MOST INFLUENTIAL WOMEN 2015/16
LEADING EDGE | From Strength to Strength
by Lydia Bundred
From Humble Beginnings
As an icon and phenomenal example of what leaders should aspire to be, Dr Snowy Khoza is no stranger to overcoming hardship. Today she is the CEO of Bigen Africa, an infrastructure development company that focuses on integrated engineering, consulting and development financing. She is the nonexecutive Chairperson of the Women’s Development Businesses Trust (WDB) and is a member of several boards and committees. Above all she is passionate about serving people in underprivileged communities and helping them better their quality of life.
Can you share your background with us?
My story is truly one of a humble start which ends well. I was raised by my maternal grandmother in Hammanskraal, in dire poverty. This meant living with many deprivations, such as having, in most instances, no school fees, uniform, or books to go to school and having to do my homework outside in the cold under the glow of a streetlight, because we had no
candles at home. My circumstances even forced me to leave school and start working at the age of 13 years.
What kept you going through the struggles?
Above all, my faith in the Creator. God Almighty kept me going throughout the struggles. My grandmother instilled a strong faith in me. This taught me that there is ‘beauty from ashes’. Poverty – instead of breaking my spirit – motivated me. It created the beauty of resilience, determination, courage and love.
I was determined to fight my way out of poverty, and knew – and still maintain – that education is the key. Working at a factory in Babelegi as a young teen, earning R3 a week, I clung to my dream and started saving up for an education, which enabled me to return to school. Fortunately, I also had a few things going for me – I was one of the brightest learners and am a very determined person!
With the support of bursaries from the Councils of Churches, Institute of Race Relations, the Ethel Ericson Trust, Institute of International Relations and many individual donors, I managed to complete my high school education and obtain a PhD and MBA afterwards.
I started my career as a social worker at a hospital, attending to patients’ social and economic needs. Later on, I worked in the public sector as a chief director, and at a parastatal organisation as a group executive. Today, I am CEO of Bigen Africa, a leading infrastructure development company.
It was a long road for me, with many hard, discouraging struggles, but I persevered and was ultimately led to Bigen Africa, an engineering company with a vision for the future of the people of Africa, where the lives of tens of thousands of impoverished and socially deprived people are being transformed.
What drew you to join Bigen Africa?
Having worked in an infrastructure financing institution – the Development Bank of Southern Africa – for almost 12 years, I did not think twice when approached by Bigen Africa. The company’s capabilities to manage infrastructure development and mobilise finance for infrastructure development on the African continent also attracted me. I knew I could add value and drive the company to greater heights, given my knowledge of infrastructure development and the continent.
As a development activist, I also saw an opportunity to transform the company at the top, not only in terms of race and gender, but also in new approaches to developing infrastructure that improves the quality of life of people.
Since my appointment as the first woman to head Bigen Africa in 2010, Bigen Africa has evolved into a thought-leading multi-national and Pan-African infrastructure development consultancy with core capabilities in engineering,
management consulting and project finance. Our vision is to develop sustainable infrastructure that will improve the quality of life of all. This also provided us with the opportunities for putting the company’s creed of ‘doing good while doing business’ into practice, which involves channelling some of the employment and procurement opportunities to the local communities.
In addition, our Intuthuko Foundation is a catalyst for creating socio-economic investment opportunities in Africa for corporates through coordinating strategic partnerships.
As a woman of many hats, how do you balance your work and personal life?
I live alone because my children are grown-ups and out of the house now, so I have time to do all the things I love most. Of course, my work at Bigen Africa comes first as it takes up most of my time, and next are my family businesses and public/private sector board directorships.
In my private life, my family, friends and community development work take up almost all my spare time after work hours and on weekends, unless I am travelling on business. Although I am extremely busy, I do get ‘me time’, when I go on holidays or pamper myself. I do a lot of jogging and running, and sing and play the piano.
How has being a Continental Lifetime Achiever Award Winner impacted your life?
Amazingly, I have received many international, continental and national acknowledgements since being presented with the award. My diary has never been so full of requests to speak on radio and at conferences. I have been presented with proposals for business opportunities, to sit on boards, mentor leaders, and I have even received some job offers! Of course, I have also been profiled in a number of magazines.
All of this is encouraging, as it is always my intention to positively impact other women aspiring to make a difference in Africa, and such exposure helps me to do this more effectively.
How would you encourage others who are going through struggles similar to yours?
As a person who has succeeded against great odds, I know that it can be done. My advice to others is to know who you are and where you want to go. Without a vision, people perish. Capacitate yourself so that you can obtain an education. Be determined to win in every situation. Be positive. Always do your best and be resilient and courageous, so that you can fight back to become even better than before.
We only live once – life is the best gift given to us by the Creator and therefore we need to live fully without any regrets. This comes from always doing good to others and giving more than you take. Stay healthy and enjoy everything you do, as though it were the last time you were doing it!
Being the Best
Dr Suzanne Ravenall, CEO of the Effectiveness Company, began working as a personal assistant at the age of 16. She attended Bedford College of Higher Education and the University of Metaphysics where she received her doctorate in metaphysics. In 1994 she decided to leave the UK, her birthplace, and move to South Africa. In her blossoming career she has been honoured with several awards and is the leading authority in her field. She is a member of the Young Presidents Organisation, Institute of Directors and the Businesswomen’s Association.
What prompted your move to South Africa in 1994?
A short contract in the cellular industry and the excitement of the beginning of a new era in telecommunications and then during my stay I just fell in love with South Africa; people’s desire to make change; their openness, friendliness and, their willingness to try new ways. The last twenty years have flown by, it seems impossible that it could have passed so quickly.
What have been your key lessons in life and in business, which any leader could live by/follow?
I am of the view that you learn from everybody every day, that applies to the people I talk to on the street to those I talk in the office and in business. So my lessons will be learned for the rest of my days! If we are wide awake, conscious and observant enough the learning provided by what we see, hear and experience from others is immeasurable. It’s coming at us in spades. It’s amazing what we can gain from the observation of what our energy field draws in. The challenge that applies to us all is: ‘what do we do when things don’t go so well?’ These become the defining moments in our life, the time we make the greatest decisions. As I have travelled through life I have learned that there is a solution to just about any problem that arises; it may not always be that obvious, it all depends on how you look at it. Giving up is just not an option.
What is your leadership style and what makes it work for you?
I think it all goes back to the fact that there are traits/behaviours as leaders that we should all look to develop, a balance of feminine and masculine traits that compliment. I am an entrepreneur through and through and there are similar qualities within all entrepreneurs I guess. What is important to me is upholding the values that I entrench in my life that we entrench in our business. Our culture is very important to us and we try to embody this every day. One of our values is honesty and this is something that not all people always like to hear. I am not talking about perception or feeling. We all like to think we are honest with ourselves and the people around us. Honesty for us is about what you say you going to do….. you do and for us that’s integrity. Watching a Ted Talks recently I was interested to hear that people generally lie to up to 200 times a day, even small or white lies. What stands out for me is a life with integrity. We try and promote that to our staff and our customers.
I am passionate about transformation and change and believe that if you love what you do you won’t work a day in your life.
Do you think men and women’s style of leading is different and what impact do you think this has on a business?
People often say women are from Mars and the men are from Venus! Whilst we are different, I believe that both men and women, over a period of time, must develop a certain set of leadership behaviours, a balance in both the feminine and masculine and a lot of courage in order to be good or great at what they do. It is not about your gender or your colour but it is the wisdom and the capabilities you bring to operate successfully. Winston Churchill once said the kite rises higher against the wind. People come in all different colours, shapes and sizes and have different capabilities.
We should therefore focus on those areas in which leaders should excel and hone those skills and in so doing set an example for others to follow. Often leadership is about the tough decisions; the right path is rarely the easy one. If we do that then, we may have better businesses all over the world. Be daring, be first, be different, be just.
What achievement are you most proud of?
Receiving an acknowledgement with ten other women worldwide, as one of the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World was a wonderful feeling. But mostly having the courage to start a business in a different country. The learning and the life that the business has given me I will always be grateful for.
Based on your experience, do you have any words of advice you would like to share with young business owners?
Have a solid plan; know what you are going to do, what you want to offer the market place and how it’s going to be better or different than what other people are providing.
Execute this plan vigorously and keep referring back to it.
Think through as many eventualities and devise a scenario plan.
Do what you love and are passionate about – in this way you will keep going if the times are tough.
Take some time to live…laugh…love…with every cell of your being amongst all the crazy.
What is the next step for you?
It took us two or three years to build the first system. Last year, we released it to the market and we have over 100 micro-financiers using our system, which works on a subscription model. We use SAP software, which we customise for the banking industry. Apart from the prohibitive cost, most of the traditional banking software systems do not have the special functions required by the micro-finance industry.
What’s the name of your system?
I am really excited to be launching a new business called Parinama, Sanskrit for transformation. Parinama is an Elevation Consulting business, with a unique transformatory approach, that identifies individuals who operate at the Top 10% of a group/department/business/career. These people typically track their KPI’s at around 90-100%. We then study and profile, their decision making processes, behavioural traits, problem solving approach, amongst many other aspects. We reduce this behaviour into a system that can be replicated straight back into the average performers. By using a neuroscience approach to training, we transfer knowledge and expertise from top performers to the rest and lift their ability to operate at top performer level within the organisation.
Great for Fast changing environments,
Provides Competitive action; particularly with global competition, squeezing margins
Fly wheel for sales departments
Retiring/experienced employees taking knowledge with them
Top 10% perform at 90 -100%+ of their KPI’s, average 80% perform between 55- 65% of KPI’s
A majority of all businesses have a large group of mainly average performers (80%)
Assumes the Top 10%/Average 80%/Bottom 10% model, although the percentages vary from company to company department to department, this model can be applied to society, village, town, community, country, business department, family etc. (Vitality Model, Pareto Principle)
Neuroscience approach cements the change
Most departments track at an average level in their performance; Parinama goes right to the heart of the issue helping both the person and the company lift performance at both ends of the spectrum, leaving an obvious double wammy.
The benefit of the Parinama method to both company and individual is the upward swing in performance and this means productivity, profitability, improved self-esteem, replication of best techniques/processes among staff and a high-performance culture! It’s a win all around.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Do the absolute best that we can, learn from every event that happens in our life good and bad, whatever we term as good and bad. Work at all areas of our life in balance to become a better person.
Parinama is a ground breaking new method and should you want to know more about accelerating your performance contact Suzanne on