after making bold moves boosting the company’s profits. During her time at Shanduka, Mahanyele was responsible for securing important transactions such as the China Investment Corporation (CIC) – which was the corporation’s first direct investment in South Africa – which owned 25% equity in the Shanduka Group at the time. She also sealed a partnership with Aggreko that increased Shanduka’s skills in the temporary power sector. This translated into the company becoming one of Eskom’s private power suppliers.
Soon after her departure, she founded Sigma Capital Group, a privately-held, majority black-owned investment group. It has interests in power and infrastructure, real estate, technology, media and telecommunications, consumer goods businesses and financial services.
It was a tough journey here. A few years before this venture, the long hours almost cost her her life.
“Sometimes, we can overlook ourselves. I focused a lot on what was going on at the time. My father had passed away, we were finalizing the closing of Shanduka and I had a lot of stress. I remember I was in a board meeting and I had a massive headache. I took it that maybe if I went shopping, the headache would go away but instead I collapsed in a shopping center in London…”
She felt better, returned to South Africa and collapsed again on her way to a meeting. She lost her short-term memory at the time and struggled for a long time.
“Fortunately, I had a great neurologist who I don’t see any more, thankfully.”
She had to redesign her life.
“It’s about looking after our health and managing stress. My schedule has changed significantly. I don’t manage as many things at the same time and I don’t put as much pressure on myself because I realize you can die young,” says Mahanyele.
One of the things she still does though is mentoring young people. One of her lucky mentees is Emmanuel Bonoko, a public relations entrepreneur and part of the 2016 FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list.
“I am blessed to have mentors like Phuti Mahanyele…She taught me that small things count a lot, she taught me to keep putting in more effort and learning from others, never to be ashamed of struggle, humility, start small, to arm myself with education and to adapt with trends,” says Bonoko, crediting Mahanyele for his success.
According to Mahanyele, mentorship is an important part of the growth of an economy. She says a lot of young people lack confidence.
“It’s something I often see missing in young people. Just having the confidence to approach someone that you don’t know and try to build a relationship towards something you want to achieve,” she says.
With all the work, there has been recognition too.
In 2007, she was named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. The Wall Street Journal counted her among the Top 50 Women in the World to watch in 2008. In 2011, Forbes named her one of the 20 youngest power women in Africa, and in 2014, she was named FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Business Woman of the Year.
It’s clear that this bright star is still adding to her net worth, rising, inspiring and disrupting business.
The Futurist In Education
Equally adamant about disruption is Stacey Brewer, swimming with the big fish in South Africa’s booming education sector.
According to Berkery Noyes, an independent mid-market investment bank in the US, in 2015, there were 415 mergers and acquisitions in the education industry valued at a whopping $17.75 billion.
In Africa too, there has been a spike in demand for quality.
Caerus Capital LLC, an investment and advisory firm that focuses on healthcare and education businesses in emerging markets, says 25 million children are expected to join private institutions in the next five years. In its Business of Education in Africa report, it predicts that one in four children will be enrolled in private schools by 2021. If this prediction is true, it means investors could pocket between $16 billion to $18 billion over the next five years.
Those with money – and ideas – are taking advantage of the opportunity.
In South Africa, last year, the country’s first education impact fund, Schools Investment Fund, announced an investment of nearly R200 million ($15 million) to build four new schools.
Although she wasn’t inspired by the high-profit margins, through her venture, SPARKS Schools, Brewer is making her mark. She is an unlikely candidate for education entrepreneurship but like Mahanyele, she relentlessly pushes for success.
“I think my first word was ‘no’. I don’t like rules and regulations, so I’m naturally a person who loves to create her own space… I really like to figure things out and especially when people say it’s impossible to do, it makes me want to do it even more,” says Brewer.
Also similar to Mahanyele, her life changed while she was doing her MBA.
“I was actually shocked; I didn’t even realize the state of education is so bad in the country. The professor was showing us how much we spend on education and the fact that we prioritize education but we are ranked at the bottom of the world. I just thought that it’s completely unacceptable and it just makes no sense and that’s when I did my thesis on it,” she says.
Armed with research, a co-founder, Ryan Harrison, who understands technology, and people who believed in her, in 2011, she took a bold move and founded SPARKS Schools to help improve the state of education in South Africa.
“I literally spoke to everyone I met about my idea and asked for referrals. If I hadn’t done an MBA, I don’t even think I would’ve had the idea, I don’t think I would’ve had the courage and support to go out and launch by any means…I honestly don’t believe in the fact that someone else could steal your idea if you share too much. I mean most ideas are out there anyway and the difference between that is actually the execution process and the passion and believing in it completely because that’s the only thing that keeps you going when times are tough,” she says.
She finally received R60,000 ($4,500) in seed capital to travel overseas to explore the idea.
“We took a lot of inspiration from the US so we had to go see if it was viable. We looked at Rocketship, a school in the US which pioneered blended learning there. We went there to see if it’s possible to take inspiration that would work in South Africa.”
Brewer was impressed.
“The results the kids were achieving were unbelievable. They were competing against affluent schools in the area, they were working with second language English speakers, they were working with families from a complete mixture of backgrounds, and a lot of them were from disadvantaged backgrounds and yet they were competing with affluent schools. It was very impressive in terms of what was possible and from there, we said we absolutely can do it and then two of their staff members came to join us,” she says.
It wasn’t going to be easy. They needed to raise R4.5 million ($340,000) to start a school. They tried to raise funds but doors were being shut everywhere they went.
It was dark times because they had no track-record. All they had was a dream to open a network of schools which would disrupt South Africa’s education economy.
“You lose confidence at some point because you’re not sure if it’s ever going to kick-off. But luckily, Ryan and I could pick each other up when one was down and times were tough. We had to find another way, as we really had nothing to lose. If it didn’t get off the ground then it didn’t, and we would have to find a job in that case.”
Luckily, through a contact at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), where she did her MBA, they got a lucky break.
“The entire experience was really tough. It was only when the first person said yes, and put in money that we felt better. At first, we were like ‘are you sure?’ It came as a surprise because everyone else was just saying ‘no’.”
It was a start to a multi-million dollar company. Their initial investor introduced them to a group of other people who also invested.
They opened the first school in a house in Randburg. It had six big rooms, a kitchen, lounge and a pool. They used a lot of PR to get publicity and build credibility.
“We recruited our first family while seated in a coffee shop. I take my hat off for families who started with us because it is high risk,” says Brewer.
Their model of education won many parents over. The vision was to build a network of schools that offer better education at the same price as government. Here, they mixed traditional classroom learning with computer learning.
This kind of teaching was a hit. They enrolled 160 children within the first year. They then opened another school in Cresta, also in Johannesburg.
“We opened it up in 2014, but we had originally planned to open it up in 2015. We then realized that the model was working, the demand was high and we went for it. In fact, by 2015, we had four schools in total.”
Today, there are 15 SPARKS schools around the country. Brewer plans to open another six next year, including their first high school.
“Our high school model is going to be different. We haven’t formally announced the model yet but we will offer a whole lot of different subjects…It’s going to be an evolution,” she says.
The way they teach has already evolved. The school has two blended learning modules. In the foundation phase, which is Grade R to 3, they have lab rotation and Grade 4 to 7 is the flex model where the high-level children get introduced to a concept in the classroom, and then they leave the classroom and go to the lab where they get to interact with the data software to allow for extended reinforcement of what happened in the classroom. Right from Grade R, the children are rotating like in a high school and go to their special subject teachers for particular subjects.
“In our flex model, each child is on a different rotation, moving from different modalities of learning from online, to group work, to getting into practice, to direct instruction with the teacher. In the lab rotation for the foundation phase, there’s actual software that the kids use for a maths program and a literacy program. It’s all about mastering, as they will go on the different levels. We have no text books and it’s all about doing different projects.”
Here, teachers go through extensive training to be able to handle this type of system.
“It gets tough for other teachers who have experience from other traditional schools. It takes about six months for them to fully get used to the teaching system. It’s just so different from the other schools,” says Brewer.
Although aligned with the national program, Brewer says their learners should be way ahead, as they are constantly benchmarking international standards.
“What I love about this model in particular, is that its personalized learning. It doesn’t matter when the learners come to us; we are able to get them up to speed…We don’t screen any of our children, it’s a first-come-first-serve basis, meaning any child from any community can achieve and grow…An example would be that in the country you’re only expected to know how to read when you are in Grade 2, whereas our learners can do that in Grade 1.”
SPARKS Schools have over 7,000 children and they employ over 750 staff. She is now focusing on growing the school network with hopes to double the number of schools they currently have in the next five years.
“When I did my MBA at GIBS, I was always worried because people see entrepreneurs as calculated and that they only worry about making money. But I was like, there’s got to be another side to it, there has to be social good,” she says.
This success has earned Brewer much praise. Many call her an innovator.
“I don’t necessarily think of myself as an innovator, but it’s something we definitely want to do as an organization, to completely disrupt the education sector and not just locally, but internationally as well. We deliver education on a high note and get our kids ready for what the future may hold,” she says.
Although Brewer grew up watching her father build businesses, she says she never ever thought she would end up becoming an entrepreneur.
“Even now, I’m still not sure if I am an entrepreneur. It’s just so funny – it’s just this title. I’ve always been someone who wants to create change and I don’t wait on other people. If social entrepreneurship is about someone who is adamant to create a social change, and move the human race, then I’m absolutely that person.”
According to Brewer, success doesn’t mean the end of fear. She says, even after opening the school, she was paranoid that something might go wrong or things would fall apart. Even today, she says worries about absolutely everything.
“Now I have just built up a huge amount of resilience over time. I don’t take things as personally as I used to,” she says.
One thing she is afraid of though is the future of education in Africa. According to Brewer, Africa’s classrooms, as we know them, are changing. She says the classroom of the future will be ushered in by high demand for futurist classrooms such as what they offer at SPARKS Schools.
In the words of poet W B Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Brewer is just the spark that was needed in the dark.