Let women give SA’s financial recovery a rock-solid foundation

Faith Khanyile, WDB Investment Holding CEO

The transformation message from this year’s women’s month can guide us to recovery from the current global financial turmoil, says Faith Khanyile, CEO and co-founder of WDB Investment Holdings.

The growing turmoil in international financial markets is a stark reminder that despite progress in transformation over the past two decades, women remain particularly vulnerable economically.

Within corporates, women tend to take up issues of inclusivity and diversity more passionately than men.

Yet the advances in gender parity that we saw in the first decade of our democracy have not been extended and women are not moving up the ranks fast enough to make a difference to our society.

In the previous global financial crisis, corporates retreated into survival mode. They guarded their narrow concept of the financial bottom line, neglecting to develop their human resources.

Transformation programmes were parked and participation of women at senior corporate levels, for example, either stagnated or moved backwards.

According to the Grant Thornton International Business Report 2014, the percentage of senior management positions in South Africa occupied by women has remained fairly static for the past seven years at between 26% and 28%.

Currently, there is a threat that the country could enter a recession. And that is exactly why we need to harness all the talents and resources we have available.

If women are allowed to become victims of financial uncertainty once again, their own development and the futures of their children could be significantly set back if not derailed. It is vital for the country’s economy and for its social development goals in fields such as education and health that we do not again side-line women because women can be the rock-solid foundation for great achievements.

Many still do not have the capacity to control their environment and are held back from taking their rightful place in the development of a democratic and non-sexist South Africa. South Africa has an overall gender gap of 25 % (as measured by economic participation and opportunity, education, health and political empowerment). Additionally, the private sector pay gap in South Africa is 35.5% according to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report of October 2013.

I was fortunate to be brought up in rural Zululand by parents who treated their girl and boy children equally, offering both great opportunities. My parents progressed from selling vegetables to running a general store in KwaBiyela township outside Empangeni, stocking everything from meat to soft goods.

They gave us whatever opportunities they could manage and my brother became a chemist, my sister an accountant. Because I had enjoyed seeing business in action from an early age, I went on to study economics at university.

My mother was a strong woman and very entrepreneurial. She remains to me a model of how women can develop. She and my father did not shape their daughters’ choices towards gender-specific careers such as nursing. Giving girl children confidence to develop their talents starts in the family.

Without the inspiration and the opportunities my parents gave me, I would not have been able to launch my career in private equity or had the assertiveness nearly two decades ago to be one of the co-founders of WDB Investment Holdings, which has built up its net asset value from a zero base to just under R3 billion over that period. I would not have been equipped to spend more than a decade in corporate investment banking and benefit from the generous support of mentors and sponsors who guided my development within that environment.

As a vital complement to formal transformation programmes, informal networks are important to assist promising and ambitious women, though they have tended to use these networks less than men do. Beyond technical competence, they need to develop self-awareness and resilience, to become proactive and assertive.

At WDBIH we work to achieve this in three ways. We prefer meaningful and strategic participation at board level in our investments. This includes encouraging transformation agendas.

We include shopping malls in townships and rural towns and affordable housing funds among our chosen investments. We also contribute to South Africa’s social and economic transformation imperatives through our enterprise development fund, which provides loan funding and business support to women’s businesses.

The loans range from ZAR50 000 to ZAR300 000. To date more than ZAR165 million in investment dividends has been channelled to the WDB Trust, which focuses on supporting women entrepreneurship and community development particularly in rural areas. The fact that women are so heavily concentrated in the SMME sector shows how difficult it is for them to scale up their businesses and break into the larger corporate value chain as suppliers.

Finally, within WDBIH we recently introduced a learnership programme providing unemployed women graduates with finance and accounting qualifications, relevant skills and training. At all levels we are living our mission to increase the participation of women in the South African economy, leading to a fairer and more equitable society.

Women’s Month has been an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of women to developing our democracy and refocus on ways to transform their opportunities to use their talents to the best advantage of themselves, their families and our society as a whole. Let us take that message forward in the months ahead, undaunted by the financial climate and realising that to limit our country’s pool of talent by undermining transformation efforts is to place barriers to the growth of the nation we love.

Faith Khanyile, WDB Investment Holding Chief Executive Officer