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Challenges and Opportunities that face women in business - what it takes to be an entrepreneur in a world that is male dominated by Dr Anna Mokgokong

17 August 2017

Happy Women's Month to all beautiful women of this continent. Honourable guests, good afternoon to you all - all protocol observed.

First and foremost, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the ANC Progressive Business Forum (PBF) for their warm invitation. I salute you all for your valuable contribution to the socio economic status of our country in spite of its challenges. I believe everybody is playing their role in sustaining it, it's just that there's no place in the media for good stories!

Congratulations ladies… for joining the boys club and bravely delving into the cold front.

This is the month when we reflect seriously on women's issues, the economy, the leadership and a litany of other issues that pertain to us women.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to share with you my journey, with the hope that it will inspire you to stay focussed, steadfast and couragious on your chosen path of entrepreneurship, leadership and business.


The road to successful entrepreneurship has been a long and winding one. Most of you who are already in business know the hardships and sacrifices one has to make to succeed as a woman. There's been a heavy price to pay!

The participation of women in business, though, is not a new phenomenon. We have women, amongst many, such as Marina Maponya who distinguished themselves as astute businesswomen in the height of apartheid. These are our unsung heroines, so little is said about them and yet they fought the gallant township economic wars. There are valuable lessons to be learnt from their business model as it worked and sustained them during strife.

My business journey began even before our democracy. Because of the restrictions and limitations one faced in South Africa as a black person, my humble beginnings place were in Swaziland where I grew up. I had to do business uninhibited and established a pharmaceutical distribution company. It was a great business.

And by the way, let me also share with you that at one time of my life, an eatery called The Hub Restaurant which served the best Mozambican cuisine. I embarked on this whilst studying towards my medical degree. It was stressful as I had to travel to Swaziland regularly to oversee the business, whilst juggling my studies.

Later, through support I got from a friend who was a local business woman in Ga-Rankuwa, I was able to establish my first formal business in South Africa, selling handbags and artefacts.

In those days, you may ask, where did I get financing from?

I had to be innovative to come up with ideas of how to fund my business; I negotiated consignment stock which I would pay for after goods were sold. Fortunately, the supplier agreed to these terms and conditions.

I attribute this to my smart negotiation skills which I developed at that early stage.

The business was successful and I was able to achieve my career and profession as a medical doctor concurrently, I didn't do badly in the top ten league of the class. This demonstrates in manifolds as put by Og Mandino that 'failure will never overtake anyone if your determination to succeed is strong enough'.

I sold my curio business and established a medical centre, serving a community of nine villages.

When the winds of change blew in our country, taking advantage of the various laws and policies that emanated, one identified a gap and simply and simply utilized it to my best potential.

Women face barriers resulting from societal prejudice and chauvinism. In 1994 black women and men were in the same boat of prejudice in business in our country, but in 2017 our black men have outrun us in this race, amidst the gender legislation in place, and this is all because of these prejudices. We ought to curb these 'pervasive discriminatory patriarchal attitudes that curb opportunities for women and retard our social and economic progress'.

And that's why we have a skew participation in some of the main businesses of our country that only have men at the helm, offering women the crumbs off the table.

My late mother was amongst SA's earliest female mathematicians and scientist. But whenever she got home after a long day, she had to put her handbag down, cook for her husband and her family and serve my father food. But in spite of all that, and the hardships she faced as a multi-tasking career woman, she was able to develop the Maths curricula of Swaziland then.

Nothing has changed years later.

We are still in the same situation as mothers, as wives and community leaders to have to provide for our families to the last detail and still excel at work. That tiresome intricate balance stands in our way and may contribute to economic inequality between men and women. As a wife is expected to serve her specific role in her home and broader society.

We applaud our government for taking a bold lead in creating the enabling and much needed legislation and also walking the talk in transforming public sector. In the private sector and corporate South Africa the picture is different.

Recently, 72 JSE companies have been identified with not complying with the EE policies. Women are STILL lagging behind; most industries are STILL male dominated; men are STILL at the helm! Irrespective of gender policies in place,
that are normally overlooked or simply ignored or gathering dust. We have pockets of women in leadership, senior management roles and executive positions. The percentages of women representation across all sectors are low; we are far from reaching the 50% gender parity.

The previous BWA 2015 report mentioned that 'of the 293 JSE-listed companies surveyed, just seven (7) have female CEOs'. Isa se'nde le ndlela makhos'kazi!

South Africa can change much more if we were to put a concerted effort together. We must also take into consideration that numbers do not necessarily equal influence. It takes one single irritating loud shrill voice in the boardroom to change things. I know this, as I have studied the psychology of men from the University of Life, and the last thing they want is to be challenged in such a manner. I have learnt how to do "male capture".

You have to be strategic about your approach. Always have the end game in mind, as that will navigate you through your strategy. You need to be consistent in making your point heard all the time. It's painful that although the number of women in leadership positions may have risen, we have not necessarily seen their exponential influence.

I call this the phenomena of "The Throne and Power". What it means is - many women sitting on those thrones are so comfortable that they forget that the throne comes with authority and power; POWER that you can utilize to make those wise empowering decisions. And leveraging on that POWER can be used to empower other women.

On the ground it is sad to note that in my business life, I have been empowered more by men than my fellow sisters.

I regret having to say this, but I believe that we need to deal with these issues coldly. In his recent article Mr Letepe Maisela said "my humble advice to our womenfolk in South Africa in Women's Month is that, for them to ultimately win the gender war, they must initially learn to support one another' causes". So said a man.

I am saddened deeply when women are found guilty of certain transgressions; because of our low numbers, when we lose one to such unfortunate situations, it is one too many and it will impact on our development. Let's ensure that we defend our credibility and integrity at all times. When it's one of us they trumpet the story.

Even though women are stepping up to own and run businesses in numbers, that would have been hard to imagine a few decades ago, particularly in male dominated territories such as mining, construction, agriculture, ICT and financial services. There is perpetual paucity of strong women leaders in priority sectors of the economy. These regrettably are the mainstream economy sectors and are male dominated territories.

Ladies, let's not be afraid to go where the eagles dare. An Ethiopian born, Ms Meaza Ashenafi, is the first woman to own and chair women's bank, called Enat Bank in her country.

She is the proof of the pudding that it is possible to venture into unknown territories and succeed.

...challenges of women in business

The main challenge facing women in business is sourcing suitable funding and capital.

Years after our democracy, no bank will fund you unless you have a balance sheet or an equity cheque. It is only the state institutions that may be flexible; sometimes they too require it. In my view, unless this can be addressed, there'll always be that bottleneck. Women will never get the bite sized chunk of the mainstream economy, if the current model continues.

Private Banks are listed companies that require return on their investments, women are perceived to be their biggest risk, moreover when they do not have security. Our leadership needs to find an elegant solution to address this. I would hope by now that we would have strong women owned commercial bank.

You may ask how have I done it… it was by a stroke of luck that our company which I co-founded managed to get funding from Sanlam Development Fund back then, through the facilitation of the late President Mandela. We had to sell a story, had to add salt and pepper and curry to make the story palatable for them to take a bite. Ask a woman to go tell a convincing story!

We were lucky and able to acquire funding. There was no financial equity required, but rather the financial institution took a significant upside that benefited it handsomely. Well, it didn't matter at that time, because all we wanted was a ticket to the race, once you were in, you were in. It was important to play and win at all costs to remain in the game even with such an inconvenient structure. A ticket to the race - that's how companies like ours gradually grew to be where we are today. Many other empowerment transactions were funded utilising this kind of structures, that today they had to be refinanced and restructured.

Let's not underestimate the issue of prejudice… I have listened with interest recently on the issue of "minority white capital" and how it has reached such levels of frenzy and panic and excitement in the country, and the reason why is because of the infamous Pottinger story. Tell me, how do you explain a situation where more than 80% of the economy of the country is still in the hands of less than 5% of its people and also foreign companies. Honestly! Maybe we should consult Oxford University Press to find us the right nomenclature to explain this phenomenon and give it a palatable one… What about male capture of our economy.

Check the Sunday Times Top 100 Wealthy People, few are female.

I rest my case.

All I'm asking for my dear sisters is that, we the women of the country are requesting for our fair share, as we have put in sweat and blood in our contribution to the economy our country, whether as workers or having buying power - we just want our fair share. I don't think it's too much to ask.

Mandela said "Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression." For our country to maintain its democracy, we need to broaden the base in many ways. That's not necessarily in owning shares on the stock exchange, but also other sectors such as agriculture, where we can provide food security for our country. Let alone of the continent and the rest of the world. We need smart ways to enhance agricultural production where the population in the less developed outline areas, can enjoy the fruits of the soil by embarking in fruitful, profitable and fulfilling agricultural projects with off takers from large retailers who import a lot. This can provide livelihood, sustainability and wealth.

A quote from Milton Berle says, "if an opportunity doesn't knock, build a door". From time to time, we need to create our own opportunities within the environment or space that we operate within. We need to assert our position in a meaningful way.

I remember at one-time I had to fly to Cape Town for a meeting, and when I arrived I was greeted by a room full of men, who wanted to know why I was there. I explained my story and they said to me, 'sorry, we have not yet received your CV, could you sit outside'. Indeed I waited outside, under a tree for over an hour, steaming like a demon as you can imagine. I was tempted to leave for home, but then I thought what would I say to my principal who nominated me for that board position? That I had lost my temper and left? She wouldn't be impressed because she would have expected me to put up a fight and defend my position. So I had no option but to wait.

Finally, I was told to come in and they demanded to know exactly who I was. I made the best out of the opportunity, selling myself, it wasn't long after I had been going on about myself and they said 'Miss, I think you going to add tremendous value to this board' and they never regretted the decision they took, such that they were sad to see me leave when my term came to an end.

Ladies and gentlemen, the point I am making is, if we do not fight for our seat in the theatre, you'll never see the show.

In 2015, the JSE introduced listing requirements compelling listed companies to have a policy for the promotion of gender diversity at board level and disclose their performance against it. This is JSE's commitment to contributing to the female agenda. The requirements were effective from January 2017, and the JSE will report on the progress the listed companies make in this regard. We will be watching that very closely, as it is a positive step in the right direction. It's notable that the chairman of the JSE, Ms Nku Nyembezi-Heita is female and the CEO Ms Nicky Newton-King is female. This talks to the Throne and Power.

To make it in a male dominated world, it takes determination, confidence and positive attitude on life. To be a perpetual complainer does not get us anywhere, but is rather exhausting (and again you may suffer from chronic 'complainitis'). One can actually do more to get to three quarters of the way. Apparently, Pope Francis, has a sticker outside his office door that says, "no room for moaners and complainers, find a solution to the problem".

Let us fold our sleeve and get to work. "Upon arriving in South Africa just a week ago, the newly appointed Chinese Ambassador Lin Songtian said "Africa is a continent, boasting of a huge positive potential for development, shouldn't we be at the helm of these fertile opportunities". We need to be persistent in achieving goals and be willing to take risks. We should be tenacious and refuse to be side tracked by setbacks, there is neither place for mediocrity nor pettiness.

Let's commend some of our leading women in business and corporate who have done exceedingly well. Their typical journey is that of diligence, determination and courageousness. That's a winning formula.

We should empower ourselves with all kinds of tools at hand, because for us to make it in the boys world in the top echelons, one needs to place a lot of effort, develop good networks, be smart and knowledgeable. Surround yourself with a solid team and not "yes men". We should be fearless for success, at the same time not fear failure. There are people who fear failure, as a result they do not budge and inch from their comfort zone.

They always say what if… I call them the 'what ifs'. We have to be brazen and bold, ambitious and have a vision. Do not be shy to be ambitious and to aim for the top. We should be hungry to acquire that elusive power. However it comes with immense responsibility.

As a person, I always place a high bar for myself and even as an entrepreneur. I take myself rather seriously, even when others don't. Your success will depend on where and how you place yourself. Don't wish to sell tomatoes at the market every day, every year. It is a means to something. You can form a co-op and buy in bulk at a cheaper price and you can be more profitable.

As you are more profitable, sooner than later you can own a farm; sooner than later make canned tomatoes; sooner than later supply local retailers followed by exporting the tomatoes.

So, it is about the vision and bigger plan that you place before you. Like a ZZ2 story… it was not formed by women, but it's a family business. It can be used as a case study for your own business. It doesn't matter what you do or where you are in terms of your business or career, remember that sometimes a person can meet his destiny on a road you took to avoid.

It's said "history judges us by the wisdom of our actions" and how brave we are to bring about change. Let us not take the back seat, rather the front row. It will be an indictment if we do not succeed. We do not have all the time in the world to do this.

What would we tell the late MaEmma Mashinini who was one of the founders of a union in 1975 when she had no rights or the protection in those apartheid days, but she fought for the rights of women to return to work after maternity leave and to be included in the pension and medical schemes'. She and the other unsung heroines who marched to Union Buildings paved the way for us, let's not change the cause. The struggle must continue until we see total emancipation of women from the shackles of economic oppression. Aluta continua!!

In conclusion, I would like to quote William Arthur Ward when he said "the mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superior teacher demonstrates, the great teacher inspires". I hope my journey has demonstrated that there is no easy road to success and has also inspired you to persevere in the face of adversity, because that's what success in any sphere of one's life is all about.

Let's continue the fight for the emancipation of women in all facets of life and continue breaking down the walls of male dominated sectors in our society and sectors!!!


I thank you.

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