Sector: education, coding
Arlene Mulder, 34, South Africa
Co-founder: WeThinkCode and Toybox
After seven years as an investment banker, Arlene Mulder left the finance world to start a tech company that aims to democratize and revolutionize education and deliver the world’s top software engineers.
She co-founded an educational institution called WeThinkCode in 2016.
In high school, Mulder enjoyed solving mathematical problems and challenges many thought were difficult.
“You had to use different rules, but you could use these rules to solve problems in innovative ways and that’s what I always love,” she tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
With her love for maths, she went on to graduate cum laude with an MSc degree in Quantitative Risk Management at North-West University.
As a student, she stayed at the university residence, where she learned and understood the challenges students faced, unaware this insight would culminate in her business model for WeThinkCode.
After her studies, she joined a grad program and then worked on developing credit risk models.
In 2008, in the middle of the global financial crisis, she joined RMB and the banking world, focusing on quantitative credit risk analysis for two years.
At the age of 26, she then moved to a corporate finance position working with senior players at the bank as a Corporate Finance Transactor for five more years.
She learned how CEOs and corporates think strategically. “They were all worried about what was coming, the digital transformation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
With skills in business and coding, Mulder did not only have the upper hand, but could see a gap between the two industries.
The need was for people with new skills, who could understand technology, and how to use them in a business context and to solve problems.
Identifying this problem provided Mulder the idea to change the landscape.
She then met a woman by the name of Camille Agon, who told her about a school in France, Ecole 42, a private, non-profit and tuition-free computer programming school.
At the end of 2014, Mulder quit her job and the two set out to start a similar school in South Africa, focusing on skills for the 21st century. They called the school WeThinkCode, partnering with Ecole 42 in France.
It uses the principle of no-teachers-no-classes, peer-to peer learning, requires no prior qualification and is tuition free.
“If you look at the traditional education model, students pay tuition. Everyone told us ‘no, you are crazy, how can you make it free for students, they are not going to value it, it is never going to work’.”
But Mulder and Agon ignored the criticism.
“Instead of getting the students to pay for the tuition, we’d rather get the corporates to pay,” Mulder says.
But it wasn’t easy. They didn’t give up.
What kept them going was the need to change the education system in South Africa.
In nine months, they were able to secure R11 million ($778,000).
“I think what we did very well is that even though we set up WeThinkCode as a non-profit, we run it like a business and made sure we were completely on top of things. We had models, we knew all the regulations, so we just made sure that we maintained a high quality.”
Exactly three years ago, they opened their doors to the first batch of students.
To date, they have over 38 corporate partners who sponsor tuition fees and provide students internships.
About 600 students have enrolled since they started.
According to Mulder, of the first class of students at WeThinkCode, 100% of them graduated and were placed in jobs. The second class will be completing at the end of May this year.
Last year, they expanded and opened a campus in Cape Town and introduced a robotics lab. She also co-founded Toybox, a tech hub which is a network of experts and fellows from around the continent who share information and knowledge, grow investments and enable collaborations.
Both the companies she co-founded are two different ventures but similar ideas.
Mulder’s mission is to show that new wealth can be created in Africa.
“If you look across the continent and what we are doing here, and the innovations we have, often the world does not see that. They see the problems, they see the corruption. But actually we are very innovative and we can be the best in the world and I would like to show the world that,” she says.
Sector: Coding, energy
Rachel Sibande, 33, Malawi
Founder: mHub and Earth Energy
From the age of 11, Rachel Sibande wanted to become a French teacher. But that dream did not come to fruition. Instead, she founded Malawi’s first innovation hub called mHub.
Sibande grew up living between Malawi’s two towns, Lilongwe and Blantyre. In high school, she was enamored with the sciences. By the time she went to university, she was certain she wanted to study technology and computers.
She studied computer science and statistics at the University of Malawi, following it up with an MSc in Information Theory, Coding and Cryptography at Mzuzu University. After completing her studies, Sibande went on to teach at one of the of the country’s elite high schools, Kamuzu Academy, for two years.
“I never had an opportunity to study there but I had a chance to go there and teach, so it was still motivational,” she says.
She then left and worked as a market system specialist for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) within their social economic growth portfolio for funded projects.
In 2012, she was part of the Young African Leaders Initiative in Chicago.
“It was a pivotal moment for me because at that time, I knew I was very passionate about creating change in my country, she says.
While in Chicago, she visited a tech hub for the first time.
“When I saw the work that they were doing, it was a light bulb moment, like an aha moment, where I was like ‘ok, now I have actually found what it is that I need to go start back home that will quench my curiosities and that I can use to make the change that I want to see’,” she says.
This ‘aha moment’ saw her going to Kenya to learn about their technology hubs, and to Rwanda and Zambia.
Inspired, Sibande learned what worked and what didn’t and how she could implement it in Malawi.
“That process helped me come up with a business model for the mHub in Malawi that has helped us to actually be sustainable till this day.”
She started mHub in 2013 as a social enterprise and private technology company.
“I was leveraging my tech expertise. I realized the greatest capital I have is my intellectual capital,” she says.
With just her skill-sets in coding, developing algorithms and technology solutions, she started the company developing websites and enterprise systems.
“I realized there were no platforms like that in Malawi at the time, and I wanted to see and encourage young people to consider careers in tech,” she said.
The company would generate social improvement programs, which led her to setting up the mHub trust.
Through the trust, she trained youth, particularly young girls in digital skills; from the basics of animation to apps and robots.
Since 2013, Sibande says they have reached over 30,000 young people in the country, within all their programs.
Fast forward to 2018 and they have grown exponentially.
Today, mHub also incubates innovative entrepreneurs from the tech, agriculture, architecture and construction industries.
They offer innovative entrepreneurs $40,000 each, with support from external investment partners.
One of the entrepreneurs they have incubated harvests human urine to produce fertilizer at a lower cost than chemical fertilizers.
While working, Sibande realized the constant electricity cuts in Malawi posed serious problems to her business.
“It was even embarrassing for me to have international calls and Skype calls with colleagues outside the country because of the power challenges. So as an innovator, you see the solution in every problem,” she says.
“I had been researching the idea of using locally-available resources to generate electricity to cater for 90% of the population not connected to electric grids, and a third of them who are actually poor.”
She researched low-cost affordable energy in India, Uganda and other countries, for solutions.
And that solution was right in front of her eyes. It was the staple food of Malawi, maize crops.
Sibande reached out to Florida Polytechnic University, a project-based STEM education institution, to help her idea come to life.
They provided her with the technical support to start Earth Energy, an energy business that uses maize cobs to generate electricity.
At the time, they generated enough electricity, using maize cobs, to cater for lighting four houses for six to seven hours.
She employs five people within Earth Energy and buys maize cobs from community members who would have thrown them away.
“I believe in starting where you are from, where you are, and with what you have,” she says.
She pitched her idea at the Next Einstein Forum global gathering in 2018 and received $25,000 prize money for her business idea, ‘Light from Maize’.
She plans to use this to invest in machinery to deploy community micro grids.
She spends her time between Malawi and South Africa, as she is currently completing her PhD in computer science at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape.
“For me [new wealth creation] is about creating opportunities for others and for growing my country’s economy and the continent. I believe that for a long time we have had to import solutions from elsewhere, which meant exporting wealth. So, creating new wealth now, means that we are exporting solutions. We develop home-grown solutions, we export wealth, we retain wealth and it lives within our communities and our continent,” she says.
Sector: Sustainable energy
Sarah Collins, 48, South Africa
It is round, made of recyclable material, and uses no heat, electricity or fuel. It is called the Wonderbag.
It cooks food using heat retention, estimated to cut carbon emissions by half a ton per year.
This slow cooking bag was founded by Sarah Collins in 2008.
Her company was honored by TIME Magazine as one of the most genius companies of 2018, alongside Steve Job’s Apple and Rihanna’s Fenty.
Collins’ Wonderbag was a result of years of activism in South Africa. She grew up on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal, spent most of her time with her nanny and learned to speak isiZulu before she learned to speak English.
By the age of 10, she had learned a great deal about farm traditions, such as using firewood to cook, riding horses, selling vegetables and tending to farm animals.
“As kids, we grew up very entrepreneurial and so that laid the foundation for what was to become my life,” she says.
As a teen, Collins began to understand the social injustices of apartheid. In 1986, she was one of the many arrested for striking against the apartheid government.
Collins said her experiences moulded her into becoming a gender and anti-poverty activist.
“I think the discontent and also the inequalities and a sense of not belonging in any world bred in me an activism which has shaped my entire life,” she says.
In the 1990s, she left South Africa to work in tourism in Botswana and began working with women on empowering them around conservation.
She started a horse safari business and later, a social enterprise involving local communities in the Okavango Delta.
She then returned home to South Africa and started an NGO that integrated young people and the elderly into nature reserves to learn about tourism and conservation.
She ventured into other social businesses after that.
“I tried everything from earthworm farming, vegetable gardening, recycling, and dress-making; every social enterprise I could think of that would fit around a household so that the mother or grandmother was still present but could generate an income,” she says.
In 2008, she had her biggest epiphany.
“I was thinking about my grandmother and how in the 70s, we didn’t have electricity on the farms, so would we cook with these boxes. And the Wonderbag was born.”
It reduces fuel emission, conserves forests with less firewood used and reduces electricity usage.
“Why can’t heat retention work? Why can’t it be the energy of the future?” Collins asked herself at the time.
Together with 500 women, they played around with heat retention cooking as a pilot program and the results were successful.
“Africa has the most fertile land of female entrepreneurs in the world,” she says.
“I knew in my heart that my life would never be the same and this was going to be one of the revolutionary products in the world in terms of cooking.”
Whenever she spoke about the idea, people thought she was crazy.
Today, Wonderbag is sold in 32 countries globally.
It can be found in refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East, and in households across Africa.
Last year, she was awarded ‘Woman of the Decade in Entrepreneurship’ at the World Economic Forum. Collins plans to have 50 million more bags in homes in the next five years.
Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa
Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.
In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.
On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.
In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).
Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.
“I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra.
That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.
The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.
The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”
He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.
“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.
“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”
Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.
It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.
But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”
And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.
“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.
The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.
Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.
“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”
Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.
Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died
The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.
It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.
READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo
She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.
That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.
She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.
One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.
Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.
-Jill De Villiers
Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo
Thandi Ndlovu and Nonkululeko Gobodo, moulded by South Africa’s apartheid past, tore their way into male-dominated sectors , leading them boldly through a quarter century of democracy. Failure was never an option.
On a sunny winter’s afternoon in a quiet suburb of Randburg in greater Johannesburg, a second white Mercedes-Benz pulls up in the driveway of a photographic studio, and finds a shady spot to park.
Already seated next to a pool glinting blue in the sunlight, an elegant woman dressed in black and white sips green tea and talks about her early life growing up in the former Bantustan of Transkei in South Africa.
Absorbed in recounting her story, she looks up as a tall, slender woman, also in a chic black and white ensemble, walks towards her. The two women beam in recognition. They are here to be photographed by FORBES AFRICA and to share their unique stories as businesswomen in two traditionally white male-dominated sectors – auditing and construction.
This year, South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy. As the country started shaking off the shackles of oppression in the 1990s, both these women embarked on their paths to greatness. Both had been moulded by the harsh final years of apartheid, gaining the strength and conviction to fight for what they believed in.
In the process, they built successful businesses, changed perceptions and became role models.
And as with all stories of achievement, their journeys came with times of adversity.
Nonkululeko Gobodo: The visionary in auditing
As a young girl, Nonkululeko Gobodo had very low self-esteem. She was shy and quiet and as the middle child in a family of five children, she felt overshadowed by her very outgoing older siblings. Her mother made it clear that she thought Gobodo wasn’t “going to amount to anything”.
Yet, there were factors in her upbringing, at home and in her community, which shaped her and prepared her for a future as a captain of industry.
Her mother was very hard on her. “I’m someone who needs affirmation and she did the opposite of what I needed. Fortunately, my father was doing that, he was doing the affirmative things.”
As an educator, her father was excited when she achieved “goodish” results at school, even slaughtering a sheep in celebration.
“When my parents were running shops, I used to be the one who would help in running the shops during the holidays. And I was quite young to be given the responsibility. My mother was literally taking a holiday, and I would run the shop perfectly, no shortage or anything like that. So, in spite of the fact that she was too hard on me, she must have thought she was nurturing this talent and making me strong.”
Growing up in the then independent Transkei (now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa), Gobodo was largely sheltered from the impact of apartheid in other parts of the country.
“I lived in this world where you were sort of cushioned from what was happening in South Africa. So you were socialized to be a fighter, to be strong. My parents used to say that we should never allow anybody to tell us there were things we cannot do,” she elucidates.
It was an everyday thing to see black people running a variety of formal businesses like hotels, garages and wholesalers.
“I suppose I was very fortunate in that I was raised by these parents who were in business, who were working very hard during those times and with very strong personalities, both of them. Within the Xhosa tribe itself, although there is patriarchy and all that, Xhosa women are very strong and they are sort of equal partners with their husbands.”
Still very young, Gobodo fell pregnant. Her parents insisted on marriage. The marriage would end several years later, after the birth of three children, when she was 34 years old.
While taking a gap year working at her father’s panel-beating shop in Mthatha (then Umtata), during her first pregnancy, Gobodo discovered her calling. While her parents thought she would be well-suited to a career in medicine, she found joy in accountancy.
The gap year also revealed her innate strength to stand up for what she believed in. For the first time, she encountered racism. White managers remained in place when her father bought the business from the Transkei Development Corporation (TDC).
“They were really so upset by these black people who had taken over this business, and they were just bullying everyone. So I was able to stand up to them and then I realized I’m actually smart, I’m actually not this thing that my mother was saying, that I’m not just smart, but I’m strong, I’m tough, I can stand up to these men during apartheid years and it was not because my father owned the shop, but it was this thing of suddenly discovering who you are for the first time and just waking up to who you are and suddenly knowing what you wanted to do. Oh wow, accountancy, I didn’t know about that,” she smiles.
She was also inspired by the fact that black auditors did the books for her father’s business. They were WL Nkuhlu & Co, owned by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu. Her father supported her decision to study BCom and she enrolled at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University).
Gobodo became a star performer at university and her confidence grew. After qualifying, the university offered her a junior lectureship. While there was no racism in the academic environment, it was here that she had her first taste of gender discrimination. A male colleague instructed her to do filing. She thought this was ridiculous considering her position, and she refused. He treated her as an equal from then on.
“I made a decision to fight the system differently,” she says. “I was sure there was no system that would determine who I am and how far I can go. I used to say this mantra to myself: ‘Your opinions of me do not define me. You don’t even know who I am’. So I never allowed those things to get to me.”
Early on, she already had a vision to have her own practice, so she was not distracted by her peers complaining while doing their articles. She was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to get the best training she could get. “Those guys never became chartered accountants, so it was a wise thing not to join them,” she smiles.
In 1987, she made history when she became South Africa’s first black female chartered accountant.
Working at KPMG, she grew to rapidly build her own portfolio of challenging assignments.
“It was my driving force right through life to prove to myself and others that there was nothing I couldn’t do. And for me, being black really gave me purpose. I can imagine that if I was living in a world that was readymade for me, life would have been very boring,” she says.
She was offered a partnership eight months after her articles. She would be the first black partner, and the first woman. It was very tempting. But she remembered her vision to start her own practice and taking the partnership would be “the easy way out”.
So she moved on to the TDC, where at the age of 29, she was promoted from internal audit manager to Chief Financial Officer within three months. Again in 1992, she decided to break “the golden chains” of the TDC to pursue her destiny. But first, she restructured her department and empowered five managers; thoroughly enjoying the work of developing leaders, and setting the tone for the business she runs now – Nkululeko Leadership Consulting.
At the time, her father questioned her decision to leave such a lucrative position to take the risk of starting a business. “Everybody was so scared for me and was discouraging me. I realized these people were expressing their own fears. I have no such fears. And it’s not saying I’m not fearful of the step I am taking, but I’m going into this business to succeed.”
The best way to do that was to step into the void without a safety net. So, no part-time lecturing job to distract her from her vision. “If I had listened to them, how would I have known that I could take my business this far?”
She describes herself as a natural entrepreneur. Yet, the responsibility of leading a business is not a joke.
“It sobers you up,” she says. “You realize you have to make this work, otherwise you’re going to fail a whole lot of people. But when you have the courage to pursue your dream, things sort of work out. Things fall into place.”
Eighteen months into the practice, she took on a partner and felt an “agitation for growth”. It came with a “massive job” from the Transkei Auditor General, and things changed overnight. With only four people in their office, they now needed 30 to complete the assignment and they hired second and third year students who attended night lectures at the university.
“At that time, as a black and a woman, you had to define your own image of yourself, and have the right attitude to fight for your place in the sun. And I can’t take for granted the way I was socialized and raised by my parents. My father was such a fighter. And he shared all his stories at the dinner table. He used to say in Xhosa: ‘who can stand in front of a bus?’, so you just have those pictures of yourself as a bus. Who can stand in front of me and my ambitions in life,” she laughs.
This self-confidence, belief in herself, direction, purpose and her clear vision steered her ever further.
“Unfortunately, I had a fallout with my partner Sindi Zilwa [co-founder of Nkonki Inc, a registered firm of auditors, consultants and advisors], and that was a hard one, a very difficult one. I used to say it was more difficult than my divorce, because that happened almost at the same time. First, the divorce started and a few months later, I divorced with my partner,” she says.
“It was a lonely time. It is amazing that out of hardship, we find an opportunity to grow and move to the next level.”
She went on a five -week program with Merrill Lynch in New York in 1994. On her return, she saw herself being cut out of negotiations to establish a medium-sized black accounting firm. While these plans were scuppered now, her vision still survived and no one could take that away from her.
She approached young professionals who were managers at the big accounting firms in Johannesburg to join her. “But you can imagine, they were young, they were fearful. It took about eight months to persuade and convince them.”
Gobodo understood their fears as she herself had to overcome her doubts about moving from a small community in the Transkei to the big city. But the visit to New York had helped her overcome her fear. If she could make it there, she could make it anywhere.
Gobodo Incorporated was established in 1996. It was the third medium-sized black accounting firm.
The others were Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba and KMMT Brey.
She believes that providence has always sent “angels” to her at the right time in her life. Peter Moyo, a partner at Ernst & Young at the time, gave his time and invaluable experience leading to the establishment of Gobodo Incorporated. Chris Stephens, who was the former head of consulting for KPMG, facilitated bringing a fully-fledged forensics unit to the firm. They took up a whole floor at their new Parktown, Johannesburg offices instead of the planned half-floor.
From a small practice in Mthatha, Gobodo Inc. grew to a medium-sized company with 10 partners, 200 staff and three offices – in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was an exciting time.
Gobodo firmly believes that visions are not static. Once a summit is conquered, there will always be another one waiting for you.
The next summit beckoned her 15 years later. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a program launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of apartheid, was firmly established and accounting firms were compliant, and Gobodo Inc. started losing out on opportunities as previous joint-audits done in partnership with the big accounting firms fell away.
She started talks with Victor Sekese of Sizwe Ntsaluba to merge the two medium-sized firms.
Again, people questioned the wisdom of the move. What if the market was not ready for a large black accounting firm?
There was somewhat of a culture clash when the “somewhat older, disciplined, bottom-line” Gobodo Inc. and the “younger, more creative” Sizwe Ntsaluba teams came together. A new culture combining the best of both emerged. Ironically, while no people were lost during the merger, some were uncomfortable with the culture change and left.
In the beginning, “a lot of sacrifices had to be made to make this thing work. Like the name. My partners were saying Nonkululeko’s name should be in front because she’s the only remaining founder,” explains Gobodo.
Sizwe Ntsaluba wanted their name up front, and it was a deal-breaker. She decided the vision was bigger than her and she wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardize it. The company name was agreed on: SizweNtsalubaGobodo. The business grew to 55 partners and over 1,000 staff.
“I think we underestimated how hard it would be,” she says. “Mergers are difficult in themselves, around 70% of mergers fail. People were laughing at us saying ‘ah, black people, they’re going to fight amongst each other and fail’, so we were determined not to fail. Failure was not an option.”
When they did their first sole tender, “you could smell the fear in the passages. There was so much fear”. Then the call came from the chair of the audit committee of Transnet to say the board had decided to appoint SizweNtsalubaGobodo as the sole auditors.
Gobodo had led the way to the establishment of the fifth largest accounting firm in South Africa. Her vision had been realized.
“It was just so fulfilling, really so fulfilling,” says the grandmother-of-three. “So it was time to move this thing forward.”
She was the Executive Chairperson and Sekese was the CEO. She commissioned partners to find the best governance structure for the firm. Their recommendation was for one leader to lead the firm forward, and a non-executive chair.
“That was going to be boring for me. If I was not going to be part of driving this vision forward, it was time for me to leave,” Gobodo says. “There comes a time that the founders must leave and hand over to the next generation.”
Although she had achieved her dream, it was not easy to let go. The separation took three months.
“I learned a lot about letting go at that time. We have to let go layer by layer. I had to accept that they would do what they had to with the legacy. And here they are now, having merged with Grant Thornton. The dream was to be a true international firm, and now with SNG Grant Thornton, it is still basically a black firm going into the continent. The dream does not die. This is still a black firm taking over an international brand.”
Gobodo now heads Nkululeko Leadership Consulting, a boutique, black-owned and managed leadership consulting firm. Here, she can live her passion for developing leaders. She also sits on the boards of PPC and Clicks. The future awaits her with more promise.
Side bar: ‘The World Is Not Kind To Strong Women Leaders’
What were the greatest challenges she faced during her career?
“Making a success of your life in the South Africa of the past. As a black person, you always started from a place of being dismissed, as a woman, you always started from a place of being dismissed. So you had to be true to yourself and find yourself for you to be able to succeed. And that was hard. I don’t want to make it as if it was easy.
“The second thing was being a strong woman leader. The world is not kind to strong women leaders. And for me, being a strong woman leader was the hardest thing because both men and women don’t accept a strong woman leader. So you have this big vision, you are driven, you have to move things forward and if you’re a strong man, you’re accepted.
“But if you’re a strong woman, you are not. So you had to grow up and mature and try to find that balance of still moving people forward to achieve your vision, because I realized early that I would not get to the finish line without them. I could not leave them behind. So I always had to find that balance and sometimes, I didn’t do it well.
“Because there was this urgency of moving forward and you have to drag people with you. And they didn’t take kindly to that. Do I regret it? No, not really. I don’t think I would have achieved what I had. I had been given these gifts as a strong woman for a reason. I just feel sorry for strong women leaders, because it is still not easy for them today.”
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