Honouring influential and innovative women in leadership

YPO is the premier global leadership organisation for more than 27 000 young chief executives in over 130 countries.

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YPO (formerly Young Presidents’ Organization) is the premier global leadership organisation for more than 27 000 young chief executives in over 130 countries. YPO member-run companies are diversified among industries and various types of businesses, employing more than 22 million people globally and generating US$9 trillion in annual revenues.

Leadership sat with some of the women behind this organisation and received their individual perspectives on their respective journeys towards becoming the women they are today: passionate, strong and exceptionally successful in their industries.

Doctor Ola Brown

Dr Ola Brown explains how West Africa’s first indigenous air ambulance service has shifted the medical paradigm and improved Nigeria’s reputation of being the worst healthcare system in the world. Her passion for change, growth and success aided in her many achievements in the fields of medicine and entrepreneurship.

Please could you provide us with an overview of your background?

My background primarily started at an undergraduate level where I studied medicine. I then realised I had to study a lot of other things to become an effective entrepreneur. I subsequently studied for a certificate in accounting and economics. I’ve done a lot of self-study and, especially, in the areas of leadership and entrepreneurship.

Your achievements serve as a reminder to all young women to leap then lead within their desired profession, while allowing passion to ignite and reap the rewards. What triggered your passion for healthcare and entrepreneurship in Africa?

I think that my passion for healthcare and entrepreneurship have been largely triggered by the problem of healthcare in Africa, and especially in Nigeria. Nigeria has been ranked by the World Health Organization as one of the worst healthcare systems in the world. We have various issues ranging from a much smaller number of doctors and far fewer resources to dedicate to healthcare and the long distances between rural areas or remote areas where a lot of accidents and emergencies happen. So, I think that these were some of the issues that triggered my passion for healthcare and thinking about entrepreneurship as a solution.

How has the evolution and establishment of ‘West Africa’s first indigenous air ambulance service: The flying Doctors Nigeria’ impacted West Africa’s healthcare system?

It has impacted West Africa’s healthcare system in many ways. The one that’s most important to me is that the air ambulance has reduced the cost of the healthcare system. So, we have six states in Nigeria and building a major tertiary, fully-equipped, fully-staffed hospital in every single state will cost us a lot of money. What air ambulances allow us to do is transport patients who have severe injuries or illnesses, to specific specialist centres without having to replicate them in every single state. So, the air ambulance has really helped to circumvent distance and the need to build more hospitals, and it makes the healthcare service cheaper.

I think the second big benefit of air ambulance services is that they increase the quality of healthcare. Most business people who know about economics and who are reading this would know a concept known as economies of scale.

And you get economies of scale in almost every single industry, but I think the most familiar example for people would be in the printing industry. So, you find out that we are printing 100 copies of something, 500 copies of something or 1 000 copies something. The price is almost the same because as you get increasing amounts, the cost per unit decreases and there is a relationship with economies of scale—these kinds of economies of scale exist in healthcare as well in large centres that perform a lot of procedures, and they actually benefit from economies of scale because the unit cost of each procedure gets cheaper and the procedures are performed to a higher quality.

Another way that air ambulances have impacted healthcare in West Africa is by decreasing the cost in terms of infrastructure building.

I would also like to highlight the unit cost of each procedure done at a hospital. So, it decreases the cost to patients as well, whilst increasing quality and, of course, allows doctors to specialise quite specifically in procedures rather than having to do general procedures. Additionally, it allows them to take large volumes of the same type of patients and perfect their skills in those areas.

Can you briefly explain your role at YPO to us?

My role at YPO is as a member, a very active member of the Lagos Chapter. I am a member of a forum, we meet monthly, as most forums do, and I also attend external YPO events. I am very involved in the YPO community as part of a very big vibrant chapter.

You’re an international speaker who has not only been nominated but won multiple awards, published two books and articles in the British Journal, New York Times and the Huffington Post. When you speak, to what do you attribute all that success, particularly as a woman in a male-dominated world?

I think that things are changing gradually and I think that women really do need to continue to be more assertive and continue to press for the progress that we want.

I attribute it to always trying to speak out and being assertive, I attribute it to being aware of factors working against me and trying to work doubly as hard, even though I feel that I shouldn’t have to.

You are a leader in many rights. Congratulations on being honoured by the World Economic Forum’ as a young global leader. What is your leadership style?

I think my leadership style would be described as collaborative. I like to talk to everybody and I like to understand what people are thinking. I like to understand their perspectives and ask a lot of questions, so I think I would describe my leadership style as very inquisitive and very collaborative.

What would you like to achieve in the near future?

I would like to achieve more global expansion across the continent. Very few African companies scale according to the McKinsey report called “Lions on the Move”. And there are still no African companies in the Fortune 500. This is something you know as an African entrepreneur. Through either my investing and the companies I have invested in or my own company, I would like to try and change that.

Mary Bomela, CEO

A woman who reflects dynamic skills in finance, Mary Bomela has set the pace for women, proving that hard work and raising your hand leads you up the rails. The CEO who heads the Mineworkers Investment Company (MIC) talks finance, leading different boards and empowering women.

You held executive posts across different sectors such as resources, utilities and financial services. Can you tell us more about your background?

After I qualified as a Chartered Accountant, I worked as the Head of Corporate Services for Amatola Water in the Eastern Cape. The function included overseeing the finance, IT and supply chain functions. I then moved to De Beers where I worked as a Financial Manager at one of their mines in the Northern Cape and as the Technical Assistant to the South African Managing Director at head office. This is the job I feel best prepared me for my current role. From there, I moved to the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants as the Executive for Corporate Services, heading up the finance, HR, IT, marketing and member services divisions.

How has your role at the Mineworkers Investment Company varied from your previous roles?

I moved from the financial management roles to the CEO role at the MIC. The main difference is that shift from heading divisions to actually heading the entire organisation. Secondly, we at the MIC invest in other businesses, building the organisation’s balance sheet, whereas previously, I was involved in industries that manufacture products or provide services to others.

How do you balance your immediate job with serving on a number of boards of directors across different industries?

A large part of my current role is serving on boards of our investee companies, providing strategic direction to the management teams. The board work is demanding because it requires a lot of preparation for one to be effective and efficient. I, therefore, schedule time for the board work in my diary and then my other daily functions in between. It’s not always easy though, to find the balance, and I find myself having to put in more hours in the early morning before work or over the weekends. However, I try my level best not to allow work to interfere with my valuable family time over the weekends, which is why working over weekends is limited to board preparation, and that only happens a month every quarter.

Please tell us more about the structure and your role at YPO?

Presently, I look after the finance portfolio for the YPO Johannesburg Chapter, which entails coordinating the budget in line with our fee income and ensuring my fellow Exco members spend in accordance with the approved budgets when executing their functions. I work closely with the office administrators in terms of approving supplier payments, overseeing the monthly bookkeeping function and ensuring the organisation’s annual financial statements are audited.

In 2017, the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s leadership census reported that the results showed only 11.8% of the women accounted for CEO or chairperson positions. These statistics demonstrate the desperate need for equality and gender parity in executive posts. What do you think should be done to increase that number?

There are many talented women who are qualified to become CEOs and chairpersons because they possess the necessary skills, qualifications and experience. Firstly, we need men (who truly still run industry) to believe in women and develop them to take over these roles. Secondly, we need women to believe in themselves and raise their hand for the roles. Women need to be supported in their roles as mothers and wives because the roles we are talking about are demanding, and they find themselves having to choose between being a mother, wife and being a professional. Lastly, girls need to be encouraged from a young age to know that they are equally as capable as boys and that there is no role they cannot fulfil.

You have done exceptionally well thus far. What has been the highlight of your career?

There have been many highlights, as I have been extremely privileged to work with great leaders. David Noko, who was the then Managing Director of De Beers SA, provided my training ground for my current role. I got to see firsthand what it entails to run an organisation and the different facets of the business that a leader has to always take into consideration when making decisions. The privilege of working on boards with men who have built businesses from scratch such as Laurie Dippenaar, Paul Harris, Pat Gross and Chris Seabrooke, and successful women such as Dr Lulu Gwagwa among others, was incredible. The lessons learnt from people who have such wisdom cannot be learnt from textbooks.

What motivated you and inspired your success in your field?

I love the work that I do. I am very lucky as I am aware that not many people can say so. I am inspired the most by what we do with the money we make at the MIC. The MIC’s profits are declared as a dividend to our shareholder MIT and then used to fund the tertiary education for children of members of the National Union of Mineworkers, the children who may not have been able to afford to further their education, post high school. It makes everything we do all worth it.

What do you hope to achieve in the near future?

I still need to complete my PhD studies. Beyond that, I want to maintain a position that continually allows me to be able to give back to our communities and whatever I do should help aid in building the South African economy.

Natalie Jabangwe, CEO

She went from a 21-year-old girl who ran and developed the entire city of Atlanta’s information technology security policies to the youngest CEO to run a mobile business in Africa. Jabangwe explains the importance of taking initiative. The CEO of EcoCash, Computer Engineer and fearless businesswoman gave us her perspective on how logic and relentless hard work bolted her career.

Please could you provide us with an overview of your background?

I’m an accidental Computer Engineer, my childhood dream was to become a Lawyer but my mother encouraged me—in a sense, forced me—to study technology nearly 20 years ago. She was living in the UK at the time and had grasped the winds of tech and was convinced the world would be dynamically shaped by this advent.

My life was inevitably shaped by this decision. I went to university to study computer science and by the time I was in my second year, I had emerged as the top excelling female student, which earned me the Mayor of London’s Leadership Exchange scholarship. This came with an opportunity to go from the UK to Spelman College in Atlanta, one of the best female African American institutions in the United States.

The scholarship was integrated with an internship in the Mayor of Atlanta’s office, serving directly in Shirley Franklin’s office—Atlanta’s first female mayor. At the age of 21, I was responsible for developing the city of Atlanta’s first information technology security policies.

What triggered your interest in IT engineering?

It grew on me. Retrospectively, I have realised that I wanted to study law because I was a person inspired by logic, facts, to a large extent creativity, and the opportunity to publicly present those. These are inherently the variables that make a great engineer. I simply channelled my passion to a new domain. It’s funny, because Michelle Obama makes mention of a similar experience in her book Becoming. She later realised that her pursuit of a career in law was based on her love of logic, not necessarily “law”, but the career. For the most part, our successes, in anything, are inherently driven by things we are passionate about.

Your proven track record of leadership and professional accomplishments led you to the YPO. How has being part of this network helped you?

My professional growth has been on steroids. I’m fortunate to be the youngest Chief Executive Officer to run a mobile money business in Africa, and second largest on the continent, in this domain. I’m blessed to have been nominated a 2018 under 40 top 100 Young Global Leader of the WEF and, recently, I became Advisor to the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, on his new global digital financing taskforce (https://digitalfinancingtaskforce.org). With this level of accelerated personal development growth, it is inevitable that one needs a support structure that offers accountability, support, strategy, experience, confidentiality and balance to remain effective and successful. YPO has been all of that, young leaders need every grain of this!

By the age of 21, you were already responsible for something as big as developing Atlanta’s first information technology security policies. How did this big achievement at such a young age play a role in who you are today?

It was the most defining opportunity in my career. I was mentored by Shirley Franklin, the first female and African American Mayor of Atlanta at the time, and the city’s Chief Information Officer, Abe Kani, who were both very experienced individuals. They threw a whole city project at me and demanded that I run it, single-handedly. I delivered it, at a federal level, under their watch. From then on, I knew I could handle a big job, talk to big people and take on big tasks. The defining lesson there, for emerging young leaders, is that we need to identify willing sponsors from early on, who believe in us and are patient enough to hand-hold us.

Your brilliance led Econet Wireless to headhunt you to scale up their mobile money business, eco-cash. Leading such a large financial mobile service company takes great leadership skills. What is your leadership style?

Highly collaborative and almost structure-less, I believe in building high-performance entrepreneurial teams and empowering them. I lead by questioning the status quo and experimenting in order to answer our questions, until we hit the pivot point. I am driven, for the most part, by inspiration and vision. I’m not surprised that in 2017, EcoCash was the recipient of the Mobile World Congress Glomo Award, Best Mobile Payment Solution, globally.

What do you think needs to be done to encourage young women in Africa and across the globe to venture into IT engineering, a male-dominated world that can be very intimidating for women?

I encourage women in tech to get as much experience as possible and to rise through the ranks in the technology industry. To the extent possible, women should seek experience in mainstream firms that range from telecommunications, banking and technology services to Millennial tech start-ups. Opportunities in tech have increased dynamically and are more diverse today than they were 10 years ago. With the advent of innovation hubs across Africa, these are budding support ecosystems that are available to nurture the prototyping or experimenting of innovative ideas, facilitate collaboration with other like-minded entrepreneurial teams, and provide exposure to venture capital networks.

Women in Africa’s tech scene must leverage all these resources and hone their talents by solving for Africa’s most pressing needs through technology innovation.

What has been the highlight of your career?

Having fun! Apart from relentless hard work and questioning the status quo, I have encouraged my team to have fun, while at it. The most vivid memory of my journey to date, in as much as it’s been challenging, is that I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.

Last but not least, being a mom, too, and balancing a super-turbocharged career has been very fulfilling as opposed to being a hindrance or barrier.

Working for NCR Corporation London, a Fortune 500 company, you helped shape their digital financial services strategy across countries. What was the biggest lesson you learnt that you want to share with those who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

The biggest lesson for me, taken from a large, over 125-year-existing, corporate firm, is “take initiative”. I was given the project to lead the digital mobile financial services strategy at NCR, after challenging Ben Gale, the then VP Western Europe, on our readiness for disruption in banking, given the rise in mobile. He was passionate about innovation, supported the challenge and sold it to HQ. I was given autonomy to lead and come up with a full strategy during my two-year Executive MBA at Imperial College London. Executive management, lead by the then COO, John Bruno, took it seriously and adopted some of the recommendations. The initiative paid off and made me sought-out by Econet. 

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