Influential South African businesswomen have had to struggle against statistics that show only 15% of boards have women members, 26% of senior management positions are held by women and 21% of local businesses have no women at all in senior management positions. In fact, Grant Thornton’s 2014 International Business Report’s (IBR) Women in Business research shows the percentage of senior women in businesses is down 2% from 2013, and has remained static – at between 26% and 28% – for the past seven years.
Yet some amazing women, at home and abroad, have travelled the distance, despite the odds and the obstacles, to become women of influence in the business world.
So what are the traits common to influential women in business? What makes them influential?
First, they don’t let the fact that women are under-represented in business deter them from reaching those high-powered positions of influence. As inventor Robert Jarvik once said, “Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them.”
One of the world’s most influential businesswomen, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, famously says in her book, Lean In, that to “get ahead women must be confident, fierce negotiators, and oh so nice”. She is operating in a space in which only 7.5% of the big earners at US Fortune 500 companies are female. Sandberg believes in the power of peer networks, of sisters supporting each other while ‘leaning in’ to their careers. Sandberg’s Lean In ‘circles’ – peer support groups around the world – are growing daily.
In an article titled ‘How to have more Sheryl Sandbergs’, Courtney E. Martin and Katie Orenstein, writing for CNN, say, “We can create more Sandbergs by surrounding ourselves with confident, outspoken women.”
The writers say peer influence is a powerful driver for women on their way to the top. The more role models women have in business, the more women will be prepared to take on the challenges, and beat them, and so the visibility of these women is vital, as is confidence and a lot of hard work. Women want to see role models in action, hear them on the radio, watch them on TV, read what they write in opinion pages. The more women are out there, the more other women want to emulate them.
Sandberg says the tendency of women to underestimate their abilities must stop. “If you ask men why they did a good job, they’ll say, ‘I’m awesome. Obviously. Why are you even asking?’ If you ask women why they did a good job, what they’ll say is someone helped them, they got lucky, and they worked really hard. Why does this matter? Boy, it matters a lot because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table, and no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success, or they don’t even understand their own success,” she says in her now-famous TedX talk.
Sandberg tells women the rise to the top is not easy. And that even now, in her generation, there will not be 50% parity of women in corner offices, but she’s “hopeful that future generations can. I think a world… where half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women, would be a better world”.
So who are South Africa’s most influential women in business? Here they are, in no particular order.
CEO of Barclays Africa Group
Maria Ramos is a previous director general of South Africa’s National Treasury and chief executive of state-owned enterprise, Transnet. Fortune magazine rated her the ninth most influential businesswoman in the world. She serves on the World Bank Chief Economist Advisory Panel. Ramos started working at Barclays Bank as a clerk, as her family didn’t have the means to send her to university. She applied for a scholarship and was told it was only for men. But with the tenacity that has seen her rise through the ranks, she persuaded them to bank on her, and went to the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 1984. There, she became involved in politics and, when the African National Congress (ANC) was unbanned, helped set up its economic policy. She is married to former finance minister, Trevor Manuel.
Executive chairman of Mmakau Mining and independent non-executive director of Sappi Limited
Bridgette Motsepe Radebe is the only woman to head a deep-level, hard rock mining company in South Africa. She began her career as a miner in the 1980s with British Petroleum (BP). She wanted to study at Wits, but could not do so during apartheid. Infused with an entrepreneurial spirit, and defying apartheid legislation, she started the firm Mmakau – named after the village in which she grew up – as a contracted company managing shaft mining operations and procurement for major firms. The company now has quality assets in platinum, gold, uranium, coal, chrome, exploration and mining services. After the fall of apartheid, Radebe was involved in developing South Africa’s Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act and the Mining Charter, and chaired the International Women’s Forum in South Africa, which focuses on leadership foundation programmes for professional women. She is married to minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe, and her brother is mining magnate, Patrice Motsepe.
CEO of Media24
Esmaré Weideman worked her way to the top of South Africa’s largest media company, starting out as a trainee reporter on Die Burger. She graduated from Stellenbosch University cum laude with a BComm and did a Bachelor of Journalism honours. She was editor in chief of Media24’s biggest selling magazines – YOU (she was the youngest-ever editor of the magazine), Huisgenoot and DRUM – until 2011, when she was promoted to the position of CEO, the first woman in the company to get the job. Tasked with positioning the company as the premier legacy and digital media company in Africa, she recently restructured the business in preparation to bring in new businesses to diversify its revenue streams. In 2012, she was a finalist in the Media Woman of the Decade Award.
Founder of the Women Investment Portfolio Holdings (Wiphold) and chairman of the Women Private Equity Fund
Wendy Luhabe co-founded Wiphold in 1994, the first women-owned company to be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1999. She also founded the Women Private Equity Fund. The British royal family recently appointed her an honorary lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order for her services at the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award International Foundation. She was also director of the Johannesburg Securities Exchange, chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and founder of Bridging the Gap, a human resources and recruitment firm. She is involved in setting up micro-enterprises for women in communities across South Africa. Luhabe is a firm believer in the economic emancipation of women and has made developing those around her a key priority.
Chairman of the Barclays Africa Group, Absa Bank and Absa Financial Services
Wendy Lucas-Bull began her banking career in 1995 as an executive director of Rand Merchant Bank (RMB). It came at a time when RMB merged with First National Bank, and Lucas-Bull helped create a new workplace culture that incorporated the principles of ubuntu – humanity, collaboration, dignity, trust, respect and courage. In 1999, she took over as CEO of First Rand Retail. She was the founding chairman of Business Against Crime. In 2005, she and Cheryl Carolus, Dolly Mokgatle and Thandi Orleyn founded Peotona Group Holdings, all leaving high-powered jobs to do so. The company has a for-profit arm and a developmental aspect. Its value proposition is to create partnerships that can provide significant strategic advantage to the business and, in turn, leverage opportunities for sustainable community-based enterprises. Over 60% of the value of all the transactions in which Peotona has been involved has been allocated to ring-fenced trusts for communities.
CEO of Primedia Broadcasting
Terry Volkwyn started in the Talk Radio 702 sales department in 1986, working her way up to CEO over the course of her career. From leading a hugely successful sales team to integrating the various radio stations as Primedia Broadcasting, Volkwyn is credited with developing the company’s four radio stations into valuable brands – Highveld 947, KFM, CapeTalk and Talk Radio 702 – that will have lasting legacies. In her first 10 years as CEO, Volkwyn delivered a compound annual growth rate of 18%, a phenomenal return on investment for shareholders. She is regarded as a leader in transformation, with more than half her senior managers being women. Under her watch, the company also developed powerful social brands such as LeadSA and Crimeline. She regards herself as an activist and believes in the power of social investment initiatives and ethical leadership.
Chairman of Kgalagadi Manganese and CEO of Kalahari Resources
Daphne Mashile-Nkosi is responsible for the creation of over 30 000 jobs in the Northern Cape, and will be remembered for creating the largest mining venture of its kind in the past three decades. She is also a trustee and chairman of the Women’s Development Bank (WDB) Trust, and chairman of WDB Investments Holdings. Known as the ‘iron lady’, she was recently announced as CEO of the Year at the African CEO Forum held in Geneva, Switzerland. Mashile-Nkosi is committed to social upliftment and environmental responsibility. She is a powerful advocate for women in business, and targets 50% women staff in all her companies’ catering and cleaning contracts. She is on record for saying the mining industry is a tough place for women, but believes that breaking the glass ceiling will help women take their rightful place in boardrooms across Africa.
CEO of IchorCoal and chairman of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange
The former CEO of ArcelorMittal, the largest steel and mining company in the world, Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita is also chairman of the JSE. She left ArcelorMittal for Berlin-listed IchorCoal, which owns 74% of Vunene Mining and 30% of Mbuyelo Coal, a unit of strategic partner the Mbuyelo Group. She is tasked with driving investments for the German firm, which recently acquired a direct 29.9% stake in Australian-listed Universal Coal. She is refocusing the company’s growth strategy in South Africa, after it moved out of coal mining investments in Poland in favour of South Africa. Forbes listed her as the 97th most powerful businesswoman in the world. Nyembezi-Heita funded her education with a prestigious scholarship from Anglo American. She studied for a BSc in electrical engineering at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, and later got a master’s degree from the California Institute of Technology.
Founder and director SRS Aviation
SRS Aviation is the first black-, female-owned aviation company in South Africa. It offers VIP, tourist, game count and capture, cargo and helicopter charter services. It is also the African distributor of new and overhauled aircraft spare parts for commercial, commuter, corporate, military and cargo aerospace industries. Sambo was named a Leader of Tomorrow by Fortune magazine in 2007, and was awarded the Black Management Forum Presidential Award in the Category of Youth Business Leadership in 2008. She was a recipient of the International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge (IWEC) 2010, held in Cape Town. Sambo is involved in Southern African Women in Aviation, a non-profit company that encourages women to enter the field of aviation at different levels. It offers bursaries and scholarships towards aviation-related training. She is currently studying for her MSc in management of technology and innovation in aviation.
CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange
Nicky Newton-King also serves as a member of the Financial Markets Advisory Board and was one of the primary drafters of the Insider Trading Act, a world leader of its kind. Twenty years ago, Newton-King, a lawyer by training, was sent to join the JSE team by her firm, Webber Wentzel, to help sort out the infamous Greg Blank insider trading scandal. She served as former CEO Russell Loubser’s deputy for nine years before taking the helm of the JSE in 2012. Half of her 13-person executive committee are women. She calls herself “part strategic tea-leaf diviner and part cheerleader”, and has three law degrees. She was selected for a fellowship at Yale University in the US, where she spent five months, and completed a management development programme at Harvard.